Donald Justice

Donald Justice (August 12, 1925 – August 6, 2004)
Donald Justice would be 91 were he alive today.  His name has never permeated the culture as it should.  Not just a good poet, he is a great poet with his devastating pieces that stab the emotions.  He’s a poet of death and nostalgia and aging; to read a Justice poem is to come to terms with the inevitabilities  of one’s own life.
“On the Death of Friends in Childhood”Donald_Justice
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
This poem can be almost unbearable to read if you think of those who died too young.  “She just turned over and fell asleep,” my mother explained away the death of leukemia of my very best friend.  She was 7.  Zanna Ziegler, who attempted to dig to China with me.  Who looked at a strange passing man and wondered if his name might be Walter.  Who told me the story of Peter Pan and explained what a “stroke” was to me.  She named a cat “Indiana,” who was picked up on a high-way there.  And when my family found a wandering stray on a road in “Oklahoma” what else could his name be but Oklahoma?  We called each other “Tweet”.
Using a Malaysian form, the pantoum, Justice wrote:

Pantoum of the Great Depression

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don’t remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don’t remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

My parents and many others could testify to the cyclical circular rotation of each passing day of the American Depression.  The repetition of lines is a brilliant way to depict the claustrophobic time and the befogged souls of the people.


“Men at Forty” evokes the elegiac sense of loss that shoots through our lives:

Men at Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

What is the “it” they feel?  I think it’s the loss of time, the shortening of a future, the sense that shaking things up is no longer a possibility.  It’s the knowing that most likely one has passed the mid-point of a life and that one has become, impossibly, one’s parent in many ways.  Filled with the immensity of the intimation of mortality, people at forty are aware of the shut doors behind them.
In the poem “Incident in a Rose Garden”, Death is personified as a Spanish waiter:
“And there stood Death in the garden,
Dressed like a Spanish waiter.
He had the air of someone
Who, because he likes arriving
At all appointments early,
Learns to think himself patient.
I watched him pinch one bloom off
And hold it to his nose–
A connoisseur of roses–
One bloom and then another.
They strewed the earth around him.”
Death is a patient “connoisseur” of roses, a figure who is overly punctual.   In this poem he has a Spanish flair (which reminds me of the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” by Robert Browning).  This image of Death is unsettling, even shocking, because literature and out imaginations have treated him as a skull, as a grim reaper (reaping, not luxuriating in the aroma of flowers).
Justice deserves to be better read and read more often.  He is one of those excellent poets who offer us a “vade mecum” through life and its losses and our procession towards death.   Other excellent poems include “A Dancer’s Life,”  (Her life–she feels it closing about her now / Like a small theater, empty, wihout lights); “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents” (“the dead don’t get around much any more”), the brilliant pastiche, “Banjo Dog Variations” with its tribute to Prufrock,  “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy” (“O my coy darling” — how it evokes and upends Marvell).
“Sadness has its own beauty, of course” Justice assures us and he can prove it.  Part of the amazing group of poets born in the 1920’s (Wilbur, Nemerov, Hecht, Hollander, Hall, Creeley, O’Hara, Merwin–to mention only a few), Justice is well-worth reading.  As Father Hopkins says, “The just man justices”.   Donald Justice remind sus that “Thirty years and more go by / In the blinking of an eye” and also that “Certain moments will never change, not stop being—“

Reading the Nobels


I have a placid, unruffled exterior:  I am bovine and try to look at least a little stupid.  But at heart, I am very competitive.  I’ve recently become aware of the world of “Book Challenges” and they excite me.   I am going to join a few and see how it works out.

For the Nobel Prize challenge, I would like to blog about Kipling (poetry), Yeats, Shaw, Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Galsworthy, Pirandello, O’Neill, TS Eliot, Faulkner, Nelly Sachs, Sohzhenitsyn, Bellow,  Brodsky, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter,  and perhaps Pasternak.

This preliminary plan excludes many superb authors but I am wary of being too ambitious.   But it seems to be an excellent challenge overall.  And YES, I know that the Nobels are quirky and have neglected some of the finest authors.  That call from Stockholm should have come to Nabokov and Joyce.  Why not select Tolstoy instead of Sully Prudhomme?   Or Mark Twain or Henry James or Edith Wharton?  What happened to Proust and Woolf?

It’s an imperfect list, but a challenge I cannot resist.

Nemo’s Almanac

Nemo’s Almanac

One of the things I miss in this century of instant information is the slow, patient, meticulous journey through Nemo’s Almanac I used to take. The recent results make it clear: many competitors are doing Nemo’s by quick internet searches and the quotations have become very obscure. No more loss leaders! No more jolly give-aways from Keats’s Odes or “Mariana” or Shakespeare’s sonnets! No, it’s moving towards a test of one’s computer skills. 2016 has fewer recognizable quotations than 2010 did.

I now have 47 copies of Nemo’s Almanac and I spent my younger years trying to really learn literature, both for its own sake, and for the sake of doing well at Nemo’s.

Each year 73 quotations, in the English language, are published in a slender booklet. Going through Nemo’s when I was young taught me a lot: I was able to learn how to make a distinction between Charles Cotton and Charles Churchill. It’s a heady feeling to be able to pick a snatch from Ralph Roister Doister out of a group of quotations. George Crabbe and John Gay are distinctive in their settings and subjects. Fishing for Erasmus Darwin gets easy with some experience.

I used to spend my lunch hours and many of my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor of the library stacks simply reading and reading. After a while, one gets a clear sense of which century anything might be from. Snaring a difficult quotation is an intoxicating experience. When I first encountered Nemo’s there was no named editor, just Sycamore Press. Then John Fuller took the mantle and really shaped the almanac so that each month had a very distinct and often witty theme. His superb work was carried on by Alan Hollinghurst, Gerard Benson, and now Nigel Forde. My 1970 edition cost 25p. The 2016 edition is up to 3 pounds.

I remember when I lusted after breaking the score of 500 and then I did and then I managed to break 600 and then 650! And now anyone with a computer can get a perfect score in just an hour or two!

John Fuller remarked in the 1985 issue that “There are three kinds of quotation: (a) the ones you know, or feel you ought to know, or suspect that everyone else knows; (b) the ones that you can pursue in the confidence that stylistic and historical detective work will pay off; and (c) those that you have come across before.”

April, 1984 is one of my favorite months: each quotation is prose written in verse, such as Lewis Carroll’s remarks that “Any fairly practiced writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose for hours together, in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”

The most difficult quotations were found by one or two keen eyes. I remember one that nobody got: a poem by John Ashbery (July, 1989). Alan Hollinghurst notes that one competitor was eloquent about his months of fruitless seaching for the Ashbery. And I just “googled” this quotation from 1989 and found it in less than 30 seconds!

After 125  years there seems to be no easy solution for Nemo’s: instead of it being a friendly competition for those with the best literary memories and widest scope of reading, it’s now a competition for those who have the fastest computers. And yet another “où sont les neiges d’antan” moment for me.

I spent my youth intoxicated by quotation-hunting; my drug of choice was Nemo’s and thanks to Nemo’s I have a lot of wonderful quotations stored in my head! But it now seems quaint to say earnestly to a partner, “You take the 17th century and I’ll read in the 18th century” or “You read through Chuzzlewit and I’ll read through Nickleby” to snare July’s fifth quotation.

Nemo’s has been my Yale College and my Harvard.  I still enjoy it.  I am introduced to new authors:  last year had Thomas Lisle, Maurice Lindsay, Gifford, Evan Lloyd, Sean Jennet.     Without Nemo’s I never would have encountered the excellent work of UA Fanthorpe, Alice Oswald, Gillian Clarke, Ian Duhig, for example.  But the number of active competitors has gone down from a few hundred to about 25.

Reading the classics

Reading the classics:

This is my application to become a member of the inspiring Classics Club:


My plan is not as precise as it might be.  It may have glaring omissions that have been caused by my recent reading.  I hope to read at least one novel by novelists and a significant number of poems by poets.  With people like George Meredith and Thomas Hardy, I plan to do some of each.  When I have not specified titles it is because I have read the books in the past and will do rereading.  I’ve read everything by Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Dickens.   Rereading is always in order but how to tell if on any particular day I long for Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede?   Books I have completed are indicated in purple text.  I am only indicating the books read from 2016 forward.


  1. Lewis, Sinclair:  a significant number of works. Our Mr. Wrenn; The Innocents, Main Street, Babbitt
  2. Marquand, John P:  The Late George Apley
  3. Stendahl:  The Charterhouse of Parma
  4. Arnold Bennett
  5. Barbara Pym Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence
  6. Elizabeth Taylor Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
  7. Willkie Collins
  8. John Galsworthy
  9. Thomas Hardy
  10. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  11. Daphne De Maurier
  12. Henry James
  13. Rose Macauley
  14. Somerset Maugham
  15. Herman Melville
  16. George Meredith
  17. Nancy Mitford
  18. Toni Morrison
  19. Iris Murdoch
  20. Vladimir Nabokov   Pnin
  21. VS Naipaul
  22. Edward Rutherfurd
  23. Carol Shields
  24. CP Snow
  25. Leo Tolstoy
  26. William Trevor
  27. Anthony Trollope The Last Chronicle of Barset
  28. Sarah Waters
  29. Thornton Wilder
  30. AN Wilson
  31. George Eliot
  32. Gibbon (excerpts)
  33. Thackeray
  34. Updike
  35. Roth
  36. Richard Yates
  37. Joyce, Ulysses
  38. Dickens
  39. Mann:  Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain
  40. Conrad
  41. Faulkner
  42. Hemingway
  43. Turgenev
  44. Pushkin
  45. Robert Penn Warren
  46. Dostoevsky
  47. Jane Austen
  48. John Cheever
  49. Peter Taylor
  50.  Pulitzer Prize winners—fiction and poetry and drama
  51. Man Booker winners and short list and long list selections



Katherine Mansfield

Jane Gardam


  1. Anthony Hecht, both early and late poems
  2. Wordsworth:  shorter poems and The Prelude
  3. Keats:  the Great Odes
  4. Robert Browning:  significant dramatic monologues
  5. Seamus Heaney
  6. Tennyson
  7. Robert Frost
  8. Yeats
  9. TS Eliot
  10. Wallace Stevens
  11. George Szirtes
  12. ee cummings
  13. WH Auden
  14. Elizabeth Bishop
  15. Philip Larkin
  16. Theodore Roethke
  17. John Berryman
  18. Shakespeare’s sonnets
  19. Thomas Hardy
  20. George Meredith
  21. Gerard Manley Hopkins
  22. Algernon Charles Swinburns
  23. Matthew Arnold
  24. DG & Christina Rossetti
  25. John Hollander





Pinter The Caretaker

Ben Jonson


Manifestations of cheese


I enjoy this sincere effusion-ode to cheese.  I am a cheese agnostic:  I should have been born in a better country for the love of cheese to race through my veins.  My taste is unadventurous and Hall’s poem makes me wish that I had the talent to embrace cheese in all of its splendour.  I have not the tongue to enjoy a streak of blue fracking through a block of cheese or the Italian cheese which presents itself as a riot of maggots—casu marzu.

How I love Hall’s exuberance!  It’s good to know that some cheeses are loyal and others are wise.

O Cheese
by Donald Hall

In the pantry the dear dense cheeses, Cheddars and harsh
Lancashires; Gorgonzola with its magnanimous manner;
the clipped speech of Roquefort; and a head of Stilton
that speaks in a sensuous riddling tongue like Druids.

O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses
that weep continually because they know they will die.
O cheeses of victory, cheeses wise in defeat, cheeses
fat as a cushion, lolling in bed until noon.

Liederkranz ebullient, jumping like a small dog, noisy;
Pont l’Évêque intellectual, and quite well informed; Emmentaler
decent and loyal, a little deaf in the right ear;
and Brie the revealing experience, instantaneous and profound.

O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.

Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year-old hostess;
and Dolcelatte, always generous to a fault.

O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses,
O family of cheeses, living together in pantries,
O cheeses that keep to your own nature, like a lucky couple,
this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying.

“O Cheese” by Donald Hall from Old and New Poems.

“The Fascination with What’s Difficult”


When I was six—as AA Milne would say—I read books.  As soon as I finished a book I turned right back and reread it.  And again.  And again.   I was a rereader and discovered that rereading was a source of endless delight.    When a book was too difficult, I would force myself to continue thinking in a vaguely Wordsworthian way that I was storing up great wealth for future years.

I unwittingly became an insufferable snob—or, to be kind, I developed good taste.  I wanted to experience what the adults did and started reading Proust, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf plus many poets by the time I was 13.  I knew that someday these books would become as transparent as Dick, Jane, and Sally.  I was wrong about that, but with each rereading comes greater pleasure.   This blog is dedicated to re-reading and re-re-reading.

I don’t have many people to speak with about books.  Mr. Gubbinal is great, but he’s extremely academic and often cannot remove himself from that arcane jargon of the pedant.  It seems as if there are millions of people writing poetry but few willing to read it.

I hope that this blog will become my friend and confidante.   It is to be my own private Henry Jamesian ‘ficelle’.  Now on to the hard part:  I think it will be more difficult to master tags and links than to try to explicate The Waste Land.