Randall Jarrell

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Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 9)

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Jarrell, Randall 1914–1965

Jarrell was an American poet, critic, editor, translator, and novelist whom Robert Lowell called "the most heartbreaking … poet of his generation." Jarrell's work presents a sensitive perspective of the condition of modern man and his culture. Jarrell also wrote several delightful, poetic books for children. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

"We have lost for good," Randall Jarrell once wrote, "the poems that would have been written by the modern equivalent of Henry VIII or Bishop King or Samuel Johnson; born novelists, born theologians, born princes." We might add, born critics: because Jarrell … can be said to have put his genius into his criticism and his talent into his poetry.

That talent, in the course of his life, grew considerably…. If we reconstruct, from [The Collected Poems] …, the boy Jarrell growing into the man Jarrell, we can see the progress of his peculiarly double nature, one side of it charming and comic, the other vulnerable and melancholy.

The poems Jarrell wrote before World War II—roughly before he was 30—are on the whole forgettable, but they foreshadow his continual risky dependence on history, folk tale and art: many of the later poems are retellings (of history or biography), redescriptions (of a Dürer etching, a Botticelli canvas, the Augsburg Adoration), or reworkings of a myth. That dependency in Jarrell never died; he was, nobody more so, the eager audience to any book or piece of music that captured his wayward interest; his poems in which the scene is a library are hymns to those places where we can "live by trading another's sorrow for our own."

His first steady original poems date from his experience in the Air Force, when the pity that was his tutelary emotion, the pity that was to link him so irrevocably to Rilke, found a universal scope:

       We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
       (When we left high school nothing else had died
       For us to figure we had died like.)…
       In bombers named for girls, we burned
       The cities we had learned about in school.

Jarrell brings us his adolescent soldiers with their pitiful reality of high school—high school!—as the only notching-stick of experience; he brings us the veteran "stumbling to the toilet on one clever leg of leather, wire, and willow," with the pity all in the faute-de-mieux weird boastfulness of "clever"; he brings us the bodiless lost voices in the air—"can't you hear me? over, over—"; and, for all its triteness now, he brings us the death of the ball turret gunner.

The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother? The luckier baby who has a mother, as Jarrell tells us in "Bats," "clings to her long fur/by his thumbs and toes and teeth …/Her baby hangs on underneath…./All the bright day, as the mother sleeps,/She folds her wings about her sleeping child." (p. 5)

Jarrell has often been taken to task for his sentimentality, but the fiction, recurrent in his work, of a wholly nonsexual tenderness, though it can be unnerving in some of the marriage poems, is indispensable in his long, tearfully elated recollections of childhood. The child who was never mothered enough, the mother who wants to keep her children forever, these are the inhabitants of the lost world, where the perfect filial symbiosis continues forever. The nostalgia for childhood even lies behind Jarrell's aging monologists—the Marschallin, the woman at the...

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Washington Zoo, the woman in the supermarket—and gives them at once their poignancy and their abstraction.

For all his wish to be a writer of dramatic monologues, Jarrell could only speak in his own alternately frightened and consolatory voice, as he alternately played child and mother. It has been charged that Jarrell's poetry of the war shows no friends, only, in James Dickey's words, "killable puppets"—but Jarrell's soldiers are of course not his friends because they are his babies, his lambs to the slaughter—he broods over them. In his final psychic victory over his parents, they too become his babies as he, perfectly, in this ideal world of recovery memory, remains their baby:

      Here are Mother and Father in a photograph,
      Father's holding me … They both look so young.
      I'm so much older than they are. Look at them,
      Two babies with their baby.

His students are his children too, and the sleeping girl in the library at Greensboro receives his indulgent parental solicitude….

The student—"poor senseless life"—is nevertheless finally the pure and instinctual ideal…. (p. 5)

[His] guileless taste requires a guileless style, and Jarrell found it late, in the gossipy, confidential and intimate manner of "The Lost World," his recollections of a childhood year in Hollywood:

        On my way home I pass a cameraman
        On a platform on the bumper of a car
        Inside which, rolling and plunging, a comedian
        Is working; on one white lot I see a star
        Stumble to her igloo through the howling gale
        Of the wind machines. On Melrose a dinosaur
        And pterodactyl with their immense pale
        Papier-màchê smiles, look over the fence
        Of The Lost World.

That childlike interest—in the cameraman, the artificial igloo and the cartoon monsters—was the primitive form of Jarrell's later immensely attractive enthusiasm for all the pets he kept in his private menagerie. Nobody loved poets more or better than Randall Jarrell—and irony, indifference or superciliousness in the presence of the remarkable seemed to him capital sins. In one of his last poems, "The Old and the New Masters," he takes issue with Auden, arguing that in any number of paintings the remarkable sufferer or redeemer is not tangential but is rather the focus of the whole:

         … everything
         That was or will be in the world is fixed
         On its small, helpless, human center.

Those lines could be the epigraph to these collected poems; and yet there are dimensions of Jarrell that we could wish for more of. One of his talents is to rewrite, in a grim way, nursery tales, so that we see Cinderella finally preferring the cozy female gossip of the fireside to life with the prince, or we see Jack, post-beanstalk, sitting in a psychotic daze by his rotting cottage, "bound in some terrible wooden charm … rigid and aghast." Another, and perhaps truer, Jarrell writes a disarming poem of pure pleasure ("Deutsch Durch Freud") on why he never wants really to know German; it's so much nicer only to know it halfway, via Rilke and lieder:

     It is by Trust, and Love, and reading Rilke
     Without ein Wörterbuch, that man learns German
     And Heine! At the ninety-sixty mir träumte
     I sigh as a poet, but dimple as ein Schuler
     And my heart lightens at each Sorge, each Angst
     Till the day I die I'll be in love with German
     —If only I don't learn German …

In lines like these, all of Jarrell's playful wit is coming to surface, that wit which dazzled us from the pages of his energetic criticism, but which often falters under the (very Germanic) melancholy of "The Complete Poems." The refugees, children, recluses, soldiers and aging women who inhabit his verse might have left more room in it for their satiric and resilient creator, but Jarrell kept his two sides very distinct…. He cannot be said, as a poet, to have invented new forms, a new style, or new subjects, in any grand way; but he made himself memorable as a singular man, at his most exceptional in denying his own rarity:

             How young I seem; I am exceptional;
             I think of all I have.
             But really no one is exceptional,
             No one has anything, I'm anybody,
             I stand beside my grave
               Confused with my life, that
             is commonplace and solitary.

So one late poem says, but it had begun, in a flash of the boyish Jarrell brio, with a woman in a supermarket "Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All." Zest, down to a zest for the names of detergents, stayed mixed, to the very last, with the tears of things. (pp. 5, 42)

Helen Vendler, "Randall Jarrell, Child and Mother, Frightened and Consoling," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1969, pp. 5, 42.

Jarrell … strikes me as a poet whose poems are primarily the poems of a prose writer. There is nothing invidious about this remark, for it is true also about Hardy and about Lawrence…. Jarrell, as in that fine poem, the title poem of one of his later volumes, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," or even more in the much longer second poem in that volume, "The End of the Rainbow," goes on till he has finished what he has got to say: as prose writers do. It is detail, texture, modulations of thought and feeling, what one of the anthologies I am reviewing calls "open forms," that attract us in general, not the sense of finality. And perhaps I am wrong about the nature of prose: one stops not because one has said everything, but because one has said enough for the time being. (p. 297)

G. S. Fraser, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1970 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, 1970.

[The Third Book of Criticism] confirms one's view of Randall Jarrell as an excellent, a positively useful critic of a rare kind, combining the 'common touch' (i.e. knowing exactly where to lay his finger) with a deep and intimate understanding of the workings of literature, and a range of information which one is not quite tempted to call 'scholarly'. His procedure and his tone are fully present in the essay on Wallace Stevens here, even in a few short quotations from it. Thus, on The Auroras of Autumn: 'transcendental, all too transcendental études; improvisations preserved for us neither by good nor by bad, but by middle fortune'; returning to them, he managed 'after a while' to feel that he had not been as familiar with the poems or as sympathetic to them as he ought to have been, 'and there I stuck. Whatever is wrong with the poems or with me is as wrong as ever …' The essay complements and follows up the essay on Stevens in Poetry and the Age…. 'G. E. Moore at the spinet,' he then commented, having remarked that 'it is the lack of immediate contact with lives that hurts his poetry more than anything else.' Despite the gravity of his strictures, and despite the apparent easy looseness of his discourse (he actually seems to be enjoying himself as he writes), what he says throughout makes you positively eager to read Stevens—which, in my experience, is peculiarly rare in criticism of this poet. (p. 124)

The Third Book also contains a shrewd, entertaining piece on Robert Graves, in which warm and seductive appreciativeness coexists with a firm grip on literary standards and human values—it is marred only slightly by the rhetoric, almost gush, which is the price Jarrell occasionally pays for his sense of freshness and discovery—and a powerful investigation of early Auden, first published in 1941 but by no means limited in its application, even, indeed, prophetic…. Words fail me here … Auden, he goes on to say, was 'like someone who keeps showing how well he can hold his liquor until he becomes a drunkard … Reading Another Time is like attending an Elks' Convention of the Capital Letters.' Finally, Jarrell admits to feeling embarrassed by the 'ungrateful return' he is making. 'But analyses, even unkind analyses of faults, are one way of showing appreciation'—they are, the way he does them. Here, as so often in his criticism, one thinks of Kipling's mother and her reply (Jarrell quotes it in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket) when the son was angered by her criticism of his poems: 'There's no Mother in Poetry, my dear.'

What a splendid quoter Jarrell is! So quick with the telling reference, not dragged in for the sake of showing off, not sitting there wondering what it is doing, but throwing light for miles around. His 'Introductions' are truly introductory: here is the new reader and there is the literary work, and (whether you go all the way with him or not) they always lead you near the heart of the matter. (pp. 124-25)

Just as common feeling informs his best poetry, so what underlies Randall Jarrell's criticism is common sense—that quality derided by frothy phonies who have failed to notice how uncommon it is—strengthened and clarified by exactly remembered reading, considerable knowledge of what is essential to know, and his own experience in the art of writing. (p. 125)

D. J. Enright, "A Glad Heart," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of D. J. Enright), January 23, 1975, pp. 124-25.

[Jarrell's] work is fundamentally romantic, for it presupposes a natural splendour, a primitive integrity, from which the barrier of our jaded senses keep us. The individual's past—and the past of the race—are the repositories of true experience.

At the same time, Jarrell always involves himself deeply in the literal, for his major concern is with how reality fails to live up to the expectations his commitment to the ideal has created. As he makes Irene Rosenbaum say in [Pictures from an Institution], 'Nostalgia is the permanent condition of man.' Jarrell's work glorifies otherness, but it always remains grounded in realistic detail; what interests him is how we come to grips with the sense of deprivation amid the thinginess of the present.

'A Girl in a Library', the lead poem in the Selected Poems (1955), is largely concerned with our alienation from an unknown, but imagined state of grace; it is also representative of several other typical features of Jarrell's poetry. The narrator, a more-or-less unbodied voice, muses about a young Home Economics major who has fallen asleep over her book, and sees in her a modern, i.e., diminished, New World version of the ancient myth of regeneration. (pp. 113-14)

In 'A Girl in a Library' as in much of Jarrell's work, literature offers an almost religious salvation from alienation, for it purveys a vital consciousness through which the dross of reality can be translated into authentic experience. Myth is the pure heaven of the totally actualized, the standard by which our poor lives conducted in the worthless present are measured. The sad, thoughtful awareness of the unbridgeable gap between the inheritors of transmitted values and the new breed of mass-manufactured philistines, between the Old World and the New, which shapes the poem, is characteristic of Jarrell. Also characteristic are the personae: the pensive, almost histrionic narrator who observes without acting and speaks with a Godlike finality, and the young woman, emblematic of a victimized, limited state of being. (p. 114)

Jarrell's sentences begin simply enough, but they modify and expand as they continue, until they fill line after deceptively complex line. This exuberance, which works in concert with the extraordinary, almost prosaic naturalness of Jarrell's diction, makes his poetry attractive and accessible, but it is also responsible for weaknesses in his style. As John Crowe Ransom put it, 'I don't know if the combination of prose properties and poetic properties in the same piece is as good as either prose or poetry by itself; the prose and the poetry seem to adulterate one another.'

Jarrell's early poems are more formally intact, and adhere to the conciseness such precision requires. But they strike me as alien to his fundamentally earth-bound, discursive voice. Jarrell cares about the small stuff and nonsense, the messiness of this life; the ideal is a recourse to which he resorts when his love is not returned, which is almost always. Conventional form was a perfection into which his vivid sensitivity to organic disorder could not accommodate itself. In plotting the longer poems, which are, to me, most expressive of Jarrell when he is most himself, the reader needs to imagine an exploratory conversational logic pervading the total composition. Poems like 'A Girl in a Library' and 'An English Garden in Austria' and 'Woman' are complexes of interwoven ideas and attitudes, in which extracts from raw experience are juxtaposed with generalizing and mythic elements. (Compare, for example, Coleridge's conversation poems.) (p. 115)

In the Second World War … Jarrell found a subject drawn from direct rather than literary experience, one that was capable of both encompassing and broadening his concerns. Jarrell's own tour of duty in the Air Force brought him face to face with the repressive impersonality of corporate organization, a force whose debilitating influence he had not yet explicitly come to terms with. The political nature of the anomie that fills the isolated lives of his earlier characters comes to light in his poems of barracks and battlefield. The result was the most powerful and compassionate poetry to come out of the war. (p. 116)

The grisly irony [of the poetry] reminds one of Auden, an inevitable influence on Jarrell's work of this period, but there is a horrible closeness to the event which Auden would not have ventured. Jarrell's best war poems, and the best part of many of the others, are … rich in dramatic tension, and grounded, as his best work always is, in vivid detail. His ubiquitous generalizations earn their significance from gorgeously terrible descriptions of carnage and fear….

Jarrell's post-war studies of the world of the military-industrial complex manifest a deepened understanding of the severely circumscribed situation of the modern individual. The glorification of change is transformed into a consciousness of the losses for which time and man are together responsible. Change occurs, ceaselessly, but usually in the form of degradation, a further distancing of the dreamer from the attainment of his most basic desires. Man no longer merely exists in an alienated state, but the possibility of a return to innocence, too, has to be relinquished in the long run…. (p. 117)

[The] perspective offers no hope for salvation; man appears … as a powerless victim, betrayed not only by society, but by nature, too. Significantly, Jarrell frequently chooses women as the protagonists of these poems of cultural protest. A glance at 'Woman' and 'In Nature There is Neither Right Nor Left Nor Wrong', which begins, 'Men are what they do, women are what they are', will show that his conception of femininity was more or less traditional, and to present-day readers, stereotypic. According to the received view, women were the frailer and more vulnerable sex, and Jarrell would appear to have capitalized on that commonplace in representing mankind's defencelessness through female characters.

Most frequently, Jarrell's women, though conscious there is something wrong in their lives, are unable to define precisely or to respond creatively to their predicatments; they are merely witnesses to their victimization. It is to children, the humans closest to their state of original grace that Jarrell looks for inspiration, to those who, because they have lost the least, remain endowed with many of their innate faculties. For them, according to the romantic programme, the world is a Märchen; myth is reality. Through a child's eyes, change regains its redemptive properties…. The major poems of Jarrell's last period are devoted to the pursuit of that childlike clarity of vision. (p. 118)

'A certain number of years after,/Any time is Gay, to the new ones who ask', Jarrell says in 'Thinking of the Lost World', the concluding poem in the last book of poems he was to publish. His true theme here, as it can be argued to be in much of his work, is the creative act itself, the imaginative attempt to bridge the gap between the ideal, (which is itself the product of imagination and its handmaiden memory) and the imperfections of what we see with jaded adult sight as poor fact, and out of which our conception of the ideal has to arise. The poet, still endowed with something of his childhood brilliance, can restore us, if only partially and momentarily, to a fuller consciousness of the limitless potential of fact…. (p. 119)

In the end, reality has the final say. Jarrell's early death broke off the ongoing tug-of-war between fact and imagination which preoccupied him throughout his career; the ecstatic resolution of 'Thinking of the Lost World', to this reader at least, doesn't comprehend the anguish and irony of his social poetry.

Jarrell wrote about imperfect persons in real places…. He tried to show us finer, more brilliant, more whole than the vagaries of time allowed us to seem. The age was against him, of course, as any age would have been; the intensity he championed belonged beyond it, as his work said, in the realm of art. Great poems, he wrote in 'The Obscurity of the Poet', 'manage at once to sum up, to repudiate, and to transcend both the age they appear in and the minds they are produced by'. Jarrell's poems masterfully sum up and repudiate their time; no more accurate index of the silent anxiousness of America at mid-century exists. A few of them—and 'The Island', 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', 'The Dead in Melanesia', 'The Woman at the Washington Zoo' and 'Thinking of the Lost World' are merely five—also succeed in transcending both their era and the despondent, yearning intelligence that brought them into being. In these poems, and in some of his sympathetic appreciations of other poets, Jarrell achieved that synthesis of enthusiasm and disinterestedness, that realized ideal, toward which his whole work was a striving, and earned himself a lasting place among the significant American writers. (p. 120)

Jonathan Galassi, "'Hansel and Gretel in America,' The Dynamics of Change and Loss in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell," in Poetry Nation (© copyright Poetry Nation 1975), No. 4, 1975, pp. 111-20.

Randall Jarrell … has been widely regarded as having written some of the most memorable poems of the Second World War. His Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is among the most frequently anthologised poems to have come from battle experience in the 1939–45 war and it is one of the most bitter condemnations of war's waste and futility to have been written in the past half century or so….

Jarrell sees war as totally destructive and pointless, the circumstances wholly degrading, robbing the individual of all that separates him from the predatory beasts, an evil … in the natural harmony of things, achieving nothing. There are no victors in Jarrell's view of war, only victims, among whom he would number the survivors as well as those who, like the flak-smashed ball turret gunner, was '… washed … out of the turret with a hose.'…

Jarrell is an uneven poet, rarely dull but, in his wartime verse, quite often given to prolixity and he sometimes permits his language to clot, the violence and inconsistency of imagery to run riot, and he cannot always control a tendency to muddle the abstract and concrete so that, instead of the powerful statement he wishes to make, he obscures his subject and blurs his effects. At this stage in his poetic development he does not seem to have realised that the verb and noun are the muscle and bone of language and qualifying words—adjectives and adverbs—are the flesh. A too generous endowment of flesh leads, of course, to obesity, and some of Jarrell's earlier poetry of the war does seem overweight. (p. 190)

One feels that, far too often, Jarrell has found it necessary to pad out the pentameter with unnecessary verbal baggage. He is generally happier with the shorter line though in A Pilot from the Carrier, he handles the pentameter with much more assurance, he eschews the abstract and keeps his eye on the hard details, conveying the physical sense of the parachute descent with admirable skill…. (p. 192)

Among the many poems which deplore the inescapable reduction of man to either animal or instrument by the calculated process of military training and by the uniformed civilian's enforced acceptance of the murderer's role, the cruel larceny of all sense of personal identity, is Mail Call, and here Jarrell is at his formidable best. The scene-setting is masterly: the visual sharpness of the flung letters, the irony that sees each missive just escaping the clutching hand of its intended recipient; then the meditation which follows the initial imagic statement develops naturally and movingly to the conclusion with its haunting ambiguities: 'The soldier simply wishes for his name'. Quite literally he wants to hear his name called by the distributor of mail; perhaps less consciously, but no less urgently, he wishes to re-establish contact with the world beyond the limbo of army existence, to hear from some one to whom he is a name, a unique person, not just a number and a function: he 'wishes for his name' because he longs for the restoration of identity that has been stolen from him by his absorption into a military unit. (p. 193)

The theme of military man reduced to the level of animal or object is often repeated or hinted at in other poems but it is only in one, Eighth Air Force, which examines the condition of the soldier whose humanity has been diminished and bestiality fostered by his training and environment, that we find at least a hint that he is not irredeemably reduced, that there might even exist a certain nobility and self-sacrifice in his acceptance of his role as killer, that traces of his former innocence and gentleness remain, and, above all, he is not to be judged and condemned.

        If, in an odd angle of the hutment,
        A puppy laps the water from a can
        Of flowers, and the drunk sergeant shaving
        Whistles O Paradiso!—shall I say that man
        Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?

        The other murderers troop in yawning;
        Three of them play Pitch, one sleeps, and one
        Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
        Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.
O murderers!… Still, this is how it's done …

The wolf, the murderer, cares for a puppy; there are flowers in the water-can and the song whistled, however ironically or thoughtlessly, is one of spiritual aspiration; a simple game is played, a vestigial childness and simplicity persist; one of the 'murderers', who evidently has only one more mission to complete before his operational tour is over, lies in an agony of apprehension. The resolution of the poem is neither facile nor consolatory. Jarrell half-accuses himself of lying—or of casuistic self-justification—then bows to historical necessity in a conclusion that is sadly resigned yet dignified:

        Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they
        I find no fault in this just man.
                                        (pp. 194-95)

Apart from a couple of his rather weaker poems, Transient Barracks and The Dead Wingman, where there might be detected a faint glimmer of affirmation, in the first, a cautious and drab celebration of an airman's return to his homeland and, in the second, a recognition that personal affection and loyalty can survive the dehumanisation of service-life and combat conditions, Jarrell's war poetry becomes progressively more bitter and despairing. The Range in the Desert ends uncompromisingly:

        Profits and death grow marginal:
        Only the mourning and the mourned recall
        The wars we lose, the wars we win;
        And the world is—what it has been.

        The lizard's tongue licks angrily
        The shattered membranes of the fly.
                                            (p. 195)

Field Hospital, a firmly moulded and verbally chaste poem, ends with its subject, a wounded soldier, 'comforted', but the comfort is that of oblivion and, from the pain and desperation that informs so much of Jarrell's war poetry, the reader might reasonably assume that, for the poet, dreamless sleep is the only possible refuge from the senseless and destructive realities of war. (p. 196)

Only rarely does Jarrell turn to the brief satirical poem but when he does he handles it with great accomplishment….

    There set out, slowly, for a Different World,
    At four, on winter mornings, different legs …
You can't break eggs without making an omelette
    —That's what they tell the eggs.

The war, which could be the First World War, the Second, or indeed any war in Jarrell's view, achieved nothing. In his reversal of the old adage, millions of eggs were broken—that is to say, millions of lives were lost—and the only consequence was incalculable suffering, humiliation and waste. There is no mistaking the intensity of Jarrell's pain, pity and despair nor the inflexibility of his truthfulness. There are moments in his war poetry when the force of his passion results in confusion and overstatement but far more frequently it is directed and controlled through a technical assurance that has produced some of the most relentless indictments of the evil of war since Sassoon and Owen. (pp. 197-98)

Vernon Scannell, in his Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War (copyright © 1976 Vernon Scannell), The Woburn Press Ltd., 1976.


Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 6)