Mark Jarman Essay - Critical Essays


Mark Jarman writes eloquently about the everyday and on autobiographical topics. Allied with both the New Narrative and the New Formalist poetic movements of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Jarman explores ways to revive narrative in both closed poetic forms, including the sonnet, and the open forms of free-verse and prose poems. As a student of many prominent American poet-teachers including George Hitchcock, Donald Justice, and Stanley Plumly, Jarman possesses a versatility unusual among his contemporaries; he writes in a mix of poetic forms and styles, with themes drawn from family life, nature, explorations of friendship, and matters of belief that give each of his poetry collections an individual voice that resonates with readers.

North Sea

In 1978, Jarman published his first full-length collection of verse, North Sea, divided into two numbered sections of fifteen and eighteen poems. Family and scenes from domestic life in California and Scotland dominate. The vignettes record Jarman’s childhood; his interactions with extended family, especially his father; his beliefs, whether in ghosts or the Holy Ghost; and the powerful beauty of nature.

In North Sea, Jarman first introduces the medley of stanza forms he would routinely use—couplets, tercets, quatrains, and cinquains, along with longer structures—and demonstrates his preference for blank verse. The first poem of the second section, “History” is one of the more experimental poems, as Jarman crafts a different stanza form for each of the poem’s five sections. Jarman discusses his family history, using the themes of naming and identity and their transformations over time and place.

Themes and focal points established in North Sea recur in different iterations in Far and Away, The Black Riviera, and To the Green Man, while The Rote Walker introduces the spiritual explorations that are developed in Questions for Ecclesiastes and Unholy Sonnets. Iris and Epistles stand apart from the other works within Jarman’s canon, as examples of his two main themes of family and faith in extended narratives.


Dedicated to his mother, Iris narrates the story of a young mother who boards a bus in Kentucky, headed for California, with only her young daughter, Ruth, and the poetry of Robinson Jeffers as her companions. In 126 pages, the three-part poem vividly portrays the character of Iris, who is leaving an abusive husband and going back to her family home. The poem contains interpolations of poetry by Jeffers, and the protagonist’s quest for a new life in California suggests John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). In the first section, Iris and Ruth move back into the family home, but by the end of the section, Iris’s brothers and her mother’s boyfriend have been murdered and her mother injured during a drug-related crime. Throughout this transitional stage, Iris finds solace in reading the poems of Jeffers, which she first read in college. After nights of taking refuge in reading at...

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