June 30, 1999
New York Times

Randall Jarrell: How a Poetry Critic Becomes Loved

I doubt there has been a critic since George Bernard Shaw who got so much joy and outrage out of his subjects as Randall Jarrell; but that wasn't the point about either man. The point was that whether they were delighted or gloomy, their readers experienced startled hilarity.

Brad Leithauser introduces his selection of Jarrell's essays: "Randall Jarrell once wrote, in praise of William Carlos Williams, 'When you have read "Paterson" you know for the rest of your life what it is like to be a waterfall.' Yet there's another way to ascertain what it is to be a phenomenon that flows, coruscates, sings and revitalizes: you might turn to the essays of Jarrell himself."

Now, to continue this chain-infection -- of what? of infectiousness -- there are Leithauser's coruscating and revitalizing remarks about Jarrell. Jarrell was a veritable Typhoid Mary when it came to generating pleasure by engaging with poetry. Here are a few quotations.

For the true gold (Jarrell bit it to test it, and his teeth were sharp):

Wallace Stevens. "There is about him, under the translucent glazes, a Dutch solidity and weight; he sits surrounded by all the good things of this earth, with rosy cheeks and fresh clear blue eyes, eyes not going out to you but shining in their place, like fixed stars."

Marianne Moore: "She has great limitations -- her work is one long triumph of them." Not over them but of them; as you might say a pride of lions. For Jarrell, great poetry can make even worms glow, not as glowworms but as themselves.

For gilt or brass or fool's gold:

Stephen Spender, who began one poem with the line, "I think continually of those who were truly great": "It isn't Mr. Spender but a small, simple -- determinedly simple -- part of Mr. Spender that writes the poems; the poet is a lot smarter man than his style allows him to seem. (If he were as soft and sincere and sentimental as most of his poems make him out to be, the rabbits would have eaten him for lettuce, long ago.)"

On W.H. Auden, plain, reasoned and socially responsible: "We see not the will, but the understanding, trying to do the work of the imagination."

Also -- not because it is poetry but because it is as pertinent as 40 years ago -- Jarrell on the optimism of the Enlightenment:

"Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us."

Jarrell died in 1965. Leithauser and Michael di Capua (once Jarrell's loving and beloved editor and now the publisher of this collection) know perfectly well that he was wrongly buried, and that it only takes uncovering the grave for him to resume a nervy literary conversation that is as pungent today as it was then.

Take the spirited survey of 50 years of American poetry that Jarrell delivered at a 1963 White House literary bash organized by the Kennedy administration. You feel not just how fresh and apt his pronouncements still are but also how irreplaceable. We are going to need another such assessment of what will be rounding up to another 50 years; and we won't get it because nobody argues poetry that way anymore: inhabiting and performing it.

Coinciding with this collection is a memoir of Jarrell by his widow, Mary von Schrader Jarrell. They lived in Greensboro, N.C., where he taught at a branch of the University of North Carolina until one night when a car struck and killed him while he was out walking. There were rumors of suicide, but Mrs. Jarrell quietly chooses to believe the official accident verdict; rightly, no doubt.

Her memoir is a tribute to the man, the poet and their marriage. Her gifts as a writer are limited: the reiterated finding of happiness is not so much conveyed as willed. In its selective details the memoir is more of a sundial than a weather report.

There was quite a bit of sun. If an awkward sublimity creeps in when Mrs. Jarrell celebrates the relationship, some of her offhand sketches are very fine. There is a wry portrait of the pride of poets -- vanity of poets would be more like it -- at the White House meeting. There is the glowing, courtly Jarrell trying to sell Allen Ginsberg on Robert Frost. He was barely a few lines into "Home Burial" when the Beat poet broke in: "Coupla squares yakking."

The memoir's most sensitively written passages concern Jarrell's frequent, painful blockages as a poet. Other poets have praised his disinterested ardor in advancing their work; Robert Lowell is cited by Leithauser : "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."

Perhaps that was the key: an instinct, one that made him such an extraordinary critic, for pitching his tent on the common ground of poetry in preference to his particular pea patch. What a contrast with the Alpha-poet claim staking of a Frost, a John Berryman and of Lowell himself.

Mrs. Jarrell tenderly notes her husband's pain and his recourse to filling the vacuum with years of translating "Faust." "There, at his side, I saw in the bewildering absence of his own art how an artist endures a time of self-extinction and longs for something to fill that void." But it is in his words more than hers -- he was the writer, after all -- that we catch a glimpse of her constancy and behind it, her own pain:

"During these times the only person who helps much is my wife: she always acts as if I'd written the last poem yesterday and were about to write the next one tomorrow."



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