Remembering Donald Justice, page 3
That notion, “the work we’re meant to write,” might also have made Don wince, although it’s not that far a cry from his idea of the Platonic script—the ideal poem pre-existing the poem on paper. “I like to think that all true poems exist before their authors write them down,” he said in an interview, “you can picture them floating about, say, in a sort of Platonic realm; and they are perfect there. It is our job to see that even as they enter the dimensional world they come close to their original form.” No wonder his output was so sparse! In print and in person, Don often referred quite candidly to his regret at not having written more. Just before that 1987 Bread Loaf conference, he’d spent a month at Yaddo. By chance, I ran into him as he arrived and was pulling his luggage from the trunk of his car. I took a bag and walked with him to his cottage, our conversation another spot of time:
“Where are you coming from?” I asked, schoolboy-proud to be his first Bread Loaf encounter, hoping some other participants might see us walking together.
“I’ve just spent a month at Yaddo.”
“Did you get a lot of work done?” I fawned, still very much his eager, cheerleading acolyte.
“No,” he said, his face tightening with real chagrin, “I’d planned to finish a verse play, but I hit a dead end. And now I know I won’t finish it.”
I don’t exactly remember what else he said, but I know it had to do with the demoralizing feeling of another project left incomplete. The purity of his disappointment startled me into silence. I remember nothing else of the walk. That rueful wish to have done more—or to have gotten it right, once and for all—shows up as well in diffident revisions he made to early work in his first Selected Poems (1979) and then repealed for his 1995 New and Selected. To my mind, the changes he made in the former book were invariably mistakes. I’ll give a single example. “But That Is Another Story” is a kind of postscript to every Jane Austen novel. Here it is as it appeared in Night Light (1967), Don’s second collection:
For the 1979 Selected, Don altered one of my favorite lines in this favored poem—“That is no inexhaustible fuel, perhaps?”—to “That is no inexhaustible fuel, I think.” That’s severe enough damage done to this poem of melancholy questioning. But Don went further, altering the exquisite last sentence to something that feels like deliberate self-sabotage:
Mercifully, by 1995 Don had come to his senses on this poem, and most of the other second-guesses scattered through Selected Poems. I’d still debate him, if I could, on his decision to add exclamation points to “Poor Frank. Poor Imogene.” in all versions after the one quoted above. The poem’s empathy is murmured, not exclaimed.
The last time I saw Don—at that 1991 Catskills Poetry Workshop—we debated quite a bit: on the merits of Bill Moyers and Keith Jarrett, on whether The Atlantic Monthly had first published Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” He’d recently undergone bypass, and needed to rest frequently. He struck me as dispirited, and even bitter—not simply skeptical—about developments in poetry. He defended some of the new formalist poets whose work represented, to me, much that was mediocre about that movement. I don’t recall if I argued back—if I claimed, as I believe, that “new formalism” is a misnomer when applied to many of the school’s adherents, who have done little new with form; but, in the main, have employed traditional meters without the variations and syncopations that characterize the best of the “old” formalists, such as Don. A brief letter after the conference, his last to me, expressed thanks for my sending him proof that Auden’s “September 1, 1939” hadn’t originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, along with what I take to be a guarded apology for the weary distractedness I sensed: “Yes, it was good to see you & also Hilary at Pine Lake—I wish I hadn’t been quite so tired much of the time. Now, at last, I am rested. . .”
In the current—and, I suppose, final—record of his work, Collected Poems (2004), we have them all, in their correct, if not wholly Platonic, form. I hope this book will put to rest some of the inaccuracies about Don’s poetry—most egregiously, that he was a stylist without significant subjects. What poem captures the soul-poverty of the American 1930s better than his “Pantoum of the Great Depression?” Has the post-WW II “man in the grey suit” found better voice than in “Men at Forty”? A small sub-group of Don’s poetry—“Counting the Mad,” “On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane,” “For the Suicides,” “A Letter,” and probably others I’m not remembering—stares at madness, if not in the face, than from a characteristically oblique angle that renders the view more harrowing. Rereading his poems for this essay, I was intrigued by how frequently Satan makes an appearance; and how often he places poems in Hell. I don’t mean to devalue his accomplishments of style, but simply to suggest that his craft serviced urgently felt responses to human subjects. Another common claim—Don as heir to Wallace Stevens—always struck me as dismissible. Wayne Brown found “The Snowfall” reminiscent of Philip Larkin, a comparison at least as apt as the analogies to Stevens. When Larkin died, of course, he was England’s best-known poet; in a smaller country, perhaps Don’s poetry would have had a larger reputation.
Collected Poems includes ten new pieces, at least four of which seem to me significant additions to American poetry, but I wonder whether even this book will settle the debate about Don’s stature: impeccable, if minor, stylist; or major, if muted, voice of restless, American experimentalism. My biased vote goes for the latter: Don was an experimentalist in the true sense of the word—he tried out everything. But “major” and “minor,” easy dichotomies, fall short of defining a poet like Don, who in any case pursued what he called, in “Thus,” “the major resolution of the minor.” To hear that resolution, the amplitude of the less said the better, perhaps all we need to do is to quiet down a bit and listen.