This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 15 2015
The Cruel Critic
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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…”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.