On December 5th, 2013, my fellow Iowa Workshop classmate, the Engish/Canadian poet Christopher Wiseman, sent me this email message:
You may already know this, but Jean Justice wrote to tell me of the publication, by University of Nebraska Press, of A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961, edited by Elizabeth Murphy,…
Apart from the correspondence, started by a chance meeting in N. Carolina in 1946, there are apparently some unpublished poems by Don in it and lots of stuff about their writing teachers, etc. I have ordered it, as if I would not order anything to do with Don, and thought that you might be interested if you hadn't heard about it.
Lew, could you perhaps mention it in your blog as you have a much wider circle of American writer friends than I do and I know a lot look there? I'm just sending this to you because I know first-hand how much you liked and admired Don, and how you love his poetry. Please pass it on to all who may be interested, unless you feel it's a bit soon as it'll be a few weeks before deliveries begin. I still think Stern's novel GOLK has an amazing title.
Jean Justice has moved into a retirement home in Iowa City as the house was getting a bit too much for her. A wrench.
Best wishes, as always,
A chance meeting in the University of North Carolina campus library in 1944 began a decades-long friendship and sixty-year correspondence. Donald Justice (1925–2004) and Richard Stern (1928–2013) would go on to become, respectively, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and the acclaimed novelist. A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961 showcases a selection of their letters and postcards from the first fifteen years of their correspondence, representing the formative period in both writers’ careers. It includes some of Justice’s unpublished poetry and early drafts of later published poems as well as some early, never-before-published poetry by Stern.
A Critical Friendship is the story of two writers inventing themselves, beginning with the earliest extant letters and ending with those just following their first major publications, Justice’s poetry collection The Summer Anniversaries and Stern’s novel Golk. These letters highlight their willingness to give and take criticism and document the birth of two distinct and important American literary lives. The letters similarly document the influence of teachers, friends, and contemporaries, including Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Edgar Bowers, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer, Allen Tate, Peter Hillsman Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Yvor Winters, all of whom feature in the pair's conversations. In a broader context, their correspondence sheds light on the development of the mid-twentieth-century American literary scene.
Don Justice was my favorite teacher in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in 1959-60, and when my book titled Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959-1967, (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1968) was published, I dedicated it to Don and my undergraduate instructor at UConn, John Malcolm Brinnin. I modeled my classroom style of teaching after Don’s at Iowa, and my practical criticism of student work after John Brinnin who was the best personal critic I ever ran across:
for John Brinnin and Don Justice, on a line by Joel Sloman
If it is true that
“the sea worm is a decorated flute
that pipes in the most ancient mode” —
and if it is true, too, that
the salt content of mammalian blood
is exactly equivalent
to the salinity of the oceans
at the time life emerged onto the land;
and if it is true
that man is the only mammal with a
capacity for song, well, then,
that explains why the baroque
worms swims in our veins, piping, and why
we dance to his measure inch by
equivocal inch. And it explains why
this song, even as it explains nothing.
While I was teaching at the State University of New York College at Oswego (1965-1996) Don came to teach at Syracuse University, about 40 miles away, so our families got to see quite a fair amount of each other while he was there.
One day while we were visiting the Justices I was explaining to Don the four parallel systems of Hebrew prosody – synonymous, synthetic, antithetical, and climactic parallelism – and in order to illustrate them I wrote “The Study” in Don’s home. Thus, the poem below is a picture of Don’s quarters, not of mine, although I incorporated it in my long series titled The Inhabitant, Poems by Lewis Turco, Prints by Thom. Seawell, (Northampton, MA: Despa Press), which Conrad Aiken called “The best new poem I have read in something like forty years” when it was published in 1970. Although the book is long out-of-print, all of the poems in it (but not the prints by Seawell) and the poems in Awaken, Bells Falling, cited above, are collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2007:
For Donald Justice
The lamp is standing in the corner of the study: a tree with a crown of light rises out of the braided rug.
The Inhabitant's books form two walls which rise, like the voices of a thousand men, two-thirds of the way
toward the tall ceiling.
He is not thinking of poems under cover, of periodicals with pages curling like leaves under fall trees. The
Inhabitant is watching the lamp, for it is a tree which puts forth beams instead of limbs.
The tree leans away from its source. Its eccentricity is that of bias.
This is the Inhabitant's room; he shares it, for the moment, with Corelli and the lamp, but the study falls
away from the bole, as the Inhabitant has fallen away from his pages and his youth. The lamp
keeps the chairs and shelves from flying too far from an axis.
Behind the shading fabric there are filaments which flame at a touch. The tree in its foliage burns at the
center of things.
This is where the Inhabitant lives. These things are his — these books, this music upon which the
lamplight falls, upon which he too, once, threw a radiance now eaten by wires tapping the sources
of silence and desuetude.
The lamp, rising out of the study's braided rug, keeps the Inhabitant from flying too far beyond peripheries.
Light, he muses, uses oddly the things we use.
Many years later I had a dream about my old friend, and when I woke up I remembered it and wrote it down; I collected it in The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems by “Wesli Court,” a.k.a. Lewis Turco, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2010:
LINES TO BE ETCHED ON A WINDOW*
For Donald Justice
Clearly, you may see clear through me,
As though I were not here.
While I was still a graduate student enrolled in Don’s workshop at Iowa I wrote literary epitaphs for many of my classmates, including Don and Paul Engle, director of the program, as well. In 1964-65 I wrote a long satire of contemporary poetry titled “Odds Bodkin’s Strange Thrusts and Ravels,” published in two parts in two issues of The Oberlin Quarterly. I reprinted the satire in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2004, and I included some of them also, after Don’s death, in Wesli Court’s Epitaphs for the Poets (Baltimore, MD, BrickHouseBooks, 2012):
R.I.P. DONALD JUSTICE
August 12, 1925 - August 6, 2004
The lawyer of the Workshop
Enjoyed a rhythmic game.
His first theme was nostalgia —
His last theme was the same.