Justice, Donald Rodney

views updated

Justice, Donald Rodney

(b. 12 August 1925 in Miami, Florida; d. 6 August 2004 in Iowa City, Iowa), notable poet, playwright, and professor who won a Pulitzer Prize as well as other prizes for a combination of formal and experimental poetry.

Justice was only child of Vascoe Justice, an itinerant carpenter, and Mary Ethel (Cook) Justice. He suffered from osteomyelitis in elementary school, and in the poem “The Summer Anniversaries” he describes being wheeled at age ten “superb in a chair / Past vacant lots in bloom / With goldenrod and with broom, / In secret proud of the scar / Dividing me from life....” Justice took piano lessons from an early age and wrote poems describing several of his music teachers, most notably Mrs. Snow, who “loomed above us like an alp.”

Justice entered Andrew Jackson High School in Miami in the fall of 1936, and in the fall of 1941 he entered Miami Senior High School, graduating the following spring. He then studied musical composition with Carl Ruggles at the University of Miami, graduating with a BA in English in 1945. Afterwards he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning an MA in English in 1947, as well as Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the University of North Carolina he met Jean Ross in a Chaucer class, and they married on 22 August 1947. The couple had one child. After receiving a PhD from Iowa in 1954, Justice taught at several colleges, including Syracuse, Iowa, and the University of Florida, from which he retired in 1992. An accomplished musician and painter (see his paintings on the covers of New and Selected Poems and Collected Poems), he focused on writing and teaching poetry.

Justice’s first book of poems, The Summer Anniversaries (1960), won the 1959 Lamont Award. Further books were Night Light (1967); Departures (1973), nominated for the National Book Award; and Selected Poems (1979), for which Justice won the Pulitzer Prize. These were followed by The Sunset Maker (1987), which included poems, short stories, and a memoir; A Donald Justice Reader (1991); New and Selected Poems (1995); and Collected Poems (2004), nominated for the National Book Award. Justice was an active member of the Academy of American Poets.

Justice also wrote several plays, most notably The Whole World Knows (1977), based on a short story from The Golden Apples (1949) by Eudora Welty. He also translated and edited French poetry and the poems of Weldon Kees (1960; revised edition 1975) and had two of his opera librettos performed. The Young God: A Vaudeville (1969), with music by Edward Miller, is less known than Death of Lincoln (1988), with music by Edwin London. For the latter Justice closely researched John Wilkes Booth’s letters and diaries as well as Abraham Lincoln’s memoirs. The composer London persuaded Justice to use rhyme and meter to distinguish recitative from arias. Friends in all these different genres noted that Justice excelled at ping pong, pinball, and poker, taking breaks from writing and teaching.

Justice excelled at a variety of traditional and experimental forms of poetry, particularly enjoying the sestina and repetitive forms. In the 1960s he began to write syllabics and free verse; his endnotes to his books give credit to earlier sources and clarify allusions, frequently to contemporary writers. Recognized as one of the finest American poets of the twentieth century, Justice received many awards in poetry, including grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He received the Bolingen Award in 1991, and illness made him decline the poet laureate nomination in 2003.

A major content area of Justice’s work is nostalgia, memory, and history, especially the South of the Great Depression. “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” describes summers by the lake before World War II. Justice’s poems are notably understated, not sentimental, with deeply controlled feeling. Mark Jarman analyzes the technical magic in a poem like “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents,” in which “the refrain, ‘The dead don’t get around much anymore,’ is broken at different places to serve different rhymes.” Jarman calls happiness “the aesthetic choice” of Justice and notes that Justice was “one of our most experimental poets... comfortable in all sorts of modes of poetry.” David Yezzi comments on the “fluent musicality and gently blooming, almost ineffable melancholy” of Justice’s poetry and explains that Justice’s innovations with repetitive forms correlate with his fascination with memory. He further observes that the genius of Justice’s poems “often lies in the way that they distill the trappings of memory to their most resonant and musical components,” this music becoming a mnemonic device.

Avoiding the confessional mode prevalent in the mid-twentieth century, Justice said he rarely wrote about himself: “I’ve always felt it was an author’s privilege to leave himself out if he chose.” One rare exception to this rule was “The Thin Man,” its title taken from a nickname for Justice used by his wife and other friends in graduate school. Justice commented that he wrote this in response to a friend’s poem about how good it was to be fat—in Justice’s words, “an outward sign of an inward state that embraced the world, enjoyed all the pleasures available, and could indulge in all of the wonders of life.”

Justice died of pneumonia following a stroke, one week before the official publication of Collected Poems. In reviewing that volume, David Barber notes that Justice was “a poet of precociously autumnal formal feeling, a natural-born savant of the subjunctive mood.” Justice is buried in Iowa City. In 2005 West Chester University of Pennsylvania established the Donald Justice Poetry Award, within the domain of the Iris N. Spencer Poetry Awards.

According to Dana Gioia, Justice’s “poetic signature remains constant—clarity of expression, relentless economy of means, self-conscious formal design, unpretentious intelligence, and quiet but memorable musicality.” Justice remarked that “one motive for much, if not all, art is... to keep memorable what deserves to be remembered.” His poetry will long be remembered for its power and gentleness, its ironic view of nostalgia, and its use of near-rhyme, half-rhyme, and identical rhyme in a variety of forms ranging from villanelle, sonnet, and sestina to syllabics and free verse. His poems carry the musicality and visual images of his musical compositions and paintings. The last poem in his Collected Poems begins, “There is a gold light in certain old paintings / That represents a diffusion of sunlight. / It is like happiness, when we are happy.”

Justice’s papers are in the Special Collections Department of the University of Delaware. An excellent first resource for scholars and general readers is Dana Gioia and William Logan, eds., Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice (1997). Another complete source is Philip Hoy, Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy (2001). Several good articles are Andrew Hudgins, “Homage: Donald Justice,” The Southern Review 38.3 (Summer 2002): 654; David Barber, “The Thin Man,” Poetry 185, no. 2 (Nov. 2004): 122–130; David Yezzi, “The Memory of Donald Justice,” The New Criterion 23, no. 3 (Nov. 2004) 21-25; and Mark Jarman, “Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice,” which was originally presented in a panel on Justice’s poetry at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2001 and reappears in Blackbird Archive, an online journal of literature and the arts (Fall 2002): http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v3n1. An obituary is in the Miami Herald (8 Aug. 2004).

Dessa Crawford