The Memory Piano

They say that Donald Justice, who died in August 2004 at the age of seventy-nine, never published a bad poem in his life. Still, his work was not as familiar to readers of poetry as that of Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, and several others of his contemporaries, even though he had been honored through the years with the Lamont, the Pulitzer, and the Bollingen prizes and had a following of devoted admirers. One reason for that may be that he was not very prolific. Only four collections of his poetry and some additional poems in two earlier versions of selected poems appeared over a span of more than forty years.

The publication of Collected Poems comes as a revelation, a book that compels us not only to reassess his stature as a poet, but to mull over the related questions of what it means to be a modern, traditional, and even an original poet. What makes this an issue worth thinking about is that Justice was a most unusual kind of poet. He was both a formalist and a committed modernist at a time when these two aesthetics seemed incompatible. He wrote sestinas and villanelles, but he also liked free verse and surrealism. Despite these ways of writing being poles apart, his poems have been rightly praised for their consistency of style and their quiet virtuosity. I must admit that I did not fully appreciate how much fine poetry he wrote until I read this book.

Although he lived most of his life in Iowa City, where he taught at the University of Iowa Writing Program, Justice was a Southerner. He was born in Miami, Florida, in 1925 and remained faithful in much of what he wrote to that part of the country. His father was a carpenter who had grown up on a farm in southern Alabama and spent his youth drifting through parts of Georgia and northern Florida learning his trade. Justice was an only child. They lived modestly. His parents didn’t have much schooling and yet they made him take weekly piano lessons and he was encouraged to read widely. As he told an interviewer, “I have only recently come to realize, it was a happy childhood, for which I have my parents to thank.”

In high school, he read Twain, Poe, Dreiser, Dostoevsky, and discovered T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. After graduating in 1942, he received a scholarship to play clarinet in the band and study music at the University of Miami. A bone disease that he suffered in his childhood kept him from the army during the war. One of his teachers at the university was the composer Carl Ruggles, whose seriousness and devotion to the highest artistic ideals, he later said, left a profound impression on him. Nevertheless, after a couple of semesters, Justice came to the conclusion that he had limited musical talent and switched to English, which he described as being a good …

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