The Craft of Donald Justice

The Book Club for Poets was so impressed by Ellen Bryant Voigt’s discussion of Donald Justice’s poetry when we discussed her Art of Syntax in January 2013, that we decided to devote our April meeting to Justice’s Collected Poems. And what we learned about the role of Donald Justice in American poetry was also impressive: his career bridges the poets he studied as a young man, such as 0001693847384John Crowe Ransom, to the poetry of his teachers, including John Berryman and Robert Lowell, to his classmates, such as Philip Levine and W. D. Snodgrass, and finally to the many poets who were his students. In the New England Review shortly after Justice died in 2004, C. Dale Young listed some of the poets Justice “helped to develop: Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Ellen Bryant Voigt, James Tate, Jorie Graham, Larry Levis, Tess Gallagher, Brenda Hillman, Rita Dove, Eric Pankey …”

When critics discuss the poetry of Donald Justice, two words always come up: nostalgia and craft. Some of us expressed surprise, at our April meeting, that his poems are so often focused on the past and on loss. Critics like James McCorkel note that behind Justice’s nostalgia lies a powerful desire to recognize, honor, preserve:

In his essay “Meters and Memory,” Justice comments that one motive for art is “to keep memorable what deserves to be remembered”; meters in poetry allow for emotion to be fixed and “called back again and again” … for both the audience and the poet. Justice continues, remarking that “for an audience the meters function in part to call back the words of the poem, so for the poet they may help to call the words forth” … Indeed, it may be argued that Justice’s project fuses poet and audience into a sustained moment of retrieval.

In contrast, Stephen Burt makes this comment about Justice’s Collected Poems: “[The post–World War I] world, its moods, and the properties that match them—repeated words, carefully balanced lines, childhood, retrospect, old south Florida—dominate Justice’s last poems as they did his first.” Burt states, “The absence of any transcendental dimension—the poet’s decision to refuse even hints of religious (or politico-historical) purpose—made nostalgia, bittersweet longing, and recognition of loss almost the only consolations his poems could seek.”

The Book Club had already read “For the Suicides of 1962” and “To the Hawks” in our January meeting—two poems that, I think, do in fact more than hint at “politico-historical” purposes and social issues, to powerful effect. But a question arose in our discussion of this critical response: when is a dominant tone or obsession effective in our own writing—and when do we undercut our ability to reach readers when we focus to a large degree on one kind of emotion?

One thing that critics agree on uniformly is Justice’s mastery of craft. For now I’ll focus on larger issues of structure rather than meter. Justice is especially skillful in using forms that suggest the obsessive quality of memory through repetition—forms like the pantoum, the villanelle, the sestina. Justice can follow such a form closely, but he is also masterful in varying expected patterns of a form. As Phoebe Pettingel puts it, Justice “dazzles us with his dexterity in complex metrical forms … [while] teasing our expectations with half-rhymes and parodies of the baroque, classical and romantic traditions.” One poem that “teases our expectations” is “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts,” a poem that sets up a pattern of repetition and almost immediately and continually varies it. Like a sestina, the poem is built of six stanzas, most of them containing six lines (though two in “Nostalgia” have a seventh line). The poem often uses repetition of end words, sestina-like, though not in a sestina pattern:

Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance,

Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world,
And this is the world we run to from the world.

Or the two worlds come together and are one . . .

This poem reminds me of a quality I discussed in my post about Kay Ryan: how her “recombinant” rhymes suggest a form that feels familiar—even while resisting any traditional form. Justice’s stanzas in “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” are enough like those of a sestina to bring it to mind, but his order of repeated end words is nothing like that of a sestina—though his use of the same words across two stanzas is indeed reminiscent of the stepping-on-one-another’s-heels repetition of the end word in line 6 of one sestina stanza and line 1 of the next. In the stanzas quoted above, for example, “distance” bridges the two stanzas: “Is fading to a landscape deep with distance— / And always the sad piano in the distance, / / Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling.”

Justice continues to vary his patterns in the third stanza, where he uses rhymes rather than repetition in lines 5 and 6: “And the shriek, perhaps, of Kane’s white cockatoo. / (Would this have been summer, 1942?)” In the first line of the fourth stanza, he uses assonance rather than repetition as the link between stanzas: the long oo sound of cockatoo and 1942 recurs in June in “By June the city always seems neurotic.” He also uses rhyme rather than end words later in this stanza, linking lines 4 and 6 rather than in 5 and 6, as he did earlier in the poem:

Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphize the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?

What connects these closing lines to the next stanza is neither repetition nor rhyme but a rephrasing of an idea: “O art and the child were innocent together!” Because we’ve come to expect the ending of one stanza to echo in the first line of the next, we’re more likely to interpret “art” as another way of saying “a love that masquerades as pure technique.” Justice uses a similar connection between the final two stanzas, with both the assonance of time/pine and the similar ideas of history/time acting as the bridge: “Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines. / / And after a time the lakefront disappears.”

This is, finally, a poem about the passing of time—and how art, “a love that masquerades as pure technique,” preserves what time otherwise steals: “the lakefront disappears / Into the stubborn verses of its exiles / Or a few gifted sketches.” Music also spurs the memory in this poem, in the “ghostly tinkling” of the “distant” piano in stanzas two and three, and the “far horn” playing its “lost note,” also in stanza two—and even in the wry hint of “the blues” in the fourth stanza, when the color of the lake is mentioned: “famed among painters for its blues, / Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.” (The Book Club noted how often this kind of subtle punning in Justice’s work both lightens and creates tension with the sense of loss in the poems.)

The poet is just as gifted in the patterning of his free verse. One of my own favorite Justice poems is “On the Night of the Departure by Bus,” which is composed of two stanzas followed by a single-line stanza expressed as a question—and then another two stanzas followed by a second single-line question. (The poem was modeled on a poem of Rafael Alberti, as Walter Martin notes in his essay “Points of Departure.”) The first half of Justice’s poem focuses on a memory of youth and love and passion, and the repetition of words evoke both ardor and humor:

Tell me if you were not happy in those days.
You were not yet twenty-five,
And you had not yet abandoned the guitar.

I swore to you by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
You swore to me by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
The moon swore to us both by your nakedness that you had abandoned yourself completely.

Who would not go on living?

The repetition of “abandoned”—with its different meanings—is especially playful. What follows in the second half of the poem focuses on transformation via art, on departure, on imminent loss, as the future tense of the fourth stanza quickly shifts into the present perfect before the imagery that follows evokes a rapidly deteriorating scene:

The typewriter will be glad to have become the poem,
The guitar to have been your body,
I too have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter.

A passenger has lost his claim-check,
The brunette her barrette,
And I—I think that there are moths eating holes in my pockets,
That my place in line is evaporating,
That the moon is not the moon and the bus is not the bus.

What is the word for goodbye?

The passion is still here, in the extravagance of “I too have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter”—but confusion is swiftly entering the poem, possibly the confusion that comes with advancing age: “I—I think there are moths … in my pockets, / That my place in line is evaporating.” In the final line, the narrator is not even sure of the word necessary for this departure between lovers: “goodbye.”

We ended this Book Club discussion with another writing exercise and a challenge to take home with us: to write a poem of our own that uses some form of refrain or repetition—especially one that we could vary as well as repeat.


Burt, Stephen. “An Unillusioned Life.” Boston Review (February/March 2005).

Justice, Donald. “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts.” In Collected Poems. Knopf, 2006. P. 222.

——. “On the Night of Departure by Bus.” In Collected Poems. Knopf, 2006. P. 138.

Martin, Walter. “Arts of Departure.” In Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Ed. Dana Gioia and William Logan. University of Arkansas Press, 1997. P. 47.

McCorkel, James. “Donald Justice: The Artist Orpheus.” Kenyon Review 19, nos. 3–4 (Summer/Fall 1997): 180–188. ProQuest.

Pettingel, Phoebe. “Salt for the Spirit.” New Leader 87 (2004). ProQuest.

Young, C. Dale. “In Memoriam: Donald Justice.” New England Review 25, no. 3 (2004): 121.
Selected Works for Biographical Information:

“Donald Justice.” Poetry Foundation,

Hoy, Philip. “Donald Justice in Conversation.” Excerpted from Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy (Between the Lines, 2002).

Rosenheim, Andrew. “Donald Justice: Award-Winning Poet Revered by his Peers and Influential to a Wide Range of Younger Writers.” (London) Independent, August 18, 2004, p. 29. ProQuest.
© 2013 Martha Carlson-Bradley


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