Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell Part Four

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 15 2015

The Cruel Critic

NYer

After the Second World War, Jarrell achieved a measure of success, financial security, critical esteem and happiness. He married his second wife, Mary von Schrader, in 1952.

cat

For the rest of his life, he taught at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 1967, Nancy Seletti wrote about  being taught by Jarrell at Greensboro in 1947/48. “He made us love good poems with the passion children give to toys which are not merely companions to them but talismen with which to face the world. He had, and conveyed to us, the professional magician’s delight in a brilliant accomplishment for its own sake.”

with students

She observed the cruel streak that others have discussed but claims he was never cruel to students.“It seems to me that Randall Jarrell was harsh and unfeeling only with those whom he felt to be his equals in sophistication or who, by placing themselves in the literary arena, made themselves the enemies of genuine excellence, the representatives of those powers, political, aesthetic, or intellectual which threatened the unique, suffering, not very virtuous individual being whom he loved with mingled pity, horror, and delight.”

bat

He was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in Washington (a post now named Poet Laureate) for two years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was not writing so much original  poetry, he translated Faust, Part 1, a Chekhov play, and several of Grimm’s tales. Near the end of his life, he wrote children’s stories, among them The Bat Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965).  His children’s books, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, have been very popular.

sendak

Nancy Seletti described his appearance: “When he first came to us he seemed a rather queer bird, austere, forbiddingly heralded as both brilliant poet and devastating critic, but with a surprising naturalness of movement which reminded us of the childhood we were leaving behind, an ease which seemed to contradict his coldness. He had besides an extremely unacademic manner, and all in all there was something gnomelike about him, something not quite contained in everyday experience, full of sudden surprises and disconcerting impressions. We were a little afraid of him…”

frost

Stephen Spender said he,” looked at moments like a squirrel struggling through a hollow log, held in a cramped hole but with berry-black eyes shining through”. Paul Mariani, biographer of John Berryman, described the impressions of John and Eileen Berryman when they met Jarrell at the time that he took over as literary editor of The Nation in New York. “Tall willowy, thin, dark-haired, dark-eyed, half a year older than Berryman, a man of stunning contrasts, a hipster whose language was ten years out of date, a puritan who drove fast cars, a killer who could weep apologetically after his words had innocently sliced the heart from his victim”.

Photographs show him looking benign at home holding a cat, others wearing grey flannel suits, sometimes he is shown polishing the hubcaps of his Mercedes-Benz, others show him poised on chair’s arm with Alastair Reid and Robert Graves, in conversation with Robert Lowell. Jack Kerouac once visited the Jarrells and drank the house dry.

benz

More about that cruel streak: He said of one book that it seemed to have “been written on a typewriter by a typewriter”). Lowell balances this cruelty against Jarrell’s immense enthusiasms for what he did like. Conrad Aiken once publicly protested about Jarrell’s “sadistic” reviews of his work. John Berryman wrote: “Jarrell’s reviews did go beyond the limit; they were unbelievably cruel, that’s true. Conrad was quite right. But…he hated bad poetry with such vehemence and so vigorously that it didn’t occur to him that in the course of taking apart—where he’d take a book of poems and squeeze, like that, twist—that in the course of doing that, there was a human being also being squeezed.”

In 1961, Jarrell won the National Book Award for Poetry for his volume The Woman at the Washington Zoo. In his acceptance speech, he referred to his reputation as a cruel critic: “Sometimes I read, in reviews by men whose sleep I have troubled, that I’m one of those poets who’ve never learned to write poetry.” He tried to show his human side. “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. While I’m writing poems or translating Faust I read what I have out loud, and my wife listens to me. Homer used to be led around by a little boy, who would listen to him: all I can say is, if Homer had ever had my wife listen to his poems, he would never again have been satisfied with that little boy.”

“Poetry, art — these too are occupations of a sort; and I do not recommend them to you any more than I recommend to you that tonight, you go home to bed, and go to sleep, and dream.”

lost

Jarrell  was a hipster heavily influenced by Wordsworth. Jarrell’s last book of poems, The Lost World, published in 1965, explores the world of childhood, as did Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.  In his Ode, Wordsworth feels that a glory has passed away from the earth. Jarrell shares that view that the immediate reality of habit and routine dulls the innocence of childhood, knowledge extinguishes ignorance until death deprives us of the finite pleasures of the world. Works of art can give only limited immortality. Childhood can only be recovered in a frustrating way through fallible memory.

The_lost_world_1925_poster

Jarrell, in the title poem of the collection, remembers living as a child with his grandparents, Pop and Mama, and his great-grandmother, Dandeen, in Hollywood. In the first section , “Children’s Arms,” Jarrell remembers when he was twelve years old passing the set 1925 film directed by Harry O Hoyt of the Conan Doyle novel The Lost World. A papier-mâché dinosaur and pterodactyl look over the fence. When he gets home, he picks up his bow and arrows, climbs to his tree house and begins a life of make-believe.

He also goes with his grandfather to the adult world of work, where he realizes that “the secret the grown-ups share, is what to do to make money.”

My grandfather and I sit there in oneness

As the Sunset bus, lit by the lavender

And rose of sunrise, takes us to the dark

Echoing cavern where Pop, a worker,

Works for our living. As he rules a mark,

A short square pencil in his short square hand,

On a great sheet of copper, I make some remark

He doesn’t hear. In that hard maze—in that land

That grown men live in—in the world of work,

He measures, shears, solders; and I stand

Empty-handed, watching him. I wander into the murk

The naked light bulbs pierce: the workmen, making something,

Say something to the boy in his white shirt. I jerk

As the sparks fly at me. The man hammering

As acid hisses, and the solder turns to silver,

Seems to me a dwarf hammering out the Ring

In the world under the world. The hours blur;

Bored and not bored, I bend things out of lead.

I wash my smudged hands, as my grandfather

Washes his black ones, with their gritty soap: ahead,

Past their time clock, their pay window, is the blue

And gold and white of noon. The sooty thread

Up which the laborers feel their way into

Their wives and houses, is money; the fact of life,

The secret the grown-ups share, is what to do

To make money. 

 

Soon after completing The Lost World, Jarrell  became mentally ill, first elated and later depressed. Stephen Spender described recordings of Jarrell reciting his poems in an “almost strangled voice, sometimes shrill with protest”. Jarrell often sounds as though he is about to weep. He slashed his wrists when his mind was troubled by a severe review. Joseph Bennett wrote of The Lost World in the New York Times Book Review: “His work is trashy and thoroughly dated; prodigiousness encouraged by an indulgent and sentimental Mamaism, its overriding feature is doddering infantilism”. Robert Lowell wrote to Jarrell to comfort  him: “Your courage, brilliance and generosity should have saved you from this.”

 

Recovering, he went back to teaching in the fall of 1965, then entered a hospital in Chapel Hill for therapy on his wrist. While there, and while walking at dusk on a nearby highway, he was struck by a car and killed immediately. The coroner’s verdict was accidental death, although the circumstances will never be entirely clear.

tribute

A book of tributes was published in 1967:  Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Reviewing it Stephen Spender wrote: “The writers in this volume bear witness to his gaiety and happiness as well as to his grievances”.  Robert Lowell wrote, “What Jarrell’s inner life was in all its wonder, variety, and subtlety is best told in his poetry…His gifts, both by nature and by a lifetime of hard dedication and growth, were wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence. These qualities, dazzling in themselves, were often so well employed that he became, I think, the most heartbreaking English poet of his generation…Always behind the sharpened edge of his lines, there is the merciful vision, his vision, partial like all others, but an illumination of life, too sad and radiant for us to stay with long—or forget.”

 

If just living can do this,
Living is more dangerous than anything:
It is terrible to be alive.

 

Randall Jarrell Part Three

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 1 2015

 jarellcar

Pictures from an Institution

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Jarrell published his only novel in 1954 when he was 40 and teaching at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. The unnamed narrator also teaches at a women’s college, this one called Benton. “If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you feel guilty.” “At Benton they wanted you really to believe everything that they did, especially if they hadn’t told you what it was.”

Benton “reasoned with the students, ‘appreciated their point of view,’ used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made — that the student might be right about something, and they wrong.”

Many assume that Benton is modelled on Sarah Lawrence College where Jarrell taught in 1946 but Jarrell told the New York Times: “Benton is supposed to be just a type … I’ve taken things from real places, but mostly have made them up.”

sarah lawrence

The main characters are the president of the college, Dwight Robbins, Gertrude Johnson a novelist, Gottfried Rosenbaum, a German composer and his wife Irena, a Russian opera singer, sociologists Flo Whittaker and her husband Jerrold.

Many assume that Jarrell modelled Gertrude Johnson on the novelist Mary McCarthy. The two writers did teach together and McCarthy mentions Jarrell in her novel The Groves of Academe. In an unpublished lecture, Jarrell defended himself: “I’ve got used to delivering a little two-minute speech that could be entitled: 59 Overwhelming Differences Between Gertrude Johnson and  -oh, say Senator McCarthy …I’m perfectly willing to have people think Gertrude Johnson me, or part of me- the book’s designed to make them do that; but I’m not willing to have them think my poor ugly mouse is a pretty actual lady novelist”.

Mary_McCarthy_Vassar_1933

Mary McCarthy at Vassar, 1933

President Robbins’s first impression of Gertrude is not flattering: “her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished. Then one noticed that she had an obstinate Irish – or, perhaps, an obstinate apish- upper lip”. Gertrude is teaching creative writing at Benton between novels. She does not suffer fools gladly and everyone is a fool. “Gertrude’s bark was her bite; and many a bite has lain awake all night longing to be Gertrude’s bark.”

mary-mccarthy-in-london-1963

Mary McCarthy in London, 1963

President Robbins is a former Olympic diver “who had not evolved to the stage of moral development at which hypocrisy is possible. To him the action was right because it was his.” “Morality, to him, was making a good impression on everybody, selling himself (that accurately ambiguous phrase) to everybody. He praised himself to his face just as he would have praised you to yours, except that he did it more modestly, with a kind of demure grace”.  Robbins has a public speaking voice that “not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable. It was a Compromising voice.”  “President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins”.

Gottfried Rosenbaum, Viennese composer in residence, kind, witty and Jewish. His wife, Irena, is a Russian opera singer, downscaled by age to lieder. The Rosenbaums are refugees from Nazi Europe and know all about the failed hopes of ends-justifies-means radicalism. He quotes Nijinsky’s epigram “Politics is death”. He lives out a dream of private life without political demands. He composes proverbs of his own, one of which is: “Heaven gives us habits to take the place of happiness”.

Flo Whittaker is a selfless and righteous fighter on all public issues who neither noticed nor understood any private ones. She looked as if she had woken up by chance and “her clothes had come together and involved her in an accident. She lived before Original Sin, and could only make mistakes.” “The skirt looked as if a horse had left her its second-best blanket; the sweaters looked as if an old buffalo, sitting by a fire of peat, had knitted them for her from its coat of the winter before.” Flo was “the least sexual of beings; when cabbages are embarrassed about the facts of life, they tell their little cabbages that they found them under Mrs. Whittaker.” The narrator is, in his fashion, fond of Flo: “If I were a town, there is no one I should rather have by me in a disaster”. Jerrold is “every inch the sociologist” to whom everything “was the illustration of a principle”. “As he spoke, English seemed to have been dead for several centuries, and its bones to have set up a safe, staid, sleepy system of their own, in respectable secession from existence”. The Whitakers had a bulletin board in their house on which they plotted all the activities of parents and children”.

One cannot help feeling that the narrator (and Jarrell) is using Gertrude in a cowardly way.  She is making scabrous judgements vicariously for him but, in between his own corrosive comments, he writes about forgiveness and acceptance. Writing in the New York Review of Books in December 1999, Michael Wood described this odd approach: “Gertrude is effectively given the guilt of the narrator’s cruel jokes, as if she and not he were making them, so that he can trot around the novel in genial and creepy innocence”.

The narrator claims to like Gertrude. He sees good in Flo Whittaker:  “She saw people only in hundred- thousand lots, but she couldn’t help feeling for them sometimes, one at a time- so that I thought once more, in uneasy perplexity: how shall I feel about Flo? That figure of fun, that pillar of righteousness, that type of the age, that index of the limitations of the human being, that human being?.. ‘to someone I am Flo’”.

As I mentioned in a previous article Jarrell developed a friendship with Hannah Arendt the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. In that book she wrote that society “introduces between the private and the public a social sphere in which the private is made public and vice versa”. She believed that the “perversion of equality from a political into a social concept brought the danger of creating a society where “every individual is ’normal’ if he is like everyone else and ‘abnormal’ if he happens to be different”.

Portrait Of Hannah Arendt

As I mentioned before, Jarrell kept successive drafts of Pictures from an Institution in a folder Arendt had given him, left over from her drafting of Origins. Gertrude’s novel might be expected to expose Benton’s faults in Arendtian terms depicting it as a self-enclosed socio-cultural system.

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt Scotland 1974

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, Scotland 1974

President Robbins “had the morals of a State; had, almost, the morals of an army”. A professor who had been away from Benton for several years says that he dreams about being back at Benton the way he dreams he is back in the army. This echoes what Jarrell had written in poems about the regimentation of military life taking over civilian life and academic life.

John Whittaker, the son of Flo and Jerrold, an enthusiast for Science Fiction since he was seven, tells the narrator what he thinks about the inhabitants of Benton: “Haven’t you noticed how they all talk just the same, and dress just alike, and read the same book…? And do you know why?…They’re androids”.

Jarrell uses Gertrude and Irena to convey to us some of his own views on the status of the US in the modern world.  Gertrude says: “Americans are so conformist that even their dissident groups exhibit the most abject conformity”. Gottfried is the character most kindly treated, and associated with everything in art that individualises: “To say that someone is typically anything is an unfavourable judgement. When Gottfried was least his kind he was most Gottfried”.

“Is an institution  always a man’s shadow shortened in the sun, the lowest common denominator of everyone in it? Benton was: the soldiers, as always, were better than the army in which they served, the superficial consenting nexus of their lives that was Benton”.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/fine/item/38660-pictures-from-an-institution.html

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.

 

Randall Jarrell Part One

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 8 2015

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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

 

 

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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.

 

Theodore Roethke Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 7 2014

R
Tail flicks from another world.

In the Balance between the Animal and the Human

Roethke views man in the framework of nature, taking from nature metaphors of increase and communion. He sees the realm of spiritual beginnings in nature. Even his love poems are not just evocations of the loved one or his feelings about her. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her.

Throughout his poetic career, Roethke used the idea of evolution to show forth the childhood fears buried in his subconscious and his developing self. The poems often have creatures emerging from the primeval slime and there are worms feeding on the dead. He developed a lithe structure and rhythm, which was well suited to his project of inspecting his psychological and emotional growth.

troethke

The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948)

In The Lost Son, Roethke tries to come to terms with his ambivalent feelings for his father, who died when the poet was only fourteen. Louise Bogan (Roethke’s one time lover) reviewed this collection in the New Yorker on May 15 1948. She wrote: “He plunges into his subconscious as into a pond and brings up all sorts of clammy amorphous material…Where Jarrell frequently only describes, Roethke relives.” She recommended that Randall Jarrell and Roethke be read together. I intend to write about Jarrell in a future article in these pages.

The title poem of the collection has five parts in which the poet examines the various stages of his feelings of sorrow and desolation to reach a conclusion that provides hope for the future.

Roethke himself wrote of the poem:

It “follows a narrative line indicated by the titles of the first four sections: ‘The Flight’, ’The Pit’, ‘The Gibber’, ’The Return’.’The Flight’ is just what it says it is: a terrified running away – with alternate periods of hallucinatory waiting (the voices, etc.); the protagonist so geared-up, so over-alive that he is hunting, like a primitive, for some animistic suggestion, some clue to existence from the subhuman. These he sees and yet does not see: they are almost tail-flicks, from another world, seen out of the corner of the eye. In a sense he goes in and out of rationality; he hangs in the balance between the human and the animal.”

Although the first section is a recollection of childhood feelings, he is already thinking of death – there is a reference to a cemetery in the first line:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Saying,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

His hard time is coping with the death of his father. His flight is from this cemetery and from the fact of death. He prays not to God but to the creatures of nature to give him a sign. They only answer him in riddles – The moon said, back of an eel – and in negatives: You will find no comfort here,/ In the kingdom of bang and blab. As if in response to this comment, the section ends with a riddle posed by the poet, which describes a strange creature, part which some readers suggest is an unborn child.

He hopes to find solace in nature:

Nothing nibbled my line,

Not even the minnows came.

The second section, “The Pit” describes a period of physical and psychic exhaustion, involving a strong death wish or an unwillingness to face further hardships in the quest for human completion.

Where do the roots go?

Look down under the leaves.

Who put the moss there?

These stones have been here too long.

Who stunned the dirt into noise?

Ask the mole, he knows.

I feel the slime of a wet nest.

Beware Mother Mildew.

Nibble again, fish nerves.


In “The Gibber”, there is a frenetic activity, then a lapsing back into peace.
At the wood’s mouth,

By the cave’s door,

I listened to something

I had heard before.

Dogs of the groin

Barked and howled,

The sun was against me,

The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,

The snakes cried,

The cows and briars

Said to me: Die.

 

After this, he finds himself at a calm centre, on the threshold of transformation and rebirth.

 

Do the bones cast out their fire?

Is the seed leaving the old bed?

These buds are live as birds.
Section IV returns to childhood memories, which, although dreamlike, are physically literal as well as symbolic.

A fine haze moved off the leaves;

Frost melted on far panes;

The rose, the chrysanthemum turned towards the light.

Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds

Moved in a slow up-sway.

 

The roses are real and breathing. – the family greenhouse business   provided much vegetative imagery. The morning emerges from the dark night bringing a sense of renewal, a resurrection of “Papa.”

 

In the final untitled section, the illumination, the coming of light suggested at the end of the last passage occurs again, this time to the nearly grown man. The illumination is still only partly understood; he is still “waiting.” Like the flowers in the greenhouse, he finds himself in a fragile state as he slowly climbs out of an abyss of inner tensions:

 

The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,

Above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,

The light moved slowly over the frozen field,

Over the dry seed-crowns,

The beautiful surviving bones

Swinging in the wind.

 

There is a deliberate echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Both works explore the self, its history and development. Both seek realisation in a spiritual order, although Roethke avoids orthodox religion. Roethke probably intended the echo as a statement of difference. For Roethke, the moment of light lacks any theological resonance, as it would have in Eliot. The illumination for Roethke is natural and based firmly on personal knowledge and evidence, on the individual’s understanding of the transcendent. The visitation at the end of “The Lost Son” displays the progress of the spirit over the difficult stages of evolution.

 

Praise to the End! (1951)

Praise to the End!, published in 1951, combines several long poems from The Lost Son with new poems that continuing the same themes. Bogan described Roethke’s subject as, “the journey from the child’s primordial subconscious world, through the regions of adult terror, guilt, and despair, toward final release into the freedom of conscious being.”

Roethke himself wrote: “the method is cyclic. I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some ‘progress’. Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out- that is difficult; for few know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.”

Roethke offered these suggestions on how to read the new book: “You will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, naively, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert. (A large order, I daresay!) Listen to them, for they are written to be heard, with the themes often coming alternately, as in music, and usually a partial resolution at the end. Each poem … is complete in itself; yet each in a sense is a stage in a kind of struggle out of the slime; part of a slow spiritual progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more.”

 

 large_Roethke2

Next week, I will discuss Roethke’s 1953 collection The Waking.

 

Robert Lowell Part 3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of the Sunday edition of Ceylon Today on October 19 2014

elizabeth-hardwick-and-robert-lowell

Lord Weary’s Castle

Randall Jarrell praised the book in his essay “From the Kingdom of Necessity” in which he wrote, “Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary’s Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden’s first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell’s, it seems to me.” Austin Warren offered the explanation that the book’s title implied that “disaster is befalling the house, and the household, of aristocratic (Calvinist, capitalist) New England, which has failed to pay its moral bills to the ‘lower order’”.

In “Children of Light”, Lowell looks at how his forebears got where they are today:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,

They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

 

Lowell dedicated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to his cousin, Warren Winslow, lost at sea during World War II.

The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   

Its open, staring eyes

Were lustreless dead-lights

Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   

Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

The poem takes as its epigraph St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of man’s superiority in the natural order: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth”. The poem questions New England’s past sins of greed and destruction of nature, the plundering of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. Lowell brings in Melville’s mythic creation to mourn present-day losses, such as those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes that of Moby-Dick: “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” In this poem, Lowell laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” In grim pictures of Moby Dick’s destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment.

Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. The poem ends with a section called “Our Lady of Walsingham”. The poet describes veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk. The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Lowell describes the penitents walking barefoot down “the munching English lane” to the shrine where an inscrutable Virgin Mary sits, plain and expressionless and “too small for her canopy.” The “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity is harsh.

Lowell’s ancestors are taken to task in “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” and he has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land. Lowell’s ancestor on his mother’s side, Josiah Winslow, waged a genocidal war against Philip’s people, the Wampanoag.

Philips head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass”.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick

hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick was a formidably intelligent woman who came from blue-collar (but intellectual) stock and went on to be co-founder of the wondrous New York Review of Books in 1964. Even when she was a young woman , writers quailed before her acerbic reviews. She had enough intelligence to know what she was taking on; she married Lowell in 1949 when he was going through one of his worst manic phases.

In 1946, Hardwick met Lowell at a party in Greenwich Village. They met again at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York, and married in 1949. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter, Harriet. In 1960, they returned to New York and settled in an apartment on West 67th Street where Hardwick lived until her death in 2007 at the age of 91.

Soon after meeting Hardwick, Lowell experienced a violently psychotic phase and had electric shock treatment in hospital. He was confined again when entered the depressive aftermath of the manic episode. After Lowell was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour during which he had a serious breakdown in Salzburg. Similar troubles happened throughout their marriage. Lowell gave in to many infatuations and was serially unfaithful to his wife. In 1970, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty, smote him. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972.

Hardwick paid a huge price for her love of Lowell. She accepted her fate with considerable dignity and a minimum of self-pity.

lowell and harriet

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

In 1951, Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. This did not receive unmixed praise. Randall Jarrell liked the shorter poems, but thought the epic title poem did not work. The people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act . . .I doubt that many readers will think them real.” Dudley Fitts used the term “Inoperable Particularity”. Fitts found the work full of “the kind of detail that looks significant, that one worries about as a possible symbol, and that is finally rejected”.

Philip Hobsbaum was more enthusiastic, calling it a” work of considerable distinction… verse of considerable suavity and flow”. William Carlos Williams liked it and Gene Baro found a new level of excellence in Lowell’s tight integration of idea, imagery and symbol.

Lowell hit a creative roadblock and took a long break from publishing.

Life Studies

His next book of verse, Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960, became the most influential book that Lowell would ever publish. In his acceptance speech for the NBA, Lowell divided American poetry into two camps: the “cooked” and the “raw.” These poems drew on the energy of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell’s break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonour and scandal among the Brahmins. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell’s family life and personal problems, one critic, ML Rosenthal, labelled these poems “confessional”. The label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell’s former students W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

“Skunk Hour” is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The first part of the poem takes place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem takes place at night as the narrator drives up the hill in his car. The town is deserted and he abandons the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks. “Skunk” stands for Lowell’s mood.

bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a very close friend. Lowell talked of marrying her, even though he knew she was a lesbian. The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to him in 1965. The poem caricatures the short-term vacationers spoiling the New England coast. The poet drives his car over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha. Approaching lover’s lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. He ends the fifth stanza with, “My mind’s not right.” A battered ego recognizes that “I myself am hell”.

A mother skunk at the head of a line baby skunks shows the absurdity of defiant animals scavenging in the heart of town.

I myself am hell,

nobody’s here–

 

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

 

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air–

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

 

Lowell wrote this about the poem: “This is the dark night. I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide”.

 

The English critic A Alvarez wrote of Life Studies:”Instead of contorting his conflicts into a baroque theology, Lowell exposes their beginnings in a series of ironic, and often tender, reminiscences about the family figures who loomed large in his childhood”.

Imitations

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets. In the book’s introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as “imitations” rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to “do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” TS Eliot liked it and insisted that ”Imitations” should be the title rather than “Versions”. The book won the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize but critical response to Imitations was sometimes hostile. In the New York Review of Books, on December 4, 1969, Vladimir Nabokov condemned Lowell’s Mandelstam translations – “some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his ‘adaptation’”.

Thom Gunn complained that all those writers “translated” in the book “speak with the unmistakeable voice of Robert Lowell. Preserving the tone of most of these poets is, in fact, the last thing he has done”. Although Gunn also says that Lowell makes Villon sound like Allen Ginsberg. Many critics were offended that Lowell had treated these great poets as his equals.

Others saw the book as a positive development in Lowell’s style and a step forward for poetry. Philip Hobsbaum said that the book had to be read as a set of original texts and that some of the poems are among the finest in the language. Michael Hofmann wrote that Imitations was Lowell’s most “pivotal book,” arguing that the book “marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English.” Hobsbaum wrote: “The theme of Imitations, then, is a romantic one. Ennui spells death; mania brings enlightenment; suffering is the matrix of poetry. This is self-justification: quite as much as TS Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, though at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Also in 1961, Lowell published his English translation of the French verse play Phèdre by 17th century playwright Jean Racine. I saw a memorable production of this at the Oxford Playhouse starring Simon Ward and Barbara Jefford. Lowell changed the spelling of the title of the play to Phaedra. This translation was Lowell’s first attempt at translating a play, and the piece received a generally positive reviews. However, George Steiner wrote: “I submit that Phaedra has an unsteady and capricious bearing on the matter of Racine. Far too often it strives against the grain of Racine’s style and against the conventions of feeling on which the miraculous concision of style depends… To link this version with Racine implies a certain abeyance of modesty. But modesty is the very essence of translation. The greater the poet, the more loyal should be his servitude to the original”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75739-news-detail-lord-wearys-castle.html

 

Robert Lowell Part 2

 

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 12 2014

 

Go South, Young Man

Charlotte told Merrill Moore to get her son committed to an institution. Moore suggested that Lowell take a leave of absence from Harvard and study with Moore’s friend, the poet-professor Allen Tate who was then living in Nashville and teaching at Vanderbilt University.tate and gordon

It was agreed that Lowell travel south with Moore in spring 1937. On arrival, Lowell asked Tate if he could live with him and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon,

gordon

and Tate joked that if he wanted to, Lowell could pitch a tent on Tate’s lawn; then Lowell bought a tent, set it up on Tate’s lawn, and lived in for two months. Lowell called the act “a terrible piece of youthful callousness”.

fugitves

After spending time with the Tates in Nashville (and attending some classes taught by John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt), Lowell decided to leave Harvard. When Tate and John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell went with them and majored in Classics. He shared accommodation with other ambitious young writers: Peter Taylor, Robie Macauley and Randall Jarrell. Lowell graduated summa cum laude in 1940.

Catholicism

Lowell had converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. This was partly in rebellion against his parents, partly under the influence of the work of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and French philosopher Étienne Gilson. Part of the reason for his conversion was his dark moods and what his first wife Jean Stafford (Anne Dick had faded out of the picture) called “fire-breathing righteousness.” Lowell left graduate school in September 1941 to work briefly at the New York Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward. By the end of the forties, he would leave the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, his particular brand of Catholicism shaped the character of his first two published books of poetry, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).

 

Jean Stafford

 stafford and lowell

Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford, blamed Catholicism for the failure of their marriage. Her own Catholicism was “light-hearted…though she had serious moments about it.” Some of her closest friends remained unaware of her conversion. For Lowell it became a round-the clock obsession.

Stafford was twenty-two when she met Robert Lowell. Her father was a writer of pulp westerns whose pen names were Ben Delight and Jack Wonder. He was also a religious fanatic. Jean was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and won a one-year fellowship to study philology at the University of Heidelberg from 1936 to 1937. She first met Lowell at a writers’ conference in Boulder and later stopped by at Kenyon to visit him. When he made his first proposal of marriage to her, she told him yes, if he bought her another drink. Obsessed, he followed her east. “He wants you more than anything else in his life,” a mutual friend informed her. “It makes me sick because he is an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”

In Boston, a drunken Lowell crashed his father’s car into a wall. Jean’s skull was badly fractured and her nose broken. Lowell tried to make his escape. They fined him $75 and took his licence. Lowell broke Jean’s nose again with a punch. She described her trauma in one of her best-known stories, “The Interior Castle,” and the disfigurement she suffered as a result was a turning point in her life. Nevertheless, on April 2nd of 1940, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford were married at St. Mark’s in New York.

From the beginning, there was little marital bliss. Jean’s intellect intimidated most of Lowell’s friends. She was the only person they knew who had read Proust and could quote it. Lowell’s parents, especially Charlotte, disapproved, but then, Charlotte disapproved of all of Bobby’s women. Before he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Lowell had set Jean up with an apartment and she received his trust fund allowance of $100 a month. She found this hard to live on and told Charlotte so. Predictably, Charlotte was not sympathetic: “I hope, Jean, for your own sake, as well as for Bobby’s that you will see in the present situation an opportunity for courage, selfdevelopment, and integrity of purpose”.

One wonders what Charlotte thought when Jean’s first novel, Boston Adventure, was a huge critical and commercial success. The novel sold thousands of copies in its first printing, and the Overseas Book-of the-Month programme purchased and shipped thousands more to military personnel in Western Europe. The book made her enough money to buy outright a house called Damarascotta Mills in Maine. In October of 1945, Stafford wrote, “a house is really the only solution for anyone. And certainly for me, who desires to immobilize myself like an eternal vegetable.”

They entertained many guests at Damarascotta including Gertrude Buckman, ex-wife of Delmore Schwartz. Lowell and Buckman had an affair and talked of marriage. Stafford wrote about this in her short story “An Influx of Poets” in which Minnie Zumwalt is charming her way along the coast of Maine after her divorce from poet Jered Zumwalt. Buckman later recalled that at this time, Jean was drinking herself into stupor.

delmore and gertrude

Lowell and Stafford’s marriage ended in 1948 although they continued to correspond for many years. The following year he married the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick.

Stafford wrote two more novels but her real forte was the short story: her works were published in The New Yorker and many literary magazines. In 1950, she married Life magazine staff writer Oliver Jensen but they divorced after three years. She had a brief period of domestic happiness with her third husband, New Yorker regular AJ Liebling, but he died in 1963. After his death, she stopped writing fiction. For many years, Stafford suffered from alcoholism, depression, and pulmonary disease. By age sixty-three, she had almost stopped eating and died of cardiac arrest in 1979.

stafford

Conscientious Objector

At LSU Lowell taught introductory courses in English for one year before the US entered World War II. While at St Mark’s, Lowell had written in the school magazine: “…not only the good that [wars] bring outweighs the evil, but also that they are essential for the preservation of life in its highest form”.

Lowell had volunteered for military service but was rejected. However, when he was called up in 1943, he refused to serve. He based his refusal partly on a newfound but principled pacifism, partly on political opposition to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender. His conversion had strengthened his aversion to communism. He raised this point in a letter to Roosevelt and also condemned the Allied bombing of civilian populations.”Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids. This, in a world still nominally Christian, is news”.

He wrote to the President about “the betrayal of my country”. A major factor was the alliance with Stalin. He continued:”In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty”.

As a conscientious objector, Lowell served five months in West Street Jail in New York City and in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, an experience he later described in poems such as “In the Cage” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”

These are the tranquillized Fifties,

and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?   

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statement,

telling off the state and president, and then   

sat waiting sentence in the bull pen

beside a Negro boy with curlicues

of marijuana in his hair.

 

A Jehovah’s Witness

 

… pointed out the T-shirted back

of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,   

there piling towels on a rack,

or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full   

of things forbidden the common man:

a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American   

flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.   

Flabby, bald, lobotomized,

he drifted in a sheepish calm,

where no agonizing reappraisal

jarred his concentration on the electric chair—

hanging like an oasis in his air

of lost connections….

 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75186-news-detail-go-south-young-man.html

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Next week, Lowell’s first published book.

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.        

The Brilliant Work and Difficult Life of John BerrymanPart One

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 10

john_berryman1288616578

Confessionalism

The school of “Confessional Poetry” was associated with several writers who redefined American poetry in the ’50s and ’60s. These included Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, ‘Confessionalism’ is a style focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.

John Berryman incorporated much of his personal experience into his poems and his was an eventful life. The poet started out as John Allyn Smith Jr. He was born in Oklahoma where he was raised until the age of ten, and then submitted to a peripatetic existence. When Berryman was twelve years old, his father, John Allyn Smith Sr, shot himself. With the Florida land bust, suicide was not uncommon and Smith’s death did not grab the attention of the Tampa police. Much was made of Smith’s insomnia, depression and money worries, but nothing of his marital problems or the absence of powder burns. Ten weeks after her husband’s death, Martha Smith married John Angus Berryman, who had been her lover before Smith’s demise. The future poet took the new husband’s name and was taught to call him “Uncle Jack”. His mother took to calling herself “Jill”.

His father’s suicide (or murder?) left a mark on the poet.

Thought I much then of perforated daddy,

daddy boxed in & let down with strong straps,

when I my friends’ homes visited, with fathers

universal and intact

 

In his 1990 biography of Berryman, Dream Song, Paul Mariani wrote: “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”.

After a long struggle with alcoholism and mental illness, Berryman threw himself off a bridge in 1972.

Early Work

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Berryman’s early work formed part of a volume entitled Five Young American Poets, published by New Directions in 1940. One of the other young poets included in the book was Randall Jarrell, whom I will discuss in future articles. New Directions published Berryman’s first book, entitled Poems, in 1942. His first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later, published by William Sloane Associates. Charles Thornbury recognised in this early work themes that would recur throughout Berryman’s work- the rite of reformation, cycles moving simultaneously to the alternations of day and night, desire and conception, the progression of the seasons, and the stages of youth and age.

Chair

The Dispossessed was not well-received. Randall Jarrell wrote, in The Nation, that Berryman was “a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]” whose poetry in The Dispossessed was too derivative of WB Yeats. Berryman later said, “I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”

The influence of Yeats is everywhere in the early work. Berryman also tried on the ill-fitting public persona of the WH Auden of the 1930s. Most of these socio-political poems are what Randall Jarrell called ”statues talking like a book”.

 

setee

In 1947, Berryman started an affair with a married woman named Chris while he was still married to his first wife, Eileen. He documented the affair with a sonnet sequence of over a hundred poems. This marked a major stage in his development, moving from a public rhetorical style to a more intimate, confessional, nervous voice. He refrained from publishing the Sonnets to Chris until 1967.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

Berryman’s first major work was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The long title poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and the book was published in 1956. Berryman addressed the life of 17th century puritan American poet Anne Bradstreet, the first recognized poet of the American literary tradition, and combined her history with his own fantasies about her. Berryman told an interviewer in 1972: “The idea was not to take Anne Bradstreet as a poetess – I was not interested in that. I was interested in her as a pioneer heroine, a sort of mother to the artists and intellectuals who would follow her and play a large role in the development of the nation.”

Anne Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England. She was born in Northampton, in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, a steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Because of her family’s position, she grew up in cultured circumstances and was a well-educated woman for her time, tutored in history, several languages and literature. At the age of sixteen, she married Simon Bradstreet. At the age of eighteen, she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in England in 1650 by her brother-in-law without her knowledge. These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics — her love for husband, children, God. Later poems show a different attitude. Both Anne’s father and husband were later to serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

john-berrymanYoung

In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses, Berryman comments on, converses with and courts Bradstreet and sometimes speaks as her. In section 31, Berryman has Bradstreet moving towards him:

 

–It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge

up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed

yellow, in heaven, eyed

by the melting hand-in-hand or mere

desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,

make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt—

the hefty pike shifts, sheer—

in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge-

 

Berryman employed an eight-line stanza of great flexibility, gravity and lightness. The poem took him five years to complete and demanded much from the reader but won plaudits from critics at the time and continued to win praise in later years. In 1989, Edward Hirsch observed, “the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel.” Berryman’s friend Saul Bellow described the poem as “the equivalent of a 500-page psychological novel”.

Out of maize & air

your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,

from the centuries it.”

 

Berryman makes Mistress Bradstreet a rebel speaking out against the constraints of gender and environment. The underlying subject is, as Berryman indicated later, ”the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse in a land that cared and cares so little for it.” The poem examines the tension between Bradstreet’s personal life and her artistic life, concluding in a spirit of fatalism. The work primarily examines creative repression, religious apostasy, and the temptation to adultery. Critic Luke Spencer focused on “Berryman’s intimate dialogue with Anne Bradstreet and the mutual sexual attraction”. Berryman tried to “colonise” and seduce a virtuous member of the Puritan community by turning her into his mistress. Berryman portrays her as rejecting both her husband and father and the Puritan deity that sanctions their view of life. The historical Bradstreet’s letters portray her as a model of devotion to her husband; members of her family encouraged her writing of poetry.

 

Among the most moving parts of Berryman’s work are about Bradstreet’s conflicts with her own sensuality and the struggle for religious faith and peace. Berryman finds Bradstreet’s value and meaning in her suffering.

 

Veiled my eyes, attending. How can it be I?   

Moist, with parted lips, I listen, wicked.   

I shake in the morning & retch.

Brood I do on myself naked.

A fading world I dust, with fingers new.

—I have earned the right to be alone with you.   

—What right can that be?

Convulsing, if you love, enough, like a sweet lie.

 

 

More about Berryman’s life next week and about his masterwork Dream Songs.

 

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