Randall Jarrell 1914-1965
American poet, critic, novelist, translator, essayist, and author of children's books.
Jarrell is among the foremost figures of the so-called “Middle Generation” of twentieth-century American poets. This group, which includes such noted authors as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Delmore Schwartz, displays in its verse the influence of the Modernist movement of the first half of the twentieth century as exemplified by T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. While borrowing from the Modernists the theme of cultural decline, the Middle Generation poets adhered to no set artistic credo and developed styles as original and diverse as their Modernist predecessors. Often praised for the lucidity and erudition of his verse, Jarrell is chiefly remembered for his skilled poetic evocations of the dehumanizing forces of war and for his sympathetic, psychological portrayal of a diverse range of narrative personas, many of them women and children, in his dramatic monologues. In addition to poetry, Jarrell is regarded as an insightful literary critic, noted for his astute evaluations of such American poets as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman. His critical writings are generally considered to be his most significant contribution to twentieth-century literature.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1914, Jarrell was reared by his grandparents in Hollywood, California. The family's proximity to the center of the U.S. film industry helped nurture Jarrell's later interest in the relationship between fantasy and reality. He attended Vanderbilt University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate degree in English while studying under such prominent Fugitive poets as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. Although he never completely adopted their tenets, Jarrell often employed the forms and psychological content characteristic of the Fugitives in his subsequent writing. Prior to the second World War, Randall taught English at Kenyon College and at the University of Texas. In 1940 his first poetic work to received significant critical attention, a short collection titled “The Rage for the Lost Penny,” published in Five Young American Poets. The work was later reprinted in his initial solo volume of verse, Blood for a Stranger (1942), a collection he dedicated to his former teacher Allen Tate. Jarrell enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and spent most of his tenure as a flight and navigation instructor. He resumed his academic career following his discharge in 1946 and taught and lectured at numerous American colleges and universities, including Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, and the Women's College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At the same time, he continued to write and publish collections of poetry and literary criticism. In his later years, Jarrell was beset by physical and emotional problems that resulted in at least one suicide attempt. He was killed when struck by a car while walking near his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1965.
Jarrell's poetry is frequently divided into three distinct periods: his early verse is largely derivative of Modernist experimentations and employs the heavily metered lines and metaphysical themes typical of Fugitive poetry of the post-World War I era; his volumes published after World War II reflect the alienation and loneliness of both children and adults during the war, and his later compositions, often rendered in colloquial language, display his extensive knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and children's literature, especially the German märchen, or folktale. Representative of Jarrell's early work, many of the pieces of Blood for a Stranger focus on the moral and cultural bankruptcy Jarrell perceived to exist in the twentieth century, while other compositions, including “Children Selecting Books at a Library,” examine relationships between art and life, childhood and adulthood. Jarrell's next two volumes, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), explore serious themes derived from his experiences of war, while revealing a more relaxed style than that of his previous works. Reflecting his impressions of World War II, such frequently anthologized pieces as “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and “Eighth Air Force” are noted for their vivid images of the effects of war and are widely considered among the best poems inspired by the conflict. Jarrell's verse following World War II focuses on more esoteric intellectual themes and calls attention to his fascination with German culture. The Seven-League Crutches (1951) and The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations (1960), the latter of which won the National Book Award for poetry, chronicle the paradoxes and contrarieties of an increasingly commercial society. In one of his most famous pieces, “A Girl in a Library,” Jarrell's narrator structures a dialectic between educated and uneducated states of mind as well as between past and present cultures. “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” and “Seele im Raum” utilize the dramatic monologue form to develop sympathetic psychological portraits of lonely, middle-aged women. The Lost World (1965) features autobiographical poems inspired by Jarrell's often pessimistic reflections on his own discontented childhood.
In addition to poetry, Jarrell also produced a number of notable accomplishments in fiction and criticism. His novel-length prose work, Pictures from an Institution (1954), which derives from his experiences as a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, presents a comic and satirical portrait of life in modern academia. Several critical volumes, such as Poetry and the Age (1953), A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays and Fables (1962), The Third Book of Criticism (1969), and Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964 (1980), reveal Jarrell's witty, perceptive, and often acerbic opinions of modern writers. Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (1985) also features numerous examples of his literary preferences. Among his other works, Jarrell labored near the end of his career on a translation of Goethe's Faust, Part I (1976), considered a commendable version of the famous German drama notoriously difficult to render into English. Finally, as a noted children's writer, Jarrell produced a series of juvenile books, such as The Bat-Poet (1964) and Fly By Night (1976) with illustrator Maurice Sendak.
Jarrell's reputation as a poet has generally suffered in comparison with his extraordinary career as a scholar and literary critic. While his critical writings have been almost universally admired—except by those who have been the subject of his frequently mordant remarks—his poetic collections have generally met with mixed reviews. Many commentators on his verse have accused him of sentimentality and self-indulgence or have disdained the so-called “femininity” of his writing, whereas others see Jarrell's imaginative ability to sympathize with female personas to be one of his strengths. Still other critics have noted that a tendency to lose dramatic focus in favor of empty abstraction mars many of Jarrell's poetic works. Most agree, nonetheless, that Jarrell's war-inspired poems are among his best, and that his experience and understanding of World War II contributed to a clarity and power in his writing. Hayden Carruth has asserted of Jarrell's war poetry: “When the war came he already possessed a developed poetic vocabulary and a mastery of forms. Under the shock of war his mannerisms fell away. He began to write with stark, compressed lucidity.” Following Jarrell's tragic death—an event that some who knew him believe was a suicide—a number of his former friends and colleagues honored him with the publication of Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, a collection of tributes, reminiscences, and republished reviews edited by Robert Lowell, Pete Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren, which offers a testament to the brilliance of Jarrell's critical capacity and the degree to which he had earned the respects of his peers, critics and poets alike. Subsequently, many more of Jarrell's diverse writings in prose and poetry appeared posthumously, including his Complete Poems (1969).
Blood for a Stranger 1942
Little Friend, Little Friend 1945
The Seven-League Crutches 1951
Selected Poems 1955
The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations 1960
The Lost World 1965
The Complete Poems 1969
The Achievement of Jarrell: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems 1970
Selected Poems 1990
Poetry and the Age (criticism) 1953
Pictures from an Institution (novel) 1954
A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays and Fables (essays and short stories) 1962
The Bat-Poet [illustrated by Maurice Sendak] (juvenilia) 1964
The Gingerbread Rabbit [illustrated by Garth Williams] (juvenilia) 1964
The Animal Family [illustrated by Maurice Sendak] (juvenilia) 1965
The Three Sisters [translator; from the drama by Anton Chekhov] (play) 1969
The Third Book of Criticism (criticism) 1969
Fly By Night [illustrated by Maurice Sendak] (juvenilia) 1976
Goethe's Faust, Part I [translator] (play) 1976
A Bat Is Born [illustrated by John Schoenherr] (juvenilia) 1978
Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964 (criticism) 1980
Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (letters) 1985
No Other Book: Selected Essays (essays) 1995
SOURCE: Cowley, Malcolm. Review of Blood for a Stranger, by Randall Jarrell. New Republic 107, no. 22 (30 November 1942): 718-19.
[In the following review of Blood for a Stranger, Cowley enumerates Jarrell's debts to various poets from W. B. Yeats to Hart Crane, while admiring the strengths of his verse.]
In reviewing the new books of verse, Randall Jarrell has tortured so many poets and made such entertaining jokes while they squirmed on the rack that one admires his superb foolhardiness in publishing a book of his own.1 It is as if Jeffreys, the hanging judge, had voluntarily put himself on trial. Will his maimed victims now cluster round him...
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SOURCE: Jarrell, Randall. “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry.” Georgia Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1996): 697-713.
[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture in 1942, Jarrell explains his aesthetics of poetic structure, emphasizing temporality, a struggle of opposites, and a dialectical tension of elements as the fundamental qualities of poetry.]
I shall have to disregard the musical structure of poetry: metre, stanza-form, rhyme, alliteration, quantity, and so on. I neglect these without too much regret: criticism has paid them an altogether disproportionate amount of attention—partly, I suppose, because they are things any child can point...
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SOURCE: Spender, Stephen. Review of Losses, by Randall Jarrell. Nation 166, no. 18 (1 May 1948): 475-76.
[In the following review of Losses, Spender compares Jarrell's poetry to that of the Victorians Lord Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, while also emphasizing the distinctly American and modern quality of Jarrell's work.]
All poets inevitably inhabit mental landscapes, if one may enlarge the word “landscape” to include sea, sky, towns, and the waste land. Today it is strikingly apparent that American poets inhabit a landscape entirely different in time and place from that of European poets. The Europeans inhabit a landscape of disintegration; and...
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SOURCE: Graham, W. S. Review of Losses, by Randall Jarrell. Poetry 72, no. 6 (September 1948): 302-07.
[In the following review of Losses, Graham finds the poems of Jarrell's third collection banal, incidental, vague, and disappointing.]
Mr. Randall Jarrell's name as a poet and critic is one which in England as in this country carries considerable prestige. One is at a loss therefore to account for the shocking betrayal of poetic responsibilities and, by implication, critical ones exemplified by his third collection of poems.1 One's perplexity grows when one finds the critics comparing it variously to the work of Browning, Auden and Tennyson,...
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SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. Review of Losses, by Randall Jarrell. Poetry 72, no. 6 (September 1948): 307-11.
[In the following review, Carruth responds to W. S. Graham's negative appraisal of Losses, vindicating Jarrell by attacking Graham's limited definition of poetry.]
Here is another reviewer who tells us what is the stuff of poetry. It was tried before, I think, by Bruin of Colchester and, somewhat later, by Mgr. Polidore Flaquet.
Now it is time to question this kind of talk by Mr. Graham. It is time to challenge what Mr. Stephen Spender, a better-tempered Englishman who is also living at present in our monstrous country, recently...
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SOURCE: Lowell, Robert. “Randall Jarrell.” In Robert Lowell: Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux, pp. 87-98. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987.
[In the following essays, “On the Seven–League Crutches,” originally published in 1957, and “Randall Jarell, 1914–1965,” originally published in 1965, Lowell favorably reviews Jarrell's The Seven-League Crutches, and presents a reminiscence of Jarrell as a poet, critic, and friend.]
I / ON THE SEVEN-LEAGUE CRUTCHES
Randall Jarrell is our most talented poet under forty, and one whose wit, pathos, and grace remind us more of Pope or Matthew Arnold than of any of his...
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SOURCE: Marcus, Mordecai, and Erin Marcus. “Jarrell's ‘The Emancipators’.” Explicator 16, no. 5 (February 1958): 26.
[In the following essay, the critics elucidate the allusions, ironies, and balance of “hopefulness and utter despair” in Jarrell's poem “The Emancipators.”]
In introducing his Selected Poems Randall Jarrell includes a brief note explaining that the first stanza of “The Emancipators” alludes to Galileo, Newton, and Bruno. But the title, details, and structure of the poem require much explication. Jarrell's first stanza alludes to specific men and acts, but the withholding of their names and, in the second stanza, the...
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SOURCE: Greene, George. “Four Campus Poets.” Thought 35, no. 137 (summer 1960): 223-46.
[In the following excerpt, Greene largely focuses on the war-inspired pieces of Jarrell's Collected Poems, noting their successful representation of the depersonalizing anonymity of war, while acknowledging failures of dramatic obscurity and empty abstraction in some of the works.]
… Examining our own age, one feels that Mr. Randall Jarrell has most profitably integrated experiences derived from its widest clash of forces, World War II. In his Collected Poems one third of the material is associated directly with war, a category where he has made notable...
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SOURCE: Hall, Donald. Review of The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Randall Jarrell. New Republic 143, no. 27 (26 December 1960): 18-19.
[In the following review of The Woman at the Washington Zoo, Hall faults Jarrell for poetic sentimentality, even when it is combined with brutality.]
Randall Jarrell is not incompetent. He doesn't use outrageously inappropriate diction, or mix his metaphors madly, or make noises which grate on the ear like chalk on a blackboard. It is true that his diction is never particularly interesting, nor his metaphors inventive. He is scornful of meter (he writes poems in iambic pentameter and inserts random Alexandrines), and he...
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SOURCE: Flint, R. W. “On Randall Jarrell.” Commentary 41, no. 2 (February 1966): 79-81.
[In the following essay, Flint calls Jarrell “the poet of the war” and briefly surveys his World War II pieces.]
Freedom, farewell! Or so the soldiers say; And all the freedoms they spent yesterday Lure from beyond the graves, a war away. The cropped skulls resonate the wistful lies Of dead civilians: truth, reason, justice; The foolish ages haunt their unaccepting eyes.
From the green gloom of the untroubled seas Their little bones (the coral of the histories) Foam into marches, exultation, victories: Who will believe the blood curled like a moan From the...
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SOURCE: Hill, H. Russell. “Poetry and Experience.” English Journal 55, no. 2 (February 1966): 162-68.
[In the following essay, Hill discusses Jarrell's war poem “A Front” using experiential input from several U.S. airmen.]
In the introduction to The Face of a Nation,1 John Hall Wheelock recalls one of Thomas Wolfe's remarks: “I'd rather be a poet than anyone else in the world. God, what I wouldn't give to be one!” Wheelock found it incredible that Wolfe should not consider himself a poet, and pointed to the selections from Wolfe's writings in The Face of a Nation as examples of what he considered the poetic genius of Wolfe....
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SOURCE: Quinn, Sister M. Bernetta. “Randall Jarrell: Landscapes of Life and Life.” Shenandoah 20, no. 2 (winter 1969): 49-78.
[In the following essay, Quinn traces Jarrell's poetic development through his depiction of landscape in verse.]
Landscapes exist in the mind long after they stop being present to the eye. In both modes, they are partly created out of emotions aroused by what has happened in certain places. Through landscapes as laminated as those of Vuillard, Randall Jarrell tells the story of an individual life (his own or another's) and in addition relates the more comprehensive tale of life itself.
His days at Tarbox...
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SOURCE: Deen, Rosemary F. Review of The Complete Poems, by Randall Jarrell. Commonweal no. 5 (18 April 1969): 146-47.
[In the following review of The Complete Poems, Deen highlights Jarrell's principal poetic themes of change and judgment.]
Randall Jarrell is something of a scandal to Modern poetry. One of the first generation of post-Pound/Eliot poets—the generation of Lowell, Berryman, Shapiro, Roethke—Jarrell turned away at once from Eliot's prescription for poets. Thinking of Donne, Eliot announced that the poet of our time must become “more indirect in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” But Jarrell instead...
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SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. Review of The Complete Poems, by Randall Jarrell. Nation 209 (7 July 1969): 19-20.
[In the following review of The Complete Poems, Carruth appraises Jarrell's poetic sensibility and works, observing that his war poems are his finest and that in them Jarrell successfully leaps from “romantic agony to genuine tragic vision.”]
Randall Jarrell was a romanticist of the generation which came to adulthood during the miserable 1930s in a society whose most active intellectual centers were dominated by the thought and style of T. S. Eliot and, behind him, of Irving Babbitt. Jarrell reacted as did the others. He launched into a search...
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SOURCE: Quinn, Sister M. Bernetta. “Thematic Imagery in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell.” Southern Review 5, no. 4 (autumn 1969): 1226-35.
[In the following essay, Quinn considers five images—dream, wish, child, mirror, and star—as they combine to give thematic unity to the lyrics of Jarrell's Complete Poems.]
A luminous thread of related images fittingly binds together Randall Jarrell's final book of poems [The Complete Poems, by Randall Jarrell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.]: its title tends to suggest a closer unity than the usual word collected. Dream, wish, child, mirror, and star references occur consistently throughout....
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SOURCE: Mazzaro, Jerome. “Arnoldian Echoes in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell.” Western Humanities Review 23, no. 4 (autumn 1969): 314-18.
[In the following essay, Mazzaro views Jarrell as a talented but secondary poet, and draws analogies between his status and that of Matthew Arnold.]
In his lifetime Randall Jarrell found his poetry consistently praised in reviews, yet excluded from the powerful Oscar Williams' anthologies and ignored by all but a National Book Awards committee in 1961. As a result, it never quite succeeded into popular acceptance or acclaim. The appearance of The Complete Poems (1969) should add to discussions of why this occurred as well...
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SOURCE: Humphrey, Robert. “Randall Jarrell's Poetry.” In Themes and Directions in American Literature: Essays in Honor of Leon Howard, edited by Ray B. Browne and Donald Pizer, pp. 220-33. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies, 1969.
[In the following essay, Humphrey regards Jarrell as a greatly under appreciated poet of the mid-twentieth century.]
Although “literary history is ruthless toward the unsuccessful,”1 we have to grapple with the paradox that literary history, and the critics who write it, give us the understanding and perspective with which we determine literary success. Very recent writers who may deserve some space in future literary...
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SOURCE: Nitchie, George W. “Randall Jarrell: A Stand-in's View.” Southern Review 9, no. 4 (autumn 1973): 883-94.
[In the following essay, Nitchie presents a personal appraisal of Jarrell's poetry that emphasizes the poet's humanity.]
I never met Randall Jarrell; and I can imagine someone, in about 1828, saying, “I never met John Keats,” and having much the same feeling about it—the same feeling of a stupid and irreparable loss, the same aggrieved resentment not just toward the outer world of tuberculosis and of automobiles in the dark, but irrationally toward the man, for having died. Did Keats really have to devote all that time and attention and...
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SOURCE: Richards, Bertrand F. “Jarrell's ‘Seele im Raum’.” Explicator 33, no. 3 (November 1974): 22.
[In the following essay, Richards interprets the poem “Seele im Raum” as it universalizes a form of ontological psychosis.]
At first glance Randall Jarrell's “Seele im Raum,” while perplexing, seems not too difficult. It is obviously the monologue of a psychotic woman (cured or not cured) reminiscing on her malaise. She presents an almost clinical picture of psychosis—of delusions of grandeur in “My whole city sent me cards like lilac branches.”
Soul in space! But space can be isolation, and Seele means not only “soul”...
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SOURCE: Bassett, Patrick F. “Jarrell's ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’.” Explicator 36, no. 3 (1978): 20-21.
[In the following essay, Bassett analyzes the imagery of “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” underlining a thematic link between “sleep, animality, and death” in the poem.]
Randall Jarrell's poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” synthesizes three apparently dissimilar images to convey an anti-war message. Jarrell links the imagery of sleep, animality, and birth as he awakens the reader to the nightmares of a man/child at war.
The poem, an evocation of the horrors of airwar battle, opens ironically with an image...
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SOURCE: Lensing, George S. “The Modernism of Randall Jarrell.” South Carolina Review 17, no. 1 (fall 1984): 52-60.
[In the following essay, Lensing probes Jarrell's relationship to the Modernist poetic tradition.]
Randall Jarrell's first collection of poems appeared under the title “The Rage for the Lost Penny” in a New Directions publication entitled Five Young American Poets. The book appeared in 1940. Jarrell was represented by twenty poems; he was twenty-six years old. As a student he had already been instructed by Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson. He knew Allen Tate well and had shared living accommodations with another...
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SOURCE: Cross, Richard K. “Jarrell and the Germans.” Modern Age 29, no. 3 (summer 1985): 250-55.
[In the following essay, Cross centers on Jarrell's poetic fascination with all things German.]
“I came into Randall's life,” recalls Mary Jarrell, “after Salzburg and Rilke, about the middle of Mahler; and I got to stay through Goethe and up to Wagner.”1 Her readiness to mark stages of her husband's life in terms of people and places German finds an echo in Karl Shapiro's remark that Jarrell's Selected Poems might take as its subtitle “Hansel and Gretel in America.”2 The world of Grimm's Märchen: that is in fact the...
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SOURCE: Chappell, Fred. “The Longing to Belong.” Field: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 35 (fall 1986): 23-29.
[In the following essay, Chappell illuminates the figure of the alienated child in Jarrell's verse.]
It is the dread question the interviewer never fails to ask: “Why did you become a writer?” The author sweats and stammers. He doesn't know why he became a writer. If he knew that he would know perhaps more than is good for him, certainly more than is good for his work.
But the novelist Jose Luis Donoso has a telling answer. Why is he a writer? “Because,” he says, “I wasn't invited to the party.”
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SOURCE: Vardamis, Alex A. “Randall Jarrell's Poetry of Aerial Warfare.” War, Literature, and the Arts 2, no. 1 (spring 1990): 63-82.
[In the following essay, Vardamis studies Jarrell's poetic representations of war and the fate of the solitary airman.]
A generation of American poets, such as Robert Lowell, Karl Shapiro, Richard Eberhard, John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur and W. D. Snodgrass, was engulfed by the tragic enormities of World War II. Their sensitive and often insightful poems convey the personal and political upheavals caused by that war. None of these poets, however, can match the unerring skill and powers of observation of Randall Jarrell...
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SOURCE: Hammer, Langdon. “Who Was Randall Jarrell?” Yale Review 79, no. 2 (spring 1990): 389-405.
[In the following essay, Hammer chronicles Jarrell's career as a postwar American poet, concentrating on his attempts to reassess the poetic values of his generation.]
Even twenty-five years after his death, Randall Jarrell is widely admired as the virtuosic reviewer of poetry who regularly appeared in literary quarterlies such as this one. He is also known as the author of a short, shocking, riddle-like poem called “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and, though less widely, a dramatic monologue called “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.” A small group of...
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SOURCE: Longenbach, James. “Randall Jarrell's Semifeminine Mind.” Southwest Review 81, no. 3 (summer 1996): 368-86.
[In the following essay, Longenbach affirms Jarrell's so-called “semifeminine” poetic sensibility.]
As a boy, Randall Jarrell posed for the statue of Ganymede, loved by Zeus, adorning the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville's Centennial Park. Jarrell's adult friends were bemused by this anecdote, for it seemed almost too appropriate to their idea of Jarrell's sensibility: over and over again their memoirs return, more or less uncomfortably, to Jarrell's lack of manly virtues. Berryman remembered that Jarrell once had a hangover brought on by a...
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SOURCE: Travisano, Thomas. “Randall's Jarrell's Poetics: A Rediscovered Milestone.” Georgia Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1996): 691-96.
[In the following essay, Travisano remarks on Jarrell's 1942 lecture “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry” (first published in 1996), and discusses his status as a literary critic.]
No ideas but in things.
—William Carlos Williams
There are no things in a poem, only processes.
For many readers today the name of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) is associated most...
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