An Unillusioned Life
February 1, 2005
Feb 1, 2005
9 Min read time
Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (cloth)
Sometime during the 1980s Donald Justice became a hero for poets and critics who hated the ’60s; they praised his careful, sad work as they attacked the indiscipline and misguided hopes they identified with that earlier decade. In 1992 Dana Gioia, a poet and critic who now directs the National Endowment for the Arts, called Justice “our most notable ‘poet’s poet.’ ” In 2002 Andrew Hudgins credited Justice for his own “education in the music of poetry.” Justice died in August, aged 78; this past November, in The New Criterion (where several of Justice’s last poems appeared), David Yezzi lauded a “body of work that, though inimitable, younger writers would do well to study.” The virtues Justice’s partisans saw were real. Strict but inviting, amiable yet sad, a monument to an unillusioned life, Justice’s Collected Poems reveals not only those virtues but also their limits, along with the durably melancholy character Justice used his powers to depict.
Start not with any single poem but with a scene. Imagine a hot evening in south Florida, sometime after World War I: evening light lies flat against the sea, turning bright the dust in the front parlor. A few girls—preteen, we would call them now—chat outside, just loud enough to distract the boy still indoors practicing piano, an assiduous student devoted to Bach but delighted by Debussy. An elderly uncle has come for a visit from Georgia; a lone gazebo catches a cough from an automobile beside a half-empty hotel. This world, its moods, and the properties that match them—repeated words, carefully balanced lines, childhood, retrospect, old south Florida—dominate Justice’s last poems as they did his first. Raised in Miami, the poet attended the University of Miami, did graduate work at the University of North Carolina and Stanford (where he met Yvor Winters), then earned a doctorate at the University of Iowa, at whose Writers’ Workshop he taught from 1957 on. If Florida gave Justice settings, his style owed something instead to the courtly upper south of the Fugitive poets, on whom he wrote his North Carolina thesis. Though he rejected the Fugitives’ aristocratic ideals, their graceful reserve (especially that of John Crowe Ransom) resonates through such early sketches as “In Bertram’s Garden.” Justice liked to credit his stylistic development to Wallace Stevens, whose metrics his longest (and best) essay examines, but he also learned much from poetry in French and Spanish, translating and recommending Rafael Alberti, Eugène Guillevic, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, whose “Poets at Seven Years Old” Justice adapted twice, decades apart.
Stevens writes that his hero in “Esthetique du Mal” “had studied the nostalgias”; Justice’s work studied them almost without respite. Several of his titles for single poems could describe handfuls, even dozens, of others: “An Elegy Is Preparing Itself”; “Villanelle at Sundown”; “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents.” “Absences” starts with an ideal-typical tableau:
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.
Other poems view mirrors, vacant parlors, a deserted beach, “still bays . . . where small boats lie / At anchor, abandoned,” and “Forlorn suburbs, but with golden names!” Vigor and ambition visit Justice’s locales but find themselves turned away: his citizens learn to inhabit sites of American resignation, “quiet rooms / Where lives go on / Resembling ours,” or towns where “all traffic stops / At ten, the corner street lamps gathering moths, / And mute, pale mannequins waiting in dark shops” for customers who will not show.
Gifted with self-knowledge almost to a fault, Justice implied that his adult melancholy derived from a youth already given to yearning, longing, and sustained regret: “Childhood is like that, repeatedly / Lost in the very longueurs it redeems.” Late poems about adults in the Great Depression linked the troubles of workers and tramps (for whom “Dark soup was all our dream”) to the dashed expectations of the young: “Things will go better one day, boys. / Don’t ask when.” Justice also painted himself as a boy who at 12 years old missed how it felt to be ten; comic in summary, this attitude proved an incalculable asset for (among others) Marcel Proust, and while Justice was no Proust, he still knew how to put that backward-looking sensibility to aesthetic advantage.
Admirers singled out Justice less for that sensibility than for his meticulous technique. For most of his teens Justice worked to become a composer: almost any 20-page stretch of his verse refers at least once to a pianist, or to a piece of (what we now call “classical”) music. If his techniques only rarely emulated music directly (an emulation his essays sometimes deem impossible) his poems nonetheless owe much to the discipline that the piano repertoire demands. Justice discovered early on a way with trimeters, whose cautious motion fit his muted resolve; pentameters took him longer to master, though by the ’80s he had made them his own as well.
Justice’s most obvious technical accomplishments involved not metrics but stanzaic forms and repetition. Sestinas, which fit his strengths, won him notice early: one of four from The Summer Anniversaries (1960) concludes, “There is no way to ease the burden. / The voyage leads from harm to harm.” Repeated words fit Justice’s universe of gently diminished lives and emotional scarcities, where nothing under the sun feels truly new. Yet the forms Justice invented were new, even virtuosic: “Variations for Two Pianos” presents the first of many ingenious transformations of the villanelle, preserving the form’s repetitions but removing its rhymes (and several of its lines) for a dead pianist whose passing “untuned the strings. // There is no music now in all Arkansas.” “Sadness” comprises seven six-line pentameter stanzas, each with one or two end rhymes proper, one or two repeated line endings (rime riche, the French call it), and quasi-Spenserian internal repetition: “The forest had its eyes, the sea its voices, / And there were roads no map would ever master, / Lost roads and moonless nights and ancient voices.”
“The age of experiment is exhausted and moribund, temporarily at least,” Justice declared in 1983. Yet Justice’s own poetry from the ’60s and early ’70s showed more response to the times than such pronouncements (or his later fans) might imply. His temperament guaranteed praiseworthy restraint in modes that made most poets shrill; “The Assassination,” with its blood spilling through the streets and into an orchestra, holds up as well as any topical poem from those days (days which seem suddenly, shockingly, like our own). Other poems from that era share with Justice’s friend Mark Strand, or with W.S. Merwin, a regard for reverent silence, for resonant voids. In one such poem, the poet “has come to report himself / A missing person”; another holds “someone or something / Colorless, formless.” Yet another explains that “this poem . . . has forgotten you. And it does not matter. / It has been most beautiful in its erasures.”
Justice’s negative space neither attains nor seeks the mystical near-solipsism in Strand or Merwin. “I don’t believe in the spiritual,” Justice once told an interviewer. As with Philip Larkin (on whom Justice wrote well), the absence of any transcendental dimension—the poet’s decision to refuse even hints of religious (or politico-historical) purpose—made nostalgia, bittersweet longing, and recognition of loss almost the only consolations his poems could seek. (Justice admired another kind of consolation, if consolation is the right word, in the harsh, self-satiric acerbities of the later Larkin and of Weldon Kees, whose poetry Justice edited and almost single-handedly preserved; Justice himself could not harbor the contempt, self-righteousness, or even anger on which Kees, and sometimes Larkin, depended.)
Justice’s secular concentration on a general human fate perhaps helped to make him such a frequent model: he seemed simply more approachable, in matter as in manner, than other formal poets of his generation. Few of us have the intimate knowledge of high culture (art history, music history, Greek, Latin, and so on) that John Hollander or Anthony Hecht display; even fewer have the wit of James Merrill, or the unerring eye for artifice of Richard Wilbur. All of us, though, had childhoods; all of us know that once we were not as we are now.
Justice’s temperament and beliefs made almost inevitable his elevation of technique, his sadder-but-wiser treatment of verse form as an end—perhaps the only end—in itself. The more you see life as a series of fallings-off, a state in which no conventional satisfaction can be reached, the harder it becomes to distinguish an exercise (a mere study, a practice, a dry run) from a real effort (performance, recital, accomplishment): where all runs are dry, all recital halls finally empty, practice and performance grow indistinguishable, and technical perfection (or else grace in failure) becomes the only attainable goal.
Poets with this outlook often see their production drop as they grow older, or else turn their energies to critical prose: take Larkin—or take Matthew Arnold. Justice instead returned to his earliest strengths. Almost anything from The Sunset Maker (1987) or New and Selected Poems (1995) could have fit into The Summer Anniversaries; it is almost eerie to see a poet change so little, though one should not say that he did not change at all. The late poems do break new ground with comic situations and comic rhyme, as in a sonnet about a piano teacher: “Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her, / Calling the time out in that hushed falsetto?” The title poem from The Sunset Maker provides a stranger example of Justice’s attempts to broaden his range: all description and questioning, no drama, the two-page monologue reads like a preface to its once-intended self.
“How fashionably sad those early poems are!” one self-mocking epigraph begins, as if to belittle what became Justice’s real—not especially fashionable—achievement. Justice’s work (all his work, not just the “early poems”) presents in almost pure form some of the virtues of the “academic” ’50s, virtues that have as much to do with temperament as with deft craft. The poems remain considerate, careful, respectful of readers, alert to (and half in love with) limits of all kinds, and they model composure and resignation in almost every variety: distanced wit, not-quite-tearful regret, precarious equipoise. Justice’s late character Tremayne (a poet-as-everyman, like Kees’s Robinson or Berryman’s Henry) “finds it hard not to be reconciled / To a despair that seems so mild.” This reconciling extends beyond Justice’s self-portraits to his portrayals of the mythical first poet in the world. In the prose poem “Orpheus Opens His Morning Mail,” the weary poet despises himself but cherishes his dignity; he perhaps looks forward to meeting the maenads, though he may suspect (he does not admit) that they intend to tear him apart. The final poem in this volume also includes a final portrait of Orpheus, whose confident utterance, with its one hexameter line, might serve as Justice’s motto: “O prolong / Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
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February 01, 2005
9 Min read time