Remembering Donald Justice, page 2

Unlike Bishop, though, Don’s fame as a teacher rivaled, and perhaps at times eclipsed, his reputation as a poet.  He was my teacher for one academic year, from 1977-1978, at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop.  I took his workshop for one semester, and I enrolled in two seminars: one on poetic meter and one on the Elizabethan sonnet and Romantic ode.  He also supervised my thesis.  Don was one among three teachers who exerted the most powerful influence on me, an influence so strong that I had to overthrow it—consciously and painfully—in order to grow as a poet.

Many have testified to Don’s rigorous attention as a teacher.  Many have said that, through his tutelage and example, they learned what it meant to write poetry by the line—for Don, the only way to write it—and many have spoken about his insistence on clarity and exactitude, and his impatience for theorizing of any sort, especially regarding the relationship between meter and content.  “The meters move along in their own domain, scarcely intersecting the domain of meaning,” he wrote in Meter and Memory—one of the best essays in defense of metrical writing I know of—and he went on, with his characteristically acerbic yet lyrical wit, to debunk what he took to be a shibboleth about “the meters” and their kinship to “natural” rhythms: 

Whether their nature really embodies an imitation of natural processes may be arguable. . . .  We do inhale and exhale more or less rhythmically, as long as we stay healthy; our hearts do beat without much skipping….but any connection between them and the more or less regular alternation of weak and strong syllables in verse seems to me doubtful…. Signals timed to regulate the flow of traffic not only seem analogous but at times remarkably beautiful, as on a nearly deserted stretch of Ninth Avenue in New York City at three A.M., especially in a mild drizzle.

That swerve from skeptical analysis to a muted perceptual rhapsody—it’s a characteristic of Don’s best prose, poetry, and pedagogy.

He once brought in a recording by Bessie Smith, played “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” without comment, then sat there.  Finally, someone worked up the nerve to ask the point of this prelude to a workshop discussion.  “Sometimes we need to be reminded of the value of simplicity,” he said.  Then class began.  Some of his former students remember him as frightening, and it’s true that he could express, often with terse body language, his exasperation with callow aesthetic pronouncements.  But I remember Don reserving his crankiness for what we said about poems in workshop, not for our poems (whether he approved of them or not).  If a workshop comment struck Don as especially unfaithful to the text under discussion, he’d often whip off his glasses and hold the worksheet up close to his eyes, as if a literal “closer inspection” would reveal the aptness of the remark.  Teaching writing, Don simultaneously taught reading.

But no, I never found Don frightening—even while he maintained a distance from his students and, I believe, cultivated his reputation as a teacher who employed koans.  The syllabus for his seminar on meter included this statement and qualification: “We will study examples of the traditional meters of English poetry:  iambic pentameter, tetrameter, etc.  We will also examine free verse—some kinds, not all.”  The second sentence sent ripples of apprehension through the students registered for the course.  What types of free verse did Don consider unworthy of examination?  Since most of us wrote nothing but free-verse (it was 1977), we wondered whether “our” types of free verse would be honored by inclusion or dishonored by exclusion.  On the first day of class, someone asked what he meant.   “Not all forms of free verse have been invented yet,” he said (do I remember a wink?), “so we obviously can’t study those.”  An opposite quality to Don’s teaching involved his penetrating straightforwardness.  He based that other seminar I took on the simplest of premises:  the English sonnet reached a kind of pinnacle of excellence in the 16th and 17th centuries; while in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the English Romantics brought another poetic form, the ode, to near perfection.  Let us study them, as forms.

“Formal virtue”—a term Don used often, both in print and in class—encapsulates his definition of successful art. For him, aesthetic exactitude equaled moral probity, at least for the artist.  But Don was in no way a “formalist” in the reductive sense of the term—that is, a poet who only employed traditional, symmetrical prosody.  Even many of his admirers tend to forget that Don mastered open forms just as thoroughly as he mastered forms received from the tradition.  His experiments in short-lined and long-lined free verse constitute some of the strongest contemporary responses to the inventions of Williams, Stevens, and Pound.  His essay, “The Free-Verse Line in Stevens,” reveals an ear fine-tuned to the rigors of non-metrical improvisation.  I don’t believe I ever heard Don use the crude, imprecise distinction between “free verse” and “formal verse,” which we hear so often these days from poets who should know better.

After I left Iowa, Don and I remained in sporadic touch, but never became friends.  I’d like to believe that by the time he was my teacher, he’d more or less given up establishing friendships with former students, but I suspect that’s just self-consolation.  I corresponded with him on occasion, spent time with him at Bread Loaf and one or two other writing conferences, and attended a reading he gave at Boston University—the only time, as far as I know, that he read in this city between 1979 and his death.  In place of intimate conversation, we talked about the movies.  (I nurture a quiet satisfaction that, after the re-release of five of Hitchcock’s films, Don came to agree with me that Vertigo was superior to Rear Window.)  In 1987, at Bread Loaf, he inscribed my copy of The Sunset Maker with a sequence of words I committed to memory the first time I read it:  “To Steve Cramer—the elegance and eloquence of whose poems I like to think I saw a little earlier than some other readers did.”  Reading this, I felt enormous gratification, and some shock.  During the year I studied with Don at Iowa, although I sensed that he took my writing seriously, I never knew whether or not he really “liked my work.”  He encouraged my early efforts to write metrically; he supported my commitment to clarity at a time when obscurity’s stock was up.  He wrote brief comments on my poems—Excellent details; how much does the poem matter?  I like how you move from stage to stage; Mixed feelings, yours and mine (that last my favorite)—but I imagine I’m not alone among his former students in remaining uncertain about Don’s final evaluation.

I do remember, indelibly, a moment when I realized Don did not approve of a poem I’d written.  In 1991, reading at the Catskills Poetry Workshop—Don a faculty member; me a visiting representative of The Atlantic Monthly—I launched into a new poem about an LSD trip: all uneven line lengths, jagged enjambments, and hallucinatory imagery.  A few lines into it, I saw Don wince, shake his head, and lean over and whisper (terribly!) to whoever sat next to him—a whisper, I’m sure, having nothing to do with “elegance” or “eloquence,” two qualities I’d deliberately avoided in writing this poem.  Afterwards, when he tepidly mentioned another poem I’d read (one more like the work I’d written at Iowa) as his “favorite,” I felt some awkwardness, his and mine—but, curiously, only a little hurt.  Much longer afterwards, I remembered this moment as my release from Don as mentor.  It’s a release all writers must undergo—that is, if they have had mentors and if they wish to grow toward the work they’re meant to write. >>

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