- Ceci n’est pas une peinture (This is not a painting)
- MĂIASTRA: A History of Romanian Sculpture in Twenty-Four Parts
And Justice for All
Risen from rented rooms, old ghosts Come back to haunt our parks by day,
They crept up Fifth Street through the crowd, Unseeing and almost unseen,
Halting before the shops for breath, Still proud, pretending to admire
The fat hens dressed and hung for flies There, or perhaps the lone, dead fern Dressing the window of a small
—FROM “A WINTER ODE TO THE OLD MEN OF LUMMUS PARK, MIAMI, FLORIDA”
Not only is Donald Justice a “poet’s poet,” as the Poetry Foundation puts it, he’s also Miami’s poet, though much of the city doesn’t know it. This summer that may change, when O, Miami hosts a one-day celebration of his life and work, And Justice for All, on August 20.
Born in Miami in 1925, Justice completed his undergraduate education at the University of Miami in 1945. He went on to study under the large, brilliant, morose shadow of John Berryman at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “There’s a great anecdote about Justice bringing his sonnet ‘The Wall’ into his graduate seminar at Iowa,” says P. Scott Cunningham, poet and founder of O, Miami. “Berryman was notoriously tough on his students, never praising anything, no matter how good. Apparently, Justice read it aloud and Berryman just said, ‘No student should be able to write a poem that good,’ and moved on.” Justice’s poetry—modern, formalist, and somehow tender and sentimental while remaining private—deftly balances light and dark, a mix of Berryman’s confessionalism and the Miami sun. His work won institutional validation from the likes of Pulitzer, Bollingen, and Guggenheim, but what’s more important is that Justice could write poems that were able to shake people and stick with them.
Justice became a teacher at the University of Iowa and brought many influential writers under his tutelage, including Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, and John Irving. With his focus on language’s capacity for exactitude, Justice always asked his students to consider how a poem could be better, even if it was already great. His national influence is so deep, you’d think Miami would have more of a clue about this major figure of its literary history. The reasons for the city not knowing more about its own legendary bard is perhaps fourfold:
a. Miami may not know poetry too well
b. Miami may not know history too well
c. People everywhere, generally speaking—even smart people—don’t know poetry too well, and history only a little better
d. Justice was pretty Anglo, and came from a more rural Miami before its transformation into a northernmost Latin and Caribbean metropolis.
Justice himself, who hated easy answers, might acknowledge that there’s a grain of truth in each of these assertions, while at the same time, they are also all a little bit wrong. Cunningham thinks that the reason is something like this: “Miami likes to pretend that it has no history, in order to hype the future. That’s the downside to our eternal optimism.” Today, poetry is a relatively obscure form compared to other media, and Miami is especially known to appreciate the flashier arts, and Justice, the ‘poet’s poet,’ had a reputation of being especially stereotypically quiet and private, even among other, similarly-tempered poet- and writer-species.”
It’s funny that poets are thought to be quiet, since the quietness is a front for a factory of thoughts and sounds churning in their minds. The poet is always working:
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good. The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar. Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good. And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
—FROM “THERE IS A GOLD LIGHT IN CERTAIN OLD PAINTINGS”
In the short memoir Piano Lessons: Notes on a Provincial Culture, Justice recalls his time as a kid getting piano lessons in Depression-era Miami, when it was not nearly so developed and cosmopolitan—though some of the city’s eternal qualities were, of course, present: “Afternoons with them I remember now as always hot and summerlike, time going by at a slow pace, drawn out toward dusk like a long ritardando. This was in Miami, and even in the winter months the electric fan might be set on the floor beside us, where it turned with a click like a metronome’s.”
“He was a part of a Coconut Grove-based literati crowd,” says Cunningham, “back when the Grove was a very Bohemian place, and though he never lived in Miami full-time after his early twenties, he retained many connections to people here up until his death in 2004.” The themes of music and Miami reappear throughout Justice’s work. “Music was Justice’s first love,” Cunningham continues, “and he studied composition with Carl Ruggles, who was indisputably one of the best composers in America in the twentieth century.” Though Justice graduated from UM with a degree in English literature, there’s no denying the roles of tempo, color, and timbre in his poetry. His work was often about musicians, his musical upbringing, and the sensate experience of music itself, and one might be tempted to draw a direct line between his music and his poetry, but Justice would resist such a simple reading.
“It’s clear that he didn’t like anyone trying to peg him down,” Cunningham told me. “When Dana Gioia asks him what kind of influence studying music has on the way he writes poetry, he emphatically denies any connection between music and poetry whatsoever. I think his argument is very interesting, but the forcefulness in the way he responds says more about his personality: don’t diagnose me. Don’t think you’ve figured anything out by taking this one detail from my childhood and extrapolating it. That’s one reason I love him as a Miami figure. People love to stick to easy narratives about Miami.”
Justice was an experimentalist throughout his life. Known as a master of many poetic forms, he had a soft spot for villanelles (pastoral, nineteen-line poems with lines repeating in a fixed pattern) and sestinas (six stanzas of six lines each, with six rotating end-words, followed by an envoi)—but he also worked in free verse and nonce forms he created himself. Beyond superior technical control, his poems have a way of conveying the chorus of joy and sadness and the dance of loss and memory in a way that is bittersweetly succinct.
Justice also wrote criticism and short stories. “The Artificial Moonlight” is a story that takes place in Coconut Grove and recounts a party where a group of friends has gathered to see off a friend named Jack, who’s moving to Europe. “The heat was spoiling the party,” Justice writes. The host of the party, Hal, suggests flirtatiously to his friend, “Of course we could always go out to Fox’s for more. More vodka.”
Though dour, the party is saved when Jack and some friends decide to drunkenly steal a dinghy and row to an island in the bay. After falling asleep on the island, Jack awakens and finds that his friends have left him behind. At first he is angry, yelling their names, but then: “In any case, he would have forgiven them a great deal—laughter, humiliation, even perhaps betrayal—as they would forgive him practically anything. He saw all that now. Well, it was a sentimental time of night—the very end of it—and he had had a lot to drink, but he was willing to believe that the future would indeed be bleak and awful without such friends, willing to take their chance with you, ready even to abandon you on a chunk of sand at four a.m. for nothing but the sheer hell of it. And he was, for a moment, remarkably contented.”
Miamians who haven’t read or even heard of Justice will recognize these words. Perhaps now the ghost of Donald Justice might be seen henceforth, on humid summer nights, quietly sitting on a bench in Lummus Park, almost unseen, ever working.
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.
—FROM “PSALM AND LAMENT”
Rob Goyanes is a writer and musician from Miami.