Randall Jarrell’s Complaint

Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965

edited by Robert Lowell, edited by Peter Taylor, edited by Robert Penn Warren
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 308 pp., $6.50

Randall Jarrell
Randall Jarrell; drawing by David Levine

The first time I met Randall Jarrell was in 1950 at the Harvard Conference on the Defense of Poetry, where he gave ‘the address, afterward to become famous, entitled “The Obscurity of the Modern Poet.” He turned the tables on his hosts, who evidently wished him to discuss the difficulty of modern poetry, by talking instead about the obscurity to which poetry and the poet are today relegated.

The fact that the talk was given to an audience of several hundred people struck me as ironic. Subsequently I have come to think of it as touching and American. Jarrell was addressing himself to the large university public of Americans who listen to poets read their poems and talk about the difficulty of writing poetry: how much larger than the public of thirty serious readers which was all Ezra Pound, at the beginning of the century, thought a poet need ask for! Yet beyond the luminous wide circle of the Harvard audience Jarrell saw—and made it see—the ever widening circles of the benighted who care about poetry only to the extent of labeling it “obscure”—people whom Jarrell nevertheless cared about immensely, seeing them lost in this “world where vegetables are either frozen, canned, or growing in the field; where little children as they gaze into the television view plate at the Babes dead under the heaped up blankets of the Wood, ask pleadingly: ‘But where was their electric blanket?’ ”

AT A PRIVATE meeting of the poets attending the Conference, I heard Jarrell read his poems in that almost strangled voice, sometimes shrill with protest, which is brought back to me by Robert Lowell’s remark, in this volume of essays about Jarrell by his friends, that sometimes he reminded Lowell of Shelley. His appearance, with the very black hair which at this time only covered his head and did not also enclose the lower half of his face like fur, gave a paradoxical impression of despairing triumph. He looked at moments like a squirrel struggling through a hollow log, held in a cramped hole but with berry-black eyes shining through.

Elizabeth Bishop points out: “The word aggrieved handles a lot of Jarrell’s tone, both in prose and in verse.” A lot, but not all of it. The writers in this volume bear witness to his gaiety and happiness as well as to his grievances. His poetry renews perhaps an almost forgotten mode, the Complaint. The writer of Complaints is essentially in love with the moon. In Jarrell’s case a lot of things stand for the moon shining beyond this time and place, unattainable in a polished black enamel sky: there is the Austrian garden past of the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier; his own childhood; places he has been to which have changed for the worse, including, surprisingly, Hollywood; the lost innocence of those caught up in murdering and being murdered in war; and…

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