Justice's Sentimental Journey
In Memoriam: Donald Justice (1925-2004)
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Thumbing at leisure through Donald Justice’s poems, one encounters
several worthy candidates for an imagined memorial reading. Self-elegies
stare from every other page. The best-known specimen, quoted in the
obituaries, is “Variations on a Text by Vallejo”:
Donald Justice is dead. One Sunday the sun came out,
The diffidence of the gravedigger, the “turning away abruptly,” his casual sweep of geo-historical layers, the expressiveness of that “blade” (note the nondescript “put,” in a stanza short on adjectives)—those touches are characteristic of Justice, who seldom can be accused of “overwriting” a poem. When has a poet’s name so aptly described the sensation of reading his or her verse? Justice’s unadorned style prevails upon us with la mot juste, even as Frost and, say, Marvell, convey their eponymous effects.
With Justice, speech is economical,
giving the reader a sense of quiet, controlled mastery. Such restraint
implies a fair amount of polish, of waxing surfaces clean so inner
observations shine. In “Of Revision,” a mini-essay in Robin Behn and
Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry (1992), Justice submits
his fastidiousness to self-critique.
It seems futile to hope for perfection. Even the very best poems fall short of such an ideal. For this reason it seems almost always pointless to fuss much over such minute details as a word here or—in current practice that most slippery of considerations—a linebreak there. It wastes a great deal of time to do so. Better to move on quickly to the next poem and trust to the kindness of the muse.
If I myself could have followed the above advice, I am convinced that I would have written more and at the same time no worse, and that all in all I would have spent a happier life.
What an astonishing confession to encounter in a book subtitled “Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach”! Justice’s fans are certain to share his wish of having produced more poems in his lifetime, even with no guarantee of their standard. Yet there is poignancy in his acknowledgment of the diminishing returns of perfectionism, his rueful forfeit of “a happier life.” This recognition matches a central theme in his work—the hard-won knowledge that art as an abstract, Platonic commodity can never be fully absorbed by its consumer or, for that matter, its practitioner. “Even the very best poems fall short of such an ideal.” Early on, Justice came to terms with this falling short—the artist’s inability to surpass his or her expectations. Paradoxically, this understanding liberated him to dwell in nostalgia for childhood, in the cemeteries of poets, friends, and loved ones, and in Art’s storied mansions. Reporting back from these places, Justice is both modest and presumptuous. He never extracts a moral from his experiences; instead, he forces private memories upon us as if they were public archetypes, solid in their imperfections. He is unafraid to cross the line between wistfulness and sentimentality; when he does, he is humble but unapologetic.
The “new” section of Justice’s 1995 book, New and Selected Poems, opens with a couplet whose placement on page 3 establishes an ars poetica:
“On a Picture by Burchfield”
Writhe no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours.
Read aloud, the poem typifies the formal adeptness for which Justice is justly celebrated. The substitution of homonyms for terminal rhyme-words goes unchallenged; the caesura in Line One contrasts with the forward surge of Line Two—an effect strengthened by Line One’s use of spondees (as many as four in a row!) versus Line Two’s dactyls. (“Art keeps long hours” is nearly as good as Pope’s “wounded snake” that “drags its slow length along.”) Then there is the sheer variation of vowel sounds, as the internal rhyme in Line One (“flowers,” “hours”) corresponds with the assonance of “already” and “agony.”
However, this essay is concerned more with Justice’s stance toward perfection than with prosodic examples, which have been appreciated by Dana Gioia and others. It seems to this writer that, metrics aside, the couplet strikes a mock-consolatory pose that was key to Justice’s development as a poet. The viewer of Burchfield wants to cheer the “little flowers” with the notion that their fictive suffering “has outlasted” the human variety, and may no longer be required. As with Keats’s nightingale or Grecian urn, the experience of art is qualified by an incorrigible subjectivity, line by line, alerting us to the transience of feelings and of consciousness itself.
Despite the gravity of Justice’s conclusion, we should not lose sight of his dark wit. In another work, “Poem,” from Departures (1973), art is so opaque as to defy access; it is autonomous, heedless of the reader’s imprint:
This poem is not addressed to you.
The irony here is that Justice ranks among the most “accessible” American poets of the latter half of the 20th century. If he had continued along the lines of “Poem,” taking to an extreme Wallace Stevens’s playful, often flippant approach to conceptualizing speech, perhaps we would have lost Justice to Ashbery-like abstractions.
In 1981, interestingly enough, John Ashbery published “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” a poem with a passing likeness to “Poem.”
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
For Justice, this sort of flirting with existential questions about human language is also “play,” but play in earnest. Ultimately it becomes important for him to retain language’s essential task of communicating with clarity. “Poem” and other lyrics we may conveniently label as falling within Justice’s “middle period”—“Fragment: To a Mirror,” “The Thin Man,” and “The Tourist of Syracuse”—thrive on transparency even as they create the condition of anonymity. The speaker of such poems is shorn of personality; yet replacing an idiosyncratic voice we have a painfully precise rendering of ordinary scenes—people and objects separated by vast spaces, on canvases reminiscent of Edward Hopper. Justice rarely sends us to a dictionary—a fact in itself neither laudable nor lamentable—but the price of “getting” his poetry is that we should not be complacent in our understanding. We should mind the gap between, on the one hand, his fidelity to memories and, on the other, his knowledge of their impermanence. Rhetorical questions and exclamations are the raw materials Justice uses to bridge the gap, however inadequately:
O the saintly forbearance of these mirrors!
The exclamation marks and apostrophizing are rampant throughout Justice,
especially in his later, lovingly summoned poems of 1930’s Miami:
…and there were sidewalk
There are obvious risks to this method of eulogizing the past. First—that Justice lays himself open to the charge of bathos, can be seen as a virtue when one considers the alternative. After a poem like “Poem” or “A Tourist from Syracuse,” Justice faced two paths: repose faith in a flawed medium for recording long-vanished people and events, or over-compensate for the poverty of language by giving vent to a Stevensian lushness. Justice chose the first route, which by virtue of its old-fashioned objective of communicating as simply and as clearly as possible, is the more humanistic. (Ford Madox Ford, whose The Good Soldier has been hailed as “the greatest French novel in the English language,” said French was ideally suited to the novel, but not to poetry, because it lacked the innate ambiguities of English words. Reading Justice, who is preeminently sensible even when he is most obscure, one sometimes wants to call him “the greatest French poet in the English language.”) Another risk that Justice runs is that of appearing provincial. Here we can imagine the Floridian taking heart in the words of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who explained his preoccupation with farm lore through the voice of Homer: “I made the Iliad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance.”
Among the formal verse practitioners who were his contemporaries, Justice lacks the scale and moral weight of Hecht; he is not as gorgeous or experimental as Merrill; and he is not as technically fluent or didactic as Wilbur. Yet for all that, several of Justice’s poems will endure; arguably, the ratio of good to bad poems published in his Selected is higher for him than for his colleagues in the art. Every so often, he might be accused of having played it safe, of rarely venturing beyond intelligibility—but that is what endears him to us just now. He was always a poet who craved to be understood, even in isolation. The early lyrics carry forth their crusade of lonely perfection: a poem like “In Bertram’s Garden” wears its debt to John Crowe Ransom well:
On the porch, green-shuttered, cool,
The last line recalls not Ransom, but Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which “silent icicles” are shown to be “Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”
The poems from The Summer Anniversaries
(1960) and Night Light (1967) were written in closed verse forms for the
most part. In this light, it is instructive to compare Justice’s early
“Sonnet to My Father” with “Psalm and Lament,” a poem that appeared in The
Sunset Maker (1987) and is dedicated to his dead mother. Each poem is about
a different parent; the father was still alive during the composition of the
sonnet. Yet the most striking discrepancy is in the conclusion of each. The
sestet of “Sonnet to My Father” resolves neatly:
But, father, though with you in part I die
“Psalm and Lament,” by contrast, wallows in an unmediated flow of sense impressions; they register like a clock “striking all the wrong hours.” Imagery trumps form and rhetoric:
Out on Red Road the traffic continues; everything continues.
In place of the tidy assurance at the end of “Sonnet to My Father”
—“Yet while I live, you do not wholly die”—we have, in Justice’s elegy
for his mother, the following lines:
Sometimes a sad moon comes and waters the roof tiles.
The gulf between these two poems, 27 years apart, is the distance Justice traveled as a poet. By the time he comes to write of “the piano teachers”—Mrs. Snow, Madame L. and the sad Miami parlors where art blossomed from kitsch—his gentle mocking widens into compassion. We learn that the formal, reserved poet has an open heart. Far from barring the door (as “Poem” feigns to do), his poems invite us in repeatedly, as through a stage door beyond which the raconteur preps and relaxes for his next feat of memory. It is a transitional space, like “In the Greenroom”: