MUSIC AND MEMORY: DONALD JUSTICE'S COLLECTED POEMS
The most anthologized poems by Justice were those
that exhibited the detached or distant voice addressing
themes of isolation and containing subjects who slipped
into their scenery almost to the point of invisibility.
These poems often displayed settings that were also spare
and indistinguishable, able to represent anywhere one wanted
to imagine them to be. However, readers entering Justice's
collected poetry might find a new group of poems to admire
beyond the frequently anthologized earlier works.
In Justice's final collection, readers might also discover
and appreciate how significant identifiable places
or specific periods of time were to this poet.
When Donald Justice's Collected Poems was published by Knopf in August of 2004, its significance in certain circles of the literary world loomed even larger because of the author's death only about 10 days before the book's release. Justice died a week before his 79th birthday, and this volume of works had been anticipated by readers and fellow poets as a gift that would celebrate his long dedication to the art, as well as a showpiece for the keen craftsmanship he continually displayed for more than half a century. Nevertheless, suddenly this gathering of poems was viewed by some instead almost as a memorial tribute, serving to shine a light onto the man behind the poetry and help preserve the artist's life in the minds of many.
Donald Justice might have found this form of response a bit ironic since he rarely sought to include himself intimately in his poems, to intrude to the extent a variety of his contemporaries, especially the confessional poets, had done. Indeed, Justice had studied with two such poets, John Berryman and Robert Lowell, as an apprentice poet at the University of Iowa in the early '50s, just a few years before the confessional movement began to infiltrate American poetry.
During an interview of Donald Justice by Dana Gioia that first appeared in a 1996 issue of American Poetry Review and was reprinted in Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice (University of Arkansas Press, 1997), edited by Gioia and William Logan, Justice acknowledges he had been influenced by Robert Lowell's initial stage consisting of a more formal and highly rhetorical writing style after Lord Weary's Castle was published in the late 1940s: "Lowell had influenced me early. Lord Weary's Castle influenced practically everybody I knew who was trying to write poetry in 1947. Those heavy thudding meters, the prophet's voice, the doom and gloom, the cultural overload, the psychological melodrama of it all. . . . I had tried to write poems of that Lowell type. But by the time I was actually Lowell's student I had given up on it." Instead, in most of the better known poems associated with Justice, particularly in his first few books, the poet often opted for a more impersonal style of composition somewhat spare of private or innermost details. Grouped among those poems, one might find "On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane," Counting the Mad," "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens," "American Sketches," "The Man Closing Up," "Men at Forty," "The Missing Person," "Incident in a Rose Garden," and "The Thin Man."
In lean and lyrical lines, these poems seem to provide a glimpse at the kind of works that characterize Justice's style from the time, a quiet and carefully crafted tone written in a detached or distant voice often accompanying stark images of isolation, loneliness, or sadness, with speakers or subjects who sometimes even come close to fading away or being erased from their setting during the course of the poem. The narrator in "American Sketches" describes a scene that is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting:
Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 a.m.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Was sick or
As I drove past
At seventy . . .
The subject of "The Missing Person" reports himself to the authorities as a "missing person," an individual "who receives no mail / And is known to the landlady only // For keeping himself to himself." "The Man Closing Up" is depicted as someone who "would make his bed with white sheets / And disappear into the white." The syllabic poem, a frequent choice of form for Justice, becomes nearly as minimal as the subject himself in "The Thin Man" who is shrinking into the scenery, becoming one with the nature around him, nearly vanishing when he stretches into the thinness of the horizon line, yet consequently covering so much more of the landscape: "I hone myself to / This edge. Asleep, I / Am a horizon." As in other Justice poems of the period, the personae occasionally impersonate someone other than themselves, although at times only mimicking their younger selves before the awakening of mortality in the present: "And deep in mirrors / They rediscover / The face of the boy as he practices tying / His father's tie there in secret, // And the face of that father, / Still warm with the mystery of lather." ["Men at Forty"]
In his early unpublished poems and the first few books, Donald Justice concentrated on form — especially sonnets, sestinas, and syllabic verse — and the technical aspects of lyrical poetry, cultivating an elegant sound that is rich with the rhythm he learned as a proficient musician who knew how to cleverly use not only the black and white keys of the piano, but also how to correctly emphasize the silent spaces between notes. In "Girl Sitting Alone at Party" the white space of the page plays a significant part in the reading of the lines:
And when you go,
It is there, toward music.
Your shadow, though,
Stays with me.
It sits with hands folded, stubbornly.
It will say nothing.
It is a dark rock
Against which the sea beats.
This is that other music, to which
I embrace your shadow.
Donald Justice was born in 1925 and raised in Miami, Florida, a city that "was not yet itself," he explains in "The Miami of Other Days." His formative childhood years were spent during the Depression decade of the '30s, a period he revisited often in his later poems. ("The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog," he reports in "Pantoum of the Great Depression.") Nevertheless, as a boy, Justice received a fine education in music with various private teachers:
Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,
One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practicing for
That moment on the threshold.
Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!
Indeed, Justice's love for music held a prominent place throughout his life and contributed to his poetry as content material. Despite his occasional claim to the contrary, apparently his musical skill and perfect pitch also served to guide him when writing with rhythm and meter. Justice began his college career as a music student at the University of Miami, where he studied under the guidance of famed composer Carl Ruggles, a figure who, according to Justice, left a powerful and lasting impression that continued throughout his whole life.
After graduating from the University of Miami with a B.A. in English, Justice was encouraged by Ruggles to pursue his education in musical composition at Yale; however, Justice chose to continue in English and creative writing by attending a progression of graduate programs at various universities — the University of North Carolina, Stanford University, and the University of Iowa. In the Dana Gioia interview, Justice sums it up: "My composition teacher, Carl Ruggles, wanted me to go to Yale to study with Paul Hindemith. I was faced with a decision. Not only did my family have very little money, but I suspected that I might have more talent as a writer than as a composer, much as I would have liked to go on writing music."
Although Justice gave up a formal music education, his poetic patterns frequently followed closely or proceeded from forms approaching the organizational mode of musical composition as he penned a number of sonatinas, songs, improvisations, or variations on themes. In "Variation for Two Pianos," Justice even offers a humorous piece on the event of pianist Thomas Higgins' move from Arkansas:
Warm evenings, the windows open, he would play
Something of Mozart's for his pupils, the birds.
There is no music now in all Arkansas.
How shall the mockingbird mend her trill, the jay
His eccentric attack, lacking a teacher?
Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.
There is no music now in all Arkansas.
Donald Justice's 1987 collection, The Sunset Maker, which includes even more musical references than any of his previous books, takes its title from a terrific elegiac poem on the passing of composer Eugene Bestor, a remembrance triggered by one brief musical phrase recalled by the poem's speaker. In fact, Bestor was Justice's brother-in-law, and the narrative of the poem is also comunicated in a prose memoir Justice wrote, "Little Elegy for Cello and Piano," a salute to Bestor and this musical piece Justice had once heard performed shortly before Bestor's death, Justice's sister playing the cello. (In other memoirs, Justice writes of his music teachers and childhood lessons in Miami with a clarity that is repeated in his poems on the same subjects.)
A facsimile excerpt of a musical staff with notes even appears in the body of the essay on Bestor and in the center of "The Sunset Maker." (According to an endnote, the facsimile excerpt of the musical staff contains notes Justice wrote himself in 1943 as a student of Ruggles.) Earlier in the poem, the speaker ("a friend of the dead composer," an epigraph reveals) describes "sorting scores. The piece / I linger over sometimes is the last, / The 'Elegy.' So many black, small notes! / They fly over the staff like flags of mourning." The speaker recollects: "One phrase the cello had, one early phrase, / That stays with me. . . ." Perhaps just as one might expect a poet to imaginatively blend the lyrical and the imagistic, the speaker associates the sound of the remembered music with images of art and nature — a Bonnard painting, La Grande Terrasse, which Justice remembered viewing the day of the musical performance, and the view of the Gulf of Mexico before him. (Justice was a painter as well, and the cover of Collected Poems carries slide pictures of four of his paintings.) The speaker in "The Sunset Maker" confesses:
I don't say what it means. And I agree
It's sentimental to suppose my friend
Survives in just this fragment, this tone row
A hundred people halfway heard one Sunday
And one of them no more than half remembers.
The hard early years of study, those still,
Sequestered mornings in the studio,
The perfect ear, the technique, the great gift
All have come down to this one ghostly phrase.
And soon nobody will recall the sound
Those six notes made once or that there were six.
Hear the gulls. That's our local music.
I like it myself; and as you can see—
Notice the little orange smudge of the sandbar—
Our sunset maker studied with Bonnard.
Following a path toward English and poetry writing rather than music, Donald Justice found a new home in Iowa City. He entered the creative writing Ph. D. program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1952, and he spent most of his teaching career, except for a few years at Syracuse University and some brief visiting stints for other universities, at the University of Iowa until his homecoming in Florida with a position at the University of Florida in 1982. Ten years later in 1992, Justice retired and returned to Iowa City. While at the University of Iowa for most of the thirty years between 1952 and 1982, Justice was perhaps as influential as any figure in contemporary poetry, teaching scores of young poets who would determine much of the direction for Amercan poetry in the second half of the twentieth century.
In memoirs contributed to Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice, a number of Justice's former students and colleagues offer evaluations of his input and influence as a teacher in the Writers' Workshop. Among them, Charles Wright states how "Don became, more or less, the poetry workshop. And that was a good thing, at least for me, someone in need of much instruction and direction, someone, literally, just off the boat — a troop ship from Italy." Mark Strand remembers, "I became convinced that writing poetry was what I would do for the rest of my life. I am sure that Don had everything to do with my new-found belief. It was under his tutelage that I wrote poems which were, for the first time, mine, and not pastiches of other people's poems. He urged me to follow my own lights and approved of what I was doing." Jorie Graham's impression was that one "felt seen-through, small, inept, hopelessly unequal to the task. It felt great. It made the task hard enough. Nothing you ever brought in for his scrutiny could possibly hold up, or be surprising, or clear enough. He knew — because in less than ten words he could fashion a question that would blow your knot of words open like thistledown. . . ."
Nevertheless, in addition to Justice's increasingly high regard as a master teacher, he earned a growing reputation as a poet's poet who, similar to someone like Elizabeth Bishop, slowly and carefully crafted his poetry to the point that it appeared he released an average of only about one thin book of poems per decade. Excluding his two books of selected poems and this book of collected poems, each of which did contain a brief sampling of new poems as well, Justice's output of complete poetry books during more than half a century of writing poetry —the earliest poems written in 1948 — included The Summer Anniversaries (1960), Night Light (1967), Departures (1973), and The Sunset Maker (1987). The most anthologized poems by Justice were those that exhibited the detached or distant voice addressing themes of isolation and containing subjects who slipped into their scenery almost to the point of invisibility. These poems often displayed settings that were also spare and indistinguishable, able to represent anywhere one wanted to imagine them to be. However, readers entering Justice's collected poetry might find a new group of poems to admire beyond the frequently anthologized earlier works. In Justice's final collection, readers might also discover and appreciate how significant identifiable places or specific periods of time were to this poet.
During the Gioia interview, Donald Justice presents a perspective on his poetry writing that seems a key to understanding this important influence of time and place on his work. Although much of Justice's earlier poetry might not be immediately associated with the Southern tradition, perhaps because even he felt he wrote "without an accent," some of his finest poems are those pieces, mostly later, that recapture the Florida landscape and Miami atmosphere of his upbringing during the Depression years. As Justice declares: "If you were born and brought up in the South — at least in my time — there's no way you could escape being a Southern writer. It's not a matter of choice — it's a fate. And that was my fate — that was the world and the life I knew, what I had to work with when I began to write."
Further in the same interview, Justice remarks upon a renewed interest in autobiographical sketches of his childhood South similar to some works that had appeared in his first book, The Summer Anniversaries, but had been mostly absent until more such sketches began to fill his later poems: "Moving back to Florida — especially the first couple of years — did awaken old memories . . . but growing older had something to do with it too."
In that initial collection of poetry, Justice introduced readers to the South of his childhood in a couple of sonnets, "Southern Gothic" and "Sonnet to My Father." The former, a poem of place, describes an atmosphere of decay, of a house and its surroundings demonstrating evidence of the ravages of time: "great oaks, more monumentally great oaks now / Than ever when the living rose was new, / Cast shade that is more completely shade / Upon a house of broken windows merely / And empty nests up under broken eaves." The latter acts as an elegiac poem attempting to keep memory alive, as the closing sestet presents: "But, father, though with you in part I die / And glimpse beforehand that eternal place / Where we forget the pain that brought us there, / Father, and though you go before me there, / Leaving this likeness only in your place, / Yet while I live, you do not wholly die."
Nevertheless, in "Tales from a Family Album" Justice already questions whether he can write of his personal past, yet create poetry that speaks to all who read it: "How shall I speak of doom, and ours in special, / But as of something altogether common?" He recognizes that his individual observations and experiences, as well as the histories and legends among members of his own family have supplied him with sources for his poetry: "there was somehat in their way of going / Put doom upon my tongue and bade me utter." One vivid description of the Miami he once knew, "A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida," approximates the portraiture of a painting:
Risen from rented rooms, old ghosts
Come back to haunt our parks by day,
They crept up Fifth Street through the crowd,
Unseeing and almost unseen,
Halting before the shops for breath,
Still proud, pretending to admire
The fat hens dressed and hung for flies
There, or perhaps the lone, dead fern
Dressing the window of a small
Hotel. Winter had blown them south—
How many? Twelve in Lummus Park
I counted, shivering where they stood,
A little thicket of thin trees,
And more on benches, turning with
The sun, wan heliotropes, all day.
After the publication of The Summer Anniversaries in 1960 Donald Justice mostly moved away from personal and autobiographical poetry, particularly those poems that focus on specific incidents or intimate memories of his Southern childhood. Indeed, in "Early Poems," included in Night Light, Justice appears to distance himself from such poetry: "How fashionably sad those early poems are!" Although he never fully surrenders to free verse, and some formal poems and syllabic poems do appear in his second and third volumes of poetry, Justice even hints at a greater abandonment of formal poetry for more relaxed free verse poems: "The rhymes, the meters, how they paralyze." "Early Poems" concludes with a line perhaps suggesting a new direction toward quieter pieces with less obvious emotional investment: "Now the long silence. Now the beginning again." This separation from the style evident in the earliest poems and the detailed personal subject matter toward the increasingly reductive yet seductive poetry for which he became well known in the decades of the '60s, '70s, and '80s is signaled once more in the title of his third book, Departures.
However, another transition — a shift toward revisiting a central concern for places and people who formed the greatest influences on him as a boy or young man, as well as the changing Southern society and landscape — occurs in a short section of new poems and uncollected poems written before 1960 that were added at the end of Selected Poems in 1979, a collection which would earn Justice the Pulitzer Prize. Selected Poems seemed to offer Justice an opportunity for a mid-career review, revision, and renewal. Of the seventy-two poems Justice chose to preserve in Selected Poems from his earlier volumes, nearly fifty were altered in one way or another from their original appearance. In a personal note on the selection of poems for that book, Justice wrote: "One of the pleasures of working on this book lay in trying to improve poems I found hard either to abandon or to stand by. As a result, many are here revised, some in no more than punctuation, some in word or phrase, and several somewhat more thoroughly."
Justice's restlessness and feeling of necessity to improve the poems seem to indicate an insecure impulse. Admittedly, the amendments are, in most cases, minor (a punctuation change, realignment of line breaks, or a word substitute), but some are more extensive. In "The Man Closing Up" Justice eliminates the cautionary couplet ("Walk with care, / It's slippery here"), omitting the obstacle that divided the two following stanzas:
Broken glass on the rocks,
And seaweed coming in
To hang up on the rocks.
Old pilings, rotted, broken like teeth,
Where a pier was . . .
In this manner the image of a broken seascape is, paradoxically, strengthened by a sustained and unbroken focus.
Another poem which undergoes an even greater structural modification is "Incident in a Rose Garden." The original, first published in Night Light, appeared as a strict dialogue in which three characters speak: a gardener, the master of the property, and Death. In the modified form, Justice inserted the dialogue into a fleshy sketch to supplement the bony framework of the former version. In the new narrative Death enters "dressed like a Spanish waiter," and a magnificent description of the meeting between the master and Death is appended:
Death grinned, and his eyes lit up
With the pale glow of those lanterns
That workmen carry sometimes
To light their way through the dusk.
Now with great care he slid
The glove from his right hand
And held that out in greeting,
A little cage of bone.
Donald Justice, in another sort of revision, constructed an immediacy in some poems by switching from past tense to present tense. One of these transformations occurred in "Last Days of Prospero." It is as if Justice were speaking of a confrontation with his previously published poems and the sudden realization of a desire to remodel them: "The aging magician retires to his island. / It is not so green as he remembers. . . ." He decides they must be made different: "Some change in the wording of the charm, / Some slight reshuffling of negative? And verb, perhaps — that should suffice." And so in the final stanza Justice does recast the mold. He chooses to reconsider the previous version:
Debating, as old men will, with himself
Or the waves, though, as it was, the sea
Seemed only to go on washing and washing
Itself, as if to be clean of something.
The resculptured verse, in which the waves offer a more direct response to the debating old man, is substituted:
Debating, as old men will, with himself
Or with the waves, and still the waves
Come back at him always with the same
Low chucklings or grand, indifferent sighs.
Still, the more remarkable development in Selected Poems surfaced in those few new poems Justice added in the final section of the book. These new poems continued to demonstrate the careful touch Justice had always maintained, able to shear the superfluous while retaining enough of the excitement of an experience; however, Justice's childhood in the South re-emerges in these poems. In "First Death"— a poem separated into three sections, each section composed of eight rhyming couplets and each headed by consecutive dates in June, 1933 — Justice describes his witnessing of death for the first time. In the opening of the poem Justice encounters the taste of death, literally: "I saw my grandmother grow weak. / When she died, I kissed her cheek. // I remember the new taste — / Powder mixed with a drying paste." At the end of this first section the boy is left to wrestle with his emotional episode and his newly realized knowledge of death on his own: "The men sat silent on the porch, / Each lighted pipe a friendly torch // Against the unknown and the known. / But the child knew himself alone."
In the second section the boy, in his solitude, investigates the accumulated objects of the barn and considers the temporary nature of all, how everything deteriorates with the progression of time:
In the dim light I read the dates
On the dusty license plates
Nailed to the wall as souvenirs.
I breathed the dust in of the years.
I circled the abandoned Ford . . .
The events of the final section occur during the grandmother's funeral, a ceremonial expression of grief directed by strangers: "My shoes brought in a smell of clay / To mingle with the faint sachet // Of flowers sweating in their vases. / A stranger showed us to our places." The boy then completes his recounting of an incident in which all the senses — touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight — are exercised.
Another poem, "Memories of the Depression Years," is also divided into three parts, each with a location (either in Georgia of Florida) and date (1930, 1933, 1936) as a subtitle. These three sketches effectively recreate the atmosphere of the period in a language that is tacitly insistent, consisting of images that are emphatic in their elegance:
. . . A pink
Plaster flamingo on one leg
Stands preening by the lily pond.
And just as the sun begins to sink
Into the Everglades beyond,
It seems to shatter against the pane
In little asterisks of light . . .
In other places this poem demands attention merely by the way Justice delivers the details:
. . . in the kitchen, as she bends to serve,
Aunt Babe's too finely thin, upgathered hair
Filters the sunlight coming through behind
(Which is how Griffith lights his heroines).
Moth-wings cling to the door-screen; dust motes whirl.
There is such a light!
The closing poem in Selected Poems was "Childhood," in which Justice, again, offers the time and place, the thirties in Miami, Florida. In this final poem of the collection, even more than the others, readers are introduced to the intricate character of the young Donald Justice and the inception of a creative talent: "Already / I know the pleasure of certain solitudes. / I can look up at a ceiling so theatrical / Its stars seem more aloof than the real stars. . . ." Justice also allows readers to view the development of a boy's discovery of self: "Often I blink, re-entering / The world — or catch, surprised, in a shop window, / My ghostly image skimming across nude mannequins."
Those new works in the last section of Selected Poems seemed to hint at a shift in Justice's poetry, and the release of his next collection, The Sunset Maker, in 1987 confirmed the poet had turned toward more autobiographical poems filled with his memories of people and places encountered in another era. Indeed, the collective tone of the poems in The Sunset Maker is elegiac, as it attempts to preserve elements of the past, particularly the Depression years in which Justice was raised, had discovered his individual identity, and had initiated an interest in music. Donald Justice used his new (or renewed) poetic approach to look back at his early life with affection and a nostalgic sense of experiences recalled from childhood, articulating sentiment while risking sentimentality. In fact, Justice labels a couple of the poems as containing notes of nostalgia — "Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents" and "Nostalgia of the Lakefronts."
Justice appears intent on recreating the atmosphere and actions associated with youthful awakenings. In "Nostalgia of the Lakefronts" Justice transports readers to a long ago southern summer when "art and the child were innocent together." The poem opens with an evocative description:
Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood, once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance . . .
Eventually the South of Justice's childhood would be lost, fade into the distance. The region would change as much as the aging friends or family members and the people who once filled its cities. Even the boy would grow older and lose his innocent perspectives: "A boy's shadow would lengthen to a man's / Across the yard then, slowly." ["My South"] The remembered past would exist only in the artworks, poetry and paintings, that captured the essence of a distant time period and a perishing landscape, Justice explains in "Nostalgia of the Lakefronts": "And after a time the lakefront disappears / Into the stubborn verses of its exiles / Or a few gifted sketches of old piers."
The world depicted in some of Justice's poems is frozen in time — often stilled in innocence, caught before the turmoil of social changes and the poet's personal maturity or growing awareness of mortality. In "Children Walking Home from School Through Good Neighborhood" Justice characterizes the era with images and simile: "they are like figures held in some glass ball, / One of those in which, when shaken, snowstorms occur; / But this one is not yet shaken." Nevertheless, time, with its corrosive effect, hovers over everything and everyone. In "On the Porch," a sonnet and one of the four sections of "My South," Justice closes with an image of his grandfather, "Lincoln-tall and solemn," standing on a porch when the sound of a faroff train breaks the late-day quiet: "Then the great silver watch rose from his pocket / For us to check the hour, the dark fob / Dangling the watch between us like a moon. / It would be evening soon then, very soon."
Those poems unable or unwilling to halt the movement of time, with its accompanying erosion and death, instead express an intense sadness, a deep sense of loss. In "Psalm and Lament," a poem (one of a number of elegies in The Sunset Maker) that examines scenery in Hialeah, Florida, and is written in memory of his mother, Justice speaks of grief and pronounces: "Let summer come now with its schoolboy trumpets and fountains. / But the years are gone, the years are finally over." Whatever there is left to witness offers evidence of the passing of time: "there is only / This long desolation of flower-bordered sidewalks // That runs to the corner, turns, and goes on, / That disappears and goes on // Into the black oblivion of a neighborhood and a world / Without billboards or yesterdays."
In 1995, Donald Justice continued the elegiac tone in a group of new poems gathered for inclusion in a volume of New and Selected Poems. "The Miami of Other Days" represents a poem from that group which blends memory and music by presenting a descriptive portrait of Miami's past in a work labeled "An Improvisation":
The city was not yet itself. It had
In those days, the simplicity of dawn.
As for the bonfires up and down the beach,
They were nostalgias for the lights of cities
Left behind: and often there would be
Dancing by firelight to the new white jazz
Of a Victrola on its towel in the sand.
Hot afternoons, even the sea breeze sultry
And choking—and underneath the grateful awnings
Of downtown shops the foreign language spoken
With a sound of parrots, excited, incomprehensible. . . .
Another poem from this group, "Pantoum of the Great Depression," divulges, "We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor. / And time went by, drawn by slow horses. / Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world. / The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog." Repeatedly, Justice seeks to retain in his poetry the images pictured in his memory. He hopes to save those images almost as if by doing so he could save the people and places depicted in them. In "The Miami of Other Days" Justice reminisces about the sidewalk photographers on the streets of that city: "Who disappeared a dozen times a day / Under the black hood of their trade — preservers!" Like those photographers framing the people amid passing scenes of Miami's city streets, Justice also wished to be a "preserver," to rescue those he loved or admired and the locations he associated with innocent and enjoyable experiences: "O 'Magic City' of my eighth-grade speech! / Aquarium of the little grounded yacht! / Bandshell of gardenia moons!"
Similarly, coming across "There is a gold light in certain old paintings," the closing poem from a small selection of new poems that had been added for this Collected Poems, one might suggest that Justice could just as easily be describing much of his own poetry, especially those from the last few books, in which descriptions are fondly detailed and summon sympathetic emotions. Each poem seems to bask in a gold light that illuminates and offers warmth. As with sunlight, it is life-giving: "It is like happiness, when we are happy. / It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light."
In "American Sketches" from Night Light nearly forty years ago, Donald Justice wrote of driving through a small town in the middle of the night, passing through and imagining who might be awake up in a second-story room with the light on as he sped by at seventy. He ended the poem with lines of a dedication: "This poem / Is for whoever / Had the light on." However, in most of his final poems and in certain other works throughout Collected Poems, Donald Justice's dedication to music and memory in his poetry as he passed through life assured readers that he was the one who had provided the light, as the poems themselves supplied their own gold glow that often illuminated and offered warmth.
Justice, Donald. Collected Poems. New York, New York: Knopf, 2004. ISBN: 1-4000-4239-9 $25.00
© by Edward Byrne
One of the twentieth century’s most quietly influential poets, Donald Justice was a master of poetic form and technique, as well as a masterful teacher of poetry. Long associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Justice helped guide a generation of poets through their earliest work, including Rita Dove, Mark Strand and Charles Wright. His own verse was noted for its formal control, depth of insight, and limpid, elegiac lines. However, technical prowess "never calls attention to itself in Justice's understated work," claimed Dana Gioia in the Southern Review, nor was Justice ever considered a “confessional” poet, often using his poems to efface the self rather than vaunt it. Though his early and late styles use more traditional meters, his overall career denies easy categorization. Comfortable in free verse as well as forms like the sestina, villanelle and sonnet, Justice was equally at ease with more experimental modes. Dana Gioia described Justice as a “serious experimentalist,” one who “discarded traditional form but also, eventually, conventional notions of genre, sequential exposition, originality, and even authorial control.” Working within the confines of the short poem, Justice explored the possibilities of formal, free and experimental poetry throughout his long career.
A noted prose writer, Justice’s small but significant oeuvre of poetry and prose worked through life-long obsessions with themes like memory, loss and chance. Known as a “poet’s poet,” Justice won many of American poetry’s most prestigious awards including the Lamont Poetry Prize for his fist volume The Summer Anniversaries (1960), the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems (1979) and the Bollingen Prize in 1991.
Justice was born in Miami, Florida in 1925. Musical as a child, he studied piano and music under the composer Carl Ruggles as a student at the University of Miami, though he ultimately graduated with a degree in English literature. Justice pursued graduate work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he met his wife the writer Jean Ross, Stanford University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Befriending poets such as John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro, Justice soon followed his first critically acclaimed volume with another, Night Light (1967). Comprised of an astonishing variety of forms, the book nonetheless represents a loosening of the constraints that bound Justice’s first book. Departures (1973), was likewise praised showcasing Justice’s new command of poetic technique. "The new Justice poem is no longer a set piece or still life, forced into shape," added Simon in his review of the 1973 volume, "but a vigorous and rhythmical composition, prosody at the limit of its kinetic potential . . . It is intoxicating to see Justice now unfettered by the forms that circumscribed and dictated the action in his early poems; and to see him working with sources that are not only naturally energetic and new, but demanding in conception and daring in stance."
Gioia suggested that no other American poet has perfected as many poetic styles. Justice's 1979 Selected Poems "reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry," Gioia noted. "There are sestinas, villanelles and ballads rubbing shoulders with aleatory poems [composed using chance methods], surreal odes, and . . . free verse . . . A new technique is often developed, mastered, and exhausted in one unprecedented and unrepeatable poem." Justice’s experimental verve sustained his work throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He experimented with deliberate mistranslations of poems in other languages, for example, or with methods of composition that combine words at random until they suggest a statement or a form. These methods help the poet to focus more on his materials than on his conscious control over them; Justice himself saw such "chance" methods as "in its way, a formal approach," one which allowed him "to see images a little differently." Paul Ramsey, writing in the Sewanee Review, commented that Justice's poems composed in this way are prone "to fragmentation…[yet] his fragments sound completed…His gift for order is an irresistible gift."
A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (1991) gathers into one volume seventy-three poems and six prose pieces: three essays, two stories, and a memoir of Justice's Miami childhood. Though slim, the volume contains much substantial work. Accounting for the length, Dana Gioia, in the New Criterion, noted that Justice “writes on such a consistently high level that he makes every poem, story, or essay matter.” Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, Felix Stefanile, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, called this collection "a real gift" since "it is a sign of Donald Justice's clear, retentive mind that so many of these works, assembled over decades—verse and prose—talk to each other." New and Selected Poems (1995), offers another collection of Justice's poems. Michael Hoffman, in the New York Times Book Review, deemed Justice's writing "skillful and musical" and maintained that Justice "probably has few peers when it comes to the musical arrangement of words in a line." Unfortunately, Justice never lived to see the collected edition of his work. The definitive Collected Poems of Donald Justice was published just days after his death at age seventy eight, in 2004. Reviewing the book for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda declared that the volume showed Justice as “a deeply accomplished poet, without pretension or histrionic gesture, yet absolutely in command, able to bend syntax to his will or make us pause in wonder at the quiet rightness of a simile.” The book was greeted by poets and critics alike as an important addition to the landscape of twentieth-century American verse.
In addition to poetry and occasional short prose memoirs, Justice wrote criticism, essays and an opera libretto, The Death of Lincoln (1988). He was also largely responsible for the renewed interest in neglected poets Henri Coulette and Weldon Kees, editing editions of both poets’ work. His dedication to “craft, concentration, and precision” is seen throughout his written work; it was also an important feature of his career as a teacher. A professor at the University of Iowa, Syracruse University, Princeton University, Justice taught for ten years at the University of Florida-Gainesville. Jorie Graham, a former student, remarked on her teacher at Iowa that under his gaze one “felt seen-through, small, inept, hopelessly unequal to the task. It felt great. It made the task hard enough. Nothing you ever brought in for his scrutiny could possibly hold up, or be surprising, or clear enough. He knew — because in less than ten words he could fashion a question that would blow your knot of words open like thistledown.”