Randall Jarrell

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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," 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.)

Robert Lowell

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[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 John Crowe Ransom to write in ironic astonishment that Jarrell had "the velocity of an angel." Little Friend, Little Friend (1945), however, contains some of the best poems on modern war, better, I think, and far more professional than those of Wilfred Owen…. The determined, passive, sacrificial lives of the pilots, inwardly so harmless and outwardly so destructive, are ideal subjects for Jarrell. In Losses (1948) and more rangingly in The Seven League Crutches, new subjects appear. Using himself, children, characters from fairy stories, history, and painting, he is still able to find beings that are determined, passive and sacrificial, but the experience is quiet, more complex, and probably more universal. It's an odd universe, where a bruised joy or a bruised sorrow is forever commenting on itself with the gruff animal common sense and sophistication of Fontaine. Jarrell has gone far enough to be compared with his peers, the best lyric poets of the past: he has the same finesse and originality that they have, and his faults, a certain idiosyncratic willfulness and eclectic timidity, are only faults in this context.

Among the new poems, "The Orient Express," a sequel, I think, to "Dover Beach," is a brilliantly expert combination of regular and irregular lines, buried rhymes, and sestinalike repeated rhymes, in which shifts in tone and rhythm...

(This entire section contains 745 words.)

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are played off against the deadening roll of the train. "A Game at Salzburg" has the broken, charmed motion of someone thinking out loud. Both, in their different ways, are as skillful and lovely as any short poem I know of. "The Knight, Death, and the Devil" is a careful translation of Dürer's engraving. The description is dense; the generalizations are profound. It is one of the most remarkable word pictures in English verse or prose, and comparable to Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts." (pp. 113-15)

Some of Jarrell's monologues are Robert Frost for "the man who reads Hamlet," or rather for a Hamlet who had been tutored by Jarrell. In "Seele im Raum," he masters Frost's methods and manages to make a simple half-mad woman speak in character, and yet with his own humor and terror.

My favorite is "A Girl in a Library," an apotheosis of the American girl, an immortal character piece, and the poem in which Jarrell perhaps best uses both his own qualities and his sense of popular culture. (p. 116)

"Belinda" [in Pope's "Rape of the Lock"] was once drawn with something of the same hesitating satire and sympathy. (p. 117)

Robert Lowell, "On 'The Seven-League Crutches'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1951 (and reprinted in Randall Jarrell: 1914–1965, edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, & Robert Penn Warren, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967, pp. 113-17.)

John Berryman

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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)

Lord Weary's Castle was one of the stiffest books to review that has ever appeared. I have reason to know: Jarrell's was not only superior—far—to my own attempt: it is probably the most masterly initial review of an important poetic work, either here or in England, of this century so far. You have to compare it with wider-ranging reviews, like Eliot's of Grierson, of Dr. Johnson's of Soame Jenyns to feel its narrower but harder learning, its similar but submissive strength.

The studies of Ransom, Stevens, Marianne Moore (again especially the second piece on her), more conventional than those on Frost and Lowell, are nearly as good. A fine citation of Whitman, wittier even than usual, seems better now under a new, more modest title than it did originally, because it does not examine, as Jarrell usually does, substance or method or (save for a few remarks) style. This attention equally in him to matter and manner constitutes a development from what is called the New Criticism.

His general essays, on Obscurity and the Age of Criticism, which strike me as diffuse and making points rather familiar, will undoubtedly help many readers. At least the points made are right. A salient truth about Jarrell, for the present reader, is that he is seldom wrong. About William Carlos Williams's poetry, some of which I love too, he does, I think, exaggerate, and these papers are his weakest; even here he says much that is true, gay, and useful. One of his shrewdest, most characteristic remarks is apropos of a poet one might suppose he would not appreciate at all, the author of the beautiful "Song of the Mad Prince": "It is easy to complain that de la Mare writes about unreality; but how can anybody write about unreality?" One cannot but remark the healthy breadth of Jarrell's taste. (pp. 11-13)

[Jarrell's] neglect to theorize about poetry, and to theorize above all about criticism, is one of the most agreeable features of a prepossessing and engaging book…. The point is to deal with the stuff itself, and Jarrell does, nobody better. Everybody interested in modern poetry ought to be grateful to him. (p. 13)

John Berryman, "On 'Poetry and the Age'," in Randall Jarrell: 1914–1965, edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright 1953 by John Berryman), Farrar, Straus, 1967, pp. 10-13.

M. L. Rosenthal

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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. Politically and historically, the war may have been unavoidable, but for Jarrell this is more an existential than a moral reality. (p. 20)

That Jarrell wanted to suggest large historical and mythological considerations is clear from "The Wide Prospect," which comes just before "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" at the end of Little Friend, Little Friend, and from the two poems that close Losses…. (p. 22)

The poems at the end of Losses are superior in being free of the long, expository sections, with a forced liveliness of imagery but without driving energy, of "The Wide Prospect." "Orestes at Tauris," the closing poem, was according to Jarrell an early composition written before any of the poems from Blood for a Stranger included in the Selected Poems. Very different in character from anything else in the war books, it shows Orestes arriving in Tauris after being pursued relentlessly by the Furies…. The condition of Orestes and Iphigenia at the end then becomes a perfect mythic embodiment of Jarrell's vision of war as the sacrifice of driven innocents for the sake of a savage, mindless determinism inherent in our natures…. (p. 23)

["In the Ward: The Sacred Wood"] is perhaps Jarrell's most determined effort to give mythic dimensions to his theme of the sacrificed innocent in war…. [The] style of the poem, somewhat recall the symbolic distortions of thought and syntax of Lowell's early poems—

    Is the nurse damned who looked on my nakedness?
    The sheets stretch like the wilderness
    Up which my fingers wander, the sick tribes,
    To a match's flare, a rain or bush of fire….

But Jarrell's movement does not rip free into Lowell's frenzied piling up of associations and allusions. In this poem, however, he surpasses Lowell in one important respect though he does not achieve that state of passionate intensity of speech which makes the whole language an electric field of highly charged, crackling movements of realization. At each point along the way, as the wounded soldier ponders the symbolic analogies with Christ implicit in his condition, he nevertheless at the same time maintains a basic simplicity and a distance from the mental game he is playing. Unlike "Eighth Air Force," this poem does not press an identity between the dying soldier and Christ. The dominant tone is one of a real man, without hope, letting go though aware of a dream of divinity incarnate—a tone corresponding to the progress of negative heroism in Read's "To a Conscript of 1940." Negation is accepted quietly; this is one of Jarrell's most touching and thoughtful poems…. (p. 24)

Jarrell's one novel, Pictures from an Institution … is an extremely clever work of satire as well as a humanely intelligent book. It is set in a progressive women's college not altogether unlike Sarah Lawrence College, and its pictures of the academic and personal life of all concerned remain extremely amusing…. It represents, I think, a completion of his attempt to assimilate his own frame of thought to that of cultivated and sensitive Europeans. The novel is written in the first person, from the viewpoint of a poet who has been teaching at Benton College for a number of years. The real hero, though, is an Austrian-Jewish composer named Gottfried Rosenbaum through whose eyes the provincialism, complacency, and emptiness of much of American education is made, somewhat lovingly, clear, while certain genuine American strengths and potentialities are seen as goods after all. (p. 38)

It is his most balanced work … and it helped him gain a precarious personal balance. It was also a self-deceptive balance, a standoff between barely repressed total revulsion and sentimental voting for the triumph, in any one person, of decency over stupidity and mean-spirited worldliness. A variety of sexual repression is involved as well. In the novel, as in Jarrell's poetry, sexuality in itself seems hardly present as a factor in his own though and emotions or in those of his characters. His attitude toward women is a little like his attitude toward unhappy children and a little like Sophocles' toward "the Mothers": awe, mystification, and, sometimes, a cozy sympathy with a bitter edge nevertheless. The sense of a life ridden by despair that comes through in his last two books of poems is linked with that bitter sympathy. (p. 39)

Jarrell is in his own way as much an exotic as Lowell. The strains of his boyhood are as atypical as those of the privileged Bostonian, and the adult lives of both men have been atypical too. But often in these poems he summons up the world of plain-living, laboring souls and of the hardships and pleasures of ordinary life. The confusing images of his beloved grandmother wringing a chicken's neck, and of the already dead bird still running about in circles, recur, for instance, in a number of the poems. Each is an image of the brutal nature of existence and cannot be separated out from the meaning of love. (p. 41)

Where Jarrell differs from a true naïf … is in his superimposed notes of observation, themselves simple in tone but implying meditative and informed intelligence: "righteous love" (a note of psychological insight, for the woman's look is a gesture both of self-encouragement and of apology and self-justification); "away from Something" (a note to underline the presence of universal terror); "like a nun" (again, the note of reaffirmed innocence, which is yet "the center of each awful, anguished ring"); and at last the deliberate pointing up of the child's reactions. The easily colloquial iambic pentameter lines run on quite naturally; one hardly notices the alternating rhymes that help rock the movement into hysteria—that is, into the child's momentarily traumatized hypnosis by the impossible thing that is happening. Jarrell uses this pattern throughout the "Lost World" sequence. It makes for a slightly relaxed, anecdotal tone that drags boringly at times but provides a frame at others for effects such as this one. This weakness, in itself, is a reflection of Jarrell's desire to keep his form open to common speech and common psychology—something he much admired in Robert Frost's work. (pp. 42-3)

Our poetry—and it is Jarrell's poetry almost exclusively that we have been concerned with—is today struggling in a new way with the question of the role of an active, many-sided intellectuality in essential poetic structure. Jarrell might conceivably have contributed something of interest to his exploration. Meanwhile, he remains a force among us as a poet of defeat and loneliness who nevertheless does not allow himself to become less spirited. (p. 46)

M. L. Rosenthal, in his Randall Jarrell (American Writers Pamphlet No. 103; © 1972, M. L. Rosenthal), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1972.

Frances Ferguson

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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 best critical essays—the two on Frost and the later one on Wallace Stevens in particular—"Stories" eschews the two basic approaches that criticism on Jarrell has followed. For him, "talking about" literature involves neither theme-hunting nor the discovery of a "tone," a way in which these words might be spoken. Jarrell's celebrated "authority" as a critic begins, on a close examination of "Stories," to participate in the same concern for "voice" that his poems reveal. (pp. 423-24)

In Jarrell's narrative, everything suddenly seems to be a story. From the inital use of a dictionary definition as an objet trouvé to [his subsequent gloss of that definition], the story about stories has expanded through reduction, so that the combination of logical-positivistic truth and aesthetic imitation which we all occasionally, primitively, appeal to appears instantly foolish. Stories, as Jarrell says, want to do as they please. And although he rehearses most of the traditional justifications for stories in terms of human needs, he keeps formulating his story as if stories had lives of their own. They are a part of us, but other. Even as Jarrell seems to ascribe the most simplistically biological causes possible to our love stories, the story again becomes the elusive agent of the piece…. (p. 425)

Yet if the essay "Stories" reads somewhat like a chant of other people's stories, we must keep in mind the fact that there are at least two dialogues here—Jarrell's dialogue with the storytellers whose stories he recounts, and (probably more importantly) the dialogue which emerges as the divided consciousness of the text itself. This latter dialogue may reveal some of the difficulties attached to the whole notion of "voice" for Jarrell's poetry, in which the apparent utility of voice is in expressing a sudden shock of recognition. (p. 426)

Throughout "Stories" we encounter a … conflation of third person and first person that makes it appear that the search for individual identity is somehow at issue. We start to wonder about a text which makes the Yeatsian concept of the "emotion of multitude" seem entirely reconcilable with distinct—even lonely—individuality. In this doubled version of things the voice does not make the self present to itself; instead, the voice seems to be performing two functions at once. The movement from the first to the third person registers the unease with which the self continues to be just that—a self; self-recognition, the implication is, is always best when it seems like the recognition of others (or at worst, of ourselves along with others). But the counter-movement, from the third to the first person, demonstrates the appropriateness of Jarrell's story about a sleeping baby's story: interpretation, like the existence of other people, forces an individual to discern the fact that others force existence upon him—a perception of him exists for others even when he does not exist for himself. (pp. 426-27)

Jarrell's examples throughout "Stories" involve "formal" or "structural" principles, of which repetition is only the most striking. Besides the obvious fact that repetition is essentially a temporal rather than a spatial concept, the repetitions within and between Jarrell's examples of stories—along with the essay's initial declaration that it will rehearse what has oft been thought and just so well expressed—create within the text the illusion that is multilingual—or at least bilingual. While writing has more temporal endurance simply because it can reread, the mythology of "voice" rests upon what can be re-said. But as Jarrell elaborates his version of "voice," it is not a concept that ultimately reveals a unique, individual selfhood to the speaker. Rather, the speakers in Jarrell's work have almost no individual character at all, precisely because the (at least) bilingual nature of his texts generates speakers which seem the spokesmen for a collective effort by dual or multiple characters.

It is, however, important to distinguish between such dual and multiple selves within the texts of Jarrell's poems and essays, on the one hand, and "representative characters," on the other. For if, as I have hinted, the awareness of the multiplicity of speakers in a voice involves primarily a recognition of the repetitions in disjunct temporal experience, then the foreshortening that is potential in focussing on a "representative man" may jeopardize the very perceptions on which the construction of voice is based. As Kierkegaard suggested when he insisted that a concern for the future rather than the past was the essence of true repetition, patience—the cherishing of manifestations in time—becomes an appropriate mental frame for this expansive movement of voice. And it seems precisely such patience that poems of "representative men" refuse, in their eagerness to make equations between men rather than to follow the processes through which individual selves seem to overlap in oscillating patterns of force. As a poem like "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" indicates, a collective consciousness can be projected beyond the figure of the individual speaker, but, ultimately, all of the members of the collective consciousness are rather undemocratically equal…. (pp. 430-31)

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" has long been admired, and justly admired. Yet it does occupy a polar position in Jarrell's work, fixing the limit of omission. The poem so thoroughly manifests the lack of a middle between the gunner's birth and his death—in the life and in the brevity of the poetry—that the time between birth and death is lost. Because the poem presents a man who seems to have lived in order to die, we forget the fiction that he must have lived.

In this poem, Jarrell pays his shocked tribute to the indeterminate forces that produce mere circumstance, which in turn becomes a kind of grisly determinism as it overtakes the speaker, along with his counterparts, the nameless and faceless soldiers who died along with him. But the middling region between birth and death comes to occupy the central position in Jarrell's best and most characteristic poems—poems like "Eighth Air Force," "Cinderella," and "Jerome." In these poems, the initially individual speakers borrow from dream lives obliquely related to their own, and the speakers merge so thoroughly with their dream counterparts that they create new amplitude for themselves in the act of speaking. These Jarrell figures recognize their imaginary analogues primarily in terms of the limitations and burdens which they share…. Even though the likenesses emerge from a sense of shared limitation, no grim determinism constricts the speeches of these texts. Their beginnings and endings—their births and deaths—become insignificant as the overlappings of different selves begin to override the individual's concern with his own birth, his own death.

How Jarrell insinuates the dream voices into the speech of the apparently individual characters is really the question of how any one of his poems establishes his particular version of voice. "Jerome," a fine but rather neglected poem from The Woman at the Washington Zoo, stands as one of the finest examples of Jarrell's process of depicting an individual by dissolving the boundaries of his individuality…. (pp. 431-32)

"Jerome" becomes one of the most oxymoronic poems possible as it freely shuffles conjunctions and disjunctions, until we no longer know where the boundaries can be drawn between Jerome a modern psychiatrist and Jerome the learned saint—or where the boundaries can be drawn between the psychiatrist and the lion.

The physical image of the mirror recurs with great frequency in Jarrell's poems. "The Face," "The Player Piano," and "Next Day" explicitly dwell on the image, that becomes a vehicle forcing the characters who see themselves mirrored to recognize suddenly that they have changed irreversibly and that movement toward death is their fixed condition. The physical mirror denies their dreams of youth and beauty, and sternly locates the reality that they cannot escape from the limitations of their lives. In "Jerome," however, the mirroring is linguistic—a process rather than an image; the repetition of phrases, the substitution of one figure's dream for another's reality, and the cyclical movement of the poem establish an interpenetration of figures so that they reflect mutually in a release from individuality. Where Ego was, there Id shall be.

The verbal mirror in which Jerome reflects Jerome and in which both reflect the lion appears to develop from Jarrell's interpretation of Freud's observations on language; uttering one word may seem an arbitrary choice, but the arbitrary word begins to operate as a causal caprice; as soon as it is committed to consciousness, it infects the words which surround it. In comparing Jerome with Jerome, the poet initially seems to be giving himself up to the randomness of linguistic similarity…. Numerous hints of thoughts associate themselves in the speaker's mind, and linguistic contagion has overwhelmed ordinary logical distinctions: "As the sun sets, the last patient rises." Each phrase seems to call up a mirror phrase, but always with a difference; one never quite catches up with the meanings before they shift again in the process of association, so that a parallelism becomes a disappointed expectation…. No ego remains in place long enough for it to be fully constituted.

However much the parallelisms refuse to hold—or insist upon holding in an unpredictable fashion, the lines of the parallels perhaps create their most surprising effect when they turn out not to be dead ends. For the poem arrives at an ending which seems as premature as the psychiatrist's arrival at the zoo, in which "The old man walks placidly / To the grocer's; walks on, under leaves, in light, / To a lynx, a leopard—he has come." The alliterative movement from "leaves" to "light" shamelessly displays itself, conscious of its artifice and arbitrariness; but the arbitrary sequence of sound merges with an alliterative pattern that hovers around the object of the search. (pp. 433-34)

The sight may focus on the lion, but Jarrell's use of the lynx and the leopard in pointing to the lion diverts and blurs the focus. It is as if he could not individuate the lion, even in the act of moving toward him. And the reciprocal gestures of the psychiatrist and the lion at the ending … also avoid individuation even in the moment of recognition. The lion's motion perfectly fits with the man's, so perfectly that the two motions virtually constitute one continuous motion. In this unity, moreover, we return to the infinite regress of likenesses that shapes the earlier sections of the poem.

Because there are no precise boundaries to be drawn between individuals, the entire poem "Jerome" becomes a "middling" in which the beginning and the ending seems less to delimit the scope of the poem than to absorb themselves in infinitely self-repeating and self-extending association. Whereas "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" consists only of a beginning and an ending, "Jerome"—along with "Cinderella," "Eighth Air Force," and "Well Water"—erases its beginning and ending to put the entire poetic effort into the area of the included middle. Jarrell's "middling" becomes not only a process but a voice; it translates the determinism of the mediocre routines which Jarrell perceived in modern life into the possibility of escape from the term which can be limited, the self. As Jerome the saint, Jerome the psychiatrist, and the lion of their mutual unconscious merge into one another, the poem attaches less significance to the "I" than to the entreaty "Pass it on"—without defining and thus delimiting "it."

From looking at Jarrell's manuscripts of many of the poems, one begins to recognize that, for him, the language—even the very letters of the alphabet—seemed a supplemental consciousness, a partner in his enterprise of discovering the multiplicity of voice. Scratch sheets crawl with apparently random letters, traced over and over again until words came as the fuller form of the individual letters…. Jarrell's letter plays in his work sheets more radically reveal the Jarrellian-Freudian willingness to impute—and therefore to receive—significance from the smallest traces of forms. (pp. 434-35)

Although the concept of morality is, in some sense, the theme of "Eighth Air Force," one of Jarrell's most impressive war poems, the movement of the poem reveals that moral judgments have become inapplicable. (p. 436)

Because of the baleful implications that have been caught up in the dog-wolf imagery and because of the very vacillation of the moral argument from the "shall I say that man / Is not … a wolf to man"—a proposition waiting to be disclaimed—to the limp justification "Still, this is how it's done," one feels the logical security of the speech fall apart; the airman's arguments war with one another…. [Although the logical form remains, the fact that the speaker is an innocent, a murderer, and now a judge] erodes what once seemed like a logical appraisal into a moral limbo. (p. 437)

Although forces like the "State" apparently hold grim control over some of Jarrell's war poems, the voice of the airman finally evades all control, as the initially locatable speech becomes a voice constructed by the multiple participants in this unpathetic tragedy. While the woman at the Washington Zoo pleads, "Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!" the airman's body becomes less and less present, so that transcendence or de-incarnation seems irrelevant. What remains is the voice of a choric criminal-victim-saviour-spectator, whose incorporation of all of the possible stationings toward pain into himself is so thorough that moral scruples seem beside the point. On the one hand, it is as if the man destroys only himself; on the other, it is as if all the world would have to be punished if moral judgments were invoked against the untold, interlocking processes of inflicting and suffering pain. And in this poem, the possibility of apocalypse itself appears to be annihilated. The temporal patterning of the merged, multiple voice projects a future of repetition out of the infiltration of the poem's present by the imagined past of Pilate's speech.

Finally, in the poem "The Bird of Night," originally included in The Bat Poet, the traces of voice itself as a construct within the poem begin to dwindle away. If in "Jerome" and in "Eighth Air Force" the lion and puppy-wolf emerge as unconscious consciousnesses overlapping with the human, in "The Bird of Night" all vestiges of human selfhood seem to have diminished nearly to nothingness. Voice becomes a register of the loss of all consciousness, all objects of consciousness and concern…. A nature that might be "red in tooth and claw" overturns its terror in being traced out of all apparent existence. The blank nothingness of death has already been appropriated into the being of the creatures, so that the death-bearing owl is a confirmation rather than a disruption of their state.

We are left with only the residue—the poet's written inscription on the page to remind us of the voice which once was written into the text. (pp. 438-39)

Through the course of Jarrell's work, the voice figures less as the presence of an aid to self-recollection than as an evanescent movement. The merger of selves with selves dissolves the boundaries of individual identity, thus freeing "voice" to represent a fictional temporal infinitude. "Voice" becomes the principle of learning how little will suffice, so that finally the text into which voice was written begins to reveal the disappearance of the voice itself, imitating the world which it drove away. (p. 439)

Frances Ferguson, "Randall Jarrell and the Flotations of Voice," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by the University of Georgia), Fall, 1974, pp. 423-39.

Patrick J. Horner

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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 continuing impact of the telescoping of time and the birth imagery. (p. 9)

The telescoping of time … omits the actual moment of the gunner's death. Just as the moment of physical birth became merely an anticlimactic transferral of the foetus from the mother's womb to the State's, so the finality of death is reduced to one more stage in the cycle of filling, emptying, and refilling the turret. The manipulation of time reveals the stunning brevity of the gunner's waking life and the State's total disregard for that phenomenon.

The birth imagery also emphasizes the State's uncaring efficiency. For example, using a hose … to remove the corpse indicates the body's badly mutilated condition. But since metaphorically the gunner is a foetus in a womb, the washing out of his remains by introducing a fluid under pressure clearly suggests one of the common procedures for ejecting a foetus after abortion. By implication then, the gunner, like an aborted foetus, was never allowed to achieve independent human life. Because of the telescoping of time and the imagery of birth the gunner's understated account of his life and death resonates with powerful feeling. (p. 10)

Patrick J. Horner, in, The Explicator (copyright © 1978 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Summer, 1978.


Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 1)


Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 2)