The Poem

“For a Freshman Reader” is a poem of twenty-two lines divided into eleven un-rhymed couplets. The poem is exemplary of syllabic structure; each line is precisely seven syllables long. While the syllabic form may seem restrictive, each line achieves the naturalness and fluidity of speech. This poem creates a particular tone and cast to the speech of its narrator. In the first person, the speaker directs comments to those present—listeners, readers, disciples, pupils—as in a dramatic monologue. One does not hear the responses to the poem. The voice, however, is seamless and provides a miniature but complete portrait of the speaker.

The epigram’s reference is to the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger who, writing in the decades immediately after the World War II, rebuked any inward turning as a sign of the conditions that led to the rise of Nazism and the persistence of the underlying prewar conditions after the war. Donald Justice adopts the severe tone of Enzensberger’s poetry to warn of history’s lessons.

The title suggests a proposal for a textbook, course of study, curricula, or anthology to introduce a beginning reader into something beyond literature, as the ominous opening couplet suggests: “Don’t bother with odes, my son./ Timetables are more precise.” This opening couplet establishes an ironic tone that implicitly condemns those who believe in timetables rather than odes or those who put more value in precision...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Forms and Devices

The two most significant aspects of “For a Freshman Reader,” as well as for many of Justice’s poems, are the voice and the formal structure of the poem. In “For a Freshman Reader,” the two are inseparable. This achievement suggests how complete the poem is, how it refutes critical or interpretive interventions because the poem is a thing unto itself, an entity whose elegance allows for nothing extraneous. Indeed, to be elegant, by definition, demands choice and selection; there is no place for the extraneous. This consideration is very much part of the poem’s demands of its form and voice.

The syllabic demands create a spare, balanced, and direct voice. The formal limits of syllabic composition provide, but do not necessitate, the sense of restraint in the voice. The voice commands and assumes a paternal air in such lines as the opening line or “Watch it, don’t sing.” The measured pace of the syllabic form suggests the speaker’s character is methodological and circumspect, yet also angry. The voice also carries within it a historical knowledge that allows the speaker to foresee the future’s possibilities: “The day will come when once more/ Lists will be nailed to the door.” The employment of syllabics conjoined with Justice’s ability to conceive of a dramatically whole voice gives the poem the quality of the inevitable. While syllabic composition can be used extravagantly, as in the poetry of Marianne Moore, Justice usually...

(The entire section is 503 words.)