When Donald Justice wrote in “On a Picture by Burchfield” that “art keeps long hours,” he might have been describing his own life. Although he early on struggled to find a balance between his life and art, the latter became a way of experiencing his life more deeply. He found meaning in human experience by applying traditional religious language to his artistic vocation. Central to his work was the translation of the language of devotion to a learned American vernacular. Art not only provided him with a wealth of intrinsically worthwhile experiences but also granted rich and nuanced ways of experiencing, understanding, and being in the world. For Donald Justice—recipient of some of poetry’s highest laurels, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry—art was a way of life.
Because Jerry Harp was Justice’s student, his personal knowledge of his subject—combined with his deep understanding of Justice’s oeuvre—works to remarkable advantage in For Us, What Music? Harp reads with keen intelligence, placing each poem within the precise historical moment it was written and locating it in the context of the literary tradition within which Justice worked. Throughout the text runs the narrative of Justice’s life, tying together the poems and informing Harp’s interpretation of them. For Us, What Music? grants readers a remarkable understanding of one of America’s greatest poets.
“Admirers of Donald Justice’s work will find a wealth of fresh insights in this book, and those new to the poems an invaluable introduction. Particularly interesting is Jerry Harp’s detective work, part research and part poet’s intuition, into the musical and literary influences on Justice’s work. His exploration of the poems’ metrics illuminates their complexity as musical compositions, and his meticulous close reading of the poems brings alive the life as well as the work of a great American poet.”—Chase Twichell, author, Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems and Dog Language
“If it is sometimes hard to tell whether art imitates life or vice versa, the quiet life and art of Donald Justice pose a challenge to the literary biographer, who must place us on intimate terms with both the art and the life of his unassuming subject. In For Us, What Music? Jerry Harp gives us a critical biography that deftly negotiates the dialectic between life and art, balancing detailed scholarly readings of Justice's poems with illuminating anecdotes from the author's works and days. As a result, our understanding of this modest yet extraordinary writer is both complicated and enriched. Displaying the tact, depth, and casual elegance of the poet himself, Harp does his legendary subject justice.”—Srikanth Reddy, author, Facts for Visitors