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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

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 generally the humanity in man, and especially in America, which is rejected by the inhuman in man, especially in America. At times the moon can appear not in its usual role of the unattainable past, but as frustrated Progress and Humanism, Equality and Universal Democracy (one remembers here that Jarrell was an educator who regarded teaching as his second highest calling).

Miss Arendt in her brilliantly evocative essay argues that Jarrell’s grievance was that of being a disappointed democrat who expected the whole of American society to be an elite, rather than that of being an aristocrat disgusted with his fellow beings: “Only slowly did it dawn upon me that he did not want to belong among ‘the happy few, who grow fewer and unhappier day by day’ for the simple reason that he was a democrat at heart”—and she quotes his own words—with ” ‘a scientific education and a radical youth,’ who was old-fashioned enough to believe, like Goethe, in Progress.” Not—one should perhaps point out—that Goethe was all that enthusiastic about Progress.

The writer of the Complaint complains that life does not fulfill the ideals of his realizable yet unattained lost world where values are truer than those which he finds in the surrounding world. Jarrell looks at the life around him and finds it wrong, not right. The people he identifies with and writes about—isolated child, woman, airman—feel in the world the sense of their loss, his loss, of a reality which life would have if things were right.

Rather confusingly, Jarrell seems to complain against most of the human condition without, it seems to me, much discrimination. The fact that the Marschallin and the middle-aged woman shopping get old, the fact that we lose our childhood and that past scenes get built over and change, the fact that the men of the Eighth Air Force “wash their hands, in blood, as best they can,” all give rise to the same sense of terrifying loss. Of course, it is true that since time is all destroying, every moment of life can be seen in the light of total destruction. But if at one pole of existence everything seems terrible, at another pole, it seems self-indulgent to think that all men’s tales are equally unfortunate. Sometimes Jarrell’s poetry seems on the edge of a projected self indulgence—if it does not cross over it—which means that the poet sees the terror of life a bit too easily. An example is the poem—beautiful though it is—about the Marschallin, “The Face.” Jarrell puts words into the mouth of “die alte Frau, die alte Marschallin,” as she bitterly reflects people will call her, while she looks at her face in the mirror:

If just living can do this,
Living is more dangerous than anything:
It is terrible to be alive.

Well, it is terrible to be alive, and a woman looking in the mirror and seeing the decay of her own beauty could certainly see beyond this into the ultimate terror. Yet Jarrell, I think, does not quite make us see into the terror that lies beyond the pity.

Jarrell is strongest when his moral indignation coincides with a grievance against human folly and malignity, the justice of which we recognize. His war poems are wholly convincing partly because he is so expertly observant about the actual conditions of flying bombers and living in an air base; partly because the complaint, intensified to horror, seems justified. His wit and his sense of tragedy come together, and he produces poetry which combines humor with terror:

There set out slowly, for a Different World,
At four on winter mornings, differ- ent legs…
You can’t break eggs without mak-
   ing an omelette
That’s what they tell the eggs.

Randall Jarrell is very difficult to “place” or even to describe as a poet. I do not think that the attempts to do either are wholly successful in this volume, although the essays are far more distinguished than in most collections made in a spirit of piety. Denis Donoghue comes nearest to doing so in his discussion of Jarrell’s themes, which he divides into a drama of five acts. He affirms convincingly that Jarrell wrote a poetry of gains as well as of losses. Perhaps the most revealing part of his essay is that in which he compares Jarrell with Wallace Stevens. Mr. Donoghue compares Jarrell’s lines “I hold in my own hands happiness, Nothing, the nothing for which there’s no reward,” with some lines from Stevens’s “The Snow Man”—“from the mind,”—Mr. Donoghue writes—“of one who willingly sees wintry things”:

   …the listener, who listens in the snow,
And nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

So the worlds of Jarrell and Stevens converge at the point of nothing, the point where the modern poet who believes in nothing except the creative power of the imagination has to construct, “having nothing upon which to construct.” But beyond this point of negation, the two poets move, it seems to me, in opposite directions. Stevens sets up poems as though they were statues, three-dimensional objects. His things imagined are almost impersonal, objective, and their value is that they do set up a scale which makes them real by the standards of the impervious reality of the modern world. For Stevens the supreme fiction is a way of accepting, and then imagining, reinventing Reality For Jarrell the supreme fiction is the rejection of the modern world, or at any rate the protection of the child, the girl, the innocent, against it, inside a skin which may be the metal sheath of an airplane. Mr. Donoghue writes of “Children’s Arms,” where the island sings to the child,

Believe! Believe!” We bear it, if we can, by make-believe, dreams, fragments, fictions. The verbal equivalent, in the detail, is wit; where the poet, almost a child, creeps out of his own life, fighting the good poetic fight, slaying the prosaic dragon. Mostly the dragon comes as authority, the way of the world, Army regulations, public cliché. The poet bears these things by gulling them, tripping them on their own banana skins.

The comparison with Wallace Stevens is more useful for contrast than for similarity. I cannot see that Stevens’s view of “the nature of poetry…as an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals,” equates with Jarrell’s imagined world of “make-believe, dreams, figments, fictions.” Indeed, Stevens is so uncompromising that if it doesn’t equate, it doesn’t relate.

Jarrell’s poetry is essentially about a subjective world which children, women, some men can make for themselves, and which has to be protected from the modern real world, though perhaps it could have maintained itself in the past. It is a world on the defensive, of the child fighting against the destructive forces of adult life, the woman trying to treasure her girlhood within domesticity. The dramatic monologues are subjective hymns, and the poet’s objectivity goes to projecting himself into another subjective self. Often one reads the first lines of a poem by Jarrell, thinking that the “I” is the poet, and then discovers that it is a middle-aged woman.

Several of the writers in this book claim that Jarrell was a dramatic writer, but Mr. Donoghue is surely correct when he writes:

He was not a dramatic poet. Reading his poems is not like seeing King Lear: it is like the relief of breaking a wounded silence, letting the pain drain away in words, in companionable talk. When we say his idiom is conversational, we mean that it is like the conversation that helps, in trouble; balm to hurt minds.

On the whole, the writers here find it easier to criticize individual poems than the poet. Nearly all of them, with perhaps the exception of Karl Shapiro, who has some reservations, praise the criticism. They most of them note, however, a cruel streak in Jarrell when he attacked poets he didn’t like. But Mr. Lowell balances this against Jarrell’s immense enthusiasms for what he did like. All the same, the praise doesn’t quite cancel out the cruelty—an interesting aspect of Jarrell which could hardly be dealt with extensively in a memorial volume. Most of the writers take the easy course of excusing reviews against which Conrad Aiken once publicly protested as being “sadistic” on grounds best expressed here by Elizabeth Bishop:

Jarrell’s reviews did go beyond the limit; they were unbelievably cruel, that’s true. Conrad was quite right. But…he hated bad poetry with such vehemence and so vigorously that it didn’t occur to him that in the course of taking apart—where he’d take a book of poems and squeeze, like that, twist—that in the course of doing that, there was a human being also being squeezed.

This does not seem quite adequate as an explanation of the two sides of Jarrell—his extraordinary tenderness in his dramatic monologues toward just such people as would in real life perhaps have written bad poems, and his extraordinary antipathy to the bad poetry of those he would rather, have sentimentalized over if he had met them on the street or in the college library or the air force. When I read Jarrell’s beautiful poem about the woman at the shopping center, a picture flashes across my mind of her fishing in her shopping bag and dragging out from among the cans and detergent boxes a slim volume, saying: “Oh, Mr. Jarrell, here is a little book of poems I wrote. I wonder, could you spare time to write a few lines about it in your next review?” This dramatizes a possible clash in what I can only regard in Jarrell as two personalities: unless, indeed, a third personality, the teacher (and not the reviewer) were to intervene who would become extremely helpful.

These three—Jarrell the sympathetic poet, Jarrell the often cruel critic, and Jarrell the teacher—never quite come together in his poetry, and certainly not in his novel, Pictures from an Institution, which is dazzling, but written undoubtedly by Jarrell the critic, and therefore, I think, rather forced. One might say that when he was writing as critic or social observer, there was a margin beyond which he slipped over into sadism, whereas when he was writing poetry there was a margin beyond which he slipped over into masochism (to judge from the writers in this volume, Jarrell the teacher was completely human). The divisions suggest, I think, his limitations, and they also may explain why it is so difficult to criticize the poetry as a whole, because it seems so often, wonderful as it can be, the product of a split personality. At any rate, some of the most constructive and favorable criticisms here tend to be appeals ad hominem. I have already cited Mr. Donoghue’s remark that Jarrell’s poetry is “balm to hurt minds.” This makes me wonder whether I have a hurt mind, if that is the prerequisite of experiencing Jarrell’s poetry as balm. What I really take it to mean is that when it comes to stating what he really considers the final quality of Jarrell’s poetry, Mr. Donoghue finds himself a bit at a loss: which does not mean that Jarrell is not as good a poet as Mr. Donoghue thinks, but does indicate that there is some difficulty. The same considerations occur with some of Robert Lowell’s remarks:

Randall Jarrell had his own peculiar and important excellence as a poet, and outdistanced 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.

The concluding sentence, like Mr. Donoghue’s “balm to hurt minds,” has the effect of pulling me up short and making me wonder whether it is my inadequacy, or my lack of heart, which has prevented me from ever feeling that organ broken by reading a poem of Randall Jarrell’s. I think one can grant some objectivity to heartbreakingness as a criterion. But to prove this one would have to have some agreement among readers as to what they did find heartbreaking.

What is heartbreaking in poetry? If one attempts to answer this, one is only answering from one’s experience. Myself, I find Enter Lear With Cordelia Dead in His Arms and the lines that follow, heartbreaking; I find “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born” and “Too long sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart” heartbreaking; “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young” and Tolstoy’s account of Prince Andrew’s vision of the sky above him when he is lying wounded on the battlefield combine both heartbreakingness and balm.

THE DIFFICULTY really is to describe the impression Jarrell’s poetry produces except by the sympathies with which the reader may respond to Jarrell; James Dickey is extremely aware of this in a review, here reprinted, in which he divides himself into pro and con, A and B, to put the case for and against Jarrell. A is allowed the last word, which seems to be Dickey’s own view, and significantly what he finds to praise is Jarrell’s complete entry, in a highly individual way, into the present situation:

The poems give you the feel of a time, our time, as no other poetry of our century does, or could, even. They put on your face, nearer than any of your own looks, more irrevocably than your skin, the uncomprehending stare of the individual caught in the State’s machinery: in an impersonal, invisible, man-made, and uncontrollable Force. They show in front of you a child’s slow, horrified, magnificently un-understanding and growing loss of innocence in which we all share and can’t help: which we neither can understand nor help in ourselves in the hands of the State any more than can the children in our hands.

And so on. It is all very good, and if one interprets it back into Jarrell’s poetry, into the war poems, the poems about children and so on, like a faithful account of what the reader may experience in the poetry, it stands the test pretty well. But whether the reader can follow with the emotions—to which they finally appeal—Dickey’s conclusions are questionable, like the heartbreak and balm of Lowell and Donoghue. “[Jarrell] gives you, as all great or good writers do, a foothold in a realm where literature itself is inessential, where your own world is more yours than you could ever have thought, or even felt, but is one you have always known.” The idea that Jarrell’s poetry has the virtue of giving you a foothold in a world where literature is inessential seems to reflect Donoghue’s and Lowell’s ideas that this poetry is “balm” or “heartbreaking.” What I suppose Mr. Dickey means is that Jarrell’s poetry provides for the reader a passage to Jarrell’s intensely human feelings, which become the reader’s understanding of life, and that this “makes literature itself inessential.” This is perhaps what Mr. Donoghue and Mr. Lowell thought too, though I think that they would have grave qualms if they found themselves actually saying it.

What strikes me first about Jarrell’s poetry is not its humanity, nor its universality, its entry into “the feel of our time,” which so many of the writers here insist on, but that it is very idiosyncratic and particular to the poet. It is peculiar. By this I mean that in order to get through to the universal condition-of-our-time qualities you first have to experience some empathy for the mind of the squirrel struggling through the hollowed log, Randall Jarrell. The reader has to get inside Jarrell’s sensibility before he can get inside the conditions of life which that sensibility penetrates. One has, of course, always to accept a poet’s world, but the worlds of some poets are more special than others. (Rilke’s, for example, is very special.) The best recent example of the peculiar sensibility which I can compare with Jarrell is Theodore Roethke. In order to appreciate Roethke you really have to get inside his world of slugs and slimy weeds in hot greenhouses. The peculiarity is not so obvious with Jarrell because it is not so obviously connected with a particular set of images all of which strike you at once as idiosyncratic to this poet. It is a diffused peculiarity of the whole sensibility rather than of particular objects.

LIGHT IS THROWN on the peculiarity by John Crowe Ransom’s remarks about a poem, Cinderella, which certainly exhibits Randall Jarrell’s great idiosyncracy. This very strange poem scarcely suggests a Jarrell who is the portrayer of our time, the world we live in, in Mr. Dickey’s sense. It begins:

Her imaginary playmate was a grown-up
In sea-coal satin. The flame-blue glances,
The wings gauzy as the membrane that the ashes
Draw over an old ember—as the mother
In a jug of cider—were a comfort to her.
They sat by the fire and told each other stories.

“What men want….” said the godmother softly—
How she went on it is hard for a man to say.
Their eyes, on their Father, were monumental marble.
Then they smiled like two old wom-, en, bussed each other,
Said, “Gossip, gossip”; and lapped in each other’s looks,
Mirror for mirror, drank a cup of tea.

Of cambric tea. But there is a re- ality
Under the good silk of the good sis- ters’
Good ball gowns. She knew…. Hard-breasted, naked-eyed,
She pushed her silk feet into glass, and rose within
A grown of imaginary gauze. The shy prince drank
A toast to her in champagne from her slipper

And breathed, “Bewitching!” Breathed, “I am bewitched!”
—She said to her godmother, “Men!”
And, later, looking down to see her flesh
Look back up from under lace, the ashy gauze
And pulsing marble of a bridal veil,
She wished it all a widow’s coal- black weeds.

Well, the point is that Cinderella does not like marriage and the happy ending. She prefers looking in the fire:

A sullen wife and a reluctant moth- er,
She sat all day in silence by the fire.
Better, later, to stare past her sons’ sons,
Her daughters’ daughters, and tell stories to the fire.

John Crowe Ransom puzzles me by paraphrasing: “It appears that the girl is not quite decided as to which is her true vocation: to be a woman and marry a man, or to be a gnome. The godmother is a perfect gnome, and I suppose that a female gnome is a wise old woman with a sharp tongue who only sits before the fire and talks about men.”

For gnome one might possibly substitute Goethe’s idea of daimon, genius, the making spirit which burns through customs and conventions to fulfill its own impulse of a creativity which is outside circumstances. Cinderella prefers the poetry of imagining the story of Cinderella to the real happy ending. Does not this throw much light on the kind of poet that Jarrell was, the poet who can really only accept the world as poetry? The moon was to him poetry. The complaint that the world was not the moon.


Taught by Jarrell January 18, 1968

Sorry December 21, 1967

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