Donald Justice

Award-winning poet revered by his peers and influential to a wide range of younger writers

If poets have "careers", then that of Donald Justice typified the assimilation of American poetry by academic institutions in the last half of the 20th century.



Donald Rodney Justice, poet: born Miami, Florida 12 August 1925; Lecturer, University of Iowa 1957-59, Assistant Professor 1959-63, Associate Professor 1963-66, Professor of English 1971-82; Associate Professor, and Professor, Syracuse University, New York 1966-70; Professor of English, University of Florida, Gainesville 1982-92; married 1947 Jean Ross (one son); died Iowa City 6 August 2004.



If poets have "careers", then that of Donald Justice typified the assimilation of American poetry by academic institutions in the last half of the 20th century.

For Justice was an early graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (the first and most famous of America's now-myriad writing programmes) and he spent his professional life teaching as a college professor. Justice was often called a "poet's poet", an allusion to his influence on poets - both through his own work and as a renowned teacher - yet also, perhaps, a reference to his failure to attract a larger and less specialised audience of readers.

He was born in Miami and attended local schools there before going to college at the University of Miami. An only child, Justice suffered from the bone disease osteomyelitis, and was both bookish and solitary. Very musical, he studied in college under the composer Carl Ruggles, but fairly rapidly realised he had more aptitude for literature, and took his undergraduate BA accordingly in English in 1945. Justice then took an MA at the University of North Carolina, where he made lifelong friends with the novelist Richard Stern and the poet Edgar Bowers, and where Justice also met and married the short-story writer, Jean Ross.

After an abortive attempt to study at Stanford under Yvor Winters and several short-term teaching stints, Justice entered the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1952. The programme there had been established by Paul Engle before the Second World War, but it was only in the Fifties that it started to become a prominent training ground for successive generations of American poets.

Justice's own class included several poets later to become well known, including W.D. Snodgrass, Philip Levine and William Stafford. Unusually, Justice took a PhD from the programme, instead of the usual Master of Fine Arts, and within three years had returned after brief teaching stints elsewhere to join the workshop's faculty, where he stayed for 10 years before moving to the University of Syracuse. He only stayed three years in New York, then taught briefly at the University of California and at Princeton, before returning for another 10-year stint at Iowa.

He ended his career teaching in Florida but, disenchanted with his native state, he moved back on retirement to Iowa City. He was a legendary teacher, and despite his own Formalist reputation influenced a wide range of younger writers - his students included Mark Strand, Rita Dove, James Tate, Jorie Graham and the novelist John Irving.

Justice's early poems were published in a chapbook, The Old Bachelor and Other Poems (1951), and were noted for their technical accomplishment - indeed, they show an almost oppressive technical control. They were also praised for their "musicality", though Justice always resented the efforts to make what he saw as fatuous links between two different disciplines:

The music of music . . . is completely and utterly different from the music of poetry . . . In poetry the word music is . . . a metaphor at best.

His first significant collection, The Summer Anniversaries, was published in 1960 and won the Lamont award of the Academy of American Poets. The technical mastery of the early poetry is still very much in evidence, but the poems here are emotionally richer - playful at times ("Katmandu" substitutes for "do" in the last stanza of a sestina), yet sad and haunting at others, as in "On the Death of Friends in Childhood":

We shall not ever meet them bearded

in heaven

Nor sunning themselves among

the bald of hell;

If anywhere, in the deserted school-

yard at twilight,

Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining

hands

In games whose very names we

have forgotten.

Come, memory, let us seek them

there in the shadows.

Justice's poems were often likened to the work of Wallace Stevens, an attribution Justice grew tired of; inevitably it was not a comparison which would ultimately flatter him. And much as he admired Stevens, there is in Justice's work neither the same lush imagery of the natural world nor the extended inquiry into the philosophy of the poetic imagination. Technically more eclectic than Stevens, Justice wrote poems in almost every conceivable form, from villanelle to sestina, but at his mature best the particular power of his work comes, in Richard Howard's words,

from a special accommodation of the poem's shape and body to its impulse or "message" until nothing remains outside the form, left over to be said in any way except by the poem itself.

In time Justice came to feel that technical virtuosity could be overvalued. Technique for technique's sake, he declared, "was not awfully important" - and he began to write free verse himself. For both formalist and free verse he was insistent upon a working ethic of what can only be called diligence, and he was surprisingly critical of the recent formalist revival:

What I can't appreciate about the new formalists in general . . . is that they don't really seem able to take their formalism seriously or else do not understand it.

But Justice could be light-hearted about his own seriousness, as in "The Telephone Number of the Muse" where the Muse addresses the ageing Justice :

"Sorry, I have no desire, it seems."

Sighing: "For you, I mean." Long

silence. Then:

"You were always so serious."

In free verse he wrote one of his most moving poems, "The Ass-assination", after Robert Kenn-edy's murder, which includes

Now it bursts. Now it has been

announced.

Now it is being soaked up by news-

papers.

Now it is running through the

streets.

The crowd has it. The woman sell-

ing carnations

And the man in the straw hat stand

with it in their shoes.

In the course of his career Justice won virtually every award a poet could, from the Lamont to the prestigious Bollingen Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. He did not attract the fame or the readership that older poets of the post-war era - Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, even Randall Jarrell - commanded, but he also avoided the domestic upheavals and psychological instability that seemed to go with such celebrity. And this proved considerable consolation, as well as the fact that he was revered by other practitioners of his art.

If his work is unlikely to influence the poets of the future, individual poems of his will none the less live, including these lines from "The Snowfall":

The landmarks are gone. Nevertheless

There is something familiar about

this country.

Slowly now we begin to recall

 

The terrible whispers of our elders

Falling softly about our ears

In childhood, never believed till now.

Andrew Rosenheim

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