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Often regarded as an ”experimental poet,” Donald Justice is known for versatility and craftsmanship. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection Selected Poems (1979).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Torn between Musical Composition and Writing
Born in Miami, Justice was raised in the American South and never even traveled far enough from home to see snow until he was almost an adult. As he grew up, Justice maintained an interest in piano, clarinet, and musical composition. of these, composition was his greatest passion. At the age of eighteen, he felt torn between music and writing. After considering the matter seriously one summer, Justice, believing he could express more with writing, decided to leave musical composition behind him.
Iowa and Pulitzer
After receiving degrees from the Universities of Miami and North Carolina and studying with Yvors Winters at Stanford University, Justice entered the University of Iowa writers workshop, the program with which he is most often associated. Working with poets such as John Berryman and Robert Lowell, Justice received his PhD in 1954. He later taught at the university for two separate periods totaling twenty years.
Justice published his first volume of verse, The Summer Anniversaries, in 1960; its meticulously crafted poems garnered him a Lamont Poetry Selection from the Academy of American Poets. Justice first investigated themes of loss, memory, and the acceptance of change in The Summer Anniversaries, which contained several painful recollections of his childhood. The collection also displayed his facility with poetic forms, and demonstrated his ability to make the structure of a poem just as expressive as its language.
Night Light (1967) also explored issues of decay— this time from an adult perspective—while Departures (1973) introduced several experimental forms, including variations or ”mistranslations” taken from poems written in other languages and poems created by shuffling and dealing word cards at random. Many of the verses reflect the author’s continuing fascination with the possibilities of language and the idea that poetry can overcome loss by preserving memory. Selected Poems (1979), culled from his previous collections and including previously unpublished work, demonstrates all of Justice’s talents in one volume; critic Dana Gioia noted that it ”reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry.” it is for this work that Justice was awarded the 1979 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Bringing Back the Music
It is perhaps not surprising that loss as a theme is prevalent in Selected Poems. By the time the work was published in 1979, Justice’s generation had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—leaving many with unprocessed experiences of grief and suffering. Still, what little autobiographical reference there is to be found in Justice’s work must be gleaned despite the poet’s refusal to let his personality dominate his later writings. However, there is one work in which Justice clearly relied upon the inspirations that shaped him when he was young. Piano lessons Justice enjoyed as a child provide the central motif of The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir (1987), which seems like a ”complex piece of music” dedicated to the working out ofa single theme, ”the pain and beauty of memory and loss,” as Frances Ruhlen McConnel of the Los Angeles Times notes.
Justice retired from teaching in 1992, but continued to publish his own poems and edit collections of poetry by others. A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (1991) gathers into one volume seventy-three poems and six prose pieces: three essays, two stories, and a memoir of Justice’s Miami childhood. New and Selected Poems, published four years later in 1995, offers another collection of Justice’s poems.
Justic served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003. After a distinguished career of letters, Donald Justice died in Iowa City on August 6, 2004, a few weeks after suffering a stroke.
Works in Literary Context
Known for his simple, controlled language and mastery of poetic forms, Justice deals with themes of loss, memory, and identity in his work. Although his literary output has been relatively modest, he is considered by many to be one of America’s most prominent poets, and his versatility and virtuosity has led him to be referred to as a ”poet’s poet.” Commenting on the creative sources for his work, Justice says that ”one of the motives for writing is surely to recover and hold what would otherwise be lost totally— memory or experience. Put very simply, so that one might not wholly die.”
Nostalgia Without Sentimentality
Despite the often introspective tone of Justice’s work—mirrors are a frequent image in his poems—Justice displays a humble, self-effacing approach in his writing. Using the perspective of time and the manipulation of poetic form to distance himself from his subjects, Justice involves the reader more deeply in the poem. Some critics have observed that his emphasis on poetic structure can create overly rigid poems, and that his understated language makes for a sense of passivity. Others, however, have noted that the poet’s expert grasp of form—especially since the experimental poems of Departures—allows him to go beyond the limitations of structure and fully explore the potential of poetry; Justice never exhibits form for form’s sake. His poems have earned such epithets as “flawless,” “stunning,” and “fascinating.” According to Richard Howard, Justice is nostalgic without being sentimental, and has created ”some of the most assured, elegant and heartbreaking . . . verse in our literature so far.”
Works in Critical Context
While The Summer Anniversaries established Justice’s reputation as a talented writer, it was not until Selected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 that his work became known outside literary circles.
The Summer Anniversaries
The Summer Anniversaries established Justice’s reputation for craftsmanship. The book, relates Greg Simon in the American Poetry Review, ”consists of flawless poems, moving as inexorably as glaciers toward beautiful comprehension and immersion in reality.” Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Doug Lang suggests, ”Justice’s concern for form is really a concern with experience” that seeks to be conveyed in ”an appropriate arrangement of words.” In his essay on Justice in Contemporary American Poetry, A. J. Poulin calls Justice ”a master of what might be called sparse elegance…. [His] poems are moving because of his consummate linguistic, tonal, and formal exactitude.” But less attention to form may have improved the poems in this first book, some readers suggest; New York Times Book Review contributor Charles Molesworth explains, ”What some might see as proper formality might strike others as unnecessary stiffness.”
Since his death in 2004, some critics and scholars have attempted to define Justice’s place in the literary canon. For example, critic and former student Tad Richards argues that ”Donald Justice is likely to be remembered as a poet who gave his age a quiet but compelling insight into loss and distance, and who set a standard for craftsmanship, attention to detail, and subtleties of rhythm.”
- Gioia, Dana and William Logan, eds. Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 1998. Hoy, Philip. Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip London: Between the Lines, 2001.
- Richards, Tad. ”Donald Justice.” Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry. Westport,Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
- Harrison, J. ”For Donald Justice.” Southwest Review 92, no. 3 (2007): 446.
- Hudgins, A. ”Homage: Donald Justice.” Southern Review 38, Part 3 (2002): 654-661.
- Orr, D. ”Collected Poems. By Donald Justice.” New York Times Book Review 109, Part 35 (August 29, 2004): 16.
- Jarman, Mark. Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice. Retrieved September 25, 2008, from http://www. blackbird.vcu.edu/v1n2/nonfiction/jarman_m/justice.htm.
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