“Back in Los Angeles, we missedl Los Angeles,” says the torn and baffled speaker of “Thinking of the Lost World,” the title poem of Randall Jarrell’s posthumous collection. In Jarrell’s translucent, elegiac poems, the real places are those in the mind and heart; those in the world are only disappointing approximations, even frauds. William Pritchard’s biography skillfully links events of the poet’s life with his work in an absorbing narrative that shows the development of this intensely lyrical and passionate voice.
Pritchard is known for his other literary biographies, particularly Frost: A Literary Lije Reconsidered (1984), which reevaluates Frost in the wake of Lawrance Thompson’s highly uncomplimentary biography. The Pritchard book is a convincing rehabilitation, partly because of the subtlety and complexity of the analysis. There is no such controversy over Jarrell, the facts of his life being hidden behind no myth. The only debatable issue here is the value of Jarrell’s work to the postmodern era, with accusations of sentimentality balanced by praise for the fine edge of his anguished lyricism. Here too Pritchard argues for the affirmative. His biography provides links between poetry and life which aid in understanding the poems and contribute to appreciation of them.
The “losses” that were to characterize Jarrell’s poems began early. Born in 1914 to an attractive Tennessee photographer and his delicate and somewhat hypochondriacal wife, Anna, Jarrell had his childhood idyll shattered by the divorce of his parents and his mother’s ensuing financial problems. He lived then for a time with his paternal grandparents in California, but this period of relative peace and pleasure was terminated by his grandparents’ inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to support him further. Pritchard notes that it was the rediscovery near the end of his life of his childhood letters written to his mother from California that informed “the remarkable poems—’The Lost World’ and ’Thinking of the Lost World’—which crown his work as a poet.”
Jarrell’s sense of alienation and of not belonging persisted throughout his years at Vanderbilt University, during which he perceived of himself as a Romantic poet and a misunderstood outsider. In actuality, however, the reigning literary giants—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—supported and encouraged him from the start. At a time when most writers his age were lucky to get polite rejection slips, Pritchard comments, Jarrell was being published in The Southern Review and The New Republic. He played the role of the enfant terrible, criticizing his mentors and often disregarding their suggestions; nevertheless, they continued to advance his career, as apparently did the many others who found him mysteriously attractive as a poet and as a person.
From 1937 to 1939, Jarrell taught at Kenyon College and then at the University of Texas. Pritchard’s account shows how neither Jarrell’s marriage to Mackie Langham, a colleague in the English Department at Texas, nor his growing reputation was enough to mitigate his sense of alienation and deprivation. His poetry, however, grew in force as he set aside romantic cliche’s and deliberate obscurity for an attempt to create character and voice. Pritchard identifies “90 North,” published in The New Republic in 1941, as the first poem in Jarrell’s mature style that captures his most enduring characteristics:
The attempt to be “rather like speech” instead of “false or rhetorical” (in the words of a December 1940 letter to Tate); the impulse, concurrently, to speak in a gravely authoritative way about human experience; and the sense that somehow the child is importantly connected to that way of speaking come together in the…poem, ’90 North.”
This poem, exploring “the difference between childish illusion and adult disenchantment,” introduces the essential Jarrell.
His first collection, Bloodfrom a Stranger (1942), was for the most part a nostalgid romantic collection of poems of pathos. It was not until Jarrell experienced the war first hand that he found his true voice. His enlistment in the Army Air Corps and his experiences as a celestial navigator tower operator working with B-29 crews formed the basis for many of his best- known poems. His two books of war poems, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), include many widely anthologized pieces including the ubiquitous “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”...
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