blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice

It may sound peculiar if not perverse to insist that happiness is part of Donald Justice's aesthetics, when anyone who knows his poetry recognizes that its prevailing mood is sadness; indeed, "Sadness" is the title of one of his recent poems, and it includes the line, "Sadness has its own beauty, of course," which could be taken as a statement of aesthetics more readily than the earlier line, "What is it to be happy, after all?" But I am referring not only to a mood, even though I do believe the feeling of happiness, especially remembered happiness, is one Justice does seek to create or recreate in his poems. To quote W. H. Auden at the end of "Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno": "though one cannot always / Remember exactly why one has been happy, / There is no forgetting that one was." That is a feeling encountered so often in the poetry of Donald Justice that I wish to call it an aesthetic choice. But I am also referring to the happiness of chance discovery created by formal experiment, for it should come as no surprise that Donald Justice is one of our most experimental poets, and his testing and proving of formal devices have varied widely over the years. The end of each, I think, is pleasure. The pleasure each affords is happiness. The aesthetic exemplified by his work would, I think, be best expressed as the beauty of happiness and happy chance.

In his first book, The Summer Anniversaries, he took on traditional forms like the sonnet, the sestina, and the villanelle, and for each, particularly the sestina and the villanelle, enlivened the forms through variations. A sestina might drop its envoy, a villanelle might become even more demanding in an abbreviated form. Verse itself was a heuristic game, as it probably always should be, so that in a poem like "In Bertram's Garden," one realizes that most of the possibilities of the tetrameter line have been explored, and all of them beautifully.

Soon the purple dark must bruise
Lily and bleeding heart and rose,
And the little Cupid lose
Eyes and ears and chin and nose,
And Jane lie down with others soon
Naked to the naked moon.

"In Bertram's Garden"

This sort of formal interest is always present in a poem by Donald Justice, at any stage of his career; part of the pleasure of reading him is in discovering what he is doing and finding out what he has discovered by doing it. For example, "The Wall," the famous sonnet he wrote for John Berryman's class at Iowa, has always seemed to me like an attempt to write Paradise Lost in fourteen lines.

The wall surrounding them they never saw;
The angels, often. Angels were as common
As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.
As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.

"The Wall"

Yet it is also an Italian sonnet that apparently disguises its turn in the fall itself ("As for the fruit, it had no taste at all."). I have heard that Berryman was impressed by the caesura in line two ("The angels, often."). But among the many happy chances of the poem I would include the way the rhymes tell the story, and the way our original happiness, now lost, is memorialized in angels that were as "common as birds or butterflies" whose awesome wings remain "furled."

The first book of Donald Justice's I read was his second, Night Light, which I found some five years after its publication in a secondhand bookshop in Santa Cruz, California, where I was in college. The formal variety of the book is greater than that of The Summer Anniversaries, and so my first impression of the poet was of one, like Theodore Roethke, who was comfortable in all sorts of modes of poetry. Of course, I think this remains the case. And I am even tempted to say that diversity is an essential characteristic of Justice's poetry: to echo the recent cant phrase, the work of Donald Justice looks like America. Still, the range of kinds of verse in Night Light was the first thing that captured my attention. It was a book that said, "Here's how it's done," whether that "it" were traditional verse, syllabics, free verse, or—let's not forget—the prose poem, a form with which the book begins and ends.

If I am right that happy discovery is an essential part of Justice's aesthetics, then each of his poems seems to be a new way of finding lyricism, of making the music of poetry. I would compare Justice to John Cage, if Cage himself had more often pursued symmetry and had been more drawn to tradition. I think there is in Justice a willingness to discover an old music in a new anatomy. In his essay "Bus Stop: Or, Fear and Loneliness on Potrero Hill," Justice describes how writing a short syllabic line of an even number of syllables resulted in a rhythm that can be heard as accentual syllabic as well as syllabic.

Lights are burning
In quiet rooms
Where lives go on
Resembling ours.

The quiet lives
That follow us—
These lives we lead
But do not own—

Stand in the rain
So quietly
When we are gone,
So quietly . . .

"Bus Stop"

He calls this a very technical matter in the essay and "not awfully important." In reference to the pattern of rhyme and repetition in the poem "Bus Stop," he says, "The rule I set for myself in this was simple and indulgent. I would repeat whatever I wanted to, anything from a single word to a whole line, and at any time." It is that setting of a rule for himself that reminds me of Cage, and I think it is important. In "Bus Stop," one can hear the assignment the poet has given or discovered for himself. For the reader it is the kind of discovery that can instill happiness, even though the situation the poem recalls is anything but happy.

A note at the end of Justice's 1973 book Departures indicates that some of the poems in it came "in part, from chance methods." I have heard Justice describe one of these methods, an ingenious system of quotation and transformation of lines from other poems, but I don't believe he's ever described the system in print and I am not confident enough of my memory to report what I heard accurately. It is enough for me here to acknowledge that chance methods have been important to Justice. My argument is that his aesthetics include a belief that these methods inhere in formal poetic structures of all kinds, with their unique demands, and allow those happy chances to occur in which beauty is revealed and memorable poetry written.

One of the poems in Departures that he lists as having its origin in chance is "The Assassination." I have no idea which chance methods gave rise to this haunting poem, but I can tell at least one rule the poet made for himself, which was to use the word "it" in a way that would be both lucid and ambiguous. We know "it" refers to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, but the physical properties of the word vary from sentence to sentence.

Now it bursts. Now it has been announced.
Now it is being soaked up by newspapers.
Now it is running through the streets.
The crowd has it. The woman selling carnations
And the man in the straw hat stand with it in their shoes.

"The Assassination"

As he does in so many of his poems he gives us a lesson; here it is how to employ this tricky pronoun.

I'm going to interject a personal note here which may seem irrelevant. The date that accompanies this poem, June 5, 1968, is of course the date R.F.K. was shot, at 12:15 a.m. in a food service pantry as he left the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after winning the California primary for the Democratic nomination for President. It is also the date of my sixteenth birthday. Everyone has a fascination with the date of his or her birth, I know. I remember that I spent my sixteenth birthday wondering if Kennedy would survive his wounds. The date, which Justice has affixed to the poem, reminds me of that birthday every time I read it. Nothing but a chance coincidence, but for me part of the poem's aesthetic value.

Another poem from Departures, "On the Night of the Departure by Bus," begins, "Tell me if you were not happy in those days." It is a poem that Justice has chosen not to include in his subsequent volumes of selected poems. I mention it simply because of my other claim about his aesthetics, which I don't think I'm doing a very good job of finding examples for. I recommend the poem, however, because it captures entirely a moment of happiness before it was lost, and asks, "Who would not go on living?"

The Sunset Maker is a turn toward fiction and memoir, and includes examples of both in prose. It is a book of characters, partly because it is a book of elegies. Along with the portraits of his piano teachers, himself as a boy, and his adult persona, Tremayne, there are elegies for friends and for his mother. Formally, the evocation of character brings its own demands, especially when the character is not a fiction. Otherwise, the same technical magic as in previous poems is at work and can be identified in a poem like "Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents" in which the refrain, "The dead don't get around much anymore," is broken at different places to serve different rhymes. Rhyming is also crucial in the wonderful sonnet for his piano teacher "Mrs. Snow." There I have heard Justice admit that his aim was to come up with as many bad rhymes as possible, and he certainly succeeds, for example, with "niches / kitsch is," "alp / scalp," and "Mings / things." But it is the poem "Psalm and Lament," for his mother, that shows one of the keenest acts of discovery, for in employing the statement and reiteration form of the psalm, Justice reveals both the intensity of feeling meant to be conveyed by a psalm's repetition and the potential bleak monotony of repetition itself.

The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.

And the grass burns terribly in the sun,
The grass turns yellow secretly at the roots.

Now suddenly the yard chairs look empty, the sky looks empty,
The sky looks vast and empty.

Out on Red Road the traffic continues; everything continues.
Nor does memory sleep; it goes on.

Out spring the butterflies of recollection
And I think that for the first time I understand

The beautiful ordinary light of this patio
And even perhaps the dark rich earth of a heart.

"Psalm and Lament"

Great sorrow exists side by side with a clear understanding of happiness. "Let summer come now with its schoolboy trumpets and fountains," he writes. "But the years are gone, the years are finally over."

Justice's Selected Poems, published in 1979, showed revision to be part of his aesthetic, and I think I can relate revision to the happiness of chance, for it is based on the belief that one can always have another go and find another outcome. Revision means looking again, but it implies seeing anew. His poem "Poem," from Departures, states the aesthetics of revision most pointedly, for the poem "has been most beautiful in its erasures." This, however, brings up the matter of exclusion. Justice has seen fit to exclude poems from his previous books in his Selected and his New and Selected, and for reasons that are not always clear. But their exclusion is an invitation to hunt for editions of The Summer Anniversaries, Night Light, Departures, and The Sunset Maker, all available, happily, on at least one internet used book site.

Having held forth on what I perceive to be part of Justice's aesthetics, I know that I sound as if I have a theory about how he works. But I also have his admonishing voice in mind, from an interview reprinted in Platonic Scripts. He says, "Poetry comes from anywhere . . . and as far as I'm concerned, there should be no hierarchy of values in the consideration of this. What matters is the result, not the source, the origin, or the theory." Indeed, but one can't help but speculate, especially when asked to talk about Donald Justice's aesthetics. I still believe that Justice places a value, an aesthetic value, on happiness and on happy chance. As a final example, I would point to his moving and masterful experiment with narrative, "Ralph: A Love Story." The poem discovers itself in the shape of Ralph's life, and it gains its emotional charge as it shows how that life recedes from its period of greatest happiness. As readers we are permitted to begin that life over and over again, returning to Ralph's romance with Margot in his projectionist's booth and following along as Ralph lives his life, realizing that romance was its only significant event. The aesthetic which produces such a poem reflects a belief that art is meant to remind us of the happiness we have lost.  

"Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice" was originally part of a panel discussion on the poetry of Donald Justice held at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in the summer of 2001.

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