Justice, Donald (Rodney)

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JUSTICE, Donald (Rodney)

Nationality: American. Born: Miami, Florida, 12 August 1925. Education: University of Miami, B.A. 1945; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, M.A. 1947; Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 1948–49; University of Iowa, Iowa City, Ph.D. 1954. Family: Married Jean Ross in 1947; one son. Career: Visiting assistant professor, University of Missouri, Columbia, 1955–56; assistant professor, Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1956–57; lecturer, 1957–60, assistant professor, 1960–63, and associate professor, 1963–66, University of Iowa; associate professor, 1966–67, and professor, 1967–70, Syracuse University, New York; visiting professor, University of California, Irvine, 1970–71; professor of English, University of Iowa, 1971–82; professor of English, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1982–92. Poet-in-residence, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, 1962; Bain-Swiggett Lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1976; visiting professor, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1980. Awards: Rockefeller grant, 1954; Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1959; Inez Boulton prize, 1960, and Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1965 (Poetry, Chicago); Ford fellowship, in theater, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967, 1973, 1980; American Academy award, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; Pulitzer prize, 1980; Bollingen award, 1991; Lannan literary award, 1996. Fellow, Academy of American Poets, 1988. Member: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1992; National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1992. Address: 338 Rocky Shore Drive, Iowa City, Iowa 52246, U.S.A.



The Summer Anniversaries. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1960.

A Local Storm. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1963.

Night Light. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1967.

Four Poets, with others. Pella, Iowa, C.U.I. Press, 1967.

Sixteen Poems. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1970.

From a Notebook. Iowa City, Seamark Press, 1972.

Departures. New York, Atheneum, 1973.

Selected Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1979; London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1980.

Tremayne. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1984.

The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir. New York, Atheneum, and London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1987.

A Donald Justice Reader. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1991.

Poems to Go. New York, Knopf, 1995.

New & Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1995.

Recording: Childhood and Other Poems, Watershed, 1983.


The Death of Lincoln (libretto). N.p., A. Thomas Taylor, 1988.


Platonic Scripts. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Oblivion: On Writers & Writing. Ashland, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1998.

Editor, The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1960; revised edition, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

Editor, with Paul Engle and Henri Coulette, Midland. New York, Random House, 1961.

Editor, with Alexander Aspel, Contemporary French Poetry. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1965.

Editor, Syracuse Poems 1968. Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Department of English, 1968.

Editor, with Robert Mezey, The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1990.

Editor, with Cooper R. Mackin and Richard D. Olson, The Comma after Love: Selected Poems of Raeburn Miller. Akron, Ohio, University of Akron Press, 1994.

Editor, The Last Nostalgia: Poems, 1982–1990, by Joe Bolton. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

Translator, L'Homme qui se ferme/The Man Closing Up, by Guillevic. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1973.


Manuscript Collection: University of Delaware Library, Dover.

Critical Studies: Alone with America by Richard Howard, New York, Atheneum, 1969, London, Thames and Hudson, 1970, revised edition, Atheneum, 1980; "On Donald Justice" by Greg Simon, in American Poetry Review 5 (Philadelphia), no. 2, 1976; "Flaubert in Florida: On Donald Justice" by Michael Ryan, in New England Review and Breadloaf Quarterly, 7(2), winter 1984; "Donald Justice Special Issue" edited by Dana Gioia and William Logan, in Verse, 8(3), winter/spring 1992; "The Progress of Donald Justice" by Lewis Turco, in The Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia),29(4), October 1992; "Some Reflections on Donald Justice's Poem "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens'" by Clive Watkins, in Wallace Stevens Journal (Potsdam, New York), 17(2), fall 1993; "Homage to the Thin Man" by Charles Wright, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 30(4), autumn 1994; interview with Dana Gioia, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 25(1), January-February 1996; "'Black Flowers, Black Flowers': Meta-Criticism in Donald Justice's "Bus Stop'" by James A. McCoy, in Notes on Contemporary Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 26(5), November 1996.

*  *  *

Donald Justice's modest, almost cautious, output sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. It is a conscious demonstration of the care taken in the making of his elegant and craftsmanlike poems. The achievement of his first three books of poems, The Summer Anniversaries, Night Light, and Departures, became clearer when gathered in the single volume of Selected Poems with later, uncollected work. The book was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Since then Justice has published additional volumes, including The Sunset Maker, which have further added to his stature.

Justice is one of America's most subtle and sure poets, an artist whose care with and respect for language (he has a near faultless ear) enables him to achieve effects beyond the reach of all but a few of his contemporaries. His emotional and technical range is far wider than his modest output would have us believe, and his chief tool is a transparent technique always at the service of thought and feeling.

The early, celebrated "Counting the Mad" is a bizarre parody on the children's nursery rhyme "This Little Piggy" transposed to a lunatic asylum:

   This one was put in a jacket,
   This one was sent home,
   This one was given bread and meat
   But would eat none,
   And this one cried No No No No
   All day long.

Justice's formal skill and stylishness enable him to be at ease in complex verse forms and to perform small masterpieces such as his "Sestina: Here in Katmandu" or "Variations for Two Pianos," the latter for the pianist Thomas Higgins, which is itself a variation on the villanelle:

   There is no music now in all Arkansas.
   Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.
   Movers dismantled the instruments, away
   Sped the vans. The first detour untuned the strings.
   There is no music now in all Arkansas.

Justice is a noted translator from the French, and it may be that his work has been influenced by French literature as much as by his shared American and British traditions. He owes something to Wallace Stevens (an early poem is titled "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens" and a later one, "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens"), and if he belongs with any group of contemporary American poets, it is with such diverse writers as Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and X.J. Kennedy, all masters of prosody that gives shape to emotion though the frame of traditional forms. Justice's own "Early Poems" ironically comments on the skilled early five-finger exercises of formalist poets such as himself. The poem takes the central metaphor of a small town seen as a poem:

   How fashionably sad those early poems are!
   On their clipped lawns and hedges the snows fall.
   Rains beat against the tarpaulins of their porches,
   Where, Sunday mornings, the bored children sprawl,
   Reading the comics before their parents rise.
   —The rhymes, the meters, how they paralyze.

It is characteristic that Justice, a poet whose skill is clearly demonstrated in the poem, should be so self-deprecating about his early prosodic talent. He is without pretension and is possessed of a rare humility before the craft of poetry, which has allowed his gifts to develop and broaden. The riddlingly titled "Poem" might also be addressed to himself as well as his readers:

   This poem is not addressed to you.
   You may come into it briefly,
   But no one will find you here, no one.
   You will have changed before the poem will.

Quite different again is "First Death," a sequence of poems on the death of a grandmother that, far from indulging emotion in the way of a confessional poet, instead clearly defines feeling for the reader by recording specific memories at the time of the death. In fact, Justice writes consistently well on memory and expresses it through a wide range of sensory perceptions. For example, his poem "Memory of a Porch" accommodates the "thin, skeletal music" of a wind chime and also the "sighing of ferns /Half asleep in their boxes." The sensuous collage of "Thinking about the Past" is moving because the personal memories are free from egotism, so that they somehow exist as concrete images of relevance to all:

   Certain moments will never change, nor stop being—
   My mother's face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
   The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
   Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—

The Sunset Maker is a volume of both poems and prose, including short stories and "Piano Lessons: Notes on a Provincial Culture," an autobiographical prose essay recollecting early music lessons. A memorable group of occasional poems center on the lugubrious character of Tremayne, perhaps reminiscent of Weldon Kees's occasional protagonist "Robinson," with titles such as "The Mild Despair of Tremayne," "The Insomnia of Tremayne," and "Tremayne Autumnal." There are elegies, memories, poems on music, and others after Baudelaire, Rilke, and Kafka. A sense of melancholy and nostalgia permeates the volume in titles such as "Nostalgia of the Lakefronts," "Psalm and Lament," and "Villanelle at Sundown," the last a poem seeking to accept aging and the passing of time:

    How frail our generation has got, how sallow
   And pinched with just surviving! We all go off
      the deep end
    Finally, gold beaten thinly out to yellow.
    And why this is, I'll never be able to tell you.

When many a larger name of today has slipped permanently from view, we shall still read Justice, who has produced many fine, enduring poems.

—Jonathan Barker