There are critics by nature and critics by necessity, and perhaps even critics by accident. Donald Justice liked the idea of criticism more than he liked being a poetry critic. When he came to collect his essays just before turning sixty, there were scarcely a hundred pages to trouble him. The rest of Platonic Scripts (1984) was pieced out with interviews and scraps from his notebooks, the detritus of a writer’s life, though no less revealing for that. There were reviews from the 1950s he chose not to preserve, reviews that displayed a more captious temper than his later essays; much as Justice relished the corrosive wit and mortal lightning of a Randall Jarrell, he had decided his interest in critical prose could better be served by the rare essay, written when the spirit moved him.

What to Justice might have seemed a lazy engagement with criticism proved an exemplary...

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