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Obituaries

Donald Justice, 78; Pulitzer-Winning 'Ultimate Poet's Poet'

August 16, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

When Dana Gioia, the poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke last week of his friend Donald Justice, he could not avoid reciting some of his favorite Justice poems. That is a common response among poets, a jealous and competitive lot who do not easily offer such tribute to one of their own.

Justice, who was 78 and had pneumonia and Parkinson's disease when he died Aug. 6 in Iowa City, Iowa, was one for whom they made singular exception. He published just a dozen volumes over a four-decade career (his "Collected Poems" will be published this week), but he won nearly every top prize in American poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 and the Bollingen Prize in 1991. He was offered the position of poet laureate by the Library of Congress last year but declined it because of poor health.

Called "the ultimate poet's poet" by Gioia, Justice was revered for spare, elegant writing that displayed an encyclopedic embrace and masterly reinvention of traditional forms, including the sonnet, villanelle and sestina. He also wrote syllabics, couplets, free verse, epigrams, ballads and odes.

His inspirations were similarly diverse, from Baudelaire and Wallace Stevens to blues lyrics and nursery rhymes. This eclecticism produced powerful effects, as in "Counting the Mad," an early poem about madness and despair that owes much to the architecture of a children's ditty, "This Little Piggy":

This one was put in a jacket,

This one was sent home,

This one was given bread and meat

But would eat none,

And this one cried No No No No

All day long.

"He took this cute, little baby's rhyme and filled it with the most horrifying material," said poet and longtime friend Robert Mezey. "If he had written nothing else but 'Counting the Mad' he would be immortal."

His catholic approach was also evident in the fruits of his teaching. An itinerant academic who spent the longest stretches of his career at the University of Iowa and the University of Florida at Gainesville, Justice taught a Who's Who of contemporary American poetry -- Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, James Tate, Mark Strand and Rita Dove -- whose sensibilities run the gamut from traditional to avant-garde. All of the aforementioned have won Pulitzers, "and none read alike," noted poet and critic Mark Jarman, who studied with Justice in the 1970s at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is not alone in calling him the most influential American teacher of poetry in the last half century.

"You went to study with Justice because you recognized that he was superbly talented and had written poems that were unforgettable. And then," Jarman said, "you discovered he was an excellent close reader of poetry who could basically help you discover yourself."

Another student was novelist John Irving, whose characters in the 1981 bestseller "Hotel New Hampshire" frequently spout Justice's "On the Death of Friends in Childhood," six taut lines full of melancholic yearning:

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.

Justice had a lonely childhood, in part because he was an only child and had osteomyelitis, which kept him off the playground for years. Loss became a major theme in his writing, yet his poems are never directly autobiographical, a style he deliberately spurned. One thing that made him cranky in his later years, Jarman said, was confessional poetry.

As a poet, Justice preferred to assume the voices of others, which he said freed him, paradoxically, to make most everything in his poetry personal.

He was a child of the Depression, which figures in several of his pieces, as does Miami, where he was born in 1925, and music, which he studied ardently for years. One of his teachers at the University of Miami, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1945, was the eccentric composer Carl Ruggles. (Justice later earned a master's degree from the University of North Carolina and did graduate work at Stanford before receiving his doctorate, in 1954, from the University of Iowa.)

His piano lessons, for which his parents -- who were not well off -- paid 50 cents a week during the Depression, were a formative experience and the subject of a series of his most memorable poems. He composed poems by saying the lines over and over in his head, a technique that underlaid what critics would later praise as the musicality of his language.

He addressed a few poems to his wife, Jean Ross, a short-story writer he married in 1947, and his son, Nathaniel. They survive him.

Some scholars considered his work too polished, stiff and formal. This may account for his absence from many anthologies, a neglect that distressed admirers like Mezey, the longtime poet-in-residence at Pomona College, who said Justice was "undervalued" during much of his career.

It bothered Justice some that he wasn't better known. Mezey recalled the long silence he endured when he told his friend about another poet's success selling 70,000 copies of a book, nearly unimaginable in a genre where the sale of a few thousand copies is considered good. Yet Justice considered the disappointments part of the poet's game. His simply titled "Poem" may give him the last, wry word on what really mattered:

You neither can nor should understand what it means.

Listen, it comes without guitar,

Neither in rags nor any purple fashion.

And there is nothing in it to comfort you.

Close your eyes, yawn. It will be over soon.

You will forget the poem, but not before

It has forgotten you. And it does not matter.

It has been most beautiful in its erasures.

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