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Collected Poems by Donald Justice

Collected Poems (2004)

by Donald Justice

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Hot damn, what a fantastic collection of poetry.

The best of Justice seems to come at the beginning and the end of this collection. I wish I could describe what sets his good poems apart from his forgettable ones, but I simply can’t. What I can tell you is that it’s evident that Justice pays close attention to form. He seems to love working with repetition, and perhaps that is where the beauty of his poems really lie. Life is so repetitive, after all. It adds up to some sort of quiet meditation. The best come out appearing timeless and classic, and more often than not, melancholic and nostalgic.

One of my favorite poems is “Southern Gothic,” a poem that presents a confusion over the decay of the South and the vague memories of what should be there, but is not. Trellises are “too frail almost to bear/ The memory of a rose, much less a rose.” The ending sticks with me:

“No damask any more prevents the moon,
But it unravels, peeling from a wall,
Red roses within roses within roses.” ( )
  danlai | Sep 1, 2014 |
I don't generally read much poetry. And when I do it often baffles me, makes me feel stupid. But I wanted to at least try this book, Donald Justice's COLLECTED POEMS, because I had recently read and very much enjoyed a book of letters exchanged between Justice and his dear friend, fiction writer Richard Stern, more than fifty years ago, before either had become known - A CRITICAL FRIENDSHIP. Justice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, probably became more famous than Stern, although as a long-time teacher of writing at the University of Chicago, Stern exerted a strong influence on many writers now more famous than he ever was.

So I wanted very much to like this book. And I did find myself charmed by certain pieces, mostly those from the last few volumes, when Justice allowed himself to range into more accessible free verse or prose poems. Because in his early years he tended to experiment with more difficult forms like 'sestinas' which are complex, nearly mathematical in nature, and - at least to me - not very reader friendly. But even in the early books I found poems I could relate to because of their subjects. One was "Sonnet to My Father," with its poignant closing line, "Yet while I live, you do not wholly die." Another was "Love's Stratagems," which brought to mind youthful back-seat fumblings with its lines:

"But these maneuverings to avoid / The touching of hands, / These shifts to keep the eyes employed / On objects more or less neutral / (As honor, for the time being, commands) / Will hardly prevent their downfall."

And there was the immediately recognizable rhythm and rhyme of the old nursery rhyme, "This Little Piggy" in the ineffably sad "Counting the Mad" -

"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."

And in "An Elegy Is Preparing Itself," a coffin, a shroud and a headstone enter into the piece. An affecting mini-portrait of the jobless men and the wandering armies of the unemployed from the thirties is offered in "Cinema and Ballad of the Great Depression."

Justice pays tribute to remembered music and dancing teachers in poems like "Mrs. Snow" (a dandruffy old woman in her kitsch-crowded apartment), "The Piano Teachers: A Memoir of the Thirties" and "Dance Lessons of the Thirties."

Equally poignant and indescribably sad is "A Chapter in the Life of Mr. Kehoe, Fisherman" with its sounds on a dock "Of bare feet dancing, / Which is Mr. Kehoe, / Lindying solo, / Whirling, dipping, / In his long skirt / That swells and billows, / Turquoise and pink, / Mr. Kehoe in sequins, / Face tilted moonward, / Eyes half-shut, dreaming."

If I had to pick favorites here, one would be "Ralph: A Love Story" a prose poem about a movie projectionist from an era "when stars did not have names" who flees a romantic entanglement only to die alone, still remembering "images in the dark, shifting and flashing ..." The other would most definitely be "On an Anniversary," beginning with, "Thirty years and more gone by / In the blinking of an eye, / And you are still the same / As when first you took my name."

So yes, there are some pieces here which I did find accessible and affecting. I only wish there had been more. When I am asked if I have favorite poets, my standard answers are usually Frost, Raymond Carver, and the later poems of Donald Hall. And now, perhaps, at least some of the poetry of Donald Justice. Recommended for poetry enthusiasts and students of poetry. ( )
  TimBazzett | Jul 16, 2014 |
Not great to say the very least. ( )
  Djupstrom | Apr 29, 2010 |


Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Donald Justice died on August 12, six days before this new book, Collected Poems, was published. He left behind a legacy of influence, both as one of the most renowned teachers of poets in recent memory and as a poet of great gifts in his own right. Dana Gioia, current head of the National Endowment for the Arts, has described Justice as a “poet’s poet,” and reading his collected works is a reminder why: Justice’s incredible range and deliberate use of language. His body of work, collected here in its entirety, is a romp through a variety of forms and styles, but always with a very careful eye to using the precise word to meet the needs of the poem. Although he’s not among the most famous of American poets, this collection leaves no doubt he was one of the best. ( )
  KelMunger | Nov 27, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037571054X, Paperback)

This celebratory volume gives us the entire career of Donald Justice between two covers, including a rich handful of poems written since New and Selected Poems was published in 1995. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Justice has been hailed by his contemporary Anthony Hecht as “the supreme heir of Wallace Stevens.” In poems that embrace the past, its terrors and reconciliations, Justice has become our poet of living memory. The classic American melancholy in his titles calls forth the tenor of our collective passages: “Bus Stop,” “Men at Forty,” “Dance Lessons of the Thirties,” “The Small White Churches of the Small White Towns.” This master of classical form has found in the American scene, and in the American tongue, all those virtues of our literature and landscape sought by Emerson and Henry James. For half a century he has endeavored, with painterly vividness and plainspoken elegance, to make those local views part of the literary heritage from which he has so often taken solace, and inspiration.

School Letting Out
(Fourth or Fifth Grade)

The afternoons of going home from school
Past the young fruit trees and the winter flowers.
The schoolyard cries fading behind you then,
And small boys running to catch up, as though
It were an honor somehow to be near—
All is forgiven now, even the dogs,
Who, straining at their tethers, used to bark,
Not from anger but some secret joy.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:44 -0400)

Presents a collection of the selected poems of twentieth-century American poet Donald Justice depicting memories of childhood and youth, eulogies for the dead, and reflections of life's disappointments.

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