Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 6)

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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." Some poems—"The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner," "Jews at Haifa," and many others—are, as another critic wrote, "almost more than the reader can take at first glance; there is such intensity … that the heart is moved long before the mind can appreciate the poet's skill." Jarrell also wrote penetrating and very readable literary criticism and the novel Pictures from an Institution. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

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 located himself firmly in the tradition of Wordsworth. He objected that the Modern tradition underemphasized "organization, logic, narrative, generalization." In an age still trying to bring the richness of poetry to stories, Jarrell brought story and characters back into poetry. His Complete Poems show why he avoided the poetry of witty metaphor and chose the poetry of what Austin Warren calls "public" symbolism….

What that eye saw was change and judgment, Jarrell's great themes. In his poems, change is inexplicable (perhaps that is the root of their short tolerance for metaphor), but imperative. Jarrell looks for the source of change in the primary forms of things—things in their first elements—and found these elements in children's lives and in Märchen, their dreams. (p. 146)

He saw how [war] abstracted life, turning men into large numbers ("you are something there are millions of"), and then into "noughts"; how it bred lies even into the language: one of the best poems is about how dying was never dying, but accident, mistake, casualties, or losses. The soldier never owned his own death. But most of all, he saw how war focuses, intensifies and narrows life into "one over-mastering demand: Live!" But then human life in its quiet variety, its "dailiness", escapes men, spills over and animates things, so that engines seem to sleep, the sea dreams, carriers are tender, bombers are frightened and helpless. But soldiers are as hard to distinguish as snowflakes—except under the microscope, of course, where "each one is individual." (p. 147)

Rosemary F. Deen, in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 18, 1969.

[Jarrell's] views translate into an overall sense of a poetry which, in striving after the noblest thoughts of men and a style which might serve the higher densities to which poetry has been called, consistently appears unreal and valueless. Often the unreality is necessary, for, by believing that imagination must precede change, Jarrell must stress moments of imagination—day-dream, fairy tale, and wish—and minimize the fact. In this, he faces a problem similar to that faced by Dante and Gerard Manley Hopkins: weighing the sensuous beauty of the world which attracts the artist against the idealism which leads him to reject that world for the idea. In reviewing, Jarrell faced the problem by beginning his reviews with his most adverse statements, reversing the usual order of reviewers and prompting Berryman's statement that "Jarrell's reviews did go beyond the limit; they were unbelievably cruel." But their cruelty was often the way Jarrell had for forcing readers out of their complacency into realms where the imagination might function. Since the highest and noblest thoughts of men exclude the ugly, Jarrell tended to exclude it from his poetry or redeem it by means of sentimentalism and romanticism….

[Wherever] the fact and idea clash, Jarrell's wit intrudes to work, as Freud indicates all wit works, to overcome the valuelessness by letting an unaltered or nonsensical ambiguity of words and multiplicity of thought-relations appear to the consciousness at the same time senseful and admissible as jest. (p. 111)

[One] might chart the progress of The Complete Poems as a succession of efforts by Jarrell to get rid of the "aloneness" which he felt without resorting to the condemnations of his parents which he associates with both Kipling and Auden. Repeatedly one senses what in The Divided Self (1960) R. D. Laing calls "ontological insecurity": "The individual in the ordinary circumstances of living may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense, more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question." Jarrell's personae are always involved with efforts to escape engulfment, implosion, and petrification, by demanding that they somehow be miraculously changed by life and art into people whose ontologies are psychically secure. The changes may allow them then to drop the mechanism by which in their relations they preserve themselves and to feel gratification in relatedness. Laing, who indirectly cites Kafka as a prime example of a writer of ontological insecurity, strikes close to Jarrell's own sensibility. There is something there that along with Rilke's Apollo or Norman O. Brown's Love's Body (1966) announces: "Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; in the interconnections; at the intersection, at the crossroads."

For a person with less skill, such purposelessness and militating against the fact might be enough to make his life and poetry unwelcome. Without Williams' rhythms of descent or a comparable instrument of sacramentalization to bridge inner and outer existences, Jarrell's world remains disparate, and he must rely on language as his major means for keeping it together. There is such a reliance running explicitly through much of his criticism and implicit in his poetry; yet, as he perceived in "The Taste of the Age," even language was failing him: "The more words there are, the simpler the words get. The professional users of words process their product as if it were baby food and we babies: all we have to do is open our mouths and swallow." Without a complex language, a language capable of multiplicity, of the ambiguity necessary to wed conscious and unconscious realms, successful poetry would become impossible. Nevertheless, a thingy liveliness might be preserved and, because the future always holds something better, hope as well. Like Arnold who never realized his dream of some day supplanting Tennyson and Browning as the poet of the mid-nineteenth century because of the self-defeating nature of his momentary stays against the confusion of the world, Jarrell seems destined because of his overwhelming reliance on the translucency of language for a secondary role. Readers should not be discouraged, however, from discovering the excellences or the abundance of wisdom, hope, humanity, and despair which the in-betweens of Jarrell's poetry contain, nor from a recognition of his role in bringing psychological concepts to the techniques of American poetry. If, as Shapiro senses, he failed in that role, all the same, he succeeded in making others aware of the course poetry must take. One expects that, as Arnold, Jarrell—though perhaps not as highly ranked as others of his generation—will live as long as any of them. (pp. 112-13)

Jerome Mazzaro, "Between Two Worlds: the Post-Modernism of Randall Jarrell," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1971 by Skidmore College), Fall, 1971, pp. 93-113.

Randall Jarrell's best poems are those that do not evade his despondency but employ it. Employment of this sort was rare because he did not like to convey such a feeling as his own—no doubt for fear of sounding sloppy. In most of his work Jarrell shunned personal subjectivity and felt bound to start from observed life, fact, real experience. "Real" normally meant disappointing experience, which he then countered with ironic insights or with dreams. The shield of the dramatic monologue always attracted him, though he seldom gave convincing expression to people unlike himself.

In the poems he wrote about the Second World War, Jarrell tried to mask his native despair as an emotion created by the war. The strategy did not work. His theme became the wastefulness of war. But he seldom dealt with the carefully shaped, irreplaceable persons the world had lost. Instead, he wrote about the possible life the men had missed. This vanished futurity could hardly be concrete or particular, and the soldier therefore was too often a case rather than a person….

To supply the absent life, Jarrell used dreams. In his dramatic monologues, defeated women and troubled children—the fathers do not count—keep trying to distinguish between sleep and waking, the life they never had and the life they cannot understand. But where Jarrell intends to give them character, he can only provide them with references—ideas and quotations they should have known if they were as bright as he. The poet cannot separate his creatures from himself….

Sometimes, in his late poems, Jarrell tries simply to recapture the short period when his childhood was serene. He does not convince. The particulars are neither rich nor seductive; the tone is either conventional or sentimental. Finally, one infers that there was no halcyon period but that as Jarrell lost the hope of advancing into serenity, he magically transformed a childhood year into the happy time he needed somehow, somewhere.

"Desperate Dreams," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 31, 1972, p. 360.

Jarrell qualifies as a Southerner more by the accident of birth than by the character of his achievement and interests. Far from claiming any tribal connection, he seems an internationalist, a somewhat vicarious reporter, at home in the world yet homeless. And while it is perfectly true that one sees how for stretches some subject matter occupies him—war, the Märchen, Germany after World War II—it is also true that an air of discreteness surrounds each poem, so that it looks at us as does some art object rendered distinct and beautiful, but not quite claimable, by its square of black velvet in a museum case.

I venture the speculation that the quality of discreteness in Jarrell's poems reflects a corresponding discontinuity or atomism in his own sensibility. Many of the titles of his collections reveal a psychic discrepancy or separation—somberly, for example, in the title Blood for a Stranger, ironically in the wartime code identification Little Friend, Little Friend or in the postwar title A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, and flatly in Losses and The Lost World. Similarly, many of his better poems center in the lonely kingdoms of waifs, on castoffs and on losers, as do "90 North," "Lady Bates," and "Seele im Raum." He devoted great passion and energy to his waifs, yet the success of this concentration defines his talent all too well. He is marvelously able to tell us how things do not belong; he is unable to go further, unable to design a whole scheme that incorporates and placates the parts. He is too consistently good at what he undertakes. Indeed, we may turn upon him his own famous observation to the effect that in Robert Lowell's poetry we always expect to encounter a genuine masterpiece. In Jarrell's poetry we never expect to encounter a genuine failure. Jarrell, whose technical virtuosity is as great as Lowell's, could not or would not cut his losses and take the big chance. Possibly that is why his own criticism of other poets was often brilliantly, exquisitely cruel. If he did not deign to kick someone who was already down, he was willing, even anxious, to kick someone who was in the act of falling. And yet those whom he excoriated were those who were playing it safe, those whose visions were borrowed or in some other way fake. But whom was he punishing, we ask, Oscar Williams or himself? Conversely, his praise—and it is his laudatory essays, not his denigrations, that make him a major critic—went to those who had been able to extend their tangential glances to seraphic gaze, and their observations to universal vision: Walt Whitman, Robert Frost.

Jarrell's poetry is glance rather than gaze. It is the most brilliant poetic and humanistic journalism of the century, at least among poets writing in English. But that means, alas, that while his poems teach us well and are, therefore, wonderfully "teachable," Randall Jarrell himself is not really "teachable" as a poet. (pp. 745-46)

Radcliffe Squires, "The Discrete Poems of Randall Jarrell," in The Southern Review (copyright 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 745-46.

On reflection,… Jarrell presents a difficult subject. For one thing, as John Crowe Ransom has urged, his prose is as exciting as, and perhaps more distinguished than, his poetry. After twenty years, the essays in Poetry and the Age, because they are grounded in impeccable taste, are as provocative and as sound as when they were written. Pictures from an Institution remains the wittiest and best "college novel" we have—an eminence in a genre, generally speaking, of submerged monotony. As a person, he now appears to us protean: there is Jarrell, the connoisseur of Road and Track; Jarrell, the cultivated lover of music and the fine arts, professional football, children, cats, fairy tales, clothes, badminton. He was our finest "war poet" who never saw enemy action; a translator of Rilke, who, according to Hannah Arendt, never learned German; a Southern writer who rarely wrote on Southern themes. And so on.

It is evident that he had, in Lowell's phrase, "a noble, difficult and beautiful soul," and he was a kind of polymath with a penchant for looking at the simplicities of life in a complex way. Some, at least, of all this sprezzatura and diversity is reflected in the considerable canon of his poetry. Thus one of the critical commentator's problems is to find patterns in this variegated poetry, to find a thematic center. Another problem is style, which, though it ordinarily stays close to the colloquial American idiom (so much so that we find Jarrell glossing such phrases as "blind date" in his Collected Poems), cannot be said to display a discernible "development." Again, aside from an invariable insistence that poetry be sincere—that it "tell the truth," Jarrell's poetic practice does not seem to have been governed by any easily formulated aesthetic theory. (pp. 423-24)

Hugh B. Staples, "Randall Jarrell," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 423-27.

Jarrell's fondness for catalogues, racing cars, and football … and the ambivalent love he felt for America, at once charitable and censorious, should certainly be considered genuine. But this love was also the cause of considerable disappointment, so much that it finally became the dominant motif in his criticism. His poetry, at its best, managed to transcend this disappointment by universalizing it, making it a condition of existence; and this is why some of his poems, in the words he once addressed to Lowell, "will be read as long as men remember English."

His poetry possessed a distinctive voice, which can be said of many poets; in this case, however, the voice was distinctive because it was entirely spoken. Once he had found it (as early as 1940, in The Rage for the Lost Penny), Jarrell never relinquished that colloquial, intimate mode of speech associated with his most famous poems. (p. 26)

In my estimate, Jarrell's greatest poems are two that have received less attention than some others, perhaps because one averts one's eyes instinctively from the glare of too much truth exposed at once; these are "Jews at Haifa" and "A Camp in the Prussian Forest," both written some years after the war. Their subject is the fate of European Jewry, their mass extermination and the little-known history of the many survivors who were interned in the concentration camps on the island of Cyprus after the war had ended….

Not all of Jarrell's work so consistently exemplifies the sort of broad humanism that enabled him to give voice to those who had been given none of their own. To be sure, the war poems possess this trait in ample measure, and a certain egalitarian simplicity provides his later work with a grace that I would call exemplary. His childrens' books, the translations from Grimm, and the poems in which children speak with such uncomplicated knowledge that it seems a miracle he could have remembered it: these have tended to create an aura about him of innocence, a penumbra of liberal hope. In this scheme, the more polemical essays are considered ill-tempered manifestations of an isolation that all American poets feel, while his novel of academic life, Pictures from an Institution, is, in John Crowe Ransom's lavish evaluation, possibly "his great masterpiece." Together with the poems, these prose works are often said to constitute an oeuvre whose vital concern is with standards, the celebration of humane learning.

But it seems to me that there is an edge to Jarrell's erudition and to even his most subtle insights, an aristocratic bias that finds expression in the fascination wich Rilke, himself the most aristocratic of modern poets. The parallel with Yeats is inescapable; both moved from positions of active political intransigence, from a militantly democratic rhetoric, to reactionary fears of the very people to whom their verse was allegedly addressed…. Jarrell, who stressed repeatedly his intention of writing poems in "plain English that cats and dogs can read," eventually turned this mode against itself; his anxiety about being misunderstood became a form of polemic; the commonplace diction that he so consciously chose served only to mask the emotional complexities, the deep ambivalence inhabiting his work. (p. 27)

His last book of poems, The Lost World, displayed a despondent, subdued imagination, lingering over the lives of people in whose hands experience had come to nothing, "the nothing for which there's no reward."… [The] title poem enacts the common wish to have one's childhood somehow restored, even while the recognition surfaces that fidelity to one's past is impossible, so overladen is it with the revisions of a retrospective understanding. For Jarrell, the lost world was lost even to the powers of imagination; and since he conferred such importance on these powers, his work constitutes a record of the heart's unconsolable estrangement from its own experience. (p. 28)

James Atlas, "Randall Jarrell" (copyright © 1975 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of James Atlas), in The American Poetry Review, January/February, 1975, pp. 26-8.


Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 2)


Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 9)