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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:

THE POET AT SEVEN

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.

His insistence on minimizing the role of the self may give the impression that his poems lack a point of view or emotion. This is not the case. Justice has a compassionate eye and a conscience. Old people, poor people, lonely people as well as children are everywhere. They do not dominate the poems; the landscape and the weather are given an equal part. One of Justice’s subjects is America. “The spirit and space,/the empty spirit/In vacant space,” as Stevens says. He was one of Justice’s heroes. The other was W.C. Williams. There are poems of his that imitate Stevens’s lush language and others where Williams’s laconic style is the model. However, in some, he pays homage to both. Here’s an example from one of his later books:

FIRST DEATH

June 12, 1933

I saw my grandmother grow weak.
When she died, I kissed her cheek.
I remember the new taste—
Powder mixed with a drying paste.
Down the hallway, on its table,
Lay the family’s great Bible.
In the dark, by lamplight stirred,
The Void grew pregnant with the Word.
In black ink they wrote it down.
The older ink was turning brown.
From the woods there came a cry,
The hoot owl asking who not why.
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.

June 13, 1933

The morning sun rose up and stuck.
Sunflowers strove with hollyhock.
I ran the worn path past the sty.
Nothing was hidden from God’s eye.
The barn door creaked. I walked among
Chaff and wrinkled cakes of dung.
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
Before I tried the running board.
At the wheel I felt the heat
Press upward through the springless seat.
And when I touched the silent horn,
Small mice scattered through the corn.

Justice admired Walker Evans and even wrote a poem on one of his photographs, and one can easily see why. Theirs is an America of back roads seen from a car. They both liked to find the extraordinary among the ordinary, then leave it pretty much as it was, confident that it was—if anything ever was—enough. “The air of the casual is reassuring,”6 Justice said about Williams. He confessed that he hoped that some of his poems would end up being like a treasured photo that we take out from time to time to look at again. In the last decades of his life he learned how to paint. The four paintings which are reproduced on the cover of Collected Poems have that same sparse quality that we find in Evans and a painter like Hopper. Here is an example of what Justice called the art of limited means:

THE SMALL WHITE CHURCHES OF THE SMALL WHITE TOWNS

The twangy, off-key hymn songs of the poor,
Not musical, but somehow beautiful.
And the paper fans in motion, like little wings.

This is the entire poem. As expected, he preferred Dickinson to Whitman. He also approved of Frost, Crane, Ransom, Auden, and Weldon Kees. Together with Stevens and Williams, all these influences would have made him perhaps a more predictable poet if not for his abiding interest in nineteenth-century and modern European and South American poetry. I’ve already mentioned Rimbaud, but that’s just the beginning. There are poems, like his famous “The Man Closing Up” and “Hands,” that are closely based on the work of the French minimalist poet Guillevic. In Departures (1973) Justice has adaptations of poems by the Spanish poets Federico García Lorca and Rafael Alberti and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. In The Sunset Maker (1987), Rilke, Baudelaire, and Laforgue are used as props and even Kafka and Henry James. Here’s how that works:

AMERICAN SCENES (1904–1905)

1. Cambridge in Winter

Immense pale houses! Sunshine just now and snow
Light up and pauperize the whole brave show—
Each fanlight, each veranda, each good address,
All a mere paint and pasteboard paltriness!
These winter sunsets are the one fine thing:
Blood on the snow, some last impassioned fling,
The wild frankness and sadness of surrender—
As if our cities ever could be tender!

The next three sections of the poem are entitled: “2. Railway Junction South of Richmond, Past Midnight,” “3. St. Michael’s Cemetery, Charleston,” and “4. Epilogue: Coronado Beach, California.” Undeniably, these many impersonations allowed Justice to write poems he could not write otherwise. They also raise the obvious question to what degree such poems are to be regarded as original work.

Asked by Philip Hoy about the Scottish poet Robert Crawford’s remark that as far as politics is concerned, the poet’s most important work is to fiddle while Rome burns, he readily agreed. Still, Justice did write political poems. The best-known one is an antiwar poem written in February of 1965 and ironically dedicated to McNamara, Rusk, and Bundy:

TO THE HAWKS

McNamara, Rusk, Bundy

Farewell is the bell
Beginning to ring.
The children singing
Do not yet hear it.
The sun is shining
In their song. The sun
Is in fact shining
Upon the schoolyard,
On children swinging
Like tongues of a bell
Swung out on the long
Arc of silence
That will not seem to
Have been a silence
Till it is broken,
As it is breaking.
There is a sun now
Louder than the sun
Of which the children
Are singing, brighter,
Too, than that other
Against whose brightness
Their eyes seem caught in
The act of shutting.
The young schoolteacher,
Waving one arm in
Time to the music,
Is waving farewell.
Her mouth is open
To sound the alarm.
The mouth of the world
Grows round with the sound.

Justice’s America is pretty to look at, but the appearances are deceiving. There’s an air of unhappiness about these small towns and suburbs. While outwardly prosperous and contented, these men and women he writes about don’t sleep well.

Already it is midsummer/in the Sweden of our lives,” Justice writes in “Elsewheres.” The long green shutters are drawn, the rooms are dark, a razor lies open on the cool marble washstand. There’s the sound of something dripping on the floor. Is it water or blood? The poet doesn’t tell us and the reader can only guess. A poem like “Men at Forty” has the grimness and poignancy of a Cheever story. Here’s the way it starts and the way it ends:

Men at forty

Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

Something is filling them, something
That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

A subject Justice returned to obsessively is his childhood. This is especially true of his later poems. I can think of plenty of other poets who go back to that period of their lives, but not for the same reason that he does. There was never any history, he says of his growing up in Miami, only hurricanes and tabernacle tents that sprang up overnight on circus grounds where preachers blessed the faithful. It is not some isolated traumatic event that troubles him again and again in his childhood poems or a longing for a happier time, but an indefinable, ineffable something he cannot quite name.

It is always late afternoon in his recollection, the light is turning golden, there are vast clouds in the sky, and the shadows are lengthening. The speaker is alone playing or listening to grownups whispering on the porch, their long melancholy silences casting a spell on him. “Certain moments will never change nor stop being,” he says in “Thinking About the Past.” The sadness without a cause of a solitary child and the continuing memory of it are the riddle he is trying to solve. The secret of his identity and his identity as a poet, he suspects, are to be found there. In “Sonatina in Yellow,” he writes:

The faces fade, and there is only

A sort of meaning that comes back,
Or for the first time comes, but comes too late
To take the places of the faces.
Remember
The dead air of summer. Remember
The trees drawn up to their full height like fathers,
The underworld of shade you entered at their feet.

Writing about the American poet Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously in 1954 leaving his car in the parking lot near the Golden Gate Bridge and whose poems Justice collected and rescued from oblivion, he describes what attracted him:

The style was almost anonymous and therefore classical, as I saw it then and still today see it. It may be hard for some readers now to imagine the impression of simple purity the Kees style could engender. It does not resound with the high ambition of an Eliot or Pound, it is not half so refined as the Stevens style, not so pugnacious as that of Williams. It is clearly not the style of a writer desperate for novelty, as so many current styles seem to me to be, but instead the style of an honest, plainspoken man, who finds himself impinged upon by a terror special to his time and with which he deals, hopelessly enough, by writing poems. I think it is in large part the very absence of flash that endears Kees to a good many of us—and there will always be those who do not understand that.7

Much of this, of course, is true of Justice himself, although he’s a better poet than Kees ever was. He endeavored to write poetry that has ties to its long tradition, that is not afraid to grapple with some of its toughest formal requirements, but that avoids sounding contrived. The usual American manner in poetry, all earnestness and raw emotion, did not attract him in the least. Justice never strikes poses or indulges himself in being difficult. He thought the poet’s presence ought to be discreet and discernible only in his style. This is not an easy ambition to fulfill since sooner or later one’s autobiography inevitably intrudes into the work. Still, that was his ideal. The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert used to say that there were two kinds of poets on earth—the ox poet and the cat poet. The ox poet went out every morning and plowed his field while the cat poet lay around all day napping and hunting only when he was hungry. In an interview with Larry Levis, Justice was asked which kind of poet he was. His reply was, “I’m the kind of cat who envies the ox.”8 We ought to be glad that he was that, a cat stretched on a piano, looking out of the window, watching the rain as the last bus comes, letting dark umbrellas out that open into black flowers, many black flowers.



















  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.

  6. 6

    Justice, Platonic Scripts, p. 207.

  7. 7

    Donald Justice, Oblivion: On Writers and Writing (Story Line Press, 1998), pp. 103–104.

  8. 8

    Justice, Platonic Scripts, pp. 79–80.

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