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This article is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

Donald Justice: The Poetry of Departures N.S. Thompson
One of the main subjects of twentieth-century American lyric poetry is an immediate one-off experience referring to an existential moment, a matter of ‘things in their thisness’ revealed. John Bayley once put this forward in an interesting dichotomy:

There are two lines or developments in recent Anglo-American poetry… One might be described as the aggregative and anecdotal, the other as the aphasic and self-cancelling. Auden is the model and master of the first type, Wallace Stevens of the second. (Parnassus, Spring–Summer 1981, p. 83)

This second type of poetry does not refer to – or need be interpreted in – any wider web of meaning; as Stevens himself put it in a poem, his subjects are seen in perspective ‘At the moment’s being, without history’ (‘The Beginning’). It follows that such poetry be original to the poet and consist of his or her single lived experience or perception. Some of the best early examples would be, say, William Carlos Williams’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’ or ‘Proletarian Portrait’ where the individual poem exists in its own quiddity and does not lock into intertextual relationships to create a wider range of meaning, such as a philosophy or a political doctrine. Another early exponent, Archibald McLeish, famously said in his poem ‘Ars Poetica’: ‘A poem should not mean/ But be.’

When one comes to the work of Donald Justice, who began writing in the early 1950s under the influence of Williams, Stevens ...


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