“Risen from rented rooms, old ghosts
Come back to haunt our parks by day,
They crept up Fifth Street through the crowd,
Unseeing and almost unseen,
Halting before the shops for breath,
Still proud, pretending to admire
The fat hens dressed and hung for flies
There, or perhaps the lone, dead fern
Dressing the window of a small
—FROM “A WINTER ODE TO THE OLD MEN OF LUMMUS PARK, MIAMI, FLORIDA”
Not only is Donald Justice a “poet’s poet,” as the Poetry Foundation puts it, he’s also Miami’s poet, though much of the city doesn’t know it. This summer that may change, when O, Miami hosts a one-day celebration of his life and work, And Justice for All, on August 20.
Born in Miami in 1925, Justice completed his undergraduate education at the University of Miami in 1945. He went on to study under the large, brilliant, morose shadow of John Berryman at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “There’s a great anecdote about Justice bringing his sonnet ‘The Wall’ into his graduate seminar at Iowa,” says P. Scott Cunningham, poet and founder of O, Miami. “Berryman was notoriously tough on his students, never praising anything, no matter how good. Apparently, Justice read it aloud and Berryman just said, ‘No student should be able to write a poem that good,’ and moved on.” Justice’s poetry—modern, formalist, and somehow tender and sentimental while remaining private—deftly balances light and dark, a mix of Berryman’s confessionalism and the Miami sun. His work won institutional validation from the likes of Pulitzer, Bollingen, and Guggenheim, but what’s more important is that Justice could write poems that were able to shake people and stick with them.
Justice became a teacher at the University of Iowa and brought many influential writers under his tutelage, including Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, and John Irving. With his focus on language’s capacity for exactitude, Justice always asked his students to consider how a poem could be better, even if it was already great. His national influence is so deep, you’d think Miami would have more of a clue about this major figure of its literary history. The reasons for the city not knowing more about its own legendary bard is perhaps fourfold:
a. Miami may not know poetry too well
b. Miami may not know history too well
c. People everywhere, generally speaking—even smart people—don’t know poetry too well, and history only a little better
d. Justice was pretty Anglo, and came from a more rural Miami before its transformation into a northernmost Latin and Caribbean metropolis.
Justice himself, who hated easy answers, might acknowledge that there’s a grain of truth in each of these assertions, while at the same time, they are also all a little bit wrong. Cunningham thinks that the reason is something like this: “Miami likes to pretend that it has no history, in order to hype the future. That’s the downside to our eternal optimism.” Today, poetry is a relatively obscure form compared to other media, and Miami is especially known to appreciate the flashier arts, and Justice, the ‘poet’s poet,’ had a reputation of being especially stereotypically quiet and private, even among other, similarly-tempered poet- and writer-species.
It’s funny that poets are thought to be quiet, since the quietness is a front for a factory of thoughts and sounds churning in their minds. The poet is always working:
Published in the Summer 2016 edition of The Miami Rail