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Randall Jarrell, 1914 - 1965

When I first met Randall, he was twenty-three or four, and upsettingly brilliant, precocious, knowing, naive, and vexing. He seemed to make no distinction between what he would say in our hearing and what he would say behind our backs. If anything, absence made him more discreet. Woe to the acquaintance who liked the wrong writer, the wrong poem by the right writer, or the wrong lines in the right poem! And how those who loved him enjoyed admiring, complaining, and gossiping about the last outrageous thing he had done or, more often, said. It brought us together—whispering about Randall. In 1937, we both roomed at the house of John Crowe Ransom in Gambier, Ohio. Ransom and Jarrell had each separately spent the preceding summer studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and had emerged with unorthodox and widely differing theories. Roughly, Ransom thought that Shakespeare was continually going off the rails into illogical incoherence. Jarrell believed that no one, not even William Empson, had done justice to the rich, significant ambiguity of Shakespeare’s intelligence and images. I can see and hear Ransom and Jarrell now, seated on one sofa, as though on one love-seat, the sacred texts open on their laps, one fifty, the other just out of college, and each expounding to the other’s deaf ears his own inspired and irreconcilable interpretation.

Gordon Chalmers, the President of Kenyon College and a disciple of the somber anti-Romantic Humanists, once went skiing with Randall, and was shocked to hear him exclaiming, “I feel just like an angel.” Randall did somehow give off an angelic impression, despite his love for tennis, singular mufflers knitted by a girl-friend, and disturbing improvements of his own on the latest dance steps. His mind, unearthly in its quickness, was a little boyish, disembodied, and brittle. His body was a little ghostly in its immunity to soil, entanglements, and rebellion. As one sat with him in oblivious absorption at the campus bar, sucking a fifteen-cent chocolate milkshake and talking eternal things, one felt, beside him, too corrupt and companionable. He had the harsh luminosity of Shelley—like Shelley, every inch a poet, and like Shelley, imperilled perhaps by an arid, abstracting precosity. Not really! Somewhere inside him, a breezy, untouchable spirit had even then made its youthful and sightless promise to accept—to accept and never to accept the bulk, confusion, and defeat of mortal flesh…all that blithe and blood-torn dolor!

Randall Jarrell had his own peculiar and important excellence as a poet, and out-distanced all others in the things he could do well. His gifts, both by nature and by a lifetime of hard dedication and growth, were wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence. These qualities, dazzling in themselves, were often so well employed that he became, I think, the most heart-breaking English poet of his generation.

Most good poets are also good critics on occasion, but Jarrell was much more than this. He was a critic of genius, a poet-critic of genius at a time when, as he wrote, most criticism was “astonishingly graceless, joyless, humorless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige-obsessed, and almost autonomous.”

He had a deadly hand for killing what he despised. He described a murky verbal poet as “writing poems that might have been written by a typewriter on a typewriter.” The flashing reviews he wrote in his twenties are full of such witticisms and barbs, and hundreds more were tossed off in casual conversation, and never preserved, or even repeated. Speaking of a famous scholar, he said, “What can be more tedious than a man whose every sentence is a balanced epigram without wit, profundity, or taste?” He himself, though often fierce, was incapable of vulgarity, self seeking, or meanness. He could be very tender and gracious, but often he seemed tone-deaf to the amenities and dishonesties that make human relations tolerable. Both his likes and dislikes were a terror to everyone, that is to everyone who either saw himself as important or wished to see himself as important. Although he was almost without vices, heads of colleges and English departments found his frankness more unsettling and unpredictable than the drunken explosions of some divine enfant terrible, such as Dylan Thomas. Usually his wit was austerely pure, but sometimes he could jolt the more cynical. Once we were looking at a furnished apartment that one of our friends had just rented. It was overbearingly eccentric. Lifesize clay lamps like flowerpots remodeled into Matisse nudes by a spastic child. Paintings made from a palette of mud by a blind painter. About the paintings Randall said, “Ectoplasm sprinkled with zinc.” About the apartment, “All that’s missing are Mrs. X’s illegitimate children in bottles of formaldehyde.” His first reviews were described as “symbolic murders,” but even then his most destructive judgments had a patient, intuitive, unworldly certainty.

Yet eulogy was the glory of Randall’s criticism. Eulogies that not only impressed readers with his own enthusiasms, but which also, time and again, changed and improved opinions and values. He left many reputations permanently altered and exalted. I think particularly of his famous Frost and Whitman essays, and one on the last poems of Wallace Stevens, which was a dramatic reversal of his own earlier evaluation. His mind kept moving and groping more deeply. His prejudices were never the established and fashionable prejudices of the world around him. One could never say of one of his new admirations, “Oh, I knew you would like that.” His progress was not the usual youthful critic’s progress from callow severity to lax benevolence. With wrinkled brow and cool fresh eye, he was forever musing, discovering, and chipping away at his own misconceptions. Getting out on a limb was a daily occurrance for him, and when he found words for what he had intuited, his judgments were bold and unlikely. Randall was so often right, that sometimes we said he was always right. He could enjoy discarded writers whom it was a scandal to like, praise young, unknown writers as if he were praising and describing Shakespeare’s Tragedies, and read Shakespeare’s Tragedies with the uncertainty and wonder of their first discoverers.

He once said, “If I were a rich man, I would pay money for the privilege of being able to teach.” Probably there was no better teacher of literature in the country, and yet he was curiously unworldly about it, and welcomed teaching for almost twenty years in the shade or heat of his little known Southern college for girls in Greensboro, North Carolina. There his own community gave him a compact, tangible, personal reverence that was incomparably more substantial and poignant than the empty, numerical longdistance blaze of national publicity. He grieved over the coarseness, unkindness, and corruption of our society, and said that “the poet has a peculiar relation to this public. It is unaware of his existence.” He said bitterly and light-heartedly that “the gods who had taken away the poet’s audience had given him students.” Yet he gloried in being a teacher, never apologized for it, and related it to his most serious criticism. Writing of three long poems by Robert Frost, poems too long to include in his essay, he breaks off and says, “I have used rather an odd tone about these poems because I felt so much frustration at not being able to quote and go over them, as I have so often done with friends and classes.” Few critics could so gracefully descend from the grand manner or be so offhand about their dignity. His essays are never encrusted with the hardness of a professor. They have the raciness and artistic gaiety of his own hypnotic voice.

Randall was the only man I have ever met who could make other writers feel that their work was more important to him than his own. I don’t mean that he was in the habit of saying to people he admired, “This is much better than anything I could do.” Such confessions, though charming, cost little effort. What he did was to make others feel that their realizing themselves was as close to him as his own self-realization, and that he cared as much about making the nature and goodness of some one else’s work understood, as he cared about making his own understood. I have never known anyone who so connected what his friends wrote with their lives, or their lives with what they wrote. This could be trying: whenever we turned out something Randall felt was unworthy or a falling off, there was a coolness in all one’s relations with him. You felt that even your choice in neckties wounded him. Yet he always veered and returned, for he knew as well as anyone that the spark from heaven is beyond man’s call and control. Good will he demanded, but in the end was lenient to honest sterility and failure.

Jarrell was the most readable and generous of critics of contemporary poetry. His novel, Pictures from an Institution, whatever its fictional oddities, is a unique and serious joke-book. How often I’ve met people who keep it by their beds or somewhere handy, and read random pages aloud to lighten their hearts. His book, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, had a condescending press. When one listened to these social essays, they were like dies irae sermons, strange ones that cauterized the soul, and yet made us weep with laughter. A banal world found them banal. But what Jarrell’s inner life really was in all its wonder, variety, and subtlety is best told in his poetry. To the end, he was writing with deepening force, clarity, and frankness. For some twenty-five years he wrote excellent poems. Here I only want to emphasize two of his peaks: what he wrote about the War, and what he completed in the last years of his life.

In the first months of the War, Jarrell became a pilot. He was rather old for a beginner, and soon “washed out,” and spent the remaining war years as an aviation instructor. Even earlier, he had an expert’s knowledge. I remember sitting with him in 1938 on the hill of Kenyon College and listening to him analyze in cool technical detail the various rather minute ways in which the latest British planes were superior to their German equivalents. He then jokingly sketched out how a bombing raid might be made against the college. Nine-tenths of his war poems are air force poems, and are about planes and their personnel, the flyers, crews, and mechanics who attended them. No other imaginative writer had his precise knowledge of aviation, or knew so well how to draw inspiration from this knowledge.

In the turret’s great glass dome, the apparition death,
Framed in the glass of the gun- sight, a fighter’s blinking wing,
Flares softly, a vacant fire. If the flak’s inked blurs—
Distributed, statistical—the bomb’s lost patterning
Are death, they are death under glass, a chance
For someone yesterday, someone tomorrow; and the fire
That streams from the fighter which is there, not there,
Does not warm you, has not burned them, though they die.

More important still, the soldiers he wrote about were men much like his own pilot-students. He knew them well, and not only that, peculiarly sympathized with them. For Jarrell, the war careers of these young men had the freshness, wonder and magical brevity of childhood. In his poetry, they are murderers, and yet innocents. They destroyed cities and men that had only the nominal reality of names studied in elementary geography classes.

In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out…

Or

In this year of our warfare, indis- pensible
In general, and in particular dis- pensible…

Finally, the pilot goes home for good, forever mutilated and wounded, “the slow flesh failing, the terrible flesh sloughed off at last…stumbling to the toilet on one clever leg of leather, wire, and willow…” There, knowledge has at last come to him:

And it is different, different—you have understood
Your world at last: you have tasted your own blood.

Jarrell’s portraits of his pilots have been down-graded sometimes as un heroic, naive, and even sentimental. Well, he was writing beyond the War, and turning the full visionary powers of his mind on the War to probe into and expose the horror, pathos, and charm he found in life. Always behind the sharpened edge of his lines, there is the merciful vision, his vision, partial like all others, but an illumination of life, too sad and radiant for us to stay with long—or forget.

In his last and best book, The Lost World, he used subjects and methods he had been developing and improving for almost twenty years. Most of the poems are dramatic monologues. Their speakers, though mostly women, are intentionally, and unlike Browning’s, very close to the author. Their themes, repeated with endless variations, are solitude, the solitude of the unmarried, the solitude of the married, the love, strife, dependency, and indifference of man and woman—how mortals age, and brood over their lost and raw childhood, only recapturable in memory and imagination. Above all, childhood! This subject for many a careless and tarnished cliché was for him what it was for his two favorite poets, Rilke and Wordsworth, a governing and transcendent vision. For shallower creatures, recollections of childhood and youth are drenched in a mist of plaintive pathos, or even bathos, but for Jarrell this was the divine glimpse, lifelong to be lived with, painfully and tenderly relived, transformed, matured—man with and against woman, child with and against adult.

One of his aging women says,

When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband…

But later, thinking of the withering present, she says,

How young I seem; I am excep- tional;
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 com- monplace and solitary.

In so reflecting, she is a particular woman—one sad, particular woman reaching into Jarrell’s universal Everyman, poor or triumphant. Speaking in his own person and of his own childhood, he says,

…As I run by the chicken coops
With lettuce for my rabbit, real remorse
Hurts me, here, now: the little girl is crying
Because I didn’t write. Because—
of course,
I was a child, I missed them so. But justifying
Hurts too…

Then in a poem called “Woman,” the speaker, a man, addresses the woman next to him in bed:

Let me sleep beside you, each night, like a spoon;
When starting from my dreams, I groan to you,
May your I love you send me back to sleep.
At morning bring me, grayer for its mirroring,
The heaven’s sun perfected in your eyes.

It all comes back to me now—the just under thirty years of our friendship, mostly meetings in transit, mostly in Greensboro, North Carolina, the South he loved and stayed with, though no Agrarian, but a radical liberal. Poor modern-minded exile from the forests of Grimm, I see him unbearded, slightly South American-looking, then later bearded, with a beard we at first wished to reach out our hands to and pluck off, but which later became him, like Walter Bagehot’s, or some Symbolist’s in France’s fin-de-siècle Third Republic. Then unbearded again. I see the bright, petty, pretty sacred objects he accumulated for his joy and solace: Vermeer’s red-hatted girl, the Piero and Donatello reproductions, the photographs of his bruised, merciful heroes: Chekhov, Rilke, Marcel Proust. I see the white sporting Mercedes Benz, the ever better cut and more deliberately jaunty clothes, the television with its long afternoons of professional football, those matches he thought miraculously more graceful than college football…Randall had an uncanny clairvoyance for helping friends in subtle precarious moments—almost always as only he could help, with something written: critical sentences in a letter, or an unanticipated published book review. Twice or thrice, I think, he must have thrown me a life-line. In his own life, he had much public acclaim and more private. The public, at least, fell cruelly short of what he deserved. Now that he is gone, I see clearly that the spark from heaven really struck and irradiated the lines and being of my dear old friend—his noble, difficult, and beautiful soul.

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