Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

For Us What Music?: The Life and Poetry of Donald Justice

By Jerry Harp

Reviewed By Patrick James Dunagan

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Jerry Harp opens his critical biography boldly asserting that Donald Justice “should be considered among the greatest experimental poets of the latter half of the twentieth century.” Although Justice is hardly a name that comes to mind within the context of experimental writing, Harp maintains that Justice’s work is art that “challenges the very tradition of which it is a part. The tradition stays alive by being thus challenged.” It is according to these terms that Harp sees Justice as a great experimenter. Through his measured overview of Justice’s peripatetic writing and teaching life, Harp lays the groundwork for encouraging further studies by others. He informatively and usefully traces Justice’s biographical background: his birth and early education in Florida; young adulthood and education in North Carolina and New York; his study in Iowa under John Berryman; his sporadic years as traveling poet, teaching in Iowa and beyond, with sustained stints from San Francisco to Syracuse, then back to Iowa; and finally his last years of teaching in Florida and retirement in Iowa City. By pairing incisive commentary alongside biographical information and close readings of Justice’s poetry, Harp adeptly demonstrates that Justice is a widely influential poet, particularly among his peers and the younger poets who benefitted from his presence as a leader in their writing workshop.

Harp’s take on Justice’s work and life comes with the familiar gratitude of a former student. Writing from the position of admiring pupil presents a challenge to Harp’s ability to give a properly distanced exegesis. While Harp never achieves a complete emergence from behind the neophyte netting of being Justice’s student, he does manage to adopt a critical stance, suggesting motifs for reading Justice in terms of the Orpheus myth along with seeing him as a not-so-much-by-chance player at using chance operation as an element in stages of his writing.

Placing Justice within a heritage founded upon literary traditions, Harp declares that “heightened self-consciousness […] is a hallmark of Justice’s style,” significantly contributing to his place in the poetic continuum where literature—as Arthur Symons has argued for Rimbaud and Baudelaire— “becomes itself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual.” Along the same lines, Harp situates Justice as “an orphic poet of communion with the dead.” This led Justice to make conscious and even “unconscious use of precursor texts.” One “notable example” Harp points to is Justice’s poem “The Stray Dog by the Summerhouse,” an alternative take on the “subgenre of the dead animal poem” (after Richard Eberhart’s poem “The Groundhog”). This is “notable as an unconscious response to a precursor poem” based upon Justice having told Harp “he did not have Eberhart’s example in mind” at the time of the writing. As a poet continually consuming texts of others, Justice writes his own words into and through the work of others.

Harp’s more intimate access to Justice, given their easy personal acquaintance, yields a few surprise anecdotes. During one such instance, a residency of Justice’s was coinciding with that of composer John Cage, an infamously strong believer in the use of chance operations. Harp reports: “Justice and Cage got along very well. They were part of a high-stakes poker game after which Justice gave Cage a ride home.” Harp draws upon such amusing and informative occasions to dwell on how such car rides and poker games might play out in critical reading of poems by Justice. During an interview in 1975, Justice noted he “wrote down on note cards a whole lot of words” from various sources and commenced shuffling and reshuffling them, splitting them “into three groups, nouns, verbs, and adjectives,” and building up sentences. From these cards, when he felt like he was “being dealt winning hands,” he began to form poems. As Harp records, “like Cage, Justice saw his experiments as an interplay between chance and choice.”

Diving deep below the somewhat humdrum and mundane surface of Justice’s poetry, Harp locates abiding lessons that are central to the art behind such a low key, deceptive texture. His argument is that for Justice “the life of art is not escape from everyday life, but rather a way of inhabiting the everyday with a spirit of detachment that enables critical and aesthetic distance.” This allows the poet to maintain his grounded perspective within “the everyday” while embracing a view of the poet as ghost material filled up by the world outside that informs and shapes the content of the poems. Justice gives back to the poem not only revelations from his personal experience, but also consideration from a historical vantage point that seeks to rectify psychological and cultural imbalances found along the way. Harp’s reading reveals and revels in a thorough probing of Justice’s life as being fully given over to poetry and thus serves as a bold complement to such exemplary focus of talent.

Justice’s poems remain markers of the life he lived, and given the enthusiasm and emphasis of Harp’s reading, run the risk of being seen as if they are indeed the life itself. This invites both praise and critique of Harp’s endeavor. He is at once offering a good deal of worthwhile commentary, while at the same time, even if it is not his intended agenda, laying out a rather insidious case for a cabal of poetics with Justice at its center, which places highest accord upon poetry as an end in and of itself. Despite, or indeed as a result of, this hazardous mimicking between text and life, Harp’s accolade of his mentor succeeds as an engaging book and handy introduction to a recent, looming figure of American poetry.

The author of There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. Other recent writings of his appear in Fulcrum, New Pages, Poetry Project Newsletter, Rain Taxi, Switchback, and Wild Orchids.