Regarded by some as ‘the poet’s poet, Pulitzer prize-winning poet Donald Justice was revered by fellow writers for his mastery of precision and his ability to make every piece of writing vital. His poems tended to be short – forty lines or less. Justice once said:
He was born in Miami, Florida on August 12th 1925. Not much is known about his early life or his parents other than that he was the only child of an itinerant carpenter and that he was the product of a Depression era poor family. Despite this he received a comprehensive education, though his time at Allapatah Elementary School was disrupted for a year by the bone disease Osteomyelitis. But he continued at high school then went on to study for almost a decade, receiving a degree from the University of North Carolina in 1945 and a doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1954. He also studied art and music and could have been successful had he chosen to make a career in either of these fields but lacked confidence in his musical abilities and his first love was always writing. He began writing poetry at the University of North Carolina, where he also met the woman who became his wife, fellow writer Jean Ross.
His very first collection of poems was The Summer Anniversaries, which brought him the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1961. His poem from that collection, On The Death of Friends in Childhood, epitomized his style and preference for keeping his work short as it comprised only six lines:
His writing was described as elegant and craftsman like, often speaking of loss and the bleakness of a life which does not reach its potential, though this could hardly describe Justice’s own life. Whilst remaining largely unacknowledged by literary critics he received many honours in his lifetime, including the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1991 and the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry in 1996. He received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 1997 to 2003 he was Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He held teaching posts at several prestigious universities up until his retirement in 1992.
The Rockefeller Award in 1954 had afforded Justice the means and opportunity to travel to Europe for a year; an experience which broadened his talents and enabled him to be a competent translator. Following this sojourn he returned to Iowa, where he had studied for a doctorate with the University of Iowa’s creative writing programme. He went on to teach at the Iowa City Writer’s Workshop for ten years, inspiring all his students while continuing to produce a total of thirteen volumes of poetry.
Despite his ironic assertion in his 1973 poem Variations on a text by Vallejo that “I will die in Miami in the sun”, Justice actually died in Iowa City, on August 6th 2004 where he had lived with his wife Jean since 1955.
West Chester University in Pennsylvania to this day offer the Donald Justice Poetry Prize for unpublished collections.