June 8, 2018KR Reviews

On Compendium: A Collection of Thoughts on Prosody by Donald Justice

Edited by David Koehn and Alan Soldofsky. Oakland, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2017. 216 pages. $19.95. 

When Donald Justice entered the University of Miami’s undergraduate program in 1940, he was on a band scholarship. After completing a BA and MA in English, Justice audited Yvor Winters’s classes at Stanford, then completed his PhD at Iowa where he worked with Karl Shapiro, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. He brought a musician’s ear to his study—and instruction—of poetry. In his four decades of teaching—at institutions including Princeton, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of Florida—Justice amassed and refined a dense, complex course pack on prosody.

Last year, Omnidawn released a facsimile of these materials under the title Compendium: A Collection of Thoughts on Prosody. Through some of Justice’s own exposition—but mostly through poem examples and quotations by authors ranging from Saintsbury to Eliot to Attridge—Justice provides a distillation of major milestones in the evolution of poetry’s formal elements. Most chapters center around a single topic like quantitative verse, dipodic verse, or song, which has a long excerpt from Auden’s introduction to An Elizabethan Song Book: “Let us begin with the difference between musical rhythm, in any style of music, and verse rhythm, in any language.” Compendium is not an introductory text, which is why the editors created a seventy-five page workbook for beginners.

In a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, David Koehn explained that Justice’s “course on prosody was, one might argue, the most influential course ever offered in the history of contemporary American poetry, shaping the way everyone from Mark Strand to Lewis Turco to Jorie Graham think about sound and line.” Justice might not have wanted to take credit for this influence. In an interview he said, “One of the reasons I’m skeptical about whatever reputation I have as a teacher is that there is an obvious sense in which teachers don’t teach directly—the classes provide the occasion for doing what you would be doing otherwise or anywhere.” Jerry Harp, a former student who wrote Justice’s critical biography, explained that there were no assignments in Justice’s classes because “he assumed that we would be reading and writing all the time.” Assessment-driven changes in higher education have pushed many teachers—and their syllabi—in the direction of helicopter parenting, but Compendium gives us the kind of teacher who counsels “play outside until it gets dark” and pushes us out the door.

While the class materials were designed as a supplement to the lectures Justice gave about historical changes in poetic techniques, there are no lectures here, save the first chapter, which is an editorial addition. Koehn and Soldofsky excerpt a lecture Justice delivered at the University of Cincinnati in 1967 on connections between John Cage’s chance operations and writing poetry. A fitting opener, given Koehn’s interpretation of Compendium’s collage process, “an organically designed system.”

This isn’t Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, nor Karl Shapiro and Robert Beum’s A Prosody Handbook, though both are quoted. Compendium reads less like a textbook and more like an encyclopedia. There are multiple points of entry. One could read this book end-to-end, or dig into a single section for inspiration, say the long-lined free verse Justice labels “dithyrambic or oracular, Whitman, the Bible, etc.” Or, as Koehn points out in the introduction, one could follow the thread of any author who repeatedly appears: James MacAuley, Yvor Winters, or J. V. Cunningham, for example.

Justice was erudite, and the breadcrumbs he leaves in Compendium could be followed to any number of classic prosody texts. Where Justice’s own voice appears, we get glimpses that his position on teaching may have been a bit modest. Under the heading “The So-Called ‘Permissive Variations,” he begins:

Based on a reading of more than four centuries of verse in English (from, say, 1557 to the present), and considering chiefly verse composed in iambic feet (the principal foot at the time), we may observe that the following variations on the iambic base or norm constitute in practice virtually every departure from that base.

From both his own words and his selections, it is clear that Justice was a master of prosody, and this is a part of what makes the book feel incomplete. Compendium only carries the ghosts of his lectures. Something’s missing without Justice there in the room connecting and interpreting the material. For example, in the chapter “A Sampling of Some Classical Statements Regarding Meter,” Justice includes excerpts from Coleridge, from Wordsworth, and from I. A. Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism. I would expect a lecture from Justice may have included some discussion of Richards’s later book, Coleridge on Imagination. It’s lucky that we have this trace of Justice’s immense study; I only wish there were more here, such as his scansions of the example poems.

Still, this book is an important relic, preserved almost as the course pack existed at the University of Florida in the early ’90s when David Koehn took the class. Some errors from Justice’s typist get replicated; Denise Levertov becomes “Denise Everton.” Because authors are attributed at the end of each quote, it’s difficult to tell who’s who without flipping ahead, then returning to the start of the passage. This is further complicated by the fact that Justice’s writing, when it does come in, is rarely labeled, so one must depend on changes in the margin widths to differentiate Justice from the quotations.

The book feels like an artifact, and ultimately the formatting lends to its other-era charm. But the age of this text also means it reflects an older approach to the canon. That is to say, the poem examples are mostly white and mostly male. Justice was a master of the musical line, and his knowledge about the mechanics of form are invaluable, but his selection of primarily white male poets exemplifies scholar Dorothy Wang’s critique: “While ‘hard-core’ or ‘real’ literary and poetry critics talk about questions of etymology, prosody, and form, minority poets and poetry are too often left out of the conversation about the literary (or simply left out).” Where are Phyllis Wheatley, Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott, Michael S. Harper, Leslie Marmon Silko, Agha Shahid Ali, Joy Harjo, Garrett Hongo, Alberto Ríos, and Harryette Mullen?

It’s fair to argue that this book is only one person’s reading list, and during an era when confessional poets and the Beats were electrifying audiences across the country, Donald Justice was writing sonically intricate, technically innovative, emotionally distant poems. Nostalgia was his main tenor. Writer Bruce Bawer explains that “in a time when poets pay more attention to politics than to aesthetics, Justice declares that poems should not be didactic,” and Compendium reflects this temperament.

It would not be fair, however, to present this text to students without contextualizing its implicit choices. Justice’s course pack could have been more inclusive without being didactic, and most would now agree that politics in poetry doesn’t have to come at the expense of aesthetics. The accompanying workbook does marginally better with gender parity, but for contemporary teachers, the solution might be to further supplement this deeply knowledgeable collection of prosody landmarks with examples from a wider—and more contemporary—range of practitioners so that every student could see themselves reflected in the curriculum.

Laura Wetherington
Laura Wetherington's first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence Books), was selected by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She has a chapbook with Bateau Press, chosen by Arielle Greenberg for the 2017 Keel Hybrid Competition. Laura teaches in Sierra Nevada College's low-residency MFA program and is the Poetry Editor at Baobab Press.