Jarrell, Randall 1914–1965
Jarrell was an American poet whose extensive knowledge of American history, world literature, and the universal problems of war informed all of his poetry. John Crowe Ransom said that Jarrell had "an angel's velocity and range with language," and Robert Lowell called him the "most heartbreaking … poet of his generation." His best known work is "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Jarrell also wrote penetrating and very readable literary criticism and a novel, Pictures from an Institution. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
[Randall Jarrell is a poet] whose wit, pathos, and grace remind us more of Pope or Matthew Arnold than of any of his contemporaries. I don't know whether Jarrell is unappreciated or not—it's hard to imagine anyone taking him lightly. He is almost brutally serious about literature and so bewilderingly gifted that it is impossible to comment on him without the humiliating thought that he himself could do it better.
He is a man of letters in the European sense, with real verve, imagination, and uniqueness. Even his dogmatism is more wild and personal than we are accustomed to, completely unspoiled by the hedging "equanimity" that weakens the style and temperament of so many of our serious writers. His murderous intuitive phrases are famous; but at the same time his mind is essentially conservative and takes as much joy in rescuing the reputation of a sleeping good writer as in chloroforming a mediocre one.
Jarrell's prose intelligence—he seems to know everything—gives his poetry an extraordinary advantage over, for instance, a thunderbolt like Dylan Thomas, in dealing with the present; Jarrell is able to see our whole scientific, political, and spiritual situation directly and on its own terms. He is a tireless discoverer of new themes and resources, and a master technician, who moves easily from the little to the grand. Monstrously knowing and monstrously innocent—one does not know just where to find him … a Words-worth with the obsessions of Lewis Carroll.
The Seven-League Crutches should best be read with Jarrell's three earlier volumes. Blood for a Stranger (1942) is a Parnassian tour-de-force in the manner of Auden; nevertheless, it has several fine poems, the beginnings of better, and enough of the author's personality for...
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[Poetry and the Age] is, I believe, the most original and best book on its subject since The Double Agent by R. P. Blackmur and Primitivism and Decadence by Yvor Winters…. It does not, indeed, contain [Jarrell's] most plunging criticism so far, which will be found in his articles and reviews and lectures on Auden, whose mind Jarrell understands better than anyone ought to be allowed to understand anyone else's, especially anyone so pleasant and destructive as Jarrell; these will make another volume. But it exhibits fully the qualities that made Jarrell the most powerful reviewer of poetry active in this country for the last decade; and in its chief triumphs, the second essay on Frost and the first review of Lowell (I mean the first of the two here preserved) it exhibits more.
William Empson I suppose was Jarrell's master…. His prose is not so manly as Empson's; it giggles on occasion, and nervous overemphasis abounds; but it sounds always like a human being talking to somebody—differing in this from nine-tenths of what other working American critics manufacture. It is cruel and amusing, undeniably well known for these qualities, which it developed so far beyond Empson's traces that that critic presents in comparison an icon of deadpan charity. But what really matter in Jarrell are a rare attention, devotion to and respect for poetry. These, with a natural taste in poetry hardly inferior to Tate's, restless incessant self-training, strong general intelligence, make up an equipment that would seem to be minimal but in fact is unique. (pp. 10-11)
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In [Jarrell's] poems there is at times a false current of sentimental condescension toward his subjects, especially when they are female. But more often another current carries us toward a realization of the ineradicable innocence and pity of the common life in all its alienating reality. This current did not really show itself, as a directive element in Jarrell's art, until the war poems of his second volume. In the first, Blood for a Stranger, some of his major themes were visible but neither voice nor tone was yet quite his own. One hears a sort of Auden-static everywhere, with other voices cutting in every so often. In the most accomplished poem of the book, "The Skaters," the voice seems a duet of Hart Crane and Edwin Muir…. (pp. 7-8)
Poetically, what is interesting in the relation of ["The Skaters" and "The Bad Music"] is the similarity of their process. Each starts in a state of passive melancholy and moves into active despair. Under surface differences of tone and theme, they share a configuration of feeling and imagery. The "mixed-up star" symbolism in both poems projects the speaker's relation to the elusive object of his love. Faces appear as part of a subjective constellation in which confusion reigns, and it is all but impossible to sort out lover from beloved (son from mother) or either one from the shifting mass of other people or, indeed, from the whole objective universe. The pattern of movement is characteristic of Jarrell: a static initial state of sadness; then a phase of confusion that lets deeper depression flood into the poem; and then a final bitter thrust. (pp. 9-10)
What Jarrell forces on our imaginations through his grotesque symbolism is the obscenity of war, its total subversion of human values. In highly compressed form, he has summoned up his subconscious preoccupations and the dynamics of poetic association they generate to make a poem that gets outside his own skin. The conversion process was not simple, though the result is emphatically clear in its narrative movement and in its succession of tones and intensities. Instead of the anapests that launch the first two lines, a suddenly lurching hovering-accent gets the third line off to a wobbling start that helps shake the poem open to let in wider ranges of felt meaning. (Effects of confusion and ambiguity, in rhythmic shifts as in the literal suggestions of language, often have this function in poems.) The brutal nastiness of the closing line refocuses the poem sharply, yet the final effect is not abrupt. The line is in hexameter, longer by a foot than any of the preceding lines. It has the impact of a final "proof" of war's nature as a mockery of all that is life-giving. (pp. 10-11)
The limitation in Jarrell's war poetry is not … political or intellectual. It is a matter of energy. He focuses on the literal data of war—their irreversible actuality, and the pity of the human predicament implicit in that actuality. The poems stop short of anger, of programs, of anything that would constitute a challenge to soldiers or to their commanders or to the statesmen who make policy. Letting the facts of war experience speak for themselves, Jarrell sank all his real poetic imagination into primary acts of empathy; ordinarily he resisted any obvious political rhetoric. In "Eighth Air Force" we have a rare instance of his swinging out of his usual orbit to deal with the moral issues of mass bombing. His failure to handle the problem poetically lay in inadequate resources of emotional complexity and intellectual power.
But within the narrower limits of its engagement, Jarrell's war poetry is often superb. In poems like "A Front," "A Pilot from the Carrier," "Pilots, Man Your Planes," and "The Dead Wingman"—the last of these a dream poem, but one that presents the essence of a familiar situation: a pilot searching for a sign of a shot-down wingman—the poet's entire effort is to project the sense of men and machines in action, from the viewpoint of a participant. In all the poems just named, Jarrell has a double aim. First, he wishes to get the technical and atmospheric details in coherent order…. And second, he desires to make the perspective that of a living, suffering man. (p. 18)
Both Little Friend, Little Friend and Losses contain many closeups and vignettes of soldiers: men being classified, a soldier whose leg has been amputated, prisoners, a soldier being visited in the hospital by his wife and baby, men being discharged from service, a field hospital....
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If we hope to avoid simple thematizing of Jarrell's work, and also to get beyond the respectable (and even appropriate) confusions of most readings, then a useful point of departure lies in Jarrell's own critical writings. His essay "Stories," perhaps the most interesting prose piece he ever wrote, is remarkable primarily for its unwillingness to yield to any of the dead-ended perplexities and simplifications that are ever-present dangers in the act of reading. "Stories," more a short story masquerading as a commentary on one man's anthology of great stories than a straight-for-ward critical essay, serves to remind us that Jarrell was not a poet with his left hand, and a critic with his right; like all of Jarrell's...
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Most commentators on Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" have identified the poem's theme as a condemnation of the insensitive, dehumanizing power of the "State," exhibited most graphically by the violence of war. Most have also agreed that the poem's effectiveness is due in large measure to its telescoping of time … and the paradoxical use of birth imagery, especially of the womb and the foetus, to describe death. In commenting on the poem's final line, however, critics have usually stressed the ironic use of water, with its traditional associations of rebirth, in these mechanized burial rites and praised the emotional power of the understated, matter-of-fact tone, while overlooking the...
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