Justice, Donald 1925–2004

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Justice, Donald 1925–2004

(Donald Rodney Justice)


Born August 12, 1925, in Miami, FL; died of pneumonia August 6, 2004, in Iowa City, IA; son of Vascoe J. (a carpenter) and Mary Ethel Justice; married Jean Catherine Ross (a writer), August 22, 1947; children: Nathaniel Ross. Education: University of Miami, FL, B.A., 1945; University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, M.A., 1947; attended Stanford University, 1947-48; University of Iowa, Ph.D., 1954. Hobbies and other interests: Composition in music, drawing, and painting.


University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, instructor, 1947-51; Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, assistant professor of English, 1956-57; University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, lecturer, 1957-60, assistant professor, 1960-63, associate professor, 1963-66, professor of English, 1971-82; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, associate professor, 1966-67, professor of English, 1967-70; University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, professor of English, 1982-92. University of Missouri—Columbia, visiting assistant professor of English, 1955-56; Reed College, poet-in-residence, 1962; University of California—Irvine, visiting professor of English, 1970-71; Princeton University, Bain-Swiggett Lecturer, 1976; University of Virginia, visiting professor, 1980. Selected as U.S. Poet Laureate, U.S. Library of Congress, 2003 (declined for health reasons). Painter, including cover illustrations for books.


American Academy of Arts and Letters, Institute of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets (chancellor, 1997).


Rockefeller Foundation fellow in poetry at University of Iowa, 1954-55; Academy of American Poets Lamont Poetry Selection, 1959, for The Summer Anniversaries, and fellow, 1988; Inez Boulton Prize, 1960, and Harriet Monroe Award, both from Poetry magazine; Ford Foundation fellowship in theater, 1964-65; National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1967, 1973, 1980, and 1989; National Book Award nominations, 1973, for Departures, and 1995, for New and Selected Poems; Guggenheim fellowship in poetry, 1976-77; Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1980, for Selected Poems; Harriet Monroe Award, University of Chicago, 1984; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 1988, for The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1988; Bollingen Prize for poetry, 1991, for A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose; Lannan Literary Award for poetry, 1996; also received awards for short fiction.



The Old Bachelor and Other Poems, 1951.

The Summer Anniversaries, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1960, revised edition, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1981

A Local Storm, Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1963.

Night Light, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1967, revised edition, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1981.

(With Tom McAfee, Donald Drummond, and R.P. Dickey) Four Poets, Central College of Pella (Pella, IA), 1968.

Sixteen Poems, Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1970.

From a Notebook, Seamark Press (Iowa City, IA), 1971.

Departures, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.

Selected Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.

Tremayne, Windhover Press (Iowa City, IA), 1984.

New and Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Poems to Go, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Orpheus Hesitated beside the Black River: Poems, 1952-1997, Anvil Press Poetry (London, England), 1998.

Collected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.


The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1960, 3rd edition, introduction by David Wojahn, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2003.

(With Alexander Aspel) Contemporary French Poetry: Fourteen Witnesses of Man's Fate, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1965.

Syracuse Poems, Department of English, Syracuse University (Syracuse, NY), 1968.

(With Robert Mezey, and coauthor of introduction) The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1990.

(With Cooper R. Mackin and Richard D. Olson, and author of introduction) The Comma after Love: Selected Poems of Raeburn Miller, University of Akron Press (Akron, OH), 1994.

Joe Bolton, The Last Nostalgia: Collected Poems, 1982-1990, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1999.


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

Platonic Scripts (essays), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1984.

The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.

The Death of Lincoln: A Documentary Opera (libretto), A. Thomas Taylor, 1988.

A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1991.

Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, Story Line Press (Ashland, OR), 1998.

Author of librettos and one-act plays. Contributor to books, including On Creative Writing, edited by Paul Engle, Dutton (New York, NY), 1964; New Poets of England and America; Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken; Contemporary American Poetry, edited by A.J. Poulin; The Direction of Poetry, edited by Robert Richman; and Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall. Contributor of essays and short stories to literary journals, including Poetry, Antaeus, New Yorker, and New Criterion. Poetry recordings include Childhood and Other Poems, Watershed, 1983; selections recorded by Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (Washington, DC), 1973, 1992.

A collection of Justice's manuscripts and papers is housed at the University of Delaware Library, Dover.


"Those in a position to appreciate craft" in poetry have long admired the works of Donald Justice, Cathrael Kazin wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983. Justice's first published book, The Summer Anniversaries, was the 1959 Lamont Poetry Selection, while Departures received a National Book Award nomination in 1973, and Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Added Kazin: "Justice has come to be recognized not only as one of America's most elegant and distinctive contemporary poets but also as one of its most significant." Technical prowess "never calls attention to itself in Justice's understated work," claimed Southern Review contributor Dana Gioia. While the poet's presence is implied by his control of form, according to reviewers, Justice uses the poems to efface the self rather than to vaunt it. Because one way of diminishing the self is to relax its control over form, Justice has sometimes used chance methods—such as shuffling word cards together—to compose poems. Thus, wrote Gioia, "Justice has published very little, but he has also distilled a decade of writing and experimentation in each new volume."

Published in 1960, The Summer Anniversaries established Justice's reputation for attention to craft. The book, related Greg Simon in the American Poetry Review, "consists of flawless poems, moving as inexorably as glaciers toward beautiful comprehension and immersion in reality." Night Light, published in 1967, presents poems that "are not so … manicured as those in The Summer Anniversaries," noted Joel O. Conarroe in a Shenandoah review, while in Departures critics praised Justice for a command of poetic technique that surpassed much of his earlier work. "The new Justice poem is no longer a set piece or still life, forced into shape," added Simon in his review of the 1973 volume, "but a vigorous and rhythmical composition, prosody at the limit of its kinetic potential. This remarkable new intention in Justice's work accounts for the fact that the forms of the best poems in Departures are invisible architecture…. It is intoxicating to see Justice now unfettered by the forms that circumscribed and dictated the action in his early poems; and to see him working with sources that are not only naturally energetic and new, but demanding in conception and daring in stance."

In subsequent books Justice has experimented with deliberate mistranslations of poems in other languages, or with methods of composition that combine words at random until they suggest a statement or a form. These methods help the poet to focus more on his materials than on his conscious control over them.

Gioia suggested that no other American poet has perfected as many poetic styles. Justice's 1979 verse collection, Selected Poems, "reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry," Gioia remarked. "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." During the selection process credited in the title, Justice rewrote some poems and gave them a new sequence to make Selected Poems a "nearly perfect volume," according to Gioia. In a Parnassus review, Vernon Young noted: "I doubt if there are six poems in [Selected Poems] which could be claimed for the public sensibility. But Justice has written a dozen lyrics I'd call virtually incomparable."

Autobiography figures little in Justice's work. "The principles of composition … really occupy him, not his own life," explained Yale Review contributor Richard Wertime. For the poet, his art functions as a hedge against death and loss. In his essay "Meters and Memory," reprinted in Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, Justice explains how writing about loss enables him to endure: "To remember an event is almost to begin to control it, as well as to approach an understanding of it; incapable of recurring now, it is only to be contemplated rather than acted on or reacted to…. The terror or beauty or, for that matter, the plain ordinariness of the original event, being transformed, is fixed and thereby made more tolerable. That the event can recur only in its new context, the context of art, shears it of some risks, the chief of which may anyhow have been its transitory character." Submitting his materials to metrical structures is part of this process. Observed Kazin: "In the guise of lamenting a loss, [the poems] perform acts of preservation"; resurrected by memory and ensconced in art, the lost friends of childhood, suicides, and other casualties gain an extended life. Justice succeeds, explained Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review, because "he counters our inevitable human losses with an unforgettable and permanent music."

Piano lessons Justice enjoyed as a child provide the central motif of The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir. In this work Justice closely relates music and poetry through both verse and prose. "On the whole," Bruce Bawer commented in the Washington Post Book World, "The Sunset Maker is a deeply affecting volume—a beautiful, powerful meditation by a modern master upon the themes of aging, lost innocence, and the unalterable, terrifying pastness of the past."

A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose gathers into one volume seventy-three poems and six prose pieces: three essays, two stories, and a memoir of Justice's Miami childhood. Felix Stefanile, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, called this collection "a real gift" since "it is a sign of Donald Justice's clear, retentive mind that so many of these works, assembled over decades—verse and prose—talk to each other." The essay "The Invention of Free Verse" proposes that a commemorative tablet be erected in Crawfordsville, Indiana, at Wabash College, to acknowledge Ezra Pound, and to celebrate the time (1907) and the place (Crawfordsville) of the invention of modern poetry. The collection also includes examples of Justice's poems about time and place, among them "Crossing Kansas by Train." A reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review commented that "Justice certainly deserves the wider audience this selection from his poems and prose … is designed to produce" since he is "revered by other poets as a virtuoso craftsman."

New and Selected Poems, published four years later in 1995, offers another collection of Justice's poetic works. Reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review, Michael Hoffman deemed Justice's writing "skillful and musical," maintaining that Justice "probably has few peers when it comes to the musical arrangement of words in a line." A writer for Publishers Weekly acknowledged the collection as a timeless retrospective on the work of an award-winning poet, and concluded: "Until we see a complete collected works, this is probably the definitive Justice."

Collected Poems, published in 2004, assembles Justice's works from 1948 to the present, as they appeared in collections published from 1960 to 1995. The book also includes "ten graceful pieces written in the last decade," reported Fred Muratori in Library Journal. In these works, Justice's "graceful, down-to-earth poetic voice gently calls our attention to the simplest of things," observed Janet St. John in Booklist. His concern with nostalgia and the past, and with endings and the subsequent new beginnings, are on clear display in this final volume. "Justice's preoccupation with nostalgia—and with the idea of endings—has always been the easiest thing to notice about his poetry, aside from its virtuoso technique," noted David Orr in the New York Times Book Review. Yet Justice recognizes the bittersweet reality that the present cannot travel backward to coexist with and become part of the past. Instead, the past must come forward to assume its rightful position as a complement to and companion of the present; the nostalgia in his work seeks to ease this transition. Justice "doesn't document the past, he calls to it at a distance from behind a latticework of style," Orr observed. His contributions to poetry after World War II "remain considerable, if not, in some instances, arguably canonical," Muratori concluded.

David Yezzi, writing in New Criterion, observed that the "poems that Justice handed down will not easily be forgotten. They compose a body of work that, though inimitable, younger writers would do well to study for its fluent musicality and gently blooming, almost ineffable melancholy." A New Criterion obituary writer called Justice, who died in 2004, a "quiet yet vibrant presence" in poetry, a writer who was "much respected for the excellence of his craft and the elegantly modulated passion of his poems." In assessing Justice's contributions to the world of poetry and literature, Orr commented that his life and career were not "dramatic. He worked on poems; he painted; he studied music; he wrote some criticism. He gave readings and went to conferences. In most ways, Justice was no different from any number of solid, quiet older writers devoted to traditional short poems. But he was different in one important sense: sometimes his poems weren't just good; they were great."



Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 2, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 583-584.

Gioia, Dana, and William Logan, editors, Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1998.

Hoy, Philip, Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy, Between the Lines (London, England), 2001.


American Book Review, April, 1993, review of A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, p. 26; March 1, 2005, Benjamin Ivry, review of Collected Poems, p. 17.

American Poetry Review, March-April, 1976, Greg Simon, "On Donald Justice"; January-February, 1996, Dania Gioia, interview with Donald Justice, p. 37.

Booklist, January 1, 1992, Pat Monaghan, review of A Donald Justice Reader, p. 805; May 15, 1999, Ray Olson, review of The Last Nostalgia: Collected Poems, 1982-1990, p. 1663; August, 2004, Janet St. John, review of Collected Poems, p. 1891.

Books in Canada, January 1, 2003, "Stepping out of Time," review of The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette, p. 36.

Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1992, Felix Stefanile, review of A Donald Justice Reader, p. 13.

Economist, March 13, 1999, reviews of New and Selected Poems, p. S14, and of Orpheus Hesitated beside the Black River: Poems, 1952-1997, p. 14.

Hollins Critic, October, 1992, Lewis Turco, "The Progress of Donald Justice."

Iowa Review, winter, 1999, Jerry Harp, review of Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, p. 167.

Library Journal, December, 1991, review of A Donald Justice Reader, p. 144; September 15, 1995, Rochelle Ratner, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 72; April 1, 1997, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 95; October 1, 2004, Fred Muratori, review of Collected Poems, p. 85.

London Review of Books, November 16, 2006, "Erasures," review of Collected Poems, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1987, Frances Ruhlen McConnel, review of The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir.

New York Review of Books, September 19, 1996, "Getting Things Right," p. 49; February 24, 2005, "The Memory Piano," review of Collected Poems, p. 39.

New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1980, Charles Molesworth, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 8; August 23, 1987, Edward Hirsch, review of The Sunset Maker, p. 20; December 10, 1995, Michael Hoffman, review of New and Selected Poems, pp. 13-14; August 29, 2004, David Orr, "The Ironist of Nostalgia," review of Collected Poems, p. 16.

Notes on Contemporary Literature, November, 1996, James A. McCoy, "‘Black Flowers, Black Flowers:’ Meta-Criticism in Donald Justice's ‘Bus Stop.’"

Ohio Review, spring, 2001, Wayne Dodd and Stanley Plumly, "The Effacement of Self: An Interview with Donald Justice," p. 405.

Parnassus, fall-winter, 1979, Vernon Young, review of Selected Poems, pp. 227-237.

Poetry, July, 1991, Stephen Yenser, review of The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette, p. 214; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of Oblivion, p. 286; November, 2004, David Barber, "The Thin Man," review of Collected Poems, p. 122.

Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 108.

Sewanee Review, spring, 1974, review of Departures, p. 398; winter, 2001, David C. Ward, review of Oblivion, p. 147.

Shenandoah, summer, 1967, Joel O. Conarroe, review of Night Light.

Southern Review, summer, 1981, Dana Gioia, article on Donald Justice; autumn, 1994, Charles Wright, "Homage to the Thin Man."

Times Literary Supplement, July 30, 1999, N.S. Thompson, reviews of Orpheus Hesitated beside the Black River and Oblivion, p. 23.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1992, review of A Donald Justice Reader, p. 101.

Wallace Stevens Journal, fall, 1993, Clive Watkins, "Some Reflections on Donald Justice's Poem ‘After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens.’"

Washington Post Book World, January 3, 1988, Bruce Bawer, review of The Sunset Maker; August 15, 2004, Michael Dirda, review of Collected Poems, p. 15.

Yale Review, summer, 1985, Richard Wertime, review of Platonic Scripts, p. 602.



Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Books in Canada, October 1, 2004, "Donald Justice, 1925-2004."

Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2004, Section 3, p. 11.

Iowa Review, December 22, 2004, "A Garland for Donald Justice."

Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2004, p. B9.

National Review, December 13, 2004, p. 14.

New Criterion, September 1, 2004, "Donald Justice, 1925-2004," p. 3; November 1, 2004, David Yezzi, "The Memory of Donald Justice," p. 21.

New York Times, August 10, 2004, Wolfgang Saxon, "Donald Justice, 78, a Poet Admired for Precise Beauty," p. B8.

Times (London, England), August 19, 2004, p. 37.

Washington Post, August 13, 2004, p. B5.


New York Times Online,http://www.nytimes.com/ (August 10, 2004).