(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Among those who care about reading and poetry and the life of the mind, the reputation of writer Randall Jarrell still looms large. Although his life was cut short when, at age fifty-one, he was struck by a car under still-mysterious circumstances, Jarrell’s wide-ranging body of work continues to resonate. There were poems, sensitive and tragic, some five hundred pages worth, including the collection The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), which won a National Book Award. There were incisive essays on and reviews of poetry and literature, some of which were published under the title Poetry and the Age in 1953. There was a satiric novel set in a progressive women’s college, Pictures from an Institution (1954), and a collection of essays and fables, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962). There were also children’s books, notably The Bat-Poet (1964), The Animal Family (1965), and The Gingerbread Rabbit (1964), all illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Since his tragic death in 1965—the result, depending on the source, of either an accident or a suicide—Jarrell’s contributions have been commemorated in various forms. There is a memorial volume, Randall Jarrell 1914-1965 (1967), with contributions by fellow literary lions and friends Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Marianne Moore, Robert Fitzgerald, John Crowe Ransom, Adrienne Rich, Allen Tate, and Jarrell’s second wife, Mary. Jarrell’s published verse was issued in 1969 under the title Complete Poems, while Jarrell’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work Faust, Part I, appeared posthumously in 1976. On a more personal note is a collection of private correspondence, Letters (1985; revised 2002), annotated by Mary Jarrell, as well as her autobiographic Remembering Randall (1999). Another selection of Jarrell’s essays, No Other Book (1999), was organized by Brad Leithauser.

Although he helped elucidate and consequently popularize the poetry of others—most famously in his fine-grained analyses of the work of Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams—Jarrell’s initially well-received poetry has become increasingly shrouded by lack of a critical consensus about its quality and the inexorable passing of time. Randall Jarrell and His Age aims to correct what author Stephen Burt believes to be a serious slight by arguing that Jarrell’s poetry deserves to be taken seriously again and brought to the fore. In his introduction, Burt summarizes his project by noting that while Jarrell showed readers how to read his contemporaries, readers do not yet know how to read him.

Burt, whose own literary profile resembles that of Jarrell, is an English professor who is a well-regarded poet and cultural commentator. This remarkably similar background gives Burt a decided edge in critically rereading Jarrell against the cultural and social period in which he wrote and ultimately allows Burt to persuasively argue for the rehabilitation of Jarrell as an artist with which to reckon. Significantly, Burt reminds readers that Jarrell, although best known to the public for his cultural commentaries, considered himself first and last a poet. For Burt, the overarching principle that most effectively illuminates Jarrell’s diverse and expansive oeuvre concerns the self:

Poetry—or lyrical poetry, or poetry since the Romantic era—is frequently said to have as its province the inner life, or the psyche, or the self. That general vocation for poetry became Jarrell’s special project. His poems and prose describe the distances between the self and the world, the self and history, the self and the social givens within which it is asked to behave. They show how the self seeks fantasy, and how it turns to memory, as refuges from the demands the world makes on it, or from (worse yet), the world’s neglect. And they examine how the self seeks confirmation of its continuing existence, a confirmation it can finally have only through other people.

Along the way, Burt notes other themes essential to a better understanding of Jarrell. In particular, he notes the poet’s trust in the good sense of the average reader, whom Jarrell believed was quite capable of negotiating even the most challenging poetry without benefit of the jargon-laden guides produced by many of his overly abstract literary friends. For Jarrell, the real challenge to developing a sure sense of self came from mid-twentieth century mass culture, from television and films, and the local variants of those mass-mediated...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)