Donald Justice

1925–2004
Donald Justice

One of the twentieth century’s most quietly influential poets, Donald Justice was a master of poetic form and technique, as well as a masterful teacher of poetry. Long associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Justice helped guide a generation of poets through their earliest work, including Rita Dove, Mark Strand and Charles Wright. His own verse was noted for its formal control, depth of insight, and limpid, elegiac lines. However, technical prowess "never calls attention to itself in Justice's understated work," claimed Dana Gioia in the Southern Review, nor was Justice ever considered a “confessional” poet, often using his poems to efface the self rather than vaunt it. Though his early and late styles use more traditional meters, his overall career denies easy categorization. Comfortable in free verse as well as forms like the sestina, villanelle and sonnet, Justice was equally at ease with more experimental modes. Dana Gioia described Justice as a “serious experimentalist,” one who “discarded traditional form but also, eventually, conventional notions of genre, sequential exposition, originality, and even authorial control.” Working within the confines of the short poem, Justice explored the possibilities of formal, free and experimental poetry throughout his long career.

A noted prose writer, Justice’s small but significant oeuvre of poetry and prose worked through life-long obsessions with themes like memory, loss and chance. Known as a “poet’s poet,” Justice won many of American poetry’s most prestigious awards including the Lamont Poetry Prize for his fist volume The Summer Anniversaries (1960), the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems (1979) and the Bollingen Prize in 1991.

Justice was born in Miami, Florida in 1925. Musical as a child, he studied piano and music under the composer Carl Ruggles as a student at the University of Miami, though he ultimately graduated with a degree in English literature. Justice pursued graduate work at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he met his wife the writer Jean Ross, Stanford University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Befriending poets such as John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro, Justice soon followed his first critically acclaimed volume with another, Night Light (1967). Comprised of an astonishing variety of forms, the book nonetheless represents a loosening of the constraints that bound Justice’s first book. Departures (1973), was likewise praised showcasing Justice’s new command of poetic technique. "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 . . . 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."

Gioia suggested that no other American poet has perfected as many poetic styles. Justice's 1979 Selected Poems "reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry," Gioia noted. "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." Justice’s experimental verve sustained his work throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He experimented with deliberate mistranslations of poems in other languages, for example, 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; Justice himself saw such "chance" methods as "in its way, a formal approach," one which allowed him "to see images a little differently." Paul Ramsey, writing in the Sewanee Review, commented that Justice's poems composed in this way are prone "to fragmentation…[yet] his fragments sound completed…His gift for order is an irresistible gift."

A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (1991) gathers into one volume seventy-three poems and six prose pieces: three essays, two stories, and a memoir of Justice's Miami childhood. Though slim, the volume contains much substantial work. Accounting for the length, Dana Gioia, in the New Criterion, noted that Justice “writes on such a consistently high level that he makes every poem, story, or essay matter.” Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, 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." New and Selected Poems (1995), offers another collection of Justice's poems. Michael Hoffman, in the New York Times Book Review, deemed Justice's writing "skillful and musical" and maintained that Justice "probably has few peers when it comes to the musical arrangement of words in a line." Unfortunately, Justice never lived to see the collected edition of his work. The definitive Collected Poems of Donald Justice was published just days after his death at age seventy eight, in 2004. Reviewing the book for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda declared that the volume showed Justice as “a deeply accomplished poet, without pretension or histrionic gesture, yet absolutely in command, able to bend syntax to his will or make us pause in wonder at the quiet rightness of a simile.” The book was greeted by poets and critics alike as an important addition to the landscape of twentieth-century American verse.

In addition to poetry and occasional short prose memoirs, Justice wrote criticism, essays and an opera libretto, The Death of Lincoln (1988). He was also largely responsible for the renewed interest in neglected poets Henri Coulette and Weldon Kees, editing editions of both poets’ work. His dedication to “craft, concentration, and precision” is seen throughout his written work; it was also an important feature of his career as a teacher. A professor at the University of Iowa, Syracruse University, Princeton University, Justice taught for ten years at the University of Florida-Gainesville. Jorie Graham, a former student, remarked on her teacher at Iowa that under his gaze one “felt seen-through, small, inept, hopelessly unequal to the task.  It felt great.  It made the task hard enough.  Nothing you ever brought in for his scrutiny could possibly hold up, or be surprising, or clear enough.  He knew — because in less than ten words he could fashion a question that would blow your knot of words open like thistledown.”

Career

Educator, poet, and painter. University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, instructor, 1947-48, 1949-51; University of Missouri—Columbia, visiting assistant professor of English, 1955-56; Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, assistant professor of English, 1956-57; University of Iowa, Iowa City, visiting lecturer, 1957-59, assistant professor, 1959-63, associate professor, 1963-66, professor of English, 1971-82; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, associate professor, 1966-67, professor of English, 1967-70; University of California—Irvine, visiting professor of English, 1970-71; University of Florida, Gainesville, professor of English, 1982-92. Reed College, poet-in-residence, 1962; Princeton University, Bain-Swiggett Lecturer, 1976; University of Virginia, visiting professor, 1980. Painter, including cover illustrations for books.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • The Old Bachelor and Other Poems, Pandanus Press (Miami, FL), 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, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
EDITOR
  • The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1960, revised edition, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1992.
  • (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.
OTHER
  • (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 is housed at the University of Delaware Library, Dover.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • 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.

PERIODICALS

  • American Book Review, January, 1982; April-May, 1993, p. 26.
  • American Poetry Review, March-April, 1976, Greg Simon, "On Donald Justice"; May, 1988, p. 9; January-February, 1996, interview with Dana Gioia.
  • Antaeus, spring-summer, 1982.
  • Antioch Review, winter, 1988, p. 102; summer, 1996, p. 377.
  • Booklist, January 1, 1992, p. 805; September 15, 1995, p. 132.
  • Boston Review, June, 1987, p. 27.
  • Choice, February, 1985, p. 815.
  • Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1992, Felix Stefanile, review of A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose, p. 13.
  • Economist, March 13, 1999, review of New and Selected Poems, p. S14.
  • Hollins Critic, October, 1992, Lewis Turco, "The Progress of Donald Justice."
  • Hudson Review, spring, 1974.
  • Iowa Review, spring-summer, 1980, pp. 1-21; winter, 1999, Jerry Harp, review of Oblivion: On Writers and Writing, p. 167.
  • Library Journal, February 1, 1967; May 1, 1987, p. 71; December, 1991, p. 144; September 15, 1995, p. 72; April 1, 1997, p. 95.
  • Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1987, Frances Ruhlen McConnel, review of The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir.
  • Missouri Review, fall, 1980, pp. 41-67.
  • Modern Language Studies, winter, 1978-79.
  • Modern Poetry Studies, spring, 1980, pp. 44-58.
  • Nation, December 26, 1987, p. 803.
  • New Statesman, August 22, 1980, pp. 17-18; August 23, 1987, p. 28.
  • New York Herald Tribune Books, September 4, 1960.
  • New York Review of Books, October 16, 1975.
  • New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1961; March 9, 1980, pp. 8, 16; August 23, 1987, p. 20; December 27, 1992, p. 2; December 10, 1995, Michael Hoffman, review of New and Selected Poems, pp. 13-14; September 19, 1996, p. 49.
  • 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.
  • Paris Review, March, 1988, p. 490.
  • Parnassus, fall-winter, 1979, Vernon Young, review of Selected Poems, pp. 227-237.
  • Partisan Review, Volume 47, number 4, 1980, pp. 639-644.
  • Perspective, spring, 1962.
  • Poetry, October, 1974; October, 1984; September, 1989, p. 342; June, 1993, pp. 160-166; June, 1994, pp. 167-171; June, 1996, p. 168; June, 1996, p. 168; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of Oblivion, p. 286.
  • Prairie Schooner, Volume 47, 1973.
  • Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 108.
  • Punch, January 15, 1988, p. 44.
  • Saturday Review, October 14, 1967, pp. 31-33, 99.
  • Sewanee Review, spring, 1974; summer, 1980, pp. 474-478; fall, 1980; winter, 2001, David C. Ward, review of Oblivion, p. 147.
  • Shenandoah, summer, 1967, Joel O. Conarroe, review of Night Light.
  • Southern Review, summer, 1981; autumn, 1994, Charles Wright, "Homage to the Thin Man."
  • Southwest Review, spring, 1980, pp. 218-220.
  • Times Literary Supplement, May 18, 1967; March 29, 1974; April 16, 1976; May 30, 1980, p. 620; April 15-21, 1988, p. 420; July 30, 1999, N. S. Thompson, reviews of Orpheus Hesitated beside the Black River: Poems, 1952-1957 and Oblivion, p. 23.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 21, 1987, p. 3.
  • Verse, winter-spring, 1992.
  • 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, February 10, 1980, p. 11; January 3, 1988, Bruce Bawer, review of The Sunset Maker.
  • Western Humanities Review, summer, 1974.
  • Yale Review, June, 1960, pp. 589-598; summer, 1985, Richard Wertime, review of Platonic Scripts, p. 602; autumn, 1987, p. 124; spring, 1988.

OBITUARIES: ONLINE

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

OBITUARIES: PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2004, section 3, p. 11.
  • Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2004, p. B9.
  • New York Times, August 10, 2004, p. C15.
  • Times (London, England), August 19, 2004, p. 37.
  • Washington Post, August 13, 2004, p. B5.

"

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Audio & Podcasts

Poetry Off the Shelf

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

LIFE SPAN 1925–2004

Donald Justice

Biography

One of the twentieth century’s most quietly influential poets, Donald Justice was a master of poetic form and technique, as well as a masterful teacher of poetry. Long associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Justice helped guide a generation of poets through their earliest work, including Rita Dove, Mark Strand and Charles Wright. His own verse was noted for its formal control, depth of insight, and limpid, elegiac lines. . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.