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Keeping the Reader Alive

No Other Book: Selected Essays

by Randall Jarrell, edited and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins, 376 pp., $27.50

The boy, leaning slightly forward, looks eagerly out of the frame, as if waiting for the next move in a game he likes, or for the next hypnotic gesture of his favorite magician. The eyes gleam; the smile is full of excitement. The photograph is in one sense quite conventional, a studio portrait of a boy in a sailor suit, circa 1916. But the look is extraordinary. The child’s happy expectation, the sense that he has seen something delightful and is about to see more, is unmistakable. The child is Randall Jarrell, aged two and a half years, and by all accounts this look stayed with him for another forty-eight years or so. There was always something delightful to see, and he was the person to see it. Soon after he turned fifty Jarrell went into a severe depression, with extravagant manic episodes. He tried to kill himself, but seemed to be on the mend when he was struck by a car while walking on a road in North Carolina, and died as a result of the blow.

And yet, the ways we miss our lives are life,” Jarrell wrote in a poem. The ways we lose our lives are life too—or are they? Was this death an accident? His widow thinks so, and that was also the coroner’s opinion. But it must have been hard for anyone to say with confidence what Jarrell meant to do or not do—since he himself was not the person he had been. Jarrell’s friends Robert Lowell and Peter and Eleanor Taylor were convinced his death was a suicide. There are other possibilities, because as we all know, among the instigations of any event, there are many stages, many slips and stumblings and half-wishes, to be found between pure intention and pure accident.

Jarrell as a poet was certainly interested in accidents—almost as much as the little boy is interested in whatever is just outside the picture. “I die or live by accident alone” is a phrase whose aptness was noted by Christopher Benfey in a review some time ago, and which William Pritchard, in his shrewd and sympathetic biography of Jarrell, * glosses carefully with an emphasis on the word “alone,” repeated at the end of Jarrell’s next line, “living or dying, I am still alone.” But Jarrell also wrote, “The accidents are too much in the end,” and in a fine translation of a poem by Rilke, he gave these words to an imaginary widow:

Wasn’t even my misery
Only lent me by fate?
Fate wants back not just the joy,
It wants back the torture and the screaming,
And it buys the wreck second-hand.

Much earlier Jarrell had written:

On country roads, in blood and fur,
My trunk repeated like a stammered word
Says, Driver, think too well of me
And feel your made world break like ice.

Later in the same poem, he says, “Die while you can die. Tomorrow/You will be afraid no longer….”

If Jarrell’s death was an accident, then its relation to all these phrases is also an accident, the product of sheer hindsight, a pattern created by the final fact, not a design waiting for it to happen. But there are two truths here, surely, not entirely compatible with each other. One is that the way we lose our lives is not life but only the brutal end of it. “Death is not an event in life,” as Wittgenstein put it, at least not in the dead person’s life. Poems can’t reach up to this death, can’t explain it, can’t even touch it. This death is by definition no one’s, impersonal, unowned, generic, death and nothing else. The other truth is that we imagine our death many times, even if it happens only once, and that our real and imagined deaths do not inhabit entirely separate universes. They don’t cause each other, or even, necessarily, comment on each other, but taken together they make up a story, and not every story happens to everyone. When Rilke prays that each person be given his or her own death, he is asking for a “dying that comes out of that life,” a particular life of “love, sense and sorrow.” Our death can be our own only by relating to our life in some way—even an absurd and inappropriate death would contain the shadow of what a fitting death, our own death, would have been. Jarrell’s was not a death anyone would want for his own, but it spoke his language, or one of his languages.

Jarrell is one of the most various and engaging figures in modern American literature, but his reputation is a little cloudy. His Complete Poems were published in 1969, his Letters in 1985. Posthumous gatherings of criticism (The Third Book of Criticism and Kipling, Auden & Co.) appeared in 1969 and 1980; his translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters appeared in 1969, and of Part I of Goethe’s Faust in 1976. Strong collections of essays about him were published in 1967 and 1983, and there are intelligent critical studies of him by Suzanne Ferguson (1971), Sister Bernetta Quinn (1981), J.A. Bryant Jr. (1986) and Richard Flynn (1990). There are some fine pages about Jarrell in Eileen Simpson’s Poets in their Youth (1982), and some sensible comments in Bruce Bawer’s The Middle Generation (1986). Pritchard’s biography appeared in 1990. This is substantial, but it is not a rush. The general feeling seems to be that Jarrell’s poetry is not quite as good as we should like it to be (Helen Vendler memorably said that he “put his genius into his criticism and his talent into his poetry”), that the criticism is wonderful but we’re not sure why, and that we don’t know what to do with his one novel. Everyone agrees that his children’s stories are charming. In such a situation it is an unusual pleasure to have two attractive books, one about Jarrell and one by him, to prompt and help a reexploration.

In his lifetime Jarrell published six volumes of verse (Blood for a Stranger, 1942; Little Friend, Little Friend, 1945; Losses, 1948; The Seven-League Crutches, 1951; The Woman at the Washington Zoo, 1960; and The Lost World, 1965); two volumes of criticism (Poetry and the Age, 1953; and A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, 1962); one novel (Pictures from an Institution, 1954); and two children’s books (The Gingerbread Rabbit, 1964; and The Bat-Poet, 1964—The Animal Family and Fly By Night appeared after his death, in late 1965 and 1976 respectively). He was born in 1914 in Nashville, spent much of his childhood in Long Beach, California, finished high school back in Tennessee, and attended Vanderbilt University, starting out as a student of psychology but moving into English as a pupil of John Crowe Ransom. He began a thesis on W.H. Auden, a figure who in various ways fascinated him all his life, but then he prudently switched to A.E. Housman.

Jarrell taught at Kenyon briefly, where he played a lot of tennis and met his lifelong friends Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor. He served in the Air Force during World War II, although he didn’t see action and didn’t leave America. For a year (1946-1947) he worked in New York as literary editor of The Nation, and then accepted a post at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where, apart from stints as a visitor in other places and two years (1956- 1958) in Washington as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, he taught for the rest of his life. He and his first wife, Mackie Langham, were divorced in 1952, and Jarrell married Mary von Schrader in the same year.

Remembering Randall is an affectionate memoir which feels like a set of fragments of a longer work, a fuller biography. There are chapters on, among other topics, “Ideas and Poems,” “Libraries,” “Washington,” “Faust:Part I,” with anecdotes and reflections arranged in a roughly chronological order, except for the last chapter, which traces the whole relationship of husband and wife from their meeting (“the never-to-be-forgotten day Randall and I met”) to his death, including what she describes as “our bewildering sad phase toward the end.”

Mary Jarrell makes life with Randall, “Old Ramble” as he called himself, seem (almost always) enormous fun, and even the potentially embarrassing chatter of intimacy, faithfully recorded, becomes charming. But this marriage was obviously a full-time job for her. “What I did was put my sensibility at his disposal…. When I found Randall, I found what I was programmed for.” “To be married to Randall was to be encapsulated with him. He wanted, and we had, a round-the-clock inseparability. We took three meals together, every day. I went to his classes and he went on my errands. I watched him play tennis; he picked out my clothes. Sometimes we were brother and sister…and other times we were twins….” Pritchard makes a very astute comment on a remark by Beatrice Garton, the younger of the two daughters Mary von Schrader brought to the marriage. Beatrice called Jarrell an “ideal father,” and Pritchard says the phrase is apt “in the sense not only of perfect but of unreal; he was not a ‘real’ father who made demands on, suffered through, and was thoroughly implicated in the life of his child.” Mary Jarrell herself writes of Randall’s “ideal of a beautiful consort who, for love of him, would forsake her family and friends, learn a new and intellectual language, be dear and funny always, put him first, and never turn into a Wife or Mother.” The project has its appeal if you’re setting the terms, but it must be hard going if you have to be a lower-case wife and a mother as well.

Mary Jarrell is not complaining, though, and we don’t have to complain on her behalf, only note what she let herself in for. She writes informally and well, and evokes the charms even of Jarrell’s mild vanity. “He had favorite and unfavorite mirrors but I believe he looked into all he ever saw.” Of Jarrell standing and listening to the sound of the engine of their Jaguar XK-120, she writes, “I could glimpse his tilting, thoughtful face transfixed—as if hearing Elektra—by the elegant hum of the costly valves and cylinders.” The portrait of the two of them in London in 1963 is both intimate and funny.

While the Wimbledon matches were televised, we set out early to do a gallery or a museum in the mornings. Then, propped in bed with our tea trays and sultana cake, we watched in bliss the mounting Australian sweep that year, before those hushed outdoor stands, with only the bup-bup cotton bubble sound that tennis makes.

Mary Jarrell’s description of their time in Vienna later the same year offers a revealing commentary on Jarrell’s poem “The Old and the New Masters,” and indeed catches the flavor of ordinariness, one of Jarrell’s signatures as a poet, which he couldn’t quite get into that work because he was so busy arguing with Auden. “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters,” Auden wrote in “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Jarrell rather solemnly corrects him: “About suffering, about adoration, the old masters/Disagree.” Mary Jarrell writes,

  1. *

    Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990).

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