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Critical Review by Robert Rich man
SOURCE: "Intimations of Inadequacy," in Poetry, Vol. CLXII, No. 3, June, 1993, pp. 160-66.
Below, Richman argues that in Justice's poetry form takes precedence over subject matter.
Donald Justice is one of our most reticent poets. He may very well be the most reticent poet of his generation—the generation of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, Adrienne Rich, and the late Howard Nemerov. For Justice is even more sparing in output than the notoriously slow-working and slow-to-publish Hecht. "I'm not all that much for increasing the world's population of poems," Justice once said in an interview. Of his four books of all original material—The Summer Anniversaries (1960), Night Light (1967), Departures (1973), and The Sunset Maker (1987)—two were fifty-two pages or less. (A 137-page Selected Poems, containing seventeen new poems, came out in 1979.) No wonder Justice's 171-page Reader, which has seven previously uncollected poems, is as slender as it is.
Justice has been equally restrained with his prose. This too sets him apart from the poets of his generation, who are, for the most part, a critically garrulous bunch. Justice's lone prose volume, Platonic Scripts (1984), contains six essays, seven interviews, and ten pages of extracts from a notebook. The Reader doesn't exactly ameliorate the situation. The book's prose selections—three essays, two stories, and a memoir of Justice's Miami childhood—are superb, but one yearns for more.
One essay omitted from the Reader is the one on his late friend, Henri Coulette. This essay, which was co-written by Robert Mezey, served as an introduction to the 1990 edition of Coulette's Collected Poems. This omission is unfortunate because Justice and Coulette are kindred spirits. Both poets, as Justice said about himself in a 1970 interview, seek to "displace the self from the poem—not to remove it entirely, but to displace it, in some degree." In Coulette's work, the displaced self gives way to other selves—actors, double agents, and Jews destined for death camps—who speak for the absent poet. In Justice's case, the standbys are writers, mostly poets.
The writers on whom Justice relies, however, seldom speak in monologues, as do the selves in Coulette's poems. Instead, the words Justice borrows are assimilated into poems that seem to be spoken in Justice's voice. His borrowings from César Vallejo, Weldon Kees, Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Catullus, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, and others are openly acknowledged in titles, epigraphs, and notes.
Justice once observed in an interview that when reading Robert Browning, the master of the dramatic monologue, "you know clearly and definitely it's not Browning talking, and the poem is the better for it … [nowadays there is an] unacknowledged confusion of a poet with narrator." Justice continued:
Aren't you surprised how easy it seems to be to assimilate a great multitude and variety of experience which others have spared us the necessity of acquiring for ourselves, and not only to assimilate but to write about…. If you develop … a great affection for Chekhov, say … then you can invent for yourself Chekhovian characters or situations or even borrow passages from things he wrote and treat them as if they were your own, almost your own…. You could feel that way about a hundred others, too, and master their experience as well simply by turning the pages.
Even though Justice abjures dramatic monologues that imaginatively freed poets like Browning and Coulette, the writers' words that Justice "treats as his own" are needed for the same reason: to unchain his imagination. Justice admits his handicap: "neither suffering nor exaltation … leads to poetry, at least not for me," Justice writes in the essay "Bus Stop: Or, Fear and Loneliness on Potrero Hill." Or, as he writes in "Variations on a Text in Vallejo": "When I took out this paper and began to write, / Never before had anything looked so blank, / My life, these words, the paper, the gray Sunday."
None of this is meant to imply that Justice isn't moved by the things of the world. Hardly; but when it comes to consigning those emotions to the page, he often needs the bits and scraps of perfected language to get him going. No doubt there are times when Justice responds without assistance to reality's often paralyzing realm, but if the poems are any proof—"Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees," "Variations on a Theme from James," "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens," "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens" (in which he writes: "Now all quotations from the text apply, / Including the laughter, including the offstage thunder, / Including even this almost human cry")—he'd just as soon rely on books. Much the way Virgil led Dante, Justice likes to be guided, by his many literary betters, through the inferno of the poem.
Justice, who usually writes in meter and rhyme, claims that his main interest in poetry is form. Although subject-matter is not unimportant, it is a secondary consideration. This would make Justice an Old rather than a New Formalist, since poets of the latter camp emphasize subject-matter over form. "Sincerity," he writes in an essay on Baudelaire, "is saying what the form obliges you to say regardless of whether or not you believe it." No wonder, as Justice notes in the same piece, that a poet's "pose" may paradoxically "be sincere." The sincere poet, Justice writes, "becomes a performer, a charlatan, a great pretender; art is artifice. What he has to be sincere about is his art." Justice would agree with Picasso's remark. "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth."
It comes as no surprise to learn that as a young man Justice studied the most abstract of the arts, music. From the beginning Justice has been skeptical of a naively mimetic poetry. The difference between poetry and music, of course, is that music is quite forthright about its inability to reproduce physical reality. Poetry, on the other hand, with its seemingly referential statements and images, suggests a closer relationship to reality than it actually possesses.
Justice likes to remind readers of the distance between poetry and life. One way he does this is to write artificially—to use meters. "Like the odd mustaches and baggy pants of the old comedians," Justice writes in the essay "Meters and Memory," meters "put us on notice that we are at a certain distance from the normal rules and expectations of life." Another way to point out the poem's distance from reality is to divulge its literary origins. One more way to show how far poems are from life is to use imagery that suggests it. Justice isn't above a flagrantly self-reflexive remark, like "the the has become an a" (in "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens"). Usually, though, Justice's poems live a double life—as a commentary on life, and as a commentary on the poem's status as a nettlesome aesthetic object.
One poem that leads this kind of double life is "Children Walking Home from School through Good Neighborhood." It seems, at any rate, that the "good neighborhood" through which the children walk exists not only in the real cities and towns of our experience, but on the page, as well: a tranquil aesthetic "neighborhood" that is even more serene than the one it evokes:
They are like figures held in some glass ball,
One of those in which, when shaken, snowstorms occur;
But this one is not yet shaken.
And they go unaccompanied still,
Out along this walkway between two worlds,
This almost swaying bridge.
October sunlight checkers their path;
It frets their cheeks and bare arms now with shadow
Almost too pure to signify itself.
And they progress slowly, somewhat lingeringly,
Independent, yet moving all together,
Like polyphonic voices that crisscross
In short-lived harmonies.
Today, a few stragglers.
One, a girl, stands there with hands spaced out,
A gesture in a story. Someone's school notebook spills,
And they bend down to gather up the loose pages.
(Bright sweaters knotted at the waist; solemn expressions.)
Not that they would shrink or hold back from what may come,
For now they all at once run to meet it, a little swirl of colors,
Like the leaves already blazing and falling farther north.
This poem is the last word in formal polish and grace, but how well does its image of quiet tranquility reflect reality? Not all mat well, at least not in Justice's view. Hence his wish to self-reflexively question the mimetic accuracy of an image that appears to be a by-product of the search for formal perfection. The questioning starts with the first line's held, which here means, not just borne, but imprisoned; aptly, for what is being held hostage in the poem's beautiful but inanimate prison is a group of living children. It would appear, at any rate, that the first stage of this poem's composition involved formally following through the initial motivation or spark, and the second stage involved disavowing the posing-as-real images that the heedless aesthetic imagination had wrought.
Not all of the poem's self-reflexive images are so critical of the poem's mimetic claims. For instance, the lines, "And they go unaccompanied still, / Out along this walkway between two worlds," appear to suggest that the children move, not only between the "two worlds" of childhood and adulthood, but between the "two worlds" of art and life, as well. Also not overtly critical are the lines, "Independent, yet moving all together, / Like polyphonic voices that crisscross / In short-lived harmonies," which could conceivably describe both the children and the lines of the poem. Also uncritical is the image of the girl whose movement is described as "a gesture in a story." (Her gesture exists in two stories: Justice's and hers.) Although none of these images casts a shadow on the poem's ability to reflect reality the way held does, they do remind us that poetry is as much on Justice's mind as reality.
Also curious is the image of the snowstorm that doesn't occur because the glass ball "is not yet shaken." This seems to suggest that it is wrong to grant the reality's "storms," especially its emotional storms, access into the poem. For allowing these "storms" into posing-as-real poems diminishes and dilutes them. "First Death," a poem about the death of the poet's grandmother, is stripped of strong emotions, one senses, because Justice doesn't want them taking part in the counterfeit life of the poem. It is this counterfeit life that Justice wants to keep us apprised of by means of the self-reflexive images.
Once one knows to keep an eye out for them, Justice's self-reflexive cues pop up everywhere. When he writes, in "Sonnet to My Father," that he is "leaving this likeness only in [his dead father's] place," it is unclear whether "likeness" refers to the poet or to the poem. And in "Poem," Justice writes that the poem in question is "not sad, really, only empty." And in the first section of "American Scenes (1904–1905)" (which Justice tells us is culled from James's Notebooks), the poet writes: "Each fanlight, each veranda, each good address, / All a mere paint and pasteboard paltriness!" These self-reflexive images are much like the admissions of borrowings in other poems: intimations of inadequacy that this intensely conscientious poet must impart.
In "Thinking about the Past," the poet chides himself for attempting to preserve those moments of the past that will, as he writes, "never change, nor stop being." For to seize the past in verse reduces its vanished abundance to words, all "fixed into place now," as Justice writes, "all rhyming with each other":
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—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
That red-haired girl with the wide mouth—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands,
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery's, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvellous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton …
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs …
In "Cinema and Ballad of the Great Depression," meanwhile, Justice likens the economic indignity of men with the indignity of having been transformed into a lifeless aesthetic object: "We had become a line somehow," gripes the poem's speaker.
In "Mrs. Snow," however, the memory is vivid, the poetic rendering doesn't vex Justice all that much, and the poem is free of self-reflexive omens:
Busts of the great composers glimmered in niches,
Pale stars. Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her,
Counting the time out in that hushed falsetto?
(How early we begin to grasp what kitsch is!)
But when she loomed above us like an alp,
We little towns below could feel her shadow.
Somehow her nods of approval seemed to matter
More than the stray flakes drifting from her scalp.
Her etchings of ruins, her mass-production Mings
Were our first culture: she put us in awe of things.
And once, with her help, I composed a waltz,
Too innocent to be completely false,
Perhaps, but full of marvellous clichés.
She beamed and softened then.
Ah, those were the days.
But just as often the past is fading from view, not coming into focus.
And yet, as alert as Justice is to the representational failings of poetry, and as much as this reticent poet seems to flirt at times with total silence, he never quite washes his hands of poetry. One reason, certainly, as he himself has suggested, is the many formal rewards of verse. It could be argued, in fact, that each poem is a kind of hopeful formal rejoinder to the painful knowledge, expressed in the content, of its many representational shortcomings:
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
ON THE DEATH OF FRIENDS IN CHILDHOOD
But beyond the strictly formal excellence of Justice's work, there is the added marvel of one poet's unrelenting honesty about the boundaries and limitations of art. Donald Justice is one of our finest poets.
This section contains 2,347 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)