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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.”1

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 deal less fun and hardly more practical. “I had a kind of basic artistic… desire,” he explained in another interview. “Reading a lot, playing a lot of music and trying to write music, I began to write a few other things, little stories and poems.”2

He received his degree in 1945 and after a year of knocking around New York and working at odd jobs, he entered the University of North Carolina to study for an MA in English. At Chapel Hill, he met the poet Edgar Bowers and the novelist Richard Stern, and most importantly his future wife. The subject of his MA thesis was the Southern Fugitive-Agrarian poets. He tried to demonstrate how the ideas found in their critical writing influenced their poems. After graduating in 1947, and teaching at the University of Miami for a year, he moved on to Stanford with the intention of studying under Yvor Winters. That did not happen owing to some bureaucratic snag. Justice returned to Miami with the expectation that he would teach freshman composition for the rest of his days, writing verses on weekends and a novel or two to make a bit of extra money. The only other career he could imagine for himself at that time of his life was that of a professional gambler working the racetracks in the afternoons and the greyhounds in the evenings.

As it turned out, the year a chapbook of his poems, The Old Bachelor and Other Poems (1951), was published, he lost his teaching job. Acting on the advice of friends, he applied to the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Iowa in the spring of 1952. He found himself in illustrious company. John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Carl Shapiro were his teachers and his fellow students were Jane Cooper, Henri Coulette, Philip Levine, W.D. Snodgrass, and William Stafford. In 1954 he got his degree and was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in poetry, which made it possible for him and his wife to travel to Europe for the first time. After his return, he eventually settled in Iowa City, where, except for extended absences to teach in Syracuse and at the University of Florida, he made his home. Over the years, he taught and influenced at least a couple of generations of young poets, a few of whom went on to become far better known than he ever was.

While still an instructor, Justice had been publishing poems in many of the country’s most prestigious journals—Poetry, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Hudson Review, and The Paris Review—and two of his short stories were included in the O. Henry Prize Stories annual collections. In 1960, when he was thirty-five years old, Wesleyan University Press brought out his first full collection of poetry. The Summer Anniversaries had six reviews. One was disparaging, calling the poems imitative, while the others were not only favorable but perceptive. Howard Nemerov wrote in The American Scholar:

Mr. Justice is an accomplished writer, whose skill is consistently subordinated to an attitude at once serious and unpretentious. Although his manner is not yet fully disengaged from that of certain modern masters, whom he occasionally echoes, his own way of doing things does in general come through, a voice distinct although very quiet, in poems that are delicate and brave among their nostalgias.3

The volume was selected by the Academy of American Poets as the Lamont Poetry Selection for that year. Reading it today, I’m amazed how well the poems hold up. Justice was a master of the brief lyric. He understood the power of self-restraint, matter-of-fact delivery, and the impact of a striking image or two. Something small, perfectly turned out like a sonatina is what he aimed for, claiming that he was convinced that a prior model existed for the poem he was writing, a sort of Platonic script which he had been elected to transcribe. The Summer Anniversaries is a book of many finely turned-out poems. Here’s one:


And on the porch, across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread a dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain
And on all fours crawl in it like a bear,
To lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterward, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane,
Frail as a mayfly to the faithless air.
And summer evenings he would spin around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the foul weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come
And whip him down the street, but gently, home.

Because of the ease with which the words flow, one may not at first notice that this is a sonnet. Another curious thing about the poem is that some of its lines sound familiar. Like many of Justice’s poems, “The Poet at Seven” is in part an adaptation of another poet’s work. In this case, the poet is Arthur Rimbaud and it is his poems “Seven-Year-Old Poets” and “The Drunken Boat” that are being echoed. Eliot and Pound were both good at this kind of ventriloquism. They appropriated lines from the work of other poets and after a bit of tinkering passed them off as their own.

Justice’s “The Poet at Seven” is not a translation or imitation of an entire poem, but an improvisation on some familiar lines from Rimbaud. He’s like a composer who uses a melody of another composer to compose a variation on a theme. To give just one example, at the conclusion of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” a child full of sadness squatting on the sidewalk as the night descends launches a paper boat over a cold, black puddle in the street, while in Justice’s poem, another dreamy child releases a paper plane frail as a mayfly to the faithless air. For him, it made no difference whether poetry came from actual experience or from books. If one cares a lot about somebody else’s words in a poem, one may as well do something with them. What matters is the poem one ends up with, its quality and novelty, not the source of inspiration, or some underlying theory of what is authentic and what is not.

In addition to “The Poet at Seven,” Justice’s first book contains other much-anthologized poems like “Counting the Mad,” “On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane,” and “Sestina on Six Words of Weldon Kees.” He was not a fussy formalist. A thirteen-line sonnet may be just dandy. “There seems to me no obligation,” he said in an interview, “to carry on with a proper villanelle when it may mean including one or two stanzas less good than the others.”4 He admitted that he was never good at rhyming. His interest in intricate forms, he explained, was connected to a wish to displace the self from the poem, not to obliterate it entirely, but not to have it stand center stage. “I want to treat the personal stuff as impersonally as if I were making it all up,” he said.5

His experiments with chance in Night Light (1967) served the same purpose. He wrote words and passages that he heard on TV or read in newspapers on three-by-five note cards and then shuffled the cards over and over again like the gambler that he was until he found a phrase that he could use in a poem. Unlike his friend John Cage, who gave him the idea, he did not leave intact what chance had served up. He cheated and used only what he liked and could revise. As someone said, chance is fine when you’re dealt five aces or at least four queens. Otherwise, forget it. Justice liked elegant writing and Cage’s method did not lead to elegance.

  1. 1

    Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy (London: Between the Lines, 2001), p. 20.

  2. 2

    Donald Justice, Platonic Scripts (University of Michigan Press, 1984), p. 63.

  3. 3

    Autumn 1960.

  4. 4

    Justice, Platonic Scripts, p. 105.

  5. 5

    Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy, p. 45.

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