Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection
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:
If only you were not!
Assignments, recipes, the Official Rulebook
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.
Jarrell was such a prude and at the same time such an avid reader of Freud that one is surprised he isn’t more lucid about his own repressions “Last night Blackmur was pretty bad,” he reported from Princeton. “He does so enjoy talking about awful or unseemly things.” Jarrell could joke about his own squeamishness—“Me for Queen Victoria, as far as Public Life is concerned”—but his friends respected it. According to Mrs. Jarrell, Lowell “took care not to use the fashionable four-letter words with Jarrell that he used with others.” Jarrell’s letters abound with words like “golly” and “dovey” (“a dovey Colonial house like Cleanth’s”) and “crazy about”; some of Rilke’s poems are “honeys.” He seems particularly reluctant to talk about his body, and Mrs. Jarrell quotes, apparently in agreement, Lowell’s curious remark about her husband: “His body was a little ghostly in its immunity to soil, entanglements and rebellion.”
When the bodies and minds of his friends rebelled, Jarrell was distant and unhelpful. He wrote to his Salzburg student in 1949:
The poet who was my particular friend among poets—Robert Lowell—has had a bad “nervous breakdown” and is in a mental hospital. I had a pathetically irrational letter from him last week. You have such a helpless bewildered feeling when something like this happens.
When Lowell was hospitalized again, in 1954, Jarrell, according to his wife, “found it distasteful to be even minimally involved in this crisis.” Such clouds had no place in the Sun Belt. Ten years later Jarrell, to his surprise and horror, began to experience manic symptoms quite similar to Lowell’s, symptoms that were at times endearing. While introducing Hannah Arendt as a guest lecturer in Greensboro, Jarrell talked for twenty minutes about meeting Johnny Unitas, the quarterback of the Baltimore Colts. When Jarrell tipped a waitress $1500, arrangements were made for his admission to Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill.
Jarrell is rarely a good letter writer and never a great one. He did not enjoy writing letters, nor did he give much care to them. His letters assume a tie made some other way; they almost never try to establish one. It is therefore unfortunate that one of Jarrell’s closest friends, Peter Taylor, refused to relinquish his letters for this volume. The editor had chosen 400 letters from 2500, and still one finds every few pages a letter that is in Jarrell’s words “a perfect banyan tree of weekday-names and dates.” Many of the letters are really cover letters, wrapping paper for poems or articles or letters to the editor. Mary Jarrell and her assistant, Stuart Wright, provide helpful notes between the letters, identifying articles, poems, and people alluded to, but the principles of selection are hazy. The editor tells us that “only the most literary and autobiographical portions of Jarrell’s nearly one hundred love letters to Mary von Schrader [Jarrell] have been excerpted and presented,” but we never learn what exactly Mrs. Jarrell means by “literary” (well written? dealing with literary topics?) or “autobiographical” (Mrs. Jarrell sometimes provides so much commentary that the volume seems biographical); and the recipient is probably not the best editor of love letters.
Some of Jarrell’s finest letters resemble (and sometimes were) early drafts of reviews. There are brilliant, often line-by-line analyses of poems in letters to Adrienne Rich and to Lowell (“In ‘The Crucifix’ I think ‘the worldly angels strip to tease / and wring a world of bathos from their eyes’ isn’t good: I think its tone is a little too timely and tawdry for the tone of the rest.” Lowell cut it). It is often said that Jarrell was the best poetry critic of his generation, but this isn’t quite true. He was the best poetry reviewer. He didn’t change the ways we read the poets of the past, as for example Northrop Frye or William Empson or R.P. Blackmur consistently did. His famous essay, “Some Lines from Whitman,” helped rescue its subject from the rigid formalism of the New Criticism, but it is less a work of criticism than a masterpiece of instructive quotation (“To show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote”).
The two brilliant essays on Frost in Poetry and the Age (1953), his first and best collection of essays, are perhaps an exception, for Jarrell really discovered Frost for serious readers of poetry, and showed them how to read him. It is hard now to believe that poems like “Design” and “Home Burial” and “Acquainted with the Night” were hardly known when Jarrell wrote “The Other Frost,” but it is true. In 1963 Jarrell wrote a wonderful letter about Frost to Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick:
He’d stay with us in Greensboro and talk all day—for one interesting, awful, and touching day about nothing but his family…. I existed for him just as the person who’d written those pieces about his poetry…. He felt I was an Indian who’d sold him, given him, Manhattan Island, and he was willing to keep me on a special little reservation in return. I felt that he talked more like poetry than anybody else I’d ever heard, that his voice made other voices sound a little high in comparison, so what did I care whether he was right or wrong? (He actually said that his writing had had all the success he wanted it to, so what did he care what happened with nuclear weapons?) The only cultural try I ever made with him was to read him four or five haiku that I thought close enough to his couplets for him to like; and he really did like them.
For ten or fifteen years Jarrell was the best reviewer of poetry in America. Not only did he protest the neglect of some of the best older poets—Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore—but he also had an uncanny sense of who the central poets of his own generation were. He detected Lowell’s promise early, and his continuing enthusiasm helped Lowell to keep it. After the publication of Lowell’s first book, in 1944, Jarrell wrote confidently (but also coaxingly), “Some of the best poems of the next years ought to be written by him.” In the Fifties, while others were praising Berryman and Schwartz and MacLeish, Jarrell singled out Elizabeth Bishop, telling her: “I like your poetry better than anybody’s since the Frost-Stevens-Eliot-Moore generation.” His letters reveal the enthusiast behind the reviewer’s mask. Jarrell’s dominant emotion when reading a good poem was gratitude. “Gee, your poems are wonderful,” he wrote to Bishop.
Jarrell judged bad books with angelic ruthlessness; his quips are remembered like good jokes while their victims are forgotten. He called one book of poems “non-Euclidean needlepoint” and remarked that another gave “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter.” But his cruel reviews were unconsciously cruel. He seems to have felt he was weeding the garden of poetry, and that everyone would be grateful to him for doing the dirty work. He was bewildered when poets complained. “It is always hard for poets to believe that one says their poems are bad not because one is a fiend but because their poems are bad,” he wrote in a letter to the editor in 1948.
Jarrell gradually tired of reviewing. He announced his change of heart to Lowell in 1949: “We live in a reviewing criticizing age that doesn’t give a damn for works of art, mostly—why should I help it along? I’ll write articles occasionally about what I like and all the rest can just die quietly without any help from me.”
While working on one such piece he wrote to Mary, “It’s funny that Whitman could say both the wonderful things and the goofy junk.” This is roughly what critics have found funny in Jarrell’s work. The wonderful things are in the reviews and articles, they have argued; the goofy junk is mainly in the poems. In Helen Vendler’s laconic formula, “Jarrell…can be said to have put his genius into his criticism and his talent into his poetry.” But this seems to me to overrate the criticism and underrate the poetry.
What is lacking in Jarrell’s poetry is a feel for, or a trust in, the density and texture of language. One almost never feels that a poem of his has grown around the sound of a single word or cluster of words, as one does, for example, with the poems of Frost and Hardy and Rilke (all poets that Jarrell loved, though mainly for their dramatic genius, their ability to find fit words for the characters in their poems). Jarrell prefers to exploit quotation, misquotation, and allusion, resources on which his criticism draws as well. “Next Day,” one of his best poems, begins:
Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.
The melancholy wit, the ambivalent pleasure in brand names and the props of suburban America, the expertly placed quotation—these are all characteristic of Jarrell’s best poems.
Jarrell found in the German language the density he never found in English. “The most wonderful thing of all is the flavor of the common, ordinary words,” he wrote to Mary, “and that you’d never taste if it were your native language” (unless you were Frost or Hardy, one is tempted to add). He never learned much German, however. “Alas, my German isn’t a bit better,” he complained to Hannah Arendt, “if I translate, how can I find time to learn German? if I don’t translate, I forget about German.” His method of translation was to rely less on the original than on previous translations. His version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, since he knew no Russian, was written against “seven already existing bad English translations.” This is why his versions betray so little resistance from the original; the English language hasn’t had its feathers ruffled. This is particularly (and damagingly) true of Jarrell’s posthumously published Faust, while his most satisfying translations are from Rilke’s short poems; with the help of a dictionary and a native speaker like Arendt, Jarrell could master the language of the original. (The narrator of Pictures from an Institution, who also translates Rilke, remarks: “You can always get a German to help you with the German, but who is there to help you with the English?”)
For Jarrell Germany was above all the country of childhood. He felt at home among Grimm’s fairy tales, furry animals, and the evanescent children in the Rilke poems he had translated: “to think about the little pale / Face that shone up from the water, sinking: / O childhood, O images gliding from us / Somewhere. But where? But where?” The surprise, and sense of breakthrough in the poems in The Lost World is the retrieval of Jarrell’s own childhood, and the discovery that his Germany, so to speak, was Hollywood, and the year he lived there with his grandparents. His madeleine turns out to be tapioca pudding:
This spoonful of chocolate tapioca
Tastes like—like peanut butter, like the vanilla
Extract Mama told me not to drink.
Swallowing the spoonful, I have already traveled
Through time to my childhood….
The fairy-tale properties of southern Germany are translated to southern California: “When I was twelve we’d visit my aunt’s friend / Who owned a lion, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Lion. I’d play with him, and he’d pretend / To play with me.” Jarrell’s poems about Salzburg are less “Märchen-like,” kitschy, and uncanny than his description of Hollywood:
On my way home I pass a cameraman
On a platform on the bumper of a car
Inside which, rolling and plunging, a comedian
Is working; on one white lot I see a star
Stumble to her igloo through the howling gale
Of the wind machines. On Melrose a dinosaur
And pterodactyl, with their immense pale
Papier-mâché smiles, look over the fence
Of The Lost World.
Jarrell is most unguarded in the poems of The Lost World. One passage seems to prefigure his own death:
I believe the dinosaur
Or pterodactyl’s married the pink sphinx
And lives with those Indians in the undiscovered
Country between California and Arizona
That the mad girl told me she was princess of—
Looking at me with the eyes of a lion,
Big, golden, without human under- standing,
As she threw paper-wads from the back seat
Of the car in which I drove her with her mother
From the jail in Waycross to the hospital
In Daytona. If I took my eyes from the road
And looked back into her eyes, the car would—I’d be—
Nothing in the letters helps us much with passages like this; and yet, if we are to make sense of Jarrell’s life, we have to make sense of the poems. A selection of his letters can hardly be autobiographical when the only autobiography he left is in his poetry. His biographers, who are certain to be at work soon, will not be able to ignore the letters; but if their narratives are to be of any value, they will have to begin and end in the poems.