Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Robert Penn Warren

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.

 

Complicity Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 24 2015

Colman's Column3

It Can’t Happen Here

book

Here, There or Anywhere?

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader. Although the book is out-of-print (I am working from a Kindle edition downloaded for $3.99) and hard to find, its themes will be quite familiar to Americans (and other nationalities)

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Contemporary readers would have seen the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long who was preparing to run for president in 1936 elections when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the appearance of Lewis’s novel. Long’s career was used by Robert Penn Warren in his 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Later readers have noted resonances with the regime of GW Bush and Dick Cheney.

 

In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is going to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.

 

Windrip is a charismatic politician: a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is  swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business.  He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.

 

Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an  implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media,  the desire for security and comfort, and  endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.

 

Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. The message is that such an ideology is not necessary and besides, the USA has its own ideology that already dominates the world.

 

It Happened in Germany

 

Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide. Ordinary policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.


Britain’s Imperial Image

 

I was a child in Britain in the 1950s. Much of the literature I was encouraged to read in my pre-teens was about the benevolence of the British Empire. The Boys’ Own Paper gave us tales of adventure in Africa. The Children’s Newspaper was a successful publication which ran for 46 years. During half  of that run of over 2,000 issues it was edited by Arthur Mee, a patriot and devout Christian whose Children’s Encyclopaedia also indoctrinated us with British Imperial values. Lord Baden-Powell was regular contributor. How different were the boy scouts from the Hitler Youth which counted Pope Benedict and UN General Secretary  Kurt Waldheim among its members.

I once asked a friend (we must have been about eight years old) what he would like as a career. I was thinking about being a footballer or a comedian (Max Bygraves was my idol at the time). My friend said he wanted to be a District Commissioner. I had a vague idea from BOP that this was a commendable vocation, which involved civilising savages.

 

The British Imperial brand had been burnished over many decades. The PR set the British brand apart from the brutal behavior of other European empires in Africa: King Leopold’s bloody rule in the Congo, the German genocide of the Herero in South-West Africa, and France’s disgrace in Algeria. The British were, quite simply, different.

 

Despite that, we have seen how British soldiers and police behaved in an inhumane fashion during the British Mandate in Palestine, participating joyfully in torture, summary executions and generalised thuggery. British “exceptionalism”’,   “the British way”,  is clearly a delusion. Chelsea fans continue to behave like British soldiers in Palestine. British soldiers in Iraq continued to behave like thugs.

Neil Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, described an encounter he had in Cyprus in the late 1950s with a man called Pordy Laneford from Kenya. Who had been a member of the Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. “He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the ‘red tape’ of trials and witness statements. ‘Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.’”

Ascherson wrote, “I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season.”

“The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

Many civilians took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects and settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Katharine Warren-Gash ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There, suspects were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labour, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many Kenyan women gave birth at Kamiti and buried their babies in bundles of six at a time.

The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan history. On March 3, 1959, 100 detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured.

Can It Happen?

We are shocked to read that doctors in Nazi Germany could participate in experiments on living human beings and wholeheartedly carry out torture, sterilisation, euthanasia, and mass extermination.

The recently published US Senate report on CIA torture makes it clear that American doctors were enthusiastic participants happy to make a profit from inflicting pain. Two psychologists, Dr James Mitchell and Dr Bruce Jessen, were paid $81 million to design the torture programme, and medical officers and physicians’ assistants are cited throughout the report as consultants who advised on things like forcing detainees to stand on broken limbs and “rehydrating” via a rectal tube rather than a standard IV infusion.

Dr  Steven Miles is a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, a board member of the Center for Victims of Torture, and author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors. He has been studying doctors’ involvement in torture programmes since photos of the human rights violations at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in 2003. He maintains the website Doctorswhotorture.com, which tracks physician standards of conduct and punishments for doctors who aid torture around the world.

“The docs who get involved in this, number one, are careerists. They get involved for rank and career, and the regimes … extremely rarely coerce them. Instead, what happens is the regimes treat them as some kind of elite. The docs are generally not sadists. … docs seem to be entirely unaware, not only of the ethics codes, but also of the ineffectiveness of these interrogation strategies, that they never mount a protest.”

Public Complicity

During GW Bush’s presidency, Americans increasingly said they favored torture tactics, especially when they believed it would lead to vital information or save lives. Surveys showed that 47%   said the use of harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding was “sometimes” or “always” justified, while only 22% said such torture tactics were “never” justified. Non-religious Americans were more easily convinced that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were, in fact, torture. Most Christians were in favour of torture. Non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques – and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines.

The researchers said. “We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime”.

Goebbels successfully used media, that might seem primitive to us in 2015, to ensure complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi project. TV shows like 24 and Homeland serve a similar function. Stephen King, an admitted fan of 24, wrote, “There’s also a queasily gleeful subtext to 24 that suggests, ‘If things are this bad, why, I guess we can torture anybody we want! In fact, we have an obligation to torture in order to protect the country! Hooray!’ “

Well that’s OK then.

Brigadier General Finnegan believed the show had an adverse effect on the training of American soldiers because it advocated unethical and illegal behavior. In his words: “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’ The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

 

Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were enthusiastic fans of 24.

 

 

More on torture next week

 

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

RJ1

 

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

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

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

Early Life

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

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

lowell

 

 

stevens

Early Work

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

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

army2

War Poetry

“Losses”

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

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

 

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals,

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

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

 

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;

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

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

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

army1

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

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

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

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

ball_turret_gunner

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

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

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

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

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

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

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

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

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

 

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