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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own