Donald Justice Letter


In this 1982 letter from our archive, Donald Justice wrestles with the prospect of fashion at an upcoming event, a reading hosted by the Academy of American Poets and held at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City: “I am partly put off by a recollection, perhaps wrong, that dress is to be formal,” he writes, and requests a more clear definition of “what kind of ‘formal.’”

Justice’s concern about the formality of the affair may have been linked to his personal inclination toward a private life; he was known by his friends, acquaintances, and colleagues as a considerably reserved individual. Mark Strand writes, in a tribute to the poet, “[Justice] was a fastidiously private person where it mattered, that is, in public. He did not like to call attention to himself, at least not overtly, and cultivated an amiable distance between himself and others, which, over time, would close and finally cease to exist.”

In the letter Justice asks to have some notable literary acquaintances added to the list of attendees: Harry Ford, one of the nation’s leading poetry editors at the time, who served as an editor at Atheneum and Alfred A. Knopf for several years and edited poets like Anthony Hecht, Langston Hughes, James Merrill, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur; Daniel Halpern, founding editor and president of Ecco, now an imprint of HarperCollins; and Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has published more than 150 translations from the French, including works by Charles Baudelaire, Roland Barthes, André Breton, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, and Charles de Gaulle.

Justice wrote this letter just two years after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems (Atheneum, 1979), which contained one of his most popular poems, “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy.” He had just started his new post at the University of Florida, Gainesville, where he would remain for the next ten years until his retirement.

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