blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn. I'm in Sewanee, Tennessee, talking to Mark Jarman about his essay on "Happiness: the Aesthetics of Donald Justice."

In this essay you give what is obviously very loving attention to an aspect of Don's work that interests you, and just if you could tell me a little bit about what your connection is to Don, and what are some other aspects of his poetry that also appeal to you.

Mark Jarman: I went to study with Donald Justice in 1974 at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He was the main reason I went. I admired him as a master of lyric poetry and someone who had written beautiful poems both in free and metrical verse, which is something that has always fascinated me. Another American poet who I admired was Theodore Roethke, so I wanted to be around someone who could do all of this as well as Don did, and by that time Don was a famous teacher, too, I knew people who had had him as a teacher. So that's why I went to Iowa, and that's where I met him and began a long sort of conversation with him about what goes into a poem.

In the essay I wrote, or actually it's the talk I wrote for Sewanee last year, I tried to talk about an aspect of his work that I've never seen anyone talk about, the aspect of happiness or lost happiness, but also its relation to chance, to accident, to games in which you can fortuitously discover poetry, what I know interests Justice, too. So I wanted to bring all of that together with the mood of happiness, which as I say is something that is not often associated with Justice's work, which usually seems to be focused on sadness, nostalgia, but I think it's always because of a desire to recreate a former happiness.

MF: You say the essay began life as a part of a panel presentation or a lecture here last year. What are the differences in your mind between writing a lecture and writing an essay?

MJ: In writing the lecture, since I knew I was going to be reading it aloud, I thought more about how will these sentences sound aloud. Will they sound conversational? Will they sound informal, as if I am just speaking them, though I am clearly reading from a page? And also they have a recognition of the audience. I assume in this lecture that the people I'm talking to have an interest in the subject and that many of them have read Don's poems and even know the poems I'm referring to. So I don't have a lot of expository background because I assume we all are starting from the same place. In fact, last summer I discovered there were a number of people in the audience who didn't know his work at all.

MF: It's hard to assume about the young these days. . . .

MJ: Yes, well these were just—there are all sorts of people as you know at the conference, and it was interesting. The good thing about that was that a number of them vowed that they would now go and read Donald Justice after hearing this panel.

MF: Now, is that a goal for you when you've written an essay about somebody, that it would lead them to further examination, or if they haven't read the work, to go to it?

MJ: Yes. Usually the goal for me when writing about a poet is to discover and explicate or unfold an aspect of the poet's work I haven't seen discussed before. So there's a certain proprietary interest when I write about a poet, that I've discovered something that I want to share with people, and of course I would want, if I'm writing about a poet who that's especially not well known—and Don is, in fact, very well known—to lead people to his work.

MF: Which are your favorite of his poems?

MJ: I have poems of his by heart from, I think, everyone of his books. I love a poem like "In Bertram's Garden," from his first book Summer Anniversaries, but I also love "Psalm and Lament," from The Sunset Maker, and his elegy for his friend Henri Coulette, "Invitation to a Ghost," which I think has one of the most beautiful final lines I know of in contemporary poetry.

MF: What is it?

MJ: "Whisper to me some beautiful secret you remember from life."

MF: Can you recite one of his poems?

MJ: I can do "In Bertram's Garden," I think. It's from his first book, and it was a poem in which I learned how tetrameter—not iambic tetrameter but accentual tetrameter—should be or could be used.

["In Bertram's Garden," by Donald Justice, from Summer Anniversaries, published 1982 by Wesleyan University Press]

MF: Do you like to memorize poems?

MJ: I usually don't set out to memorize poems. I just find out I know them by heart. As a child, I was taught a system of memorization because I had to memorize a lot of scripture, and my grandfather had a system that involved physical activity along with memorization. This is actually a time-tested mode of memorization, but nowadays I just find I know something by heart. I never sat down to memorize "In Bertram's Garden." One day I just realized I knew it.

MF: Is it . . . because it had lived so strongly in your heart?

MJ: I had looked at it so closely to figure out how he was able to get to the moment where he says, "eyes and ears and chin and nose" and it's just right, that I realized I knew it. I think one I did set out deliberately to memorize of his was "On the Death of Friends in Childhood," which is only five lines long, but it doesn't have quite the kind of mnemonic structure, with rhymes and so on, that helps you through it. It's got an internal rhyme at end, as they call it. I think the poetry of Donald Justice is eminently memorable. He seems to be writing to create that self-contained lyric that you can carry with you as memorable speech, and I think this is an aspect of his work that is widely admired and an essential character. He's trying to put together an unforgettable lyric, I think, usually in his poems.

MF: He can sometimes be very funny. And something I didn't really notice until I heard him read, that suddenly some of the poems made me really chuckle, [they're] sort of dry like Don.

MJ: And having said that, I'm trying to remember one that . . .

MF: I'm trying to, too, and I can see him reading, but I'm not seeing what the poem was.

MJ: Well, there's "Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy," it's droll. And to the lady, to the owner of the hatbox. I forget the one about the hatbox full of old letters and the birdcage and so on.

MF: Who was in your class at Iowa when you were with Don?

MJ: In the class I had with Donald Justice, the workshop I had with him, I was in class with Chase Twichell and Brenda Hillman and James Galvin. Those are the particular names of people I remember who are still writing and publishing their work. There were a number of other people. Their names don't come to mind at this point, but I remember it was important in that class or the effect I think he had on all of us in that particular class.

MF: In the November issue of Blackbird we also have a feature on Larry Levis because of the Levis Prize at VCU, and Larry was another one of Don's students who had gone to New York with him and then went to Iowa, too.

MJ: When I arrived in Iowa, Larry had just finished with his PhD and was on his way—I forget where he was on his way to. Perhaps Missouri.

MF: I think it was Missouri.

MJ: The second year I was at Iowa, Rita Dove came and was a student, and I believe had a class with Don.

MF: But I've just heard many different kinds of poets speak to Don's talents as a teacher.

MJ: Well, I think one of the important things about him as a teacher is that if you look at the range of poets who have been his students, I don't think that you will see that much similarity among them in the way they write. That is, he didn't—he was not interested in recreating or replicating himself in his students. He was excellent at making you recognize basically what your own tendencies were. He could help you, usually he would help you, recognize when you were writing something derivative, something that everybody was doing at that time. But he was basically good at knowing . . .

I mean, in my case, he understood a couple of things right away. We had an exchange about the French poet Jules LaForgue one night at a bar because he quoted a line from a poem that he said he was working on, and I said, "That's LaForgue. That's 'Lament of the Forgotten Dead,'" and that was interesting to him, I think, that I got that. And the next day we started talking about translating LaForgue and other French symbolists. And then he found out I was interested in Phillip Larkin, and I remember him sitting in his office with me and talking about poems in High Windows where he thought the meter was just off, and what did I think of that? And I remember thinking I don't know enough about this to understand how the meter's just off.

But reading Larkin with Justice was really where I began to sort of have a deepening appreciation of Phillip Larkin. But I had this sense that he, at that time as a teacher, could be different, sort of different for each person, and I think Chase Twichell got something different from him and Brenda Hillman got something different from him and James Galvin did, too.

MF: I know Charles Wright talks about him as a teacher. Don even remembered—I know one summer down here we were talking about Hopkins, and Don remembered a piece that Charles had written for him about Hopkins when Charles was a student at Iowa. And thinking of poets who seem to live with other poets, that Larkin maybe had meant something to you, and Hopkins certainly meant something to Charles. And it all came back to Don.

MJ: Charles Wright is an excellent example of someone who feels that Justice was his most important teacher, and yet if you look at Charles Wright's work, it's so completely different from Donald Justice's work. Some early Charles Wright you can actually see what looks like imitation of the master. But that Charles could go off in a particular direction that would seem to diverge from the kind of direction Justice has gone, nevertheless, I think attests to Justice's encouragement and importance as an influence.

MF: Don has written essays about poetry himself.

MJ: Actually, you were mentioning before we started that who has written the best essays on Justice's work, and I think Justice has himself. I think that hese are essays that really show us what he's about when his what essay on what he called the aesthetic blush, or his essay on Platonic scripts, his essay on obscurity his essays on Henri Coulette, Weldon Kees. Many of the things he says in those essays, I think, are reflexive and tell you something about what he's hoping to achieve in his own poetry.

MF: So you would recommend these to somebody who's . . .

MJ: Absolutely.

MF: Thinking of other essays for a general reader about poetry and the nature of poetry, are there some that you would recommend?

MJ: Well, I think that the best writer about poetry and the nature of poetry in the twentieth century is Randall Jarrell. I think most people would agree, reading him and the way he reads someone like Robert Frost or Whitman was certainly important to me. I think among my contemporaries or those maybe just a little older than me, I think Ellen Voigt writes about poetry with incredible insight into what makes it go, what makes it work, and can make the structure of a poem's syntax, which might seem like a rather arid subject, actually moving and absorbing.

Poets? You also asked about critics who had written about Don. I think one of the best essays about Donald Justice appeared about twenty-two years ago. That was about his Selected Poems, and it was by William Logan. But recently, I think in the AWP Chronicle, Wyatt Prunty published an essay about the importance of music, musical notation in the punctuation of Justice's poetry, and I was struck by how right that was and how apt that was and how helpful that was if someone was trying to understand what Justice—the way Justice writes metrically when he writes metrically. There are a number of people out there writing illuminating things about poetry. I think whenever I see an essay by Tony Hoagland, I always stop and read it. I think he's always insightful and imaginative. He says very memorable things just as a matter of course in his essays.  

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