Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Donald Justice's American Sketches

American Sketches
by Donald Justice

Crossing Kansas by Train

The telephone poles
Have been holding their
Arms out
A long time now
To birds
That will not
Settle there
But pass with
Strange cawings
Westward to
Where dark trees
Gather about a
Water hole this
Is Kansas the
Mountains start here
Just behind 
The closed eyes
Of a farmer's
Sons asleep
In their work clothes

This is the first of two poems under this title.  Somewhat uncharacteristically, these are free verse forms, clearly under the conscious (one might even say self-conscious) influence of William Carlos Williams--his characteristic American Gothic theme, the spare, angular, economic use of blank description.  Cleanness.  Simplicity.  Homespun modesty.  Rather like a folksy mood piece by Aaron Copland.  

Justice had gone to school with strict forms and the conservative approach of the 1950's, attending the Iowa Workshop when it was dominated by traditional dogmas, when Lowell, Berryman, Penn Warren, major figures of the post-War period, worked as instructors, and the prevailing influences of the New Critics, the Fugitives, etc., held sway.  Justice had thrived inside this crucible, carving out a niche for himself as a latter-day Southern descendent of Crowe Ransom and Tate.  Growing up in Florida, he had shown talent both as a composer of serious music, as well as a poet.  

It is in this in this dual role of Justice's as poet and musician (in the French sense of that word) that I like to think of with respect to these poems.  Here is the second part:

Poem to be Read at 3 A.M.

Excepting the diner
On the outskirts 
The town of Ladora       
At 3 a.m.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Where someone
Was sick or
Perhaps reading
As I drove past
At seventy
Not thinking
This poem
Is for whoever
Had the light on

Both poems reflect aspects of a middle American landscape:  Flat, empty, whose only verticals are buildings, trees, telephone poles, signs, farm animals.  This lonely, forlorn prairie country is the purified embodiment of open space, that primordial characteristic of the American psyche which Charles Olson named as primary for our poetry.  Justice's versions of the perfect Spring & All poem is a summation of Williams's methodology of stripped-down construction, not one plank, not one nail too many.  No decorated cornices, no curlicues, unpretentious.  A kind of Shaker plainness, useful, pragmatic.  

The first poem (of 20 lines) is comprised of two sentences, enjambed at line 13 ("hole/this is"), seamlessly transitioning from bland but satisfying description--telephone poles, birds, trees, water holes--to a more mysterious country "behind/The closed eyes/Of a farmer's sons" where "the Mountains start".  In only 56 words, Justice has managed, with the most meager of means, to evoke the imagined landscape of the American Dream.  A master of the crafted, classical formality (sonnets, villanelles, etc.), Justice here brings to bear on a form that--superficially--one might have expected him to disdain--gifts of economy and elemental reduction which would belie the nature of his gift.  Not a single word is wasted.  In addition, rather than falling for the easy pretense of naked description, he brings a human dimension in, in each poem--in the first, the farmer's sons, in the second, the anonymous inhabitant of a hotel room in Ladora, Iowa (just West of Iowa City) at 3 a.m.--trumping the very "emptiness" which this distilled tradition usually signifies.  

Both poems remind me of famous photographs, but most particularly of the one at the head of this entry, by Minor White [1908-1976], entitled simply Vicinity of Danville, New York, ca. 1955.  Something of the starkness and gloom of this landscape is what's being evoked in Justice's poems, a summary, of a kind, of the sort of quality which Justice, a child of the Depression (WPA, the Dustbowl, the migrations Westward described in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Walker Evans, etc. ), felt deeply.  Especially, as he grew older, Justice reflected increasingly on memory, nostalgia, of his childhood, of the barrenness of the 'Thirties, the decayed gentility of the South where he'd grown up.  

These poems, written in mid-career, were also influenced by French models, in particular those of the poet Eugene Guillevic; and were collected in his second book, Night Light (1967).  

We will have more to say about Justice's work in future.  I had the privilege of studying briefly with him at Iowa in the early 1970's.  A charming, courtly, amusing gentleman, who "understood," as one whose opinion I highly valued once said "the insides of poems."       


Unknown said...

Is the hotel the only two-story structure in Ladora?

Re: the insides:

"As I drove past / At seventy / Not thinking / This poem"

could have been, in the interest of economy, "At seventy / This poem"

"Not thinking," I suppose, takes away a kind of identification otherwise too easily assumed. The poem is to be read at 3 a.m.; at 3 a.m. the only three awake are the "sick or / Perhaps reading" someone on the second story and the driver who speaks and the reader addressed in the title of the poem.

The light of suffering or the light of the mind. Modest heroisms. And perhaps too readily or easily assumed.

But the poet exludes himself: "Not thinking." The poem is not "for" himself, thoughtless as he was, but for its reader, who has need of something to read at such a late hour.

That self-effacing gesture also seems characteristic of Justice.

I'm reminded here of a parallel gesture in Graham Foust's "Night Train":

"someone / in one of those houses // is you"

where economy, to my ear, likewise questions identity even as it asserts it -- and cuts away whatever sentimentality or self-pity might ordinarily arise.

Curtis Faville said...

The self-effacement is typical of Justice, that's right.

Also, the "not thinking" signifies the anonymity, "mindlessness" of modern life, whizzing by at 70, as the world passes heedlessly (or unheeded). It deepens the sense of loneliness in the poem, but also occasions a kind of quixotic "tribute" to this one stray person picked out of the world, at random. That gestural tendency is also big in DJ's work.

Kirby Olson said...

Is loneliness an envied condition, or something to be pitied? Is the poem meant as a solace, or a tip of the hat, to the reader up on the second-floor? In Curtis' reading, I think he's saying it's both, but is it 50-50, or 60-40?

Isn't he projecting someone very much like himself into that late-night reading stint, and isn't it thus a kind of celebration of myself, poem?

I read it as invoking his power as someone who's managed to get free of the 9-5, racing at 70 mph, and staying up all night.

While the Beats were in France staying at The Beat Hotel, there were other hispters gassing about on a less mythic level.

Did Justice see himself as a bit of a hipster? did he smoke French cigarettes?

I think I'm going to like your blog immensely, Curtis.

hedera said...

I love both the photograph and the poems; they remind me of vacations driving across the country. They also remind me strongly of Edward Hopper's paintings - the spare approach, the isolated people. The great plains are a fascinating and beautiful place but I have to have mountains and an ocean handy to feel at home.

@Kirk Johnson: Having driven through Kansas (I have relatives who live there), it's quite possible that the hotel was the only 2 story building in town.

Curtis Faville said...

Justice I think wants the implication of the isolation of the person in the room to signify dislocation. He will never know the person in that room. In a larger sense, all of us are isolated, just as the driver of the car on the freeway, whizzing by at 70. It's a slightly forlorn sense, perhaps wistful, you pass someone on the street, you'll never see them again, it happens hundreds, or thousands of times in a day, or a week. Before the explosion of civilization over the last two millenia, people were more isolated, yet they worried less about loneliness. The "lonely crowd." It's a byword of our post-War generations.

In fact, no one has the capacity to engage people at the rate of potential the modern world offers, but we can feel this sense of alienation, even when we're completely surrounded by people.

Isolation is really a useful exercise. I've spent time in places 100 miles from any human, and it's a clarifying sensation. Environmentalists believe that the experience of "getting away from it all" is a precious possibility which should not be withheld from future generations. Many of the religious and philosophical seers and apostles have nurtured their ideation in solitude.

Kirby Olson said...

There was an interesting religious personality in Corvallis Oregon in the 1902-1906 era named Edmund Creffield. He had worked for the Salvation Army. He went away into a forest and came back out eyes blazing. He created a cult, and told his harem that one of them would bear the next Jesus. Wives and girlfriends left their partners to deal with this blockhead. Eventually, the brother of one of the women who had joined up shot him in the head on Cherry Street in Seattle one morning, just after he had weighed himself on a penny scale.

His head was blown all over the front pages of newspapers in the region.

The young man who shot him was given a trial and released in 15 min. His sister then shot him, and killed him, and she spent the rest of her short life in a lunatic asylum.

I used to like to drift through the cemeteries of Seattle, and found Creffield's grave far apart from others, and looked him up in the UW's big regional library on microfiche, and found this story in old newspapers. It was a crowded cemetery, but no grave was closer than thirty feet to his, except that of little Esther, aged 16, who died in an asylum at age 20, after shooting her brother.

I think solitude is good, too, but for some people it produces a instability.

I think there are more layers to this poem than just the forlorn feeling. I think it's also a celebration. It has about ten layers.

Kirby Olson said...

Ladora has a population count of 287 as of the year 2000 according to Wikipedia. There was a famous writer from there named something something Benson. She was a journalist for the Toronto Star into her nineties, and wrote several Nancy Drew mysteries.

Maybe it was she with the light on, up trying to meet a deadline.

Kirby Olson said...

Here's a photograph of Ladora from 1955:,

Kirby Olson said...

I still think a big part of the poem has to do with breaking limits and denying laws on the part of the poet. The speed limit in Ladora had to be less than 70. I'm guessing it was about 35 max.

So I think there is a celebration of a certain kind of modernist speed and outlawdom which the poet was somehow reenacting, by terrorizing this tiny town of probably less than 200.

The person with the light on may have been a registered sex offender for all we know. Or maybe they didn't have that then, but in a community of 2 or 300 that has to have been at least one criminal deviant, and I think Justice was saying hello to that person, a fellow criminal.

Because he was clearly breaking the speed limit. I have inquiries out on this to citizens of Ladora, and also to their local library.

Could Justice be arrested this much later for this infraction? There is probably a statute of limitations, and he could always argue that the narrator of the poem was not himself, the author. But I don't think it's just about loneliness. There's other layers to the poem. I've counted eleven other layers thus far.

Kirby Olson said...

I asked a guy in Ladora with a blog set there, what the speed limit woiuld have been in 1958. He said he didn't know, but said this:

"Sorry, no idea what the speed limit was in the 50's, although from what I've heard there were two truckstops, a couple of cafes and Ladora was a bustling little burg before the interstate was opened in the 1960's. Hard to believe now..."

So the town has actually shrunk.

I still think the speed limit was lower then, and that's part of the poet's meaning.

Curtis Faville said...


Maybe the lighted window was in the jail?

Seriously, I think the drift of the poem, sans any eccentric mis-interpretations, is the feeling of that momentary glimpse. The exact speed of the car isn't really important, it's the sense the driver has of passing by, irrevocably, this isolate instance of human locus, the one party moving fast, the other "trapped" in time.

It makes me think of Einstein, how he came up with the theory of relativity while riding the street cars in Zurich. If you think about it, we're all travelling at incredible speeds on the planet, as it, and our solar system, and the entire galaxy, spins off wildly into nothingness.

If it seems irrational to wonder about that lit room, how absurd is it to contemplate our fate in the universe?

Kirby Olson said...

Ok, I see where you're going with this.

By the way, I ordered the Selected Essays and Poems of Donald Justice.

I rarely did that over at Silliman's. If he recommended something, I pretty much knew I wouldn't like it.

The one exception was Seymour Faust, a poet who was a right-winger on Vietnam, and ended up dropping out of the poetry scene due to all the flak he was getting for his position. He ended up at a high school science position on Long Island from which he's recently retired. I got his address and squibbed a note, but there was no response.

Thanks for getting me interested in Donald Justice.

He was just a name until you wrote about him, and gave me a sense of a real person, and a real place, and a sense of decency about him.

Do you think it's possible he could have meant more than he intended in the poem?

Why wasn't he going the speed limit (whatever it was)? Do you think that would change the poem, or not?

I think in some way he was paying lip service to the modernist notion of taboo breaking, but perhaps also talking about how lonely this had made the poet, since they were no longer true law-abiding members of their community, but had taken up the position of outsider, like criminals.

I see the poem as indicting that role for the poet.

Or at least revealing its limitations.

Einstein's mind was constantly on the SPEED of light.

Windows in modernism on the other hand are generally about viewpoints. And this time you have the viewpoint of a late nighter, from a non-institutional source (he would have mentioned if it was the jail -- but I don't think there was a jail there since the only police force in that area is in Marengo, five miles to the east).

Curtis Faville said...

As a workshop instructor, I suspect Justice would have welcomed more various interpretations of the poem. One of the things that happens with writers is that they're misinterpreted, sometimes willfully so, by their audiences and critics.

These two poems are among his "simplest" though that apparent simplicity is deceptive. Sometimes the simplest observation can turn into a big idea. Did the person who invented jet engines ever just sit watching a hose "snake around" with high water pressure?

The greatest ideas in physics seem to come from direct observation which is then corroborated by higher mathematics and experimentation.

Kirby Olson said...

Einstein claimed his ideas popped into his head as intuitive vivid daydreams, I think.

How ideas arrive are interesting.

With Justice did he rewrite quite a bit, or was he a first thought best thought kind of poet?

Curtis Faville said...

Justice was an inveterate reviser, restlessly revising and changing his poems. Several times I grew frustrated, finding that poems he'd published in small, limited editions, had been extensively revised (often not for the better, in my view) for later collections.

Do we improve over time? Is mere aging a guarantee of correctness, deeper insight, or better judgment? And even if it is, does that necessarily negate the nature of original impulses, especially those progressively farther away from us in time?

Robert Graves was known to make changes in his collected poems over and over and over, offering a different version of his work with each incarnation. This is the bane of editors, who must negotiate and legislate between competing versions in time. Lowell was also known to revise constantly.

I don't have an answer to this dilemma.

Kirby Olson said...

Kerouac believed in first-thought, best-thought. Corso didn't. He revised a lot. You can see early versions of Corso's poems in his letters recently published by ND. He almost invariably improved on his poems the more he worked on them.

Corso claimed that to really be a poet meant to shape and structure the poem. That that was where the poet proved they were a poet.

He also said he could only do this when he had been stone cold sober for at least a month. Without at least that much sobriety, his sense of taste was not accurate.