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Sunday, August 29, 2004

Memories of Donald Justice, 1925-2004 

On vacation as I am in the poorest county in New York state (that would be Franklin County, the sort of place that lobbies to get a new prison, rather than keep it out), I sometimes don’t get my mitts on the Sunday New York Times until late in the day. So it was today, which is why I only just read this review of Donald Justice’s Collected Poems. I was sorry to learn that Donald Justice, the American poet, died on August 6.

To the author of the review and to many other learned fans of American poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize committee, Donald Justice was in fact a great poet. If you enjoy reading literary criticism – and I learned back in college that I do not – there has been and will be more than enough written about Donald Justice to satisfy your academic curiosity. To me, though, he was “Mr. Justice,” the father of one of my good friends from Iowa City’s Southeast Junior High School, and therefore one of the many non-parental adults that exerted some measure of influence over me when I was growing up. Not surprisingly, I know some things about Donald Justice that you are unlikely to read in the New York Times Review of Books or the many obituaries that I now realize have been published in the last three weeks.

Donald Justice was definitely the coolest father among the fathers of my friends. Admittedly, this was not a terrifically high hurdle, but I thought it was extremely cool that he would hint at -- without confessing to -- slightly scandalous indulgences of the sort that you might expect from a poet in a college town in the 1970s.

His politics back in the day were left of center, but he was again cool enough to smile at political reaction even in his own house. When his then tweenish son Nat objected strenuously to the “I’m for McGovern” sign that the Justices put up in their front yard, they indulgently took the sign down (at least according to Nat). When that same son went on with his friends to become an activist for the local Republican party (a profound act of teenage rebellion in Iowa City), the Justices certainly seemed to be amused by the whole thing, even if they wondered in their quiet moments how they might have gone wrong. (I wonder in passing whether Bush-hating parents of my generation would react so graciously to their teenagers chanting “Double your Dubya,” but perhaps teenagers do not today rebel through politics.)

Unusual perhaps for great poets, Donald Justice loved ping-pong. In fact, he engaged my mother, then a real estate broker in Iowa City, to find him a new house with a room large enough to accommodate serious table tennis. She did, I believe, and once the Justices moved we played an awful lot of ping-pong.

Donald Justice was also generous, and on one occasion helped me to one of my early and most memorable academic triumphs. When I was fifteen I went off to boarding school, where I was for the first time really challenged in my schoolwork. For one early English assignment we had to choose a poem and write a critical paper. Most of the class picked poems of famous dead poets, but I knew that “Mr. Justice” had just won a Pulitzer Prize. How fun to write about a poem written by somebody I knew! So I grabbed one of his collections from the Lawrenceville School library and picked out a poem I liked and wrote my paper, which I duly handed in. The poem was “After a phrase abandoned by Wallace Stevens.”

For some reason it occurred to me to write Donald Justice a letter and ask him what he had been thinking when he wrote the poem, and he responded almost immediately with three single-spaced pages of details, images, and thoughts about Wallace Stevens, who had exerted a great influence on Justice (this last point is well-recognized by those who have studied Justice’s work). When I reported all this to my teacher, he made me read the poem, my paper, and Justice’s letter aloud to the class, after which he led the class in a specific dissection of the many ways in which my paper diverged from what Justice had written in his letter. I had hit enough of the points, though, and was so excited at having been taken seriously by a real poet that I become quite interested in poetry for a while, losing interest only after exposure to real academic literary criticism in college. In any case, to this day I remember reading my paper and Donald Justice’s letter aloud to the class, genuinely interested in a serious poem for the first time in my life.

May he rest in peace.

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