“Do not mistake me, I do not have in mind the productions of societies or amateurs, literary clubs, workshops; I mean the real thing. There may well be analysable causes behind the oblivion some good writers suffer, but the causes, whatever they are, remain elusive. There is a randomness in the operation of the laws of fame that approaches the chaotic.”
Literary fame, in the sense of celebrity and big money, is rare and of no importance, and that’s not what Justice has in mind. He means common readers, that uncommon species, the unacknowledged legislators of the literary world. Critics and prizes mean nothing. For discerning readers, they often are the kiss of death. Fame is when a kid in a public library in Cleveland or Corpus Christi pulls your book off the shelf, reads your poem, thinks about it and reads another. Then he borrows the book and stays up later than he should on a school night to read the rest. He looks for another of your books, or the book of a writer you recommend, and maybe he tries to write a poem in your manner, cribbing some of your tricks, or shares your book with a book-minded friend, and so on. This is almost but not quite randomness and requires an innocent ruthlessness of purpose in readers. Justice accounts for the specialness felt by many writers, the good and the bad, by citing a quasi-religious moment of revelation, often in adolescence. In “Oblivion: Variations on a Theme,” he writes:
“Expedience teaches one to believe that there is a dimension to the self that all those who are not artists lack; I believe it myself. There is a mysterious and hidden consciousness within the artist of being other; there is an awareness of some reality-beyond-the-reality that lures and charges the spirit; it charges and gives power to one's very life.”
Justice posits the theory while remaining skeptical of it, knowing first-hand the torments writers and their misguided sense of specialness inflict on themselves and others. At its worst, this “hidden consciousness” expresses itself as a ravenous sense of entitlement and immunity to the rules that govern such mere mortals as other writers and non-writers. Anything goes for the hungry artistic ego, even bad writing. At its best, the sense of difference Justice describes is a goad to accomplishment and a ferocious work ethic. Except for musical composition and performance, no human activity is more demanding and difficult than writing poetry. Some of us find it impossible, and envy those with the gift (or curse), and others find it equally impossible but go on writing it anyway.
In an effort to rescue them from oblivion, Justice edited posthumous collections by four poets – Joe Bolton, Henry Coulette, Weldon Kees and Raeburn Miller. In his introduction to The Comma After Love: Selected Poems of Raeburn Miller (University of Akron Press, 1994), Justice identifies “three or four main types of poets.” One type, probably the most familiar, “seems so much aware of cutting a public figure that the poetry becomes secondary and eventually ceases to matter.” Justice puts Miller in another category entirely: poets for whom “what matters is just the writing of poems, and doing so may in some cases become a compulsion, secretive perhaps and certainly very private.” Such poets are not invited to read at presidential inaugurations and they would not have held Justice’s attention. His investigations were devoted to a more intangible, less quantifiable region of endings, memories, dreams and muted regrets. As he writes in “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts”:
“By June the city always seems neurotic.
But lakes are good all summer for reflection,
And ours is famed among painters for its blues,
Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.
Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphize the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?”
Justice died on this date, Aug. 6, in 2004, six days before his seventy-ninth birthday. Read his Collected Poems, published less than two weeks after his death.