Donald Justice’s Oblivion On Writers & Writing
Reviewed by Susan Laddon


Donald Justice’s essays on writing are an eclectic collection of the poet’s insightful views on such topics as Baudelaire’s sincerity, Meters and Memory, The Free Verse Line in Stevens, and Of the Music of Poetry to name only three. Of the eight main essays, (There is a second section titled: ‘Appreciations’ with essays on Yvor Winters, Weldon Kees, W.C. Williams and Philip Larkin and finally, a third section; ‘Notebooks’ with two essays: Notes of an Outsider, and “O Clouds All Afternoon Becalmed and Pure.”) I found the first two essays mentioned above to be the most meaningful. Justice begins his collection by choosing to discuss Baudelaire: the Question of His Sincerity or Variations on Several Texts by Eliot to illuminate the necessity for the ‘authentic voice’ of a writer. He poses an effective argument for biographical sincerity by making statements such as:

“Sincerity,…means not only believing what you say but acting out in your life what you say in your poetry, and preferably before writing it down. He continues this thought by asserting that if a writer follows this maxim, (she) he cannot help but gain “the moral approbation of his (her) audience, for it is obviously wrong, though appallingly human, to say or do what you do not believe.” This is an effective assertion, in my estimation because Justice is referring to the ‘question’ of the veracity of confessional poetry. He continues by explaining that it appeared to be that the test of ‘real sincerity’ consisted of the writer’s ability to ‘confess to those dreadful nighttime imaginings characteristic, apparently, of the latter stages of Romanticism. He then makes his case by very carefully considering specific lines from Baudelaire’s work, and assures us that the subject matter so vividly described by the poet bore a direct correlation to his actual life. He then quotes Eliot’s perception of Baudelaire as a keeper, or beacon, if you will, of a particular type of sincerity. According to Eliot, Baudelaire’s writing, moreover, his sincerity could be characterized thus: ‘”The best that can be said [for Baudelaire], and that is a very great deal, is that what he knew he found out for himself.”’ In doing so, he achieved “a kind of equation between the life and the work…not a measure of literature at all, (but rather) it might do as a workable standard for life.”

The most interesting aspect of this essay is the complexity of Justice’s argument from that point. He concludes the narrative by postulating that biographical sincerity cannot help but become a marketable commodity. Justice asserts sincerity within writing is “discovering what you mean by or in the act of saying it.” Therefore, Justice further postulates that the ‘sincere poet’ “becomes a performer, a charlatan, a great pretender; art is artifice. What he has to be sincere about is his art.” This perspective simply strengthens what we have hopefully already come to discover on our own, as young writers searching for our own voice. From what I can conclude from this essay, Justice is merely confirming what we already know by now. As writers, we don’t necessarily owe anything to the truth, instead, by filtering parts of ourselves, that is to say, our individual and specific perspectives and life experiences into our work, we as individuals cease to matter as much, and our writing comes to stand in it’s place.

To assert that Justice’s second essay, ‘Meters and Memory’ proved to be immeasurably helpful to me would be an understatement. Justice is quite clear and thorough in his descriptions regarding meter. He begins by presenting his reader with a simple mnemonic exercise, “Red sky at morning, /Sailor take warning.” Justice explains that, obviously, not only do the lines work well rhythmically, but because they do, they create “linked parts of a perception.” His further argument is wonderfully insightful, and I think fully proven. Justice claims that although the basic rhyme and meter of the saying would not change if one substituted the word ‘red’ for ‘blue’, no one would remember the mnemonic. “Survival in this case has something to do with aptness of observation, with use, that is, as well as cleverness or beauty. The kernel of lore provides a reason for keeping the jingle: the jingle preserves the lore in stable form.” (pg 6)

What interested me most about this particular essay is Justice’s overall attitude about meter itself. This quote resonated particularly with me: “For my part, when I am at work on a poem, the memory of an audience concerns me less than my own. While the meters and other assorted devices may ultimately make the lines easier for an audience to remember, they are offering meanwhile, like the stone of the sculptor, a certain resistance to the writer’s efforts to call up his subject, which seems always to be involved, one way or another, with memory. (My additional bolding of text.) Justice continues this wonderful observation by claiming that memory, and by extension, subject matter for the poet, ‘keeps whatever it chooses to keep not just because it has been made easy and agreeable to remember but because it comes to be recognized as worth the trouble of keeping, and first of all by the poet.” Hence, one’s reader will then be able to commit to memory ‘only what the poet first recalls for himself.” Justice then makes the crux of the argument for me. He claims there is something besides mere meter and pattern working within that genre. Pattern is not enough. In the end, what is tantamount is the poet’s methodology of transcription of experience, or memory of an experience. “Let emotion be recollected, in tranquility or turmoil, as luck or temperament would have it. And then what? Art still lies in the future. The emotion needs to be fixed, so that whatever has been temporarily recovered may become as nearly permanent as possible allowing it to be called back again and again at pleasure.” “(pg 7)

Within this essay, Justice makes a cogent argument for the operation of meter as a function of memory. That is, utilized by the poet; it provides a framework for the memory, or experience. A provision of control is automatically enforced. “Emotion… becomes manageable.” (Paraphrase, pg 8) Justice continues persuasively: “Where the meters are supposed to possess anything of an imitative character, the implicit purpose must be to bring the poetic text closer to its source in reality or nature by making it more “like” the thing it imitates.” And further, one of my favorite assertions: “To remember an event is almost to begin to control it.”

Finally, Justice seals the conviction of his argument by explaining, “If for an audience the meters function in part to call back the words of the poem, so for the poet they may help to call the words forth, at the same time casting over them the illusion if a necessary or at least not inappropriate fitness and order.” Meter helps ground the memory, the poet’s experience itself. “Meters do accompany the sense, like a kind of percussion only, mostly noise. Over and above syntax, they bind the individual words together, and the larger structural parts as well, over and above whatever appearance of logic survives in the argument; as a result, the words and parts seem to cohere, more perhaps than in plain fact may be the case. How they assist the recollection is by fixing it in permanent or would-be permanent form.” (pg 12)

This collection of essays, especially the one on Meter and Memory proved exceedingly helpful to me as an emerging writer. Justice’s thoughtful insights provided me with several contexts regarding particular aspects of writing: the authentic voice and the necessity for mastering, (or, at least the practice of) meter. Finally, here in this collection were contexts about subjects in writing which I could clearly understand and thus begin to practice for myself. The arguments he presented were new viewpoints on aspects of writing I was formerly familiar with, and had struggled with in the past, especially meter and rhyme. Put into Justice’s context, he provided me with a cogent blueprint for experimentation. I am certain that it would serve other young writers just as well.