Excerpted Criticism

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On Barbara Guest

In a period of American poetry in which the most visible and indeed much of the very best poetry has been written with hooks galore — whether outrageous or flamboyant or hip or morally uplifting, the arrogant or agonized or transcendent — Barbara Guest has used no hooks — and this has allowed her to create a textually saturated and satisfying poetry that embodies the transient, the ephemeral, the flickering in translucent surfaces that we call painterly for lack of a term to chart the refusal of a pseudo-depth of field that remains a ghostly presence in much of the poetry of our time.

On Donald Justice's "The Wall"

There are two remarkable turns in Donald Justice’s Italian sonnet “The Wall.” One could be called rhetorical, that is, built into the Italian sonnet form with its octave-sestet argumentative structure, and one dramatic, provided by the narrative and the way that Justice chooses to tell or dramatize the story. Surely one of the great accomplishments of “The Wall” is that it manages to fit Paradise Lost into 14 lines!

The second turn, or dramatic one, is located in the final line: “As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.” Those wings have been foreshadowed dramatically in line 4, as the wings of the angels which did not instill awe in Adam and Eve as long as they remained “furled.” In the last line, the awe and awfulness of the revelation of the wings dawns on the fallen pair. The line is also ambiguous. Though grammatically “they” in “they advanced” ought to refer to Adam and Eve ,who are the subjects of the entire sestet, “they” may also refer to the wings themselves and by implication the angels, advancing in all their colossal glory. A state of instability makes the entire poem stand on a shifting base, rather like that cake of ice on a hot stove Robert Frost speaks of, in this case riding not only on its own melting, but its own falling.

But the turn that is a stroke of genius is the first line of the sestet, line 9:  “As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.”  All of Book 9 of Paradise Lost is contained in line 9 of “The Wall.”  Granted, the line does not have the impact of Milton’s “Earth felt the wound,” but I’d put it beside “Forth reaching to the fruit, she pluck’d, she eat” any day.  With line 14 in Justice’s poem, line 9 brackets the four lines of anaphora that make up lines 10-13:  “They had been warned .   .   .  They had been told  .   .  . They saw it now,” etc.  The two turns together rotate the sestet like a wheel of history, like the fallen world itself, and the entire poem rides right into immortality.

Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice

It may sound peculiar if not perverse to insist that happiness is part of Donald Justice's aesthetics, when anyone who knows his poetry recognizes that its prevailing mood is sadness; indeed, "Sadness" is the title of one of his recent poems, and it includes the line, "Sadness has its own beauty, of course," which could be taken as a statement of aesthetics more readily than the earlier line, "What is it to be happy, after all?" But I am referring not only to a mood, even though I do believe the feeling of happiness, especially remembered happiness, is one Justice does seek to create or recreate in his poems. To quote W. H. Auden at the end of "Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno": "though one cannot always / Remember exactly why one has been happy, / There is no forgetting that one was." That is a feeling encountered so often in the poetry of Donald Justice that I wish to call it an aesthetic choice. But I am also referring to the happiness of chance discovery created by formal experiment, for it should come as no surprise that Donald Justice is one of our most experimental poets, and his testing and proving of formal devices have varied widely over the years. The end of each, I think, is pleasure. The pleasure each affords is happiness. The aesthetic exemplified by his work would, I think, be best expressed as the beauty of happiness and happy chance.

In his first book, The Summer Anniversaries, he took on traditional forms like the sonnet, the sestina, and the villanelle, and for each, particularly the sestina and the villanelle, enlivened the forms through variations. A sestina might drop its envoy, a villanelle might become even more demanding in an abbreviated form. Verse itself was a heuristic game, as it probably always should be, so that in a poem like "In Bertram's Garden," one realizes that most of the possibilities of the tetrameter line have been explored, and all of them beautifully.

Soon the purple dark must bruise Lily and bleeding heart and rose, And the little Cupid lose Eyes and ears and chin and nose, And Jane lie down with others soon Naked to the naked moon.

"In Bertram's Garden"

This sort of formal interest is always present in a poem by Donald Justice, at any stage of his career; part of the pleasure of reading him is in discovering what he is doing and finding out what he has discovered by doing it. For example, "The Wall," the famous sonnet he wrote for John Berryman's class at Iowa, has always seemed to me like an attempt to write Paradise Lost in fourteen lines.

The wall surrounding them they never saw; The angels, often. Angels were as common As birds or butterflies, but looked more human. As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.

"The Wall"

Yet it is also an Italian sonnet that apparently disguises its turn in the fall itself ("As for the fruit, it had no taste at all."). I have heard that Berryman was impressed by the caesura in line two ("The angels, often."). But among the many happy chances of the poem I would include the way the rhymes tell the story, and the way our original happiness, now lost, is memorialized in angels that were as "common as birds or butterflies" whose awesome wings remain "furled."

The first book of Donald Justice's I read was his second, Night Light, which I found some five years after its publication in a secondhand bookshop in Santa Cruz, California, where I was in college. The formal variety of the book is greater than that of The Summer Anniversaries, and so my first impression of the poet was of one, like Theodore Roethke, who was comfortable in all sorts of modes of poetry. Of course, I think this remains the case. And I am even tempted to say that diversity is an essential characteristic of Justice's poetry: to echo the recent cant phrase, the work of Donald Justice looks like America. Still, the range of kinds of verse in Night Light was the first thing that captured my attention. It was a book that said, "Here's how it's done," whether that "it" were traditional verse, syllabics, free verse, or—let's not forget—the prose poem, a form with which the book begins and ends.

If I am right that happy discovery is an essential part of Justice's aesthetics, then each of his poems seems to be a new way of finding lyricism, of making the music of poetry. I would compare Justice to John Cage, if Cage himself had more often pursued symmetry and had been more drawn to tradition. I think there is in Justice a willingness to discover an old music in a new anatomy. In his essay "Bus Stop: Or, Fear and Loneliness on Potrero Hill," Justice describes how writing a short syllabic line of an even number of syllables resulted in a rhythm that can be heard as accentual syllabic as well as syllabic.

Lights are burning In quiet rooms Where lives go on Resembling ours.

The quiet lives That follow us— These lives we lead But do not own—

Stand in the rain So quietly When we are gone, So quietly . . .

"Bus Stop"

He calls this a very technical matter in the essay and "not awfully important." In reference to the pattern of rhyme and repetition in the poem "Bus Stop," he says, "The rule I set for myself in this was simple and indulgent. I would repeat whatever I wanted to, anything from a single word to a whole line, and at any time." It is that setting of a rule for himself that reminds me of Cage, and I think it is important. In "Bus Stop," one can hear the assignment the poet has given or discovered for himself. For the reader it is the kind of discovery that can instill happiness, even though the situation the poem recalls is anything but happy.

A note at the end of Justice's 1973 book Departures indicates that some of the poems in it came "in part, from chance methods." I have heard Justice describe one of these methods, an ingenious system of quotation and transformation of lines from other poems, but I don't believe he's ever described the system in print and I am not confident enough of my memory to report what I heard accurately. It is enough for me here to acknowledge that chance methods have been important to Justice. My argument is that his aesthetics include a belief that these methods inhere in formal poetic structures of all kinds, with their unique demands, and allow those happy chances to occur in which beauty is revealed and memorable poetry written.

One of the poems in Departures that he lists as having its origin in chance is "The Assassination." I have no idea which chance methods gave rise to this haunting poem, but I can tell at least one rule the poet made for himself, which was to use the word "it" in a way that would be both lucid and ambiguous. We know "it" refers to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, but the physical properties of the word vary from sentence to sentence.

Now it bursts. Now it has been announced. Now it is being soaked up by newspapers. Now it is running through the streets. The crowd has it. The woman selling carnations And the man in the straw hat stand with it in their shoes.

"The Assassination"

As he does in so many of his poems he gives us a lesson; here it is how to employ this tricky pronoun.

I'm going to interject a personal note here which may seem irrelevant. The date that accompanies this poem, June 5, 1968, is of course the date R.F.K. was shot, at 12:15 a.m. in a food service pantry as he left the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after winning the California primary for the Democratic nomination for President. It is also the date of my sixteenth birthday. Everyone has a fascination with the date of his or her birth, I know. I remember that I spent my sixteenth birthday wondering if Kennedy would survive his wounds. The date, which Justice has affixed to the poem, reminds me of that birthday every time I read it. Nothing but a chance coincidence, but for me part of the poem's aesthetic value.

Another poem from Departures, "On the Night of the Departure by Bus," begins, "Tell me if you were not happy in those days." It is a poem that Justice has chosen not to include in his subsequent volumes of selected poems. I mention it simply because of my other claim about his aesthetics, which I don't think I'm doing a very good job of finding examples for. I recommend the poem, however, because it captures entirely a moment of happiness before it was lost, and asks, "Who would not go on living?"

The Sunset Maker is a turn toward fiction and memoir, and includes examples of both in prose. It is a book of characters, partly because it is a book of elegies. Along with the portraits of his piano teachers, himself as a boy, and his adult persona, Tremayne, there are elegies for friends and for his mother. Formally, the evocation of character brings its own demands, especially when the character is not a fiction. Otherwise, the same technical magic as in previous poems is at work and can be identified in a poem like "Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents" in which the refrain, "The dead don't get around much anymore," is broken at different places to serve different rhymes. Rhyming is also crucial in the wonderful sonnet for his piano teacher "Mrs. Snow." There I have heard Justice admit that his aim was to come up with as many bad rhymes as possible, and he certainly succeeds, for example, with "niches / kitsch is," "alp / scalp," and "Mings / things." But it is the poem "Psalm and Lament," for his mother, that shows one of the keenest acts of discovery, for in employing the statement and reiteration form of the psalm, Justice reveals both the intensity of feeling meant to be conveyed by a psalm's repetition and the potential bleak monotony of repetition itself.

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.

Out spring the butterflies of recollection And I think that for the first time I understand

The beautiful ordinary light of this patio And even perhaps the dark rich earth of a heart.

"Psalm and Lament"

Great sorrow exists side by side with a clear understanding of happiness. "Let summer come now with its schoolboy trumpets and fountains," he writes. "But the years are gone, the years are finally over."

Justice's Selected Poems, published in 1979, showed revision to be part of his aesthetic, and I think I can relate revision to the happiness of chance, for it is based on the belief that one can always have another go and find another outcome. Revision means looking again, but it implies seeing anew. His poem "Poem," from Departures, states the aesthetics of revision most pointedly, for the poem "has been most beautiful in its erasures." This, however, brings up the matter of exclusion. Justice has seen fit to exclude poems from his previous books in his Selected and his New and Selected, and for reasons that are not always clear. But their exclusion is an invitation to hunt for editions of The Summer AnniversariesNight LightDepartures, and The Sunset Maker, all available, happily, on at least one internet used book site.

Having held forth on what I perceive to be part of Justice's aesthetics, I know that I sound as if I have a theory about how he works. But I also have his admonishing voice in mind, from an interview reprinted in Platonic Scripts. He says, "Poetry comes from anywhere . . . and as far as I'm concerned, there should be no hierarchy of values in the consideration of this. What matters is the result, not the source, the origin, or the theory." Indeed, but one can't help but speculate, especially when asked to talk about Donald Justice's aesthetics. I still believe that Justice places a value, an aesthetic value, on happiness and on happy chance. As a final example, I would point to his moving and masterful experiment with narrative, "Ralph: A Love Story." The poem discovers itself in the shape of Ralph's life, and it gains its emotional charge as it shows how that life recedes from its period of greatest happiness. As readers we are permitted to begin that life over and over again, returning to Ralph's romance with Margot in his projectionist's booth and following along as Ralph lives his life, realizing that romance was its only significant event. The aesthetic which produces such a poem reflects a belief that art is meant to remind us of the happiness we have lost.  

"Happiness: The Aesthetics of Donald Justice" was originally part of a panel discussion on the poetry of Donald Justice held at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in the summer of 2001. 

 

Gwendolyn Bennett: In Memoriam

Gwendolyn Bennett Crosscup of Kutztown, Pa., a figure in the Harlem Renaissance Movement in the 1920s, died in the Reading, Pa. Hospital on May 30.

She would have been 79 in August.

Her poetry has been published in anthologies and has been translated into Spanish and other languages.

In 1979, a doctoral dissertation on her life and career as a poet, painter, art teacher, and Harlem educator, was accepted at a university in Atlanta.

ABOUT LYNN RIGGS

 Lynn Riggs is the Southwest's most important playwright and a significant folk artist. His best-known play, Green Grow the Lilacs, became one of the world's greatest musicals, Oklahoma! Riggs was also a poet but mostly made his living writing Hollywood film scripts. Half of his thirty plays are set in the Southwest, and he vividly depicted life in the old Indian territory with all its comedy and tragedy. He enjoyed the old Cherokee chants, relished the boisterous play parties of the early settlers, and poignantly captured the isolation, loneliness, and violent passions of frontier life.

ABOUT THE BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE

The Battle of Chancellorsville was a major battle of the American Civil War, and the principal engagement of the Chancellorsville Campaign. It was fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863, inSpotsylvania County, Virginia, near the village of Chancellorsville. Two related battles were fought nearby on May 3 in the vicinity of Fredericksburg. The campaign pitted Union Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac against an army less than half its size, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Chancellorsville is known as Lee's "perfect battle" because his risky decision to divide his army in the presence of a much larger enemy force resulted in a significant Confederate victory. The victory, a product of Lee's audacity and Hooker's timid decision making, was tempered by heavy casualties and the mortal wounding of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to friendly fire, a loss that Lee likened to "losing my right arm."

The Chancellorsville Campaign began with the crossing of the Rappahannock River by the Union army on the morning of April 27, 1863. Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman began a long distance raid against Lee's supply lines at about the same time. This operation was completely ineffectual. Crossing the Rapidan River via Germanna and Ely's Fords, the Federal infantry concentrated near Chancellorsville on April 30. Combined with the Union force facing Fredericksburg, Hooker planned a double envelopment, attacking Lee from both his front and rear.

On May 1, Hooker advanced from Chancellorsville toward Lee, but the Confederate general split his army in the face of superior numbers, leaving a small force at Fredericksburg to deter Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick from advancing, while he attacked Hooker's advance with about 4/5ths of his army. Despite the objections of his subordinates, Hooker withdrew his men to the defensive lines around Chancellorsville, ceding the initiative to Lee. On May 2, Lee divided his army again, sending Stonewall Jackson's entire corps on a flanking march that routed the Union XI Corps. While performing a personal reconnaissance in advance of his line, Jackson was wounded by fire from his own men, and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart temporarily replaced him as corps commander.

The fiercest fighting of the battle—and the second bloodiest day of the Civil War—occurred on May 3 as Lee launched multiple attacks against the Union position at Chancellorsville, resulting in heavy losses on both sides. That same day, Sedgwick advanced across the Rappahannock River, defeated the small Confederate force at Marye's Heights in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and then moved to the west. The Confederates fought a successful delaying action at the Battle of Salem Church and by May 4 had driven back Sedgwick's men to Banks's Ford, surrounding them on three sides. Sedgwick withdrew across the ford early on May 5, and Hooker withdrew the remainder of his army across U.S. Ford the night of May 5–6. The campaign ended on May 7 when Stoneman's cavalry reached Union lines east of Richmond.

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