Poet in the Sun Belt

Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection

edited by Mary Jarrell
Houghton Mifflin, 473 pp., $29.95

Randall Jarrell thought of the poet as “a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen.” Jarrell wrote reviews, children’s books, translations, and a comic novel; but his letters make clear that he lived for the accidents. In times of safety, when no poems came, he was despondent. When he was young the poems happened in abundance. He published four books of poems in nine years, from 1942 (when he was twenty-eight) to 1951, but he had to wait nine more years before he had to wait nine more years before he had enough poems for his next book, The Woman at the Washington Zoo, of which more than a third consists of translations of German poems. His last collection, The Lost World, was published a few months before his death in 1965. That was twenty years ago, and Jarrell’s life and death are still shrouded in mystery, while his reputation as a poet is uncertain.

It is part of the mythology of his generation of poets—which included John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, and Robert Lowell—that Jarrell’s death was a suicide. A sentence from A. Alvarez’s The Savage God places Jarrell in august company: “Cesare Pavese and Paul Celan, Randall Jarrell and Sylvia Plath, Mayakovsky, Esenin and Tsvetayeva killed themselves”; and Robert Hass, in a moving elegy to Jarrell, vows “to somehow do honor to Randall Jarrell, / never to kill myself.” A selection of letters probably should not have an argument but this one does: Mary Jarrell, the poet’s second wife and now his editor, is convinced that her husband’s death was an accident. She calls her selection “autobiographical,” but this is not altogether so, in view of the lengthy attention she gives to Jarrell’s death, where her commentary supplants his text. She tells the story again. It was night; he was wearing a dark coat and dark gloves as he walked by the side of a North Carolina highway; the driver testified that Jarrell “lunged in the path of the car” (though the coroner’s report casts doubt on this). Still, no new recital of the circumstances is likely to persuade the reader that it was an accident, since the real difficulty is to understand Jarrell’s mood at the time.

During the month before his death Jarrell wrote to Robert Penn Warren about the hellish spring and summer he had just lived through. “I’ve always wanted to change, but not change into what you become when you’re mentally ill. I was badly depressed last summer and, in getting out of that, got elated and unreasonable, and stayed in the hospital, recovering, from about March 1 to July 1.” For this period, letters are scant, and Mrs. Jarrell’s commentary can hardly be considered impartial. But two events stand out. In March Jarrell wrote to Michael di Capua, his editor: “I don’t know whether Mary has told you; but she and I are separated and will be divorced after a while.” In April, when he was, according to Mrs. Jarrell, “in…

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