Quick Notes on Donald Justice

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Donald JusticeDonald Justice (1925 – 2004) is an American poet who was a master of poetic form and technique. The Summer Anniversaries (1960) won the Lamont Poetry Prize, and Selected Poems (1979) won the Pulitzer Prize.

I am not sure how to approach writing about Donald Justice, as “his overall career denies easy categorization” (“Biography”). So I will trace his approach to the personal, and then provide a brief hypothesis based on that trace. Looking back on what I just read in Donald Justice: New and Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), especially the poems from 1960 (The Summer Anniversaries) through 1975 (Departures) is that reading Justice is like reading an outline of 20th century poetry through the 1970s, in style, form, and experimentation. In The Summer of Anniversaries, a 35-year-old Justice writes mostly metrical and formal poems, but it is hard to find Justice in these poems, except for a few poems that seem based on his life or from his life, such as “Sonnet to My Father,” “The Poet at Seven,” or “The Summer Anniversaries.” Most of the poems, however, are not like the more trendy personal poems of his time, where the poet inserts himself or herself more directly into the poem. Justice’s poems in this collection tend to observe, comment on, and/or inhabit another. In addition, his language is tight, but sometimes with inversions and some ornamentation, like poetry at the beginning of the 20th century.

In Night Light (1967), there is shift. In these poems, we more clearly encounter Justice’s larger themes of loneliness, despair, and lovelessness, which are all good material for Confessional poems that we might find in the poetry of his contemporaries, but his poems aren’t confessional. They aren’t confessional because, again, we don’t really see Justice in these poems, as he is still observing others, though less formally but with more humor. It is in this book that Justice appears like a Modernist poet and/or a New Critic poet. His language is controlled, tight, and straight forward. His images are grounded in the real and less ornamental, and the images are not acting as metaphors or allegories. The image is the image. In doing so, Justice gives us a depiction of a lonely person or a despairing person or some other person, which enables the reader to inhabit those spaces. Where a Confessional poet is personal and private, Justice gets into the personal and private of another, whether he should or should not. In addition, while he averts the personal and private, his language becomes more familiar. He uses less meter and form. His language and free verse poetry (though very precise) more closely aligns with his contemporaries. His language is more everyday and plainer. He abandons ornament, it seems, to present a real rendering over the “poetic” rendering. This enables Justice to get closer to the truth of his subject and/or sympathize and empathize more intimately with his subject. With all of that said, “Heart” might be a confessional poem.

     Heart, let us this once reason together.
     Thou art a child no longer. Only think
     What sport the neighbors have from us, not without cause.
     These nightly sulks, these clamorous demonstrations!
     Already they tell us thee a famous story.
     An antique, balding spectacle such as thou art,
     Affecting still that childish, engaging stammer
     With all the seedy innocence of an overripe pomegranate!
     Henceforth, let us conduct ourselves more becomingly!

     And still I hear thee, beating thy little fist
     Against the walls. My dear, have I not led thee,
     Dawn after streaky dawn, besotted, home?
     And still these threats to have off as before?
     From thee, how wouldst lose thyself in the next street?
     Go the, O my inseparable, this once more.
     Afterwards we will take thought for our good name.    (68)

A humorous confessional poem at that, with the antiquated language, apostrophes, and exclamation points. Perhaps it’s a parody.

Departures (1975) is another turning in Justice’s poetry, as these poems depart from the not very personal to the personal. And the final poem (at least the final poem in the selection from Departures), “Absences,” feels Deep Image personal, as it uses language, tone, and images that seem to come directly from Robert Bly’s poems.

     It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
     There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
     Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
     Of a childhood piano – outside the window, palms!
     And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
     Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

     Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
     Like the memory of a white dress cast down . . .
     So much has fallen.
     And I, who have listened for a step
     All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
     Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
     On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.    (115)

When I finish this section of selected poems, I wonder if Justice always wanted to write the personal poem. If in fact he wasn’t a personal poet but doing it covertly and quietly through personae, such as in the poems “Men at Forty” (Night Light (1967), 76) – where he might be writing about himself at 40 through the third-person “they” – or “The Thin Man” (Night Light (1967), 78) – which uses the first-person “I,” which on first reading seems more like an objective “I,” but in reflection may be the personal “I” – or in “The Man Closing Up” ((Night Light (1967), 79-81), a poem that examines an isolated man without desire, who is depressed, and filled with anxiety and loneliness. The poem also uses metaphors and symbols which suggest emotions, unlike his typical realistic imagery.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from Justice’s poetry is his ever varying style. As Dana Gioia says about the Selected Poems:

[It] reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry [. . .] There are sestinas, villanelles, and ballads rubbing shoulders with aleatory poems [composed using chance methods], surreal odes, and . . . free verse . . . A new technique is often developed, mastered, and exhausted in one unprecedented and unrepeatable poem. (“Biography”)


Works Cited

Biography: Donald Justice.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. N.d. Web. 2 Oct. 10.






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