Donald Justice (1925 – 2004) was an American poet and teacher who grew up in Florida, and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami in 1945. He received an M.A. from the University of North Carolina in 1947, studied for a time at Stanford University, and ultimately earned a doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1954. He went on to teach for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the nation’s first graduate program in creative writing. He also taught at Syracuse University, the University of California at Irvine, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Florida in Gainesville where he taught until he retired.
Justice published thirteen collections of his poetry. His books include New and Selected Poems (1995); A Donald Justice Reader (1991); The Sunset Maker (1987), a collection of poems, stories and a memoir; Selected Poems (1979), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; Departures (1973); Night Light (1967); and The Summer Anniversaries (1959), which received the Academy’s Lamont Poetry Selection.
His honours also included grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003. His Collected Poems was nominated for the National Book Award in 2004. He was also a National Book Award Finalist in 1961, 1974, and 1995.
After retiring, he lived in Iowa City with his wife, Jean Ross, until his death on August 6, 2004.
Reading Donald Justice
I first encountered the poetry of Donald Justice in the 1970’s when I began purchasing anthologies of American poetry which were popular in Dublin bookshops at the time. Some of these diverse poems made a deep impression on me, poems like Counting the Mad, In Bertrams’s Garden, On the Death of Friends in Childhood, On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane, and that amazing poem, The Snowfall, which I found memorable and intriguing and which stayed with me for years. Later, while still a student, I came across a second-hand hard-cover copy of The Summer Anniversaries in Kennys famous bookshop in Galway. It was priced at £1.40 in Irish pounds, expensive at the time for a student. But the fact that the paper jacket is now torn shows how often the book has come off the shelves and what good value the purchase was.
Anvil Press was the English publisher of Donald Justice so I next bought a copy of Selected Poems (1980) and saw how much the poetry had developed and deepened over the years. Around the same time, the early 1980’s, I was employed by an old university friend, the now-celebrated novelist, Colm Tóibín, who was then editor of a Dublin listings magazine called In Dublin. He asked me to be the poetry reviewer. When Colm moved on, a subsequent editor, who liked my work, asked me to choose any one book I wanted to review. I picked another Anvil Press book, The Sunset Maker (1987). I was impressed not only by the poems but by the memoirs and that memorable short story, The Artificial Moonlight, which concluded the book.
Around the same time I came across the Donald Justice collection of The Poems of Weldon Kees. He had introduced me to another remarkable poet. I hazard a guess that the justified reputation of Kees would not be where it is today without the assistance of Donald Justice. The influence of Kees can be felt in some of the poems but it is an influence that is fully subsumed. The famous four Robinson poems of Kees are given a typical Justice dust-over in his four Tremayne poems.
Later I bought a copy of A Donald Justice Reader from the Bread Loaf series of contemporary writers. There the poems were presented by the author in an interesting, non-chronological order and included stories, memoirs, some critical essays and even a musical motif. I thought that was it, but when I eventually found out that the Collected Poems had a brief concluding section of New Poems I thought I would purchase that as well. I wasn’t disappointed. The poems kept moving in new directions. There was a new story poem, Ralph: a love story. There was another remarkable poem about painting, “There is a gold light in certain old paintings”. There were the Couplets Concerning Time (see below) which took the couplet form in a new direction.
Like that auspicious debut, The Summer Anniversaries, the books of Donald Justice are frequently taken down from my book shelves.
I call this post “Attic Solitudes” not only because it echoes a phrase in one of the brief poems printed below (with its emended ending) but, also, because it seems an apt indicator of a certain strain in his work. There are attics in poems early and late. The early poem, Monologue in an Attic, a speech from a play, has a man entering through a trapdoor and discovering there, The sad aroma of mothballs. The motif is later repeated and the poem, perhaps rewritten, as In the Attic. The justly celebrated humorous poem Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy, with its echoes of Andrew Marvell and its wonderful varied metrics, is also set in an attic far from the jealous eyes/Of household spies. And there is a Fragment: To a Mirror where the “solitude of attics” is invoked.
And solitude is a strain that runs through many of the poems. That solitude is not personal. Justice is one of the most impersonal poets to have followed Eliot’s dictate: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” It is, rather, a generalised sense of solitude which hovers over the poems like that morning mist he evokes so beautifully in “October: A Song”. It is a solitude which reminds me of two iconic American figures.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in a well-known quotation that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Desperation is too strong a word for these poems. Desolation would be even stronger. No. I would rephrase Thoreau’s sentence to “The mass of men lead lives of quiet isolation.” That isolation, moving from the isolation of childhood to the isolation of old age, is wonderfully evoked in these poems.
The poems remind me, as well, of the painting of Edward Hopper. There is a sense of landscapes caught in a certain light (Memories of the Depression Years) and of people caught in a certain sense of isolation: The Tourist From Syracuse. If Hopper wrote poems they would be like Poem to be read at 3 a. m. and if he wrote stories they would be like Ralph: a love story. Some might, rightly, argue that the photographs of Walker Evans are a more enduring presence, but there is something about that sense of solitude in the poems that is reminiscent of the figures and the landscapes of Hopper’s paintings
There are plenty of critics who point to the limitations of Donald Justice as a poet. While some of their arguments have limited validity, I do not agree. When the dust settles and the history of twentieth century poetry comes to be written, I believe Justice will be seen as an exemplary figure, a poet like Andrew Marvell, a poet of grace, a poet of verbal felicity, a poet of perspicuity and a poet for all ages.
Brief Poems by Donald Justice
The Thin Man
I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.
My former friend, my traitor.
My too easily broken.
My still to be escaped from.
To support this roof.
To stand up. To take
Such weight in the knees…
To keep the secret.
To envy no cloud.
From a Notebook
FROM A SPY NOVEL: “Maybe you know Bliss by another name.”
AFETR THE CHINESE (I)
Near the summit,
They rest on separate rocks, smoking,
And wonder whether the wildflowers
Are worth going on for.
After the overture,
The opera seemed brief.
M., opening my diary, found the pages blank.
O attic solitudes! O clouds
All afternoon becalmed and
Lines at the New Year
The old year slips past
unseen, the way a snakes goes.
and the grass closes behind it.
No clouds – and the greyblues
subside into saffron.
Delicately they subside,
into the saffron.
Couplets Concerning Time
Have I not waited with a numbed impatience
In polite pale rooms with polite anonymous patients.
The auctioneer lifts his gavel: Going! Going!
Whence come we, what are we, whither are we going?
The procession turns up the lane. The young poet watches.
Time enters his head – the tick of a thousand watches.
The years stand lonely on their sidings now like abandoned cars,
The wind in the wires and snow sifting down on cars.
The clouds, the vast white Saturday afternoon,
And the high mournful whistle crying, Noooon, Noooon.