Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Helen Vendler

Randall Jarrell Part One

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 8 2015

RJ1

 

The most heartbreaking English poet of his generation. Robert Lowell’s tribute to Randall Jarrell

I have been writing about a group of American poets who knew each other, competed with each other, and supported each other. I had a loose title for this series: The Mad Poets Society. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke all had problems with alcohol and mental illness which made their lives often shambolic and difficult. At first glance, Randall Jarrell might not seem to fit into this category. He controlled his appetites more successfully than his friends did, avoiding their kind of public dramas; he eschewed alcohol and, most of the time, adultery. He was handsome, charming, witty, got on well with children and generally inspired affection and respect.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the year of Roethke’s death, Jarrell’s behaviour changed, probably because of what he himself called torschlusspanik (door-closing panic) – the metaphor I myself use for this is the realisation that the years left in one’s tank are rapidly diminishing. As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Jarrell started worrying deeply about his age. After JFK’s assassination, he spent days in front of the TV, weeping uncontrollably. Medication made him manic; a change of medication made him depressive. Randall Jarrell was struck by a car and killed at the age of fifty-one on October 14, 1965. It may have been  suicide.

Early Life

Jarrell is sometimes thought of as a “Southern” writer, although he did not think of himself as such. True, he was born in Tennessee, on May 6, 1914, and spent portions of his childhood there. However, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1915 and he preferred California. After his parents separated, Jarrell’s mother took him back in 1924 to Nashville, where she had some prosperous relatives. Jarrell later told his wife Mary that in Nashville he was “covered in relatives”. He spent a lot of time in Nashville Carnegie Library where he said he regularly read “half his weight” in a week. “No matter how little time I had left, there were never enough books to fill it – I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.”  In 1926, he returned to California to live with his father’s parents but went back to Nashville in 1927.

In 1932, Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Although he was influenced by the poetics of this group known as “The Fugitives” or “The Agrarians”, he was not interested in their conservative politics or their ‘Southern’ cultural ideas.

lowell

 

 

stevens

Early Work

Blood for a Stranger, his first book of poetry was published in the same year that he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, 1942. His early poetry is influenced, as was Berryman’s and Roethke’s, by WH Auden. It is apocalyptic, surreal, and lacks the wit and humour that Jarrell displayed in person. He came into his own with the works he wrote after joining the army. He soon transferred to the army to work as a control tower operator.   His second book of poems, Little Friend, dealt with fears and moral struggles of young soldiers.

Although he did not see active service, the war and military service prompted him to think at an early age about death.

army2

War Poetry

“Losses”

When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying—no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

 

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
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; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals,

When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

 

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;

But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,

And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?

We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

army1

War takes inexperienced young men and often kills them. There are shifting viewpoints in the poem but the narrator himself has nothing but high school with which to compare the huge monstrosity of war. He has losses without having had the time to have many gains. He does not have time for heroism and does not understand what sacrifice is or why it is him who is making it. I am reminded of Yossarian in Catch22; when he claims someone is trying to kill him he is categorised as paranoid. But of course someone is trying to kill him – this is war. When you cannot see your enemy, it is a peculiar, seemingly mad, idea that this stranger is trying to shoot down your plane and hurt you when you have never met him. Also in Catch 22, every time a pilot completes his quota of missions the quota is raised. The flyers must be haunted by the knowledge that the more missions they undertake, the greater the possibility of being shot down. Their lives are being used up like commodities. Because of 21st century technology, the bombing attacks on Iraq seemed as unreal as video games. Even in World War II, bombing civilians was impersonal. The cities down below are as artificial as targets in a training exercise. All over the world today, civilians live in fear of death by remote control by terrorist suicide bombers or IEDs.

In her book The Body in Pain, literary critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry wrote: ““It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act  of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation. ..He undoes the learning in his body as radically as he would if he were suddenly required to abandon the  upright posture and move on four limbs as in his pre-civilized infancy. .. Because his act of killing  does not itself contain civilization in its interior, the fact that it is being done for a particular civilization, the referent for his act, is re-established and carried by the appended  assertion (either verbalized or materialized as in the uniform), ‘for my country’.”

In Jarrell’s poem, as the point of view becomes blurred, the pilot’s own death becomes as unreal as the deaths of those foreigners (and pets and ants/aunts) down below.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

ball_turret_gunner

Another war poem appeared in so many anthologies that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a mere five lines about the dangerous occupation of a B-17 gunner whose job entailed hanging upside down in a plexiglass sphere to engage enemies attacking the plane.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The distinguished American critic Helen Vendler wrote about this: “The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother?” The gunner wakes at birth, a cowering damp animal whose only purpose in living is to die for the state while sent out to  kill for the state. His  inconsequential life is compressed into five lines by skilful manipulation of time. The state shows its gratitude by impersonally hosing his bloody remains from the turret.

Jarrell’s people wake with a dark knowledge of their own death and an awareness of being helplessly trapped  by mighty forces. This kind of helpless frustration is  symbolized by  the separation of mother from child, or in the depiction of the  mother as the killer of the child. The murderous mother is identified with the state.

I will explore later the common theme running through Jarrell’s work of the fate of individuals oppressed by  institutions.

 

John Berryman Part 2

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 17 2014

 

The Life

In the introduction to Dream Song, his 1990 biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani said: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”. Last week I hinted at the problems he encountered from an early age with his father’s suicide (or possibly, murder) his mother’s sexuality and the family’s peripatetic life.

School

Berryman was not happy at school – his condescending manner and self-pitying wimpiness caused him to be bullied and he got little sympathy from the teaching staff of South Kent in Connecticut. He eventually came to an accommodation with the bullies and the teachers and made some friends – engaging in some mild homosexual activity. Later he quickly ended a friendship when a young man told him he was in love with him. In his teens, he became interested in girls. In later life, this developed into compulsive womanising. He wrote for school publications and got high marks for English literature, although his work had a tendency to be too cold and calculating.

25likeEllroy

University

At Columbia, he read voraciously and became smitten with Milton’s Lycidas. In Mark Van Doren, he found an inspirational teacher and a good friend for life, although he had antagonistic relationships with other teachers. He had written poetry at South Kent but at university, he put aside the “morass of adolescent love verse” and tried verse forms like the double quatrain and couplets of uneven length. He communicated with Randall Jarrell.

with Beryl

England

His literary work was good enough for him to win a scholarship for two years at Clare College, Cambridge. When he arrived in London, he had the nerve to introduce himself to the Woolfs to ask them to publish his poetry. He sent a poem to Yeats and made friends with Auden. He had some drunken sessions with Dylan Thomas and upgraded his estimation of the Welshman’s poetry. Yeats invited Berryman to tea and Thomas tried to get him drunk beforehand. Berryman’s tutor at Cambridge was the distinguished Shakespearian scholar George Rylands. Berryman was surprised by how little English literary people knew about American literature. FR Leavis was to have been one of Berryman’s supervisors in his second year but declined when he sensed Berryman’s hostility to him.

Berryman was already worried by wild mood swings: “mental instability fits of terrifying gloom and loneliness and artistic despair alternating with irresponsible exultation”.

hat and beard

Back in the USA

When Berryman returned to the US, some of his friends, including Mark Van Doren, avoided him because of his irritating British affectations. Another aspect his friends found off-putting was his tendency to try to steal their girl friends. Poet WD Snodgrass said that the problem with Berryman was “as soon as he liked you he began making your life difficult by tampering in your love life and sometimes trying to tamper with your wife.” Berryman had no compunction about seducing his students. He tried to seduce them even in the presence of their very large and strong boyfriends. He persistently made drunken phone calls to female students. He spoke to a psychiatrist about his mother’s flamboyant sexuality and his own relationships with women.

withAnn

Columbia offered him a teaching job and he worked hard, sending poems to the quarterlies. Delmore Schwartz was then a rising star and poetry editor of The Partisan Review and wanted to publish some of Berryman’s poems. Schwartz was impressed by Berryman’s intelligence and vividness. He commented on the violence running through his poems. Berryman accepted an almost unpaid job as poetry editor of The Nation and persuaded Wallace Stevens to contribute a poem and even to go to the trouble of explaining some obscure lines.

withPaul

Berryman suffered from epileptic seizures, which his first wife Eileen had dismissed as his way of dealing with his mother. He had nightmares about hacking women’s bodies and leaving the pieces under various houses to be discovered. In 1948, he won the Shelley Memorial award for $650, which paid some bills and let him buy a bottle of Scotch, which he drank in one sitting. Throughout the rest of his life, he experienced countless drunken episodes, black-outs, wandering fugues, injuries, memory loss. He was violent to his wives on occasions.

Rather than facing his alcoholism, he blamed his mental condition on the way Americans mistreated their poets. Despite his brilliance as a lecturer, his reputation as a drunkard and a troublemaker was well known. He had insulted most of the department’s members and their wives and did not hide his disdain. In 1960, he began wetting the bed. Sometimes he was so drunk on the podium that he delivered the same lecture twice to the embarrassment of his students. Someone described him as “a painfully shy man” blinking “out through the mask of his beard”. Ralph Ross said “I concluded that the only John one could love was a John with 2 or 3 drinks in him, no more & no less, & such a John could not exist”.

The Dream Songs

Berryman put much of his life into the Dream Songs, which eventually amounted to 308 poems. Since 1955, he had been working on the sequence. In 1964, he published 77 Dream Songs. This volume was awarded the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The Academy of American Poets states that “the poems of 77 Dream Songs are characterized by their unusual syntax, mix of high and low diction, and virtuosic language.”This was followed in 1968 by His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. This book won both the National Book Award for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize in 1969.

The work follows the travails of a character named “Henry” who bears a striking resemblance to Berryman. “Henry has a hard time. People don’t like him, and he doesn’t like himself. In fact, he doesn’t even know what his name is. His name at one point seems to be Henry House, and at another point, it seems to be Henry Pussycat.” These poems establish “Henry” as an alienated, self-loathing, and self-conscious character. Berryman also establishes some of the themes that would continue to trouble Henry in later dream songs (like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide). Berryman references his father’s suicide as “a thing on Henry’s heart/ so heavy, if he had a hundred years/ & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time/ Henry could not make good.”

“The volume was dedicated “to Mark Van Doren, and to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz.” Although many of the poems eulogize the deaths of Berryman’s poet/friends, more of these elegies (12 in total) are about Delmore Schwartz than any other poet.

In addition to the elegies, this volume also includes poems that document Henry/Berryman’s trip to Ireland, his experiences with fame, his problems with drugs and alcohol, and his problems with women.

Dream Song 14

 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy   

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,   

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag   

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            

behind: me, wag.

 

Contemporaries, including Elizabeth Bishop and Conrad Aiken were very impressed and wrote Berryman letters of congratulations on his achievement in the volume. Upon its publication, the book also received a positive review in The New York Times Book Review by the literary scholar Helen Vendler.

 

More about the dream songs and Berryman’s time in Ireland next week.        

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