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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Number 166: Donald Justice "Poem"


This poem is not addressed to you.
You may come into it briefly,
But no one will find you here, no one.
You will have changed before the poem will.

Even while you sit there, unmovable,
You have begun to vanish. And it does not matter.
The poem will go on without you.
It has the spurious glamor of certain voids.

It is not sad, really, only empty.
Once perhaps it was sad, no one knows why.
It prefers to remember nothing.
Nostalgias were peeled from it long ago.

Your type of beauty has no place here.
Night is the sky over this poem.
It is too black for stars.
And do not look for any illumination.

You neither can nor should understand what it means.
Listen, it comes with out guitar,
Neither in rags nor any purple fashion.
And there is nothing in it to comfort you.

Close your eyes, yawn. It will be over soon.
You will forget the poem, but not before
It has forgotten you. And it does not matter.
It has been most beautiful in its erasures.

O bleached mirrors! Oceans of the drowned!
Nor is one silence equal to another.
And it does not matter what you think.
This poem is not addressed to you.

--Donald Justice

Hap Notes: Here's a fairly shocking thing to tell you: Donald Justice (1925-2004) wrote no bad poems. He wrote nothing that makes you nod off, no twenty page odes to the plinths of Nineveh, no over-heated dishevelments about some girl he met on the quad. Justice knew his medium and he wrote without fanfare or cape-swirling or flash powder. It's hard to think of anyone who actually understood poetry in all its forms better than Justice. (Now, take that in because it is epic.) If you really want to understand how to write poetry, read Justice. His oevre is relatively small and easily read, but if you understand what he's doing, it says it all.

Justice is probably the most lauded of all the teachers at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and none of his students came away from him without valuable instruction and surprise at how little he is known. Justice had been a student there himself and studied under John Berryman and Robert Lowell, both of whom made an impression on him. Justice taught a who's who of contemporary poets including yesterday's poet, Mark Jarman.

Justice was born and raised in Miami and there's a peculiar tone to the southern voice in Florida; it's not like the rest of the South but retains remnants of it. His early work has traces of this. He was a composition student at the University of Miami under composer Carl Ruggles who urged him to study more with Hindemith at Yale. Justice, talented as he was with music, chose writing and poetry. It may make a certain amount of sense, what with the popular view that poetry is music but Justice disagrees with that thought and as he had a good deal of talent for musical composition, I bow to the master on this one.

In fact, he said in an interview, "If my poems are musical, as indeed some have claimed, they have, I hope, the music of poetry and not the music of music. But then how could they have the music of music, which is completely and utterly different from the music of poetry? I think the two kinds of music have nothing--or next to nothing--in common. In poetry the word music is pretty much a figure, not a fact--a metaphor at best. The most that I would be willing to grant is that both music and poetry come out of similar sensibilities."

Today's poem is a classic example of how to make your work mean more with less. Is the poem poking fun at the idea that poetry lives forever? Is it having a good time at the expense of the reader like so much "confessional" poetry? Is it making fun of romantic notions about poetry clad in purple and full of stars? Is it telling you something about how you read and what you expect from the writer and what the writer writes and what he expects from you as a reader? The poem is the object, there is a writer, the poem assumes there is a reader- if there was not, who would be in oblivion the reader or the poem? Does this poem beg for your attention? How? And that's just the surface of the poem. You can think on this for days and come up with different questions and answers. It's a phenomenal poem.

For me, this poem is always a heart-stopper. You know how you read a poem and everything goes silent, your heart stops and you feel that thrill like just the millisecond before you go down the roller coaster? You ever get that?

Here's a great Justice quote: "If you are going to write formally, learn the forms--the meters especially--from study of the great poets and poems of the past. It also helps a lot to know some poets from other languages (but perhaps not too many)--a few stars to be guided by. If you are going to write free verse, study of the great past masters of free verse is likewise absolutely necessary, I should think: Stevens & Williams, Pound & Eliot--and a scattering of other poems if not poets. Then of course everyone will--whether advised to or not--develop two or three favorites, whether they're really all that marvelous or not, and these favorites are to be prized--they are an important part of the mix."

You can find more Justice here:

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