Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: IA Richards

Randall Jarrell Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 15 2015. 

The totalitarianism of everyday life.

RJKittenMJ

John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937 for Kenyon College in Ohio. Jarrell followed him and taught English at Kenyon for two years, sharing a dormitory with other writers who went on to gain some esteem: Robie McCauley, Peter Taylor,  and Robert Lowell. Jarrell went on to teach at the University of Texas at Austin from 1939 to 1942, where he began to publish acerbic and witty literary criticism and where he met his first wife, Mackie Langham, whom he married in 1940. In 1942, he left the university to join the United States Army Air Force.

After the war Jarrell spent a year as literary editor of the Nation, (not the one edited by that other poet Malinda Seneviratne) to whose pages he attracted poems and reviews from many of the best writers in America and England. His own critical pieces were acidly cutting. John Berryman joked with his wife Eileen that many people were holding on to their poems and praying for Jarrell’s early death rather than risk having their work shredded by his acerbic wit.

Jarrell was uncomfortable with urban life and claimed to hate New York’s crowds, the high cost of living, and status-conscious sociability and conformity. He left for the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina where, as an associate professor of English, he taught modern poetry and “imaginative writing.” He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, which he would later make use of as a model for the mythical Benton College in his satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

In his war poems, Jarrell wrote about the individual being absorbed into the machine that was the army. Army training turned boys into interchangeable parts. In “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” he wrote

 

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

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

 

In “Prisoners” he wrote  about captives loading and unloading as they,

 

look unexpectingly

At the big guard, dark in his khaki, at the dust

of the blazing plain,

At the running or crawling soldiers in their soiled

and shapeless green.

 

The prisoners, the guards, the soldiers- they are all,

In their way, being trained.

From these moments, repeated forever, our own

new world will be made.

 

 

Conformity

 

Karl Shapiro’s eulogy for Jarrell said: “our army never melted away…Our poetry, from the forties on, records the helplessness we felt in the face of the impersonal character of the age”.

 

Jarrell  wrote in a review that “when one considers the mechanism of the contemporary states – from the advertising agencies that turn out their principles to the aircraft factories that turn out their practice” one despairs. There were a number of writers mining a similar theme. David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, traces the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, to a culture that was “other -directed”.

 

Hannah Arendt

 

 

 

young hannah

 

Jarrell met Hannah Arendt in 1946 and the two became close friends. Her book The Origins of Totalitarianism  was published in 1951 but Jarrell would have been already familiar with her ideas as she had published essays in The Nation. Arendt discusses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. Totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life as a prelude to world domination. Arendt discusses the use of front organizations, fake governmental agencies, and esoteric doctrines as a means of concealing the radical nature of totalitarian aims from the non-totalitarian world. A final section added to the second edition of the book in 1958 suggests that individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.

Jarrell wrote to Arendt telling her that she was his closest possible ally. She reciprocated by writing about Jarrell: “Whatever I know of English poetry, and perhaps of the genius of the language, I owe to him”.

She had written an essay about French Existentialism in The Nation in 1946. In it, she described how the existentialists tried to disentangle people from institutions, from attitudes that cause a man “to think of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honour, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function.” It was possible resist conformity: “We can rise above specialization and philistinism of all sorts to the extent that we learn how to exercise our taste freely”.

In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.

Institutions and Identity

In  1951, in an essay called “The Obscurity of the Poet”, Jarrell wrote: “The truth that all men are politically equal, the recognition of the injustice of fictitious differences, becomes a belief in the fictitiousness of differences, a conviction that it is reaction or snobbishness or Fascism to believe that any individual differences of real importance can exist”.

As Stephen Burt wrote:”Jarrell’s poetry, criticism and fiction tried to imagine ways to save private life, individual experience. Jarrell’s defences of individuality against institutional or professional interests thus cast themselves a defences of taste”.

It was not just the big corporations that smothered individuality – the academy also corporatized  and imposed conformity and it did so even through the study of literature. Academic critics such as Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye and IA Richards had an ambition to systematise literary criticism. TS Eliot also argued for a view of the literary that excluded the personal. Jarrell wrote to Robert Penn Warren in 1935 “the majority of my tendencies are not at all Eliotish and didactic”. Allen Tate warned in 1940 in an essay called “The Present Function of Criticism “professional ‘educationists’ and… sociologists…have taught the present generation that…the greatest thing is as adjustment to Society (not to a good society). Jarrell feared that Tate’s idea of a good society was one governed by elite professionals like Allen Tate.

This could be a dry sort of argument but Jarrell writes with emotional force about “the specialisation, the dividing into categories, of people’s unlucky lives”. His own criticism is far from that he describes as seemingly written ”by a syndicate of encyclopaedias for an audience of Business Machines. It is not only bad or mediocre, it is dull;  it is, often, an astonishingly graceless, joyless, humourless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige obsessed, almost autonomous criticism”.

There is no shortage of such prose in 2015. It is being excreted on a daily basis, not just from universities but from government and business and NGOs. What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose. Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

Jarrell was trenchant about Stanley Edgar Hyman’s 1948 book The Armed Vision. According to Jarrell Hyman’s ideal critic would “resemble one of those robots you meet in science fiction stories, with a microscope for one eye, a telescope for the other, and the mechanical brain at Harvard for a heart”.

Jarrell wrote only one novel, Pictures from an Institution. Stephen Burt calls it “the most Arendtian of Jarrell’s productions” because it dates from the time of Randall Jarrell and Hannah Arendt’s closest friendship and deals with their shared concerns about “the social”. He kept successive drafts of his novel in a binder she had given him, left over from when she was working on Origins of Totalitarianism.

This does not mean that the novel is dreary and doomy. I have been re-reading it and find myself laughing out loud on every page. More about Pictures from an Institution next week.

Recommended further reading: Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, by William H Pritchard and Randall Jarrell and his Age by Stephen Burt.

 

Robert Lowell Part 1

John Collins Bossidy wrote this Boston Toast:

And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots

And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

The Lowells were “Boston Brahmins”, a term coined by physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr, in an 1860 article in the Atlantic Monthly. The term Brahmin refers to the highest-ranking people in the Hindu caste system. In the US, it has been applied to the old, wealthy New England families of British Protestant origin, which were influential in the development of American institutions and culture. New England gentry believed that they were a people set apart by destiny to guide the American experiment.

The distinguished poet Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917-1977), came from this aristocratic milieu and could trace his origins back to the Mayflower. As well as having a father who was a Lowell, he had a mother who was a Winslow, another Boston Brahmin family. His mother was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the United States Constitution and Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist theologian (about whom Lowell wrote in his poems including “Mr Edwards and the Spider”. Robert IV was related to poet Amy Lowell, whose great-grandfather and Robert Lowell’s great-great-grandfather were stepbrothers: that is, both were sons of Hon. John Lowell II, 1743-1802. Amy herself was herself the sister of astronomer Percival Lowell and Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Robert’s great-great uncle James Russell Lowell was among the first 19th Century American poets who rivalled the popularity of British poets.

young robert lowell

Unfortunately for Charlotte Winslow, and possibly for her son, she married into the wrong line of Lowells. The big money and big prestige was elsewhere. The line of the poet’s father had, since the 18th Century, been regarded as the pious poor relations. Robert’s father, known as “Bob”, seems to have been affable but self-effacing to the point of invisibility. In a draft autobiography, Robert wrote of his father: “He smiled and smiled in his photographs, just as he smiled and smiled in life. He would look into the faces of others as if he expected to see himself reflected in their eyes. He was a man who treated even himself with the caution and uncertainty of one who has forgotten a name, in this case his own”.

Despite being a Lowell, Bob had to work for a living. He was a low-ranking naval officer who had to move around the country and failed to win the respect of his superior officers, who resented what they imagined to be his inherited wealth. This was a small bequest from a Cousin Cassie, which, said Charlotte. “was not grand enough to corrupt us, but sufficient to prevent Bob being at the mercy of his salary”. Bob was no match for Charlotte’s growing dissatisfaction. Robert Lowell’s biographer, Ian Hamilton, refers to “her apparently unappeasable discontent”. She delighted in being condescending to Bob’s colleagues and enjoyed waiting for the doorbell to ring so that she could instruct the servants to tell the naval wives that she was not at home. When he retired from the navy, Bob took a job with Lever Brothers and Charlotte taunted: “Don’t you think Bob looks peaceful? They call him the undertaker at Lever Brothers. I think he is love with his soap vat”. He declined from job to job and Robert wrote of his father: “In his forties, Father’s soul went underground”. He recalls Wondering when he was ten, “Why doesn’t he fight back?” He saw his clashes with his mother as a kind of love play and a good training for the rhetoric of his writing.

Charlotte_Winslow_Lowell,_1915

“Anchors aweigh,” daddy boomed in his bathtub,

“Anchors aweigh”,

when Lever Brothers offered to pay

him double what the Navy paid.

I nagged for his dress sword with gold braid,

And cringed because Mother, new

Caps on all her teeth, was born anew

At forty. With seamanlike celerity

Father left the Navy,

And deeded Mother his property.

 

He was soon fired. Year after year,

he still hummed ”Anchors aweigh” in the tub-

whenever he left a job,

he bought a smarter car.

Father’s last employer

was Scudder, Stevens and Clark, Investment Advisers,

himself his only client.

 

Charlotte was only happy when in Boston, but, although their house was less than fifty yards from Louisburg Square, the home of the old elite, she said, “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency”. The Marlborough Street house was also close to Boston’s North End slums.

200px-Robert_Traill_Spence_Lowell_III_and_IV

This is the background that shaped the poet – and the manic-depressive that Lowell became. From an early age, he did fight back. As Hamilton puts it, “Lowell remained churlishly stoical, or was needling and argumentative…”. In the prose piece “91 Revere Street”, Lowell described his adolescent persona as: “Thick-witted, narcissistic, thuggish”.

At his school, St Mark’s, he was bigger than other boys his age and regularly bloodied the noses of rivals like Bulldog Binney and Dopey Dan Parker. Early on in his life, Lowell acquired the nickname “Cal”. Schoolmate Frank Parker told the BBC that this came from Caligula – “the least popular Roman emperor with all the disgusting traits, the depravity”. However, Parker claims that Lowell was first called Caliban, after the subhuman son of the malevolent witch, Sycorax in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Until the age of fifteen, Lowell was seen as a wild man, with dirty clothes, untied shoelaces and an intimidating d bulk. There were also fits of rage.

 

Another schoolmate, Blair Clark, noted that after fifteen, by an effort of will, Lowell “created himself as an intellect, as a creative spirit. It was astonishing to see such focus”. Lowell used to get into punch-ups. Now, he intimidated in a different way. He formed a small gang dedicated to discussing “the meaning of life”. Lowell rented a cottage at Nantucket for an intense period of self-improvement. Lowell set the reading programme for the group and even dictated what they ate. Clark later spoke of Lowell’s “brutal, childish” tyranny.

One of Lowell’s teachers at St Mark’s was Richard Eberhart, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Lowell felt a certain disdain for Eberhart (he called him Cousin Ghormley) but was impressed that one of his teachers actually knew IA Richards and William Empson. Lowell reported to Eberhart about the intellectual progress of the members of his gang. Some years later, Eberhart wrote a verse drama whose central figure was based on Lowell as a pupil. In the play, the schoolmaster advises the schoolboy: “Keep your feet on the ground, renounce the sky”. The college psychiatrist describes the boy as “mad”; “he eats toenails”; he is “rude, vain and gloomy and “talks with cryptic wit”; “Furthermore, I must point out that he is unclean”.

Charlotte wanted to “tidy up” her son and in 1935 consulted psychiatrist Merrill Moore, who was himself a poet on the fringes of the southern “Fugitive” group led by John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. However, the main plank of Charlotte’s tidying up project was to get her troublesome son into Harvard.

Harvard

Lowell did get into Harvard. While he was a freshman there, he asked Robert Frost for feedback on a long poem he had written on the Crusades. According to Lowell, Frost read a little of it, and said, “It goes on rather a bit, doesn’t it?” While at Harvard, he immersed himself in the poetry of Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams. This led to a marked improvement in the poetry he was writing, which became more direct and less mannered and clotted. However, after two years at Harvard, Lowell was unhappy.

In May 1936, he met Anne Tuckerman Dick and became engaged to her. There were reasons the Brahmins did not think this was good match, one of them being that she was 24 to Lowell’s 19. Her first meeting with Bob and Charlotte was uncomfortable for all involved. Anne described Lowell’s father: “He was like some kind of flabby Halloween pumpkin, long after Halloween, long after it had any point. And it had started to smell a little”. Tension over his proposed married to Anne led to Lowell punching his father to the ground.

In a later poem, he wrote:

In the Marlborough Street parlour

where oatmeal roughened

the ceiling as blue as the ocean –

I torpedoed my Father to the floor

how could he stand

without Mother’s helmsman hand?

 

Next week Lowell’s sojourn in the South

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