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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 such unrelieved depression that shock treatments were being considered, Jarrell cut his left wrist in a suicide attempt.” A reconciliation followed. Jarrell told Warren, “It feels awfully good to be home with Mary again.” But his wrist didn’t heal properly, and Jarrell returned to Chapel Hill for treatment. It was then that the accident or suicide occurred. The letter to Warren, which precedes this second treatment, concludes:

I haven’t written any poems, but I’ve been thinking so much about the passage of time, and what it’s like to live a certain number of years in the world, that I think it’s sure to turn into some poems in the long run.

The reader will have to judge whether passages like this sound desperate or hopeful. But if death came as an accident to Jarrell, it seems to have come the way he thought poems did. As he wrote in “90 North,” “I die or live by accident alone.”

Jarrell was fifty-one when he died. During his life he seemed the least likely of his contemporaries to die young. He was “almost without vices,” as Lowell said. In the company of a generation of poets given to excess Jarrell neither smoke nor drank. Until his last years he showed no signs of madness; indeed, according to the reports of friends he seems to have suffered from an almost maddening sanity. Even his divorce from his first wife seemed painless. As one correspondent wrote, “Your divorce seems to be the most calmly and humanely conducted of any that I know of.” Jarrell stayed in excellent physical condition by playing tennis expertly; during the war he won the doubles championship of Tucson and was runner-up in singles, and he played in tournaments all his life. He also loved his job of teaching. “I’d pay to teach,” he liked to say. When he wrote Elizabeth Bishop in 1957, “probably both of us will live to be eighty-three,” this seemed a reasonable guess, at least for himself, though he added, “The world is full of bombs and airplane crashes.”

Jarrell had every chance to become a “southern poet” and didn’t. He was born in Nashville in 1914 and attended high school and college there. He made his first contribution to the cultural life of Nashville when he was twelve, modeling for the statue of Ganymede that adorns the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Jarrell’s mentors at Vanderbilt were the Fugitive poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. They encouraged him to write by exhortation and example; the first letter in the volume is to Warren, and it begins, “Here are the poems.” Jarrell didn’t share their politics, however: he had no interest in the restoration of an agrarian society, and their vision of a southern aristocracy, established around family tradition, held no appeal for him. His own middle-class parents (his father was “a partner in Kramer–Jarrell Portrait Pictorialists”) were divorced when he was a child, and the nearest he came to being part of a family was the year he spent in Hollywood with his grandparents (whom he called Mama and Pop), after the separation. He didn’t hate the South but he didn’t have much to say about it either. When Tate suggested the subject to him in 1945 Jarrell wrote back: “The only Southern subjects I ever thought of writing about are you, Red, and Mr. Ransom—your poems, I mean.”

If Tate, Ransom, and “Red” Warren can be considered the last southern poets, Jarrell may be the first poet of the Sun Belt. Almost all the letters in this collection were postmarked in the cities of that loosely defined waist of the nation, where labor and fuel are cheap, and men read Road and Track and watch professional football on television—two of Jarrell’s passions. Except for some visits to “the northeast, that wretched direction,” and a few years in Washington, DC, and Gambier, Ohio, Jarrell spent most of his life in Nashville, Austin, Tucson, Laguna Beach, and Greensboro, North Carolina. “I wish you could see the football here,” Jarrell wrote to Tate from Austin, where he took one of his first teaching jobs and met his first wife, Mackie, a fellow English teacher. During the war he was stationed at various army bases in Texas and Arizona, serving mainly as an instructor in celestial navigation, and he asked Mackie to send him the newspaper accounts of the University of Texas practice games.

What Jarrell called “my army poems” are distinctive for their gentle empathy with the boys of the sunny cities who were asked to fight in a war that seemed at first like a sport—

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores—

and to the end had some of the abstract, impoverished feel of a high school geography class:

We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out….

After the war Jarrell served for a year as literary editor of The Nation, on the strength of the reviews and poems he had written while in the army. He loathed New York, finding relief in the ballet and the proximity of Forest Hills (“I spent much of last week at the tennis matches, which mitigated New York, for a little, a little”). He avoided New York parties where he would be subjected to the narrow confines of New York literary gossip. Of Delmore Schwartz he wrote, “He thinks that Schiller and St. Paul were just two Partisan Review editors.” In a letter to Lowell he reported: “I wrote a funny poem about a man who was born in New York City and died there.”

The city of Greensboro, which Jarrell called “one more version of pastoral,” was his refuge for almost twenty years, from 1947 to 1965. He taught at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina, an institution he viewed with the same merciless affection he directed toward the fictional college of Benton, in his novel, Pictures from an Institution. “The average North Carolina girl talks as if she were an imbecile with an ambition to be an idiot,” he wrote to Margaret Marshall, the literary editor of The Nation; and when people asked him what his students were like, he referred them to his poem, “A Girl in a Library”:

If someone questioned you, What
   doest thou here?
You’d knit your brows like an orangoutang
(But not so sadly; not so thoughtfully)
And answer with a pure heart, guilelessly:
I’m studying….
   If only you were not!
Assignments, recipes, the Official Rulebook
Of Basketball….

But Jarrell felt implicated in this vision of half-educated athletic health—“One sees in your blurred eyes / The ‘uneasy halfsoul’ Kipling saw in dogs’. / One sees it, in the glass, in one’s own eyes.” He often complained of his own faulty education. “Indeed I don’t read Greek,” he wrote Hannah Arendt, “it’s a wonder I read English.”

Jarrell is often praised by critics for his understanding of women, and especially for the poems—“The Face,” “Next Day,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo”—in which he adopts a female persona. He told Allen Tate he had a “semifeminine mind”; but the cost of this empathy seems to have been a curiously protective, asexual, and almost avuncular attitude toward women. He adored little girls, and didn’t much like to see them grow up. When they did anyway, he addressed them as “Baby doll.” Like many other men, Jarrell seemed happiest when he was telling a woman what to read. While teaching at Salzburg in the summer of 1948 (it was his first visit to Europe and he seems to have left Mackie at home to take care of the cat), he fell in love with one of his students. They refrained from sex, “out of deference to his marriage,” according to the editor, but on his return Jarrell bombarded her with seventy love letters, several of which seem to be little more than long reading lists (“Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa; Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children; Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall; Dostoievski, The Idiot“). To another woman correspondent he wrote, “Telling things to read is something I can hardly make myself finish.” Reading was more than a passion for Jarrell, however. It was a shrine he visited daily. He said that in libraries he felt “soothed and clam and secure,” like “a baby come back to the womb.” He simply wanted the women he cared for to be able to join him there.

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