The Poetry of Jarrell Essay - Critical Essays

Randall Jarrell

Critical Evaluation

By the time of his death, Randall Jarrell had become one of the recognized leading poets in America. His writing includes a satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution, two books of essays, literary and social-critical, two children’s books, several translations from German works, and seven books of poetry which collect the work of more than twenty years.

Perhaps his most important book was his second, Little Friend, Little Friend. These poems, published in 1945, marked the true beginning of his successful career. The book is largely composed of war poems—the title is the repeated name of an airplane—and the best of Jarrell’s work on this theme is here. The most famous, possibly because the shortest, of these is “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”

Some critics have viewed this as a poem dealing with the theme of the individual in the modern world. This interpretation seems removed from the content of the poem, but we can see the line of reasoning which may lead to it: the gunner hunched in the belly of the State, which is also associated with the womb of his mother (see Jarrell’s note—“he looked like a foetus in the womb”); the transition is from the apparently prenatal life of dream to the waking “nightmare” of the fighters, a waking which is simultaneous with death. Presumably critics have felt that his epiphanic awakening to the fatal horror of the State symbolizes the general power of the mechanized State to crush out the life of an individual, to press him into dormancy. A less sympathetic critic has said of the poem that the last line, with its matter-of-fact expression of the grotesque, leaves much to be desired; that although horror may be unrelieved in poetry, a fuller vision of the implications of death must be present: the poem stops too soon.

Both of these views hurt the poem. The former finds so much that the poem becomes a sterile, rather trite idea; the latter demands so much that he does not see what is there. For us, the poem is a good capsule summary of three of Jarrell’s major themes: death, especially in war; the relationship of mother and child, and childhood in general; and social criticism of the kind that finds prose expression in his essays titled A Sas Heart at the Supermarket. Further, one finds in many of Jarrell’s poems, as in this one, the exploration and use of dreaming.

“Losses” was published in the 1945 volume, and its title was used for the next book, Losses, of 1948. The men killed, as pictured in the poem, were not sufficiently alive, not old enough to have been quite alive; and only at the moment of vision which transcended cities could they die. It is the idea of Keats, that at the most intense moment of life there is death, and at death there is life.

In “The Dead Wingman” death and dream again merge, as a sleeping pilot dreams of searching for his wingman who was shot down. “Fires” is repeated in each of the stanzas, and it is implied that the sleeping pilot’s own plane is in trouble; so when we are told only at the end that the pilot is sleeping, we assume his death. In fact, were it not for Jarrell’s explanatory note, this would be the inevitable conclusion. This documentation raises a very real question in evaluating Jarrell’s work, for although he insisted that his notes are unnecessary, still they are often quite necessary to the understanding of the poems. Often rather than notes the necessary information is given at the head of the poem: often, as in the last two books, there are no notes and the reader finds that the poems require close concentration. The poet must decide what his poems...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)