Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) once said of Randall Jarrell: “He always seemed more alive than other people, as if constantly tuned up to the concert pitch that most people, including [other] poets, can maintain only for short and fortunate stretches.” These words, as quoted by Brad Leithauser in his necessary introduction to No Other Book, perfectly describe most of the essays in this volume. Within the scope of the critical essay, it is difficult to imagine anything produced since its original appearance that is more compelling on Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Robert Frost (1864-1973), Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), or Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). No Other Book contains nine single-poet studies, those on W. H. Auden (1907-1973), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), Marianne Moore (1887-1972), A. E. Housman (1859-1936), and Robert Graves (1895-1985) being the others. The longest essay that Jarrell ever wrote—in its original setting, a forty-eight-page paean to Christina Stead’s (1902-1983) The Man Who Loved Children, published in 1965, the year of Jarrell’s death— anchors the collection. Eleven commentaries on the state of American culture, generally, and that of poetry and poetry criticism, specifically, dazzle still. “A Jarrell Gallery” is the editor’s compromise, a gathering of favorite excerpts from essays that could not be—or did not need to be—included wholly. Leithauser’s roundup includes Emily Dickinson (1830- 1886), André Malraux (1901-1976), John Crowe Ransom (1888- 1974), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), Allen Tate (1899-1979), Jose Garcia Villa (b. 1914), Stephen Spender (1909-1995), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), and Bishop.
In “Contemporary Poetry Criticism,” Jarrell rates his competition—figures such as R. P. Blackmur (1904-1965), Cleanth Brooks (b. 1906), William Empson (1906-1984), and Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)—as “about as good as we can find—and better than we deserve.” All wrote in the time’s dominant mode of judgmental scrutiny which, following the lead of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), would not allow a poem to be analyzed in the light of either biography or psychology.
Jarrell could practice explication du texte with the best of the new critics, as he does in analyzing galvanically every word of just eight lines of a Housman poem, but can also illumine as complex an aesthetic theory as Robert Graves’s White Goddess by convincingly demonstrating that the theory was inevitable, given the poet’s life. After more than a half century, the editor deems Jarrell the only critic among his contemporaries who still connects with the reader immediately, emotionally.
Jarrell can be said to have confronted most of the problems serious students of modern poetry encounter in its major practitioners and, by working his way, poem by poem, through everything, has tried to reconcile their preeminence in his own day and beyond.
What is there to reconcile about the icons assembled here? In chronological order, these are Jarrell’s disclaimers. On Whitman: “ . . . just as few poets have ever written better, few have ever written worse. . . . only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman’s worst messes.” On Kipling: “Not so much his poems, whose sheer resonance speaks to inner domains that poets rarely address seriously, as his tales,” in Jarrell’s view, exhibit, “a lack of dispassionate moral understanding . . . [and are the writings] of someone who has to prove that God is not responsible for part of the world, and that the Devil is.” On Frost: There is what Jarrell calls a “Yankee Editorialist side . . . [that] gets in the way of everything—of us, of the real Frost, of the real poems and their real subject...
(The entire section is 1569 words.)