Donald Justice

“How could anyone take such simple, straightforward subjects, not trying to foist either any explanation of their cause or any high-flown interpretation of their meaning, but trusting simply to one’s own voice and style to give them the reality, the elegance and thrust to make them whole?”

-- W.D. Snodgrass, a classmate of Donald Justice in the University of Iowa PhD program in English[fn]Gioia, Dana and Logan, Williams, eds. Certain Solitudes. On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1997, p. 130. [/fn]

Donald Justice (1925-2004) was born in Miami, Florida on August 12, 1925 and died in Iowa City, Iowa, on August 6, 2004.

There are writers and poets—let’s call them word craftsmen—whose life looms larger than or at least as big as their work, and there are those whose work relegates their biographies to a footnote to their name. Hemingway and Carver are good examples of the first kind. Justice is no doubt of the second one. While still alive, he was often called “a poet’s poet,” defined as “a writer treasured by fellow artists but not much noted by critics, and hardly known at all by the common reader."[fn]Gioia, Dana. A Poet’s Poet Personal website at, first published in The New Criterion (May 1992) [/fn] His legacy hasn’t refuted the label. His creative energy flowed inwards, and he rarely allowed life events distract him from his mission of representing the world in elegant, deep-meaning verse, without much focus on his ego.

Donald Justice On Music

Donald Justice’s plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads:


Turn your head. Look. The light is turning yellow.
The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened.
Why this is, I’ll never be able to tell you.


Donald Justice

It is the first stanza of “Villanelle at Sundown” from the 1987 collection The Sunset Maker. This collection is the 52-year old poet’s synthesis between his innate musicality and indisputable talent for self-effacing word chiseling. It is dedicated “To the memory of my teachers: Kate Healy Snow, Carl Ruggles, Robert Boardman Vaughn, and John Berryman.” Noteworthy, Carl Ruggles was Justice’s teacher in composition who suggested the young music student at the University of Miami in Florida go study composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale. At this juncture Justice decided, “I might have more talent as a writer than as a composer.” And he went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to make a master’s in English. It was a fateful move. There, he met and fell in love with Jean Ross, the Southern novelist Peter Taylor’s sister-in-law, who became his partner for life.

Justice has rather vehemently denied that studying music might have had any effect on his poetry: “I don’t happen to think that poetry is—or can be—very “musical.” It’s a figure of speech, basically. My God, how I’ve heard the term misused and abused! That may be how the study of music affected me—to make me less tolerant of the kind of nonsense uttered on this score. Some even go so far as to speak of the melody of poetry. But the fact is that poetry has no melody, which involves pitch. It doesn’t even have Sprechstimme, thank goodness. “Musical” when applied to poetry seems to mean approximately what “poetic” means when applied to music. And, by the way, why is it that “poetic” or “poetical” can be used to praise almost anything but poetry itself?" [fn]Gioia, Dana and Logan, Williams, eds. Certain Solitudes. On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1997, p. 176-177. [/fn]

However, without a stretch of the imagination, one can think of The Sunset Maker as a poetic shrine of music. The title poem goes:

The speaker is a friend of the dead
composer, Eugene Bestor. He is seated on
the terrace of his town house, from which
there is a view of the Gulf of Mexico.


The Bestor papers have come down to me.
I would suppose, though, they are destined for
The quiet archival twilight of some library.
Meanwhile, I have been sorting scores. The piece
I linger over sometimes is the last,
The “Elegy.” So many black, small notes!
They fly above the staff like flags of mourning;
And I can hear the sounds the notes intend.
(Some duo of the mind produces them,
Without error, ghost-music materializing;
Finally, of course, like whispers overheard.)
And then? I might work the piano part,
If it mattered. But where is there a cellist
This side of the causeway? And who plays Bestor now?


This time of day I listen to the surf
Myself; I listen to it from my terrace.
The sun eases its way down through the palms,
Scattering colors—a bit of orange, some blues.
Do you know that painting of Bonnard’s, The Terrace?
It shows a water pitcher blossom-ready
And a woman who bends down to the doomed blossoms—
One of the fates, in orange—and then the sea
With its own streaks of orange, harmonious.
It used to hang in the Phillips near the Steinway.
But who could call back now the web of sound
The cello and the piano made together
In the same Phillips not so long ago?
The three plucked final chords—someone might still
Recall, if not the chords, then the effect
They made—as if the air were troubled somehow.
As if … but everything there is is that.
Impressions shimmering; broken light. The world
Is French, if it is anything. Or was.
One phrase the cello had, one early phrase,
That does stay with me, mixed a little now
With Bonnard’s colors. A brief rush upward, then
A brief subsiding. Can it be abstract?—
As Stravinsky said it must be to be music.
But what if a phrase could represent a thought—
Or feeling, should we say?—without existence
Apart from the score where someone catches it?

Inhale, exhale: a drawn-out gasp or sigh.
Falling asleep, I hear it. It is just there.
I don’t say what it means. And I agree
It’s sentimental to suppose my friend
Survives in just this fragment, this tone row
A hundred people halfway heard one Sunday
And one of them no more than half remembers.
The hard early years of study, those still,
Sequestered mornings in the studio,
The perfect ear, the technique, the great gift
All have come down to this one ghostly phrase.
And soon nobody will recall the sound
Those six notes made once or that there were six.


Hear the gulls. That’s our local music.
I like it myself; and as you can see—
Notice the little orange smudge of the sandbar—
Our sunset maker studied with Bonnard.

Relevant Facts of Justice’s Life


1942: Enrolls for a BA in music at the University of Miami
1945: Takes a degree in English
1947: MA in English from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; marries Jean Ross
1949: Enrolls for a PhD in English at Stanford but leaves after a year and returns to the University of Miami as instructor in English
1952: Enrolls for a PhD at the University of Iowa and obtains the degree in 1954
1957-1967: Returns to Iowa City on Paul Engle’s invitation and teaches poetry at the Workshop
1968: Associate professor at Syracuse University in New York
1970: Full professor at he University of California Irvine
1971: Back to Iowa City
1980: Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems
1982: Professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville
1992: Retires and moves back to Iowa City where he dies at the age of 79
1998: Publishes a collection of essays Oblivion: On Writers & Writing
1951-2004: Published 13 collections of poems and 1 volume of Collected Poems

Here is how Jean Ross Justice remembers the couple’s first years in Iowa City [fn]Gioia, Dana and Logan, Williams, eds. Certain Solitudes. On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1997, p. 122-126. [/fn]:


If Iowa City lacked the style of Palo Alto and the long history of Chapel Hill, not to mention the climate, it had a body of congenial people who welcomed us hospitably. The Writers’ Workshop was Paul Engle’s creation, and he took a thoughtful interest in a great many of the students; Mary Engle sometimes rounded up household items and baby beds for them. Often, at the beginning of the fall term, there was a Workshop picnic at the Engle’s summer place, an old mansion near Stone City, and a caravan of cars would go out from Iowa City, becoming eventually a dusty caravan. […] it was near Anamosa, the site of a prison camp from which inmates occasionally escaped, and at least once after an escape we scanned the countryside from the roof of the house—not expecting to locate the escapees exactly, just looking. A few years later two escapees did enter the Engle house, and the family took it with considerable aplomb.
A number of Workshop poets lived downtown in apartments over stores, in buildings later torn down when urban renewal struck. Don and Jeanine Petersen lived over Ewer’s Shoe Store, opposite the Moose Hall, from which they observed the members hobbling out after the Saturday night dances; Anne and Bill Belvin lived above a feed store, and the stairs to their place often had a pleasant, haymow kind of smell. […]
We too moved downtown in early summer, to a large apartment across from the campus on Washington Street, up a flight of squeaky stairs to a door that later, as the election neared, bore a large color picture of Adlai Stevenson. The apartment had been probably a suite of offices once, for there were frosted glass panels set in the walls between some of the doors. Don began to paint the living room, possibly a pale raspberry sherbet shade, though I hope this memory is false; Somner Sorenson, a chess champion but a rather monotonous reader, came over and treated him to selections from Shelley while he painted. […]
We didn’t lack amusements; the problem was getting enough sleep. Dick and Gay Stern arrived from Germany that summer and with them we went to see Cosi Fan Tutti in McBride Auditorium, where bats sometimes circled high over the heads of the singers. [ … ] In our apartment, at the rickety golden-oak dining table, we played penny poker with the Petersens, Tom Rogers, and sometimes the Sterns. Tom taught us vicious multiple solitaire game called Pounce, which we played chiefly with him and Jeanne. It must have been the next spring that the croquet games began; in some open fields by the river, Tom, Dick, and the two Dons played a cutthroat game that led to quarrels and grudges. We went canoeing on the Iowa River with Tom, there being a canoe rental concession behind the [Iowa Memorial] Union in those days. When we reached the bank by the Barracks, the student housing, De Snodgrass strolled down and called pleasantly, “Two people almost drowned along here an hour or so ago.” [ …]


Kenney’s was the Workshop’s favorite tavern and the place to which the students often adjourned after a class session. In 1952 it was on North Clinton Street, opposite the campus, next door to the Airliner, which was one of the most satisfactory restaurants at the time. Many of the others were jokes—the Princess Café, Reich’s pseudo-Chinese, the Bamboo Inn, where one night we came upon an Indian Acquaintance, Dr. Jayapathy, eating a plate of spaghetti, a scene that might have testified to the international character of Iowa City if either the restaurant or the spaghetti had been more authentic.
Sometime in the next year we exchanged apartments with the Petersens, who were going to have a baby; they took the big Washington Street apartment, and we took their place around the corner. It was tiny but even cheaper than the other (thirty dollars a month) and had a pleasant bay window looking out over the street. I think Don got a good deal of work done there. He often worked late and must have seen dawn come over Clinton Street more than once. Sometimes when I came home for lunch, up the hill from my job in the university library, he would breakfast as I lunched.
The Workshop poets were publishing -- in Poetry, Furioso, Botteghe Oscure in Rome, the New Yorker, and the Western Review, which had come to the university along with its editor, Ray B. West, Jr. Don and other students read for the Western Review, as well as for the O. Henry Prize story collection when its editorship passed for a time to Paul Engle and Hansford Martin. [ … ]
It was Paul’s custom to bring in visiting poets to teach for a term or so—Karl Shapiro, who commuted from Chicago, where he was editing Poetry; Robert Lowell, John Berryman. Don considered Berryman a superior teacher. Berryman was newly single, however, and prone to desperate, foolish crushes on the wives of students. There was a night when he felt suicidal and called Don to come over and save him [ … ]
In the spring of ’54 we moved yet again, to an apartment over a store on College Street. (All of our addresses had “1/2” at the end of the number.) When I think of the dining nook, which resembled a restaurant booth, I see John Berryman sitting there, lamenting the fact that he had turned forty.
How many interesting people there were! There were the Lowells, who had us to Thanksgiving dinner (goose) and with whom we watched television in the Petersens’ living room on Washington Street [ … ] I think of the Belvin’s party for Randall Jarrell, which was perhaps where Meryl Johnson read his palm; of Berryman listening to someone singing ”Matty Grove,” his eyes blazing with emotion. It’s tempting to try to fill in the blanks and put it all back together. When did we meet Henri and Jackie Coulette, Jacqueline Ragner (Rogers), the Burfords, the Londons? And where, exactly, was Helen and Ace Levang’s apartment? Who, besides Tom Rogers, was host of the Friday afternoon cocktail parties of one era?—perhaps his roommate David Clay Jenkins, an Alabama fiction writer and our first Iowa City friend [ … ]
Don took his doctorate that August [1954]. It was not the best year to spend in Iowa City but was the end of graduate school, which he regretted. He used to say he would have been happy to remain a student, to go on to law school or library school. But I wonder where we could have found a place and companions as congenial as those we were leaving.

Here is a list of addresses where Donald Justice and his wife Jean lived in Iowa City.
1952: 606 S. Johnson Street, Bristol home
Between 1952 and 1954: a sequence of apartments on Clinton St, Washingon St, and College St, all now non-existent and replaced by the College St plaza
1957: Brick house at 1041 E Burlington St, then 430 E Davenport St, where their son was born in 1961
1971: Bought a house on 1302 Ginter Avenue
1977: Built a house on a lot at 1665 Ridge Road
1992: 338 Rocky Shore Drive where Justice died and Jean now lives

Donald Justice on Iowa[fn]Gioia, Dana and Logan, Williams, eds. Certain Solitudes. On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1997, p. 180-183. [/fn]


How did you first come to Iowa?

I had been out of work for a while, trying to write, and my wife’s brother-in-law, Peter Taylor, and a friend of his, Robie Macauley, suggested Iowa to me. Robie had taken a degree there. I wrote a letter to Paul Engle, who ran the program—who had practically invented it, they said—and got a very welcoming letter back, offering me the best teaching assistantship I could have possibly hoped for. And we were very happy about going. I had to take a job driving a taxicab in Miami to get together a little stake. Driving a cab wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d thought it would be. Iowa proved far more exciting. I arrived in the dead of winter 1952, straight from Florida, wearing my uncle’s old army overcoat. I was twenty-six.

How long had the Iowa Writers’ Workshop been going in 1952?

Since the mid-thirties. I think the first person to take a degree in writing there was Paul Engle himself. It wasn’t really until after the Second World War that it began to grow into the place so many people would later be drawn magically to, while others saw in it a symbol of what was wrong with American writing, poetry especially. Most of what anyone knew about Iowa, pro or con, was all along made up of legend and propaganda. All this was just beginning to take shape when I arrived. We weren’t yet defined. There was, you might say, a ferment. Rexroth was to call us “combelt metaphysicals.” As I recall, he was a journalist employed by the Hearst press at the time. The poetry wars were just about to get underway. It was perhaps a sort of mirror of the Cold War. The weapons were words—otherwise, who knows? Iowa was taken to represent a sort of academic “establishment.” What? Out there in the middle of nowhere? Some of the people calling us that themselves wrote for highly paid publications, had excellent teaching posts, got the prizes, the fellowships, the reviews—all that. It’s an old political trick, calling the others what you don’t want to be known as yourself, to deflect attention. Well, it may not be over even yet, but I’d rather pretend it was.

Who were your fellow students in Iowa? There were some fine writers. Bill Stafford was there, W. D. Snodgrass, Henri Coulette, Phil Levine were all there—and a man of infinite promise then, who has not published as much since as he should have, Don Petersen. And Jane Cooper, Bob Dana, Bill Dickey—others I surely wrong by forgetting for the moment.

During your early Iowa days, you studied with John Berryman, did you not?

He was my last teacher there. Engle’s idea was to bring in prominent young poets—poets then young—for a semester. The result was that I had a term with Karl Shapiro, who was then editing Poetry, then a term with Robert Lowell, and finally one with John Berryman.

Did any of those teachers influence you as a writer?

To tell the truth, I don’t think so—for better or for worse. But Lowell had influenced me early. Lord Weary’s Castle influenced particularly everybody I knew who was trying to write poetry in 1947. Those heavily thudding meters, the prophet’s voice, the doom and gloom, the cultural overload, the psychological melodrama of it all. […] But by the time I was actually Lowell’s student I had given up on it.

Did you ultimately take a degree from Iowa?

A PhD. It seemed the best way to get a university job, which is what I wanted. University life was much more humane then than it has now become. Less doctrinaire, less “correct,” more open-minded. Fewer intellectual fascists about.

How did you first come to teach in Iowa?

Paul Engle asked me to replace him temporarily while he was away on a Guggenheim. I was already familiar with the way things worked, and after I came in, it seems I just sort of stayed around.

How did Iowa become America’s preeminent creative writing program?

Not by deliberate plan and certainly not by my choice. But this is for me a difficult and tricky subject. My feelings about it are mixed. Let me just say this much. My happiest memories of the writing program are of the poets and fiction writers who gathered there or who drifted through, the good writers I got to know. (Some good writers passed through I never did get to know.) I tend to remember a few scattered vintage years rather than whatever it was growing into, this thing that is now called a program. It grew by accident more than by design. It was simply one of the first, and Paul Engle—in those early years especially—was astonishingly energetic in raising money to give, in the form of small personal fellowships, to young writers he thought promising. The understanding was that they’d hang around for a year or so and try to write. This much seemed useful on the face of it, unarguably so. Better than an NEA grant, you might well say, being more personal, less programmatic really. For there was no deliberate plan, no mad scheme to seize world power or to influence the course of literature one way instead of another. Of course we had ideas—some of us did—of what made for good writing. Who does not? Is one not entitled? And what an appealing idea this was, to provide an oasis in the midst of what Paul liked to call the “heartland,” by which might otherwise have seemed just one more cultural wasteland. The question used to come up if we should have more students. I would plead for fewer. No such luck. In the end too many people learned of this splendid half-secret thing, and that changed everything.

Donald Justice on Teaching Poetry[fn]Gioia, Dana and Logan, Williams, eds. Certain Solitudes. On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1997, p. 183-187. [/fn]


Marvin Bell on Justice as a teacher:

As a teacher Don chose always to be on the side of the poem, defending it from half-baked attacks by students anxious to defend their own turf. While he had firm preferences in private, as a teacher Don defended all turfs. He had little use for poetic theory.

Adds Tad Richards, poet and critic and Justices’ former student:

Donald Justice is likely to be remembered as a poet who gave a quiet but compelling insight into loss and distance, and who set a standard for craftsmanship, attention to detail, and subtleties of rhythm.

When you came to Iowa in the early fifties, how many creative writing programs—or graduate creative writing programs—were there in the United States?

I can think of only two: Stanford and Iowa. There may have been others, but I hadn’t heard of them, still haven’t. Very soon after, they began to increase in number, usually started, I believe, by writers who’d passed through Iowa. So you might say we were responsible, knowingly or not, for what was to happen.

You helped make creative writing programs part of the academic mainstream. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Fairly gloomy ones. I remember that innocent time when all we wanted was to be separate from the academic side, separate but equal. We were not equal; we were condescended to; we had reason to feel beleaguered. Beyond that there was no particular goal. Some of the students I had went out and did at their schools what we were doing at Iowa. There was a snowball—or pyramid—effect. In this I may well be guilty. I did not know what I was doing, did not see what was coming.

How do you feel about the current state [1996-97] of creative writing programs?

The very term itself is an unfortunate one. Creative has been badly used. I know that Paul Engle himself always insisted on imaginative instead of creative, and I think he was right. That aside, there are simply too many writing programs now, far too many. We don’t need them. For that matter, we don’t need as many writers as we have. Though, mind you, I have nothing against amateurs in writing who write for the sheer love of it. It’s different when they set themselves and their friends up as experts. An obvious problem with writing programs today is that many of those who profess to teach poetry write very badly themselves.

Does someone need to be a good poet to teach poetry writing?

I think so. Which is not quite the same as saying that if you can write you can also teach.

You have spent your adult life as a teacher (except for that brief stint as a cab driver). Has that affected you as a writer?

Probably, but I’m not sure how. The writer in academic life probably becomes more self-conscious than one with a different job or a tidy inheritance. Is that bad? I’m a self-conscious writer, but then I would have been exactly that no matter what job I had. The relation between writing and teaching remains obscure, at least to me; perhaps nonexistent. If I had been instead, say, the master of a ship, I would no doubt have found plenty of subject matter in my work, just as Conrad did. But being on faculties, I found very little subject matter in my job itself. As subject matter the academic world is pretty much bust, a hive of clichés. But then if I had been an insurance salesman, I probably wouldn’t have found much in that to write about either—or an insurance lawyer, like Stevens. The question’s complicated, and it comes out differently for different people. There happen to be a lot of teaching writers who don’t write in what would be thought an academic manner at all, but on the contrary seem to make a profession of hating ideas, hating to take thought. Sociologically speaking, it’s a kind of self-hate—very familiar. The automatic assumption underlying the received view is much too easy—the idea that, if you’re in the academy, you are tamed and will write in a repressed way. Not so, really not so. In fact, academics themselves tend to love the wild-man type of writer, and not just as a visitor, gone in a day or two, but as a colleague, a permanent scapegoat for heir own frustrated whishes and ambitions, I suspect.

What effect did you think teaching at a university has on a poet? I don’t mean you particularly, but in general terms?

A poet in a university has rare privileges and benefits. First of all, more time, free from the job—time which can be spent writing. And I’ve always counted it privilege (I know there are those who feel otherwise) to deal in one’s job with things of value—artistic value—with things you can love and respect. I cannot for the life of me see why it is more intellectually stimulating to dig ditches, or to go down into the mines, as I have heard recommended, than it is to talk about Hamlet or Anna Karenina or “Sunday Morning” to people interested in talking about them with you. One lives a tamer life, I think—though, God knows, I’ve known some wild men in academic life. And there are many who seem altogether convinced that the tame life does not lead to good writing. It may not; then again it just may.

What writers have influenced you as a poet?

Forty years ago Karl Shapiro asked the young poets in the workshop that question, and I have the same answer now. I remember jotting down, rather proudly: Baudelaire and Stevens. I may have added other names, but I remember none. Those two I do remember. And I think that’s true—Baudelaire and Stevens have influenced me. Auden also. Another answer to that question would be everybody I’ve read. But that is perhaps a little less true.

What did you find so attractive in Baudelaire and Stevens?

I’m not sure. In Baudelaire probably the combination of high style with decadent subject matter. In Stevens I must have been dazzled by the vocabulary, the sheer nerve of it, almost Shakespearean, but unfortunately, in Stevens, without the human drama. While dazzled, though, one hardly remembers to miss that.

Did Weldon Kees influence you?

Yes, I’d forgotten him. I came across his The Fall of the Magicians in the Miami Public Library one evening when browsing. I checked the book out, read it with increasing excitement, and, within a week or two, was writing a sestina based on one of his. In fact, very soon after reading Kees I dreamed the first eleven lines of still another sestina. (Not the one based on Kees, actually, but another one called, for obvious reasons, “A Dream Sestina.”) I soon finished the poem called “Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees.” A few months later it came out in a magazine. I had a letter from John Kees, the poet’s father. During the brief interval between my writing and publishing the poem, Kees had disappeared, had become a missing person. His father wrote me to ask what the six words were. He was hoping to find traces of his missing son and thought knowing what the words were might somehow help. I had to write back explaining that the six words were simply a part of the form of a poem his son had written, and I had borrowed them; that I had never met his son. But we began exchanging letters. About that time Kim Merker, a young printer in Iowa City, and his partner Raeburn Miller were looking for something to print. They both happened to like Kees as a poet, and I suggested that we do a Selected Poems. I’d do the selecting; I thought Kees’s work was uneven, and I wanted to use only the very best poems so that there would be a better chance of making a strong impression. Harry Duncan, another printer-friend, talked us into doing a Collected Poems instead. I wrote the father and asked for permission, which he was very pleased to give. His hope that publication of the book might lead to information about the whereabouts of his son turned out, unhappily, to be a vain hope.

Donald Justice on His Teachers at Iowa[fn]Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy. Toronto, Between the Lines, November 2002 (in paperback). Excerpt found on [/fn]


Amongst the teachers you had at Iowa were John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Karl Shapiro, with each of whom you spent a term. I believe you thought Berryman the best teacher?

I did think he was the best, yes, and a large part of how good he was had to do with his very character, however much a few have maligned him. He was full of a kind of fervor or fire, in class and out. In class he was a master of detail and care; he was in love with the whole business of reading and writing and of talking about it, in love with teaching itself, though he had not done much of it. I wouldn’t call him a model exactly, not an example, as with others. His chief difference from the other teachers I had was that he was truly interested in what you were doing. Berryman, Lowell and Shapiro were all terribly self-involved—as what poet is not?—but Berryman had room in his capacious heart to become involved in what you were doing as well—and to care about it.

You seem to have made as much of an impression on him as he did on you. Dana, Snodgrass and others have all written about his excited reaction to your work. Snodgrass recalls a day on which all of you had handed in your assignments. Berryman ‘sat at his desk idly leafing through them, then stopped, stared, and read one of the sonnets to himself. His face aghast, he then turned to the class and said, “It is simply not right that a person should get a poem like that as a classroom assignment!”’ The poem in question was ‘The Wall’, and another of the students who met him for a beer later that week recalls how Berryman ‘immediately began to read [the sonnet] and … marveled at [its] opening and the explosive pause in the second line. He was deliriously excited and to this day I can hear him recite it: “The wall surrounding them they never saw; / The angels often.”’ Did Berryman’s reaction to your poem strike you as forcefully as it struck your fellow students?

Everyone seems to have his own version of that story. My version, which I think is the true one, is less dramatic. It’s just that Berryman had phoned me the night before the class meeting to tell me how much he liked the poem. Such enthusiasm was unexpected, such kindness. What happened in class the next day I really can’t recall, except for a faint memory of comments he made regarding some sound effects in that sonnet which I had not been aware of and in fact doubted the effect of, though I’m sure I refrained from saying anything to soften the praise I was getting.

This wasn’t an easy time in Berryman’s life, was it? His wife had left him the previous summer; he’d been out of work and drinking a great deal. The night he’d arrived in Iowa, he’d fallen down the stairs of his boarding house, crashed through a glass door, broken a wrist and sustained some heavy bruising. Were his emotional problems as obvious to his students as his physical problems must have been?


Maybe to others the problems were obvious. Not to me. At least not then. I thought he was living constantly at some kind of emotional peak, like someone on speed, perhaps. But it was, after all, an exciting time for most of us and there were a lot of supercharged guys around. In any case, I tend to remain blind to such matters, and accepting of them.

But Haffenden and Mariani both recount the early morning phone-call Berryman made, begging you to go over to his apartment because he was thinking of killing himself. ‘I got a cab and went right over,’ Haffenden reports you as saying. ‘ When I looked from the hall through his living room door, I saw him sitting on the floor (in bathrobe, I believe) regarding an open case of old-fashioned razors. The sight was too much for me. I felt faint and had to lie down on the sofa. He became immediately all concern and consideration, hurrying down to the bathroom to fetch damp cloths with which to chafe my wrists and so on. Soon I was feeling more myself. To my great relief, so was he.’

Well, of course that incident made me realize how desperate he often was. But John had a capacity for joy as well as suffering, and that’s something discussions of him often ignore. There were calm afternoons drinking beers together in some of the great little taverns of Iowa City. I remember a remark of his from one such afternoon: ‘Thank God I never fell under the influence of Yeats myself.’ At first I thought he must be joking.

And he wasn’t? How very odd. Because he did acknowledge the influence quite freely later on in his life, didn’t he?

I’ve always told the story with Berryman referring to Yeats, but now, with your prompting, it occurs to me that, considering how much worse my memory seems to be getting, it might have been Auden, not Yeats. Berryman’s comment, in either case, still seems pretty startling to me. Perhaps we were in that tavern for longer than I remembered.

What did you make of Lowell’s teaching? Snodgrass thought he was marvelous: ‘However high our expectations,’ he said, ‘no one was disappointed by Lowell’s teaching.’ But Philip Levine, for one, was disappointed. He told Paul Mariani that Lowell played favourites with the students, badly misread a great deal of the poetry under discussion, was fiercely competitive, and wasn’t above overwhelming the class with one of his own poems. ‘In fairness,’ Levine added, ‘he was teetering on the brink of a massive nervous breakdown … Rumors of his hospitalization drifted back to Iowa City, and many of us felt guilty for damning him as a total loss.’ Who was closer to the truth, would you say – those who thought him marvelous or those who thought him a total loss?

I thought Lowell was an excellent teacher. He was someone of great intensity, to whom everything mattered. There was a distance, a decent and probably self-protective distance, but I approve of that, if approval matters. As well, I liked him a lot personally, and he was always very kind to me. All the same, if I don’t remember him quite the way Phil does, it’s nevertheless true that Lowell was more interested in what he himself was writing than in what his students were doing. I remember him reading to us one afternoon an early version of his longish Marie de Medici poem – early in that it was still in his familiar rhyming pentameters – and ending by inviting comments from the class. Of course we thought it was pretty wonderful, but the chorus of praise wasn’t quite unanimous, and Lowell was dismayed. It’s also true that there was a hint of condescension in his regard for student work. This was almost certainly well deserved, of course, but still ...

So Berryman was the more endearing teacher?

Berryman went further with us, and we who admired him could not help liking him for a kind of selflessness. But to go back to your original question, my guess is that between those who thought Lowell marvelous and those who thought him a loss – certainly not a total one – we would have had at least a small majority on the marvellous side.

Donald Justice on Poetic Art


For those who are intimately involved in poetry—poets or educated readers—and want to have a glimpse on how a cerebral poet like Justice crafts his verses, here is the final page of “Little Elegy for Cello and Piano,” a short story Donald Justice wrote for the collection The Sunset Maker.

“The [Eugene] Bestor manuscripts have come down to me. One day, I suppose, the library of the college in Vermont will have them. I used to take out the manuscript of Eugene’s final composition now and then and let my eye run over the spidery calligraphy of the notes. The small black notes climbed the staves slowly or floated above the top line like miniature storm clouds. There was a visual drama in this, and I had enough training to hear faintly the skeletal sounds behind the notes. But the music was a little beyond my practical skills. I could pick out the notes of the piano part at my own pace and work up the difficult passages, but it was not the same as performing it. In nay case, there was not a cellist—none I had heard of anyhow—in the entire sprawling range of the sun-and-sand community I had by then retired to. Perhaps there would have been one at the nearest junior college, but that was miles away, back across the causeway.
There comes a time of day now when I sit back and listen to the surf. It is too far to be seen, but I can hear it. The sun is easing its way down, scattering color. There is a terrace of my own out there, made of bricks, with potted palm tree and potted orange tree. I can hear the music better where I sit than at the keyboard. I wonder sometimes how many others who were present in the Phillips that afternoon could still summon up any of the by now broken web of sounds produced then, as I am able to do, though of course only partially and just barely. The last three plucked chords—surely the sound of them bangs on, consciously or not, in the memory of a few others, though fading.
There is one phrase of the cello’s—an early phrase, before the sound had become mixed up in my mind with Bonnard’s colors—which holds fast to me, a little upward rush and subsiding notes that has come to represent some nameless feeling which otherwise has no voice or expression. This is the way it is written out in the manuscript:

A brief inhaling and exhaling, a somewhat drawn-out deep gasp or sigh. Sometimes this phrase comes to me just there, and I do not of course know what it means.
It is sentimental of me to think of Eugene as surviving through this fragment, which in any case I am probably the only person anywhere to remember. And yet it does seem as if all the hard early years of study and practice here and abroad, the thousands of mornings of seclusion in his studio, the remarkable ear, the near-photographic memory and recall, had all come down to this, this one ghostly phrase. And soon there will be no one at all to remember how even these six notes sounded.”

Not only is the above passage elegiac and different from poetry. It alludes to the passing, elusive, and ephemeral nature of any creative effort. Yet, here is what Justice had to say when asked about his own creative effort:

“But if your question [about who is my audience] implies do I think about an audience at any point when writing a poem, the answer is no, except that I do try to make myself clear. I assume there is an audience, if not today, then tomorrow.”


Text by: Zlatko Anguelov

United States
Browse Authors

Reset | View All

Search by Name