No 4 - 1975
'Hansel and Gretel in America'*
The Dynamics of Change and Loss in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell
AMERICAN POETRY has seldom had an advocate as devoted as Randall Jarrell. Practitioner, proponent, defender, chronicler, and censor, Jarrell did more to establish the canon of modern American poetry than any writer of his era. After winning early recognition as a poet of impressive gifts, he went on to write widely admired criticism as well, much of which was instrumental in defining the characteristic vigours and virtues of the American poetic idiom. ‘Eulogy was the glory of Randall’s criticism’, wrote Robert Lowell, in a memorial essay published after Jarrell’s death in 1965. ‘He left many reputations permanently altered and exalted.’ Among those reputations were Whitman’s, Frost’s, and Marianne Moore’s; Poetry and the Age, his first collection of essays, published in 1953, was in large part devoted to demonstrating the importance of these writers. ‘Critics have to spend half their time reiterating whatever ridiculously obvious things their age or the critics of their age have found it necessary to forget’, he said, in an essay that proved instrumental in refurbishing Whitman’s standing. Other poets fared less well; Jarrell could be caustic and destructive, too. Yet the generally broadminded, down-to-earth integrity of his evaluations gives them an air of objectivity, and many of his judgements have come to be adopted as the general consensus.
The poet’s championing of poetry also took the form of a despairing critique of the place of literature and of the artist in contemporary society. ‘The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it’, he assures us, with characteristic metaphysical assertiveness, in ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’. But it was difficult to maintain such a conviction in twentieth-century America, where ‘that order of things’ was seriously obscured. In A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, which appeared in 1962, Jarrell reiterated what had by then been recognized as common knowledge: that poetry had virtually no audience in mass society. ‘God has given us poets students’, he observed. ‘But what He gives with one hand He takes away with the other: He has taken away our readers.’ Suddenly, it seemed, poetry had become a small province, virtually unvisited by the world at large. Other poets, would-be poets, and poets-in-training, thrown together by the similarity of their manias and ambitions, and deprived of any other audience, scratched each other’s backs when they weren’t scratching each other. (The collection of essays brought together in honour of Jarrell in 1967 bears witness to this; his colleagues and mentors, many of whom he had written about, formed a protective circle, enshrining the memory of their beloved cohort in a ritual emblematic of the state of the art.) Like most of his peers, Jarrell was bitter in exile. ‘I have suffered from this obscurity all my life’, he wrote. Yet he never really delved into the causes of their predicament. Like his poetic criticism, his social essays were essentially ad hoc.
Jarrell’s career itself seems to exemplify the status of the poet in ‘the Age of Criticism’. He taught at no less than eight colleges and universities, served as critic for a number of journals, edited several anthologies, in addition to publishing his poetry, criticism, translations, children’s books, and a novel. Reportedly, he loved teaching. But how he felt about Academe itself is revealed in Pictures from an Institution (1955), a strangely undramatic fiction satirizing Benton College, a small Southern women’s institution, and its pretentious, eccentric, irrelevant denizens. Benton is a world unto itself, utterly removed from any real social context, and the narrator, a shadowy poet-teacher who strongly resembles the persona Jarrell adopts in his quasi-autobiographical poems, acts as a non-participatory observer, pointing a more-or-less tactful moral finger from time to time. Some of Benton’s inhabitants are miscreants or scoundrels, others are merely silly, but Jarrell draws exemplary portraits, too, among them those of Gottfried and Irene Rosenbaum, both expatriate European musicians, and Constance Morgan, a young ingenue whom they treat as a daughter. Gottfried occupies the centre of the book; his understanding is, if anything, more finely honed than the narrator’s. A distinguished, largely unappreciated composer steeped in the culture of Germany, he practises his unpopular art, undaunted though unapplauded, in an obscure corner of the world, solaced by his music, his wife, and a few friends. He suffers the ignorant Benton community with melancholy good humour; but the reader feels he has been unjustly deprived of a larger role elsewhere.
Jarrell, who was born in California in 1914, was thoroughly American, and no more so than in the conviction (which he shared with both his creation Rosenbaum and most of his generation of American intellectuals) that Europe, and in his case, Germany in particular, was the cultural homeland. ‘I believe my favourite country’s German’, he says in ‘Deutsch Durch Freud’, one of his most spirited and witty poems, and then declares: ‘My calendar’s two centuries too fast.’ Goethe is Jarrell’s greatest sage and most-quoted authority, and Rilke, many of whose poems he translated, exerted a stronger influence on him than any other modem poet. From German culture Jarrell absorbed a faith in the ideal, the vital spirit underlying the immediate and tangible. In this respect his work is fundamentally romantic, for it presupposes a natural splendour, a primitive integrity, from which the barrier of our jaded senses keeps us. The individual’s past — and the past of the race — are the repositories of true experience.
At the same time, Jarrell always involves himself deeply in the literal, for his major concern is with how reality fails to live up to the expectations his commitment to the ideal has created. As he makes Irene Rosenbaum say in the novel, ‘Nostalgia is the permanent condition of man.’ Jarrell’s work glorifies otherness, but it always remains grounded in realistic detail; what interests him is how we come to grips with the sense of deprivation amid the thinginess of the present.
‘A Girl in a Library’, the lead poem in the Selected Poems (1955), is largely concerned with our alienation from an unknown, but imagined state of grace; it is also representative of several other typical features of Jarrell’s poetry. The narrator, a more-or-less unbodied voice, muses about a young Home Economics major who has fallen asleep over her book, and sees in her a modern, i.e., diminished, New World version of the ancient myth of regeneration. ‘. . . see/ The blind date that has stood you up: your life’, he admonishes her, giving vent to a derisive characterization of the ‘Wooden Mean’ by which the girl and her ilk live, in mediocre unselfconsciousness of their historic roles:
This is a waist the spirit breaks its arms on.
The gods themselves, against you, struggle in vain.
This broad low strong-boned brow; these heavy eyes;
These calves grown muscular with certainties; . . .
But there is something pure and redemptive about the girl at the same time, and the speaker’s condemnation eventually resolves itself into this:
And yet, the ways we miss our lives are life.
Yet . . . yet . . .
to have one’s life add up to yet!
The And yet captures the essence of lives conducted not through an awareness of the primal conditions of myth — which in Jarrell’s work represents the realm of pure action, wholeness, and freedom — but amid a welter of uninspirited, smothering detail. The past is meaningless to most of our neighbours, who float through life ignorant they are engaged in refashioning ‘our old creation,/Humanity’. And yet, for all her lack of awareness, the young girl is doing just that; unknowing, she acts out a timeless pattern:
One comes, a finger’s width beneath your skin,
To the braided maidens, singing as they spin.
In ‘A Girl in a Library’ as in much of Jarrell’s work, literature offers an almost religious salvation from alienation, for it purveys a vital consciousness through which the dross of reality can be translated into authentic experience. Myth is the pure heaven of the totally actualized, the standard by which our poor lives conducted in the worthless present are measured. The sad, thoughtful awareness of the unbridgeable gap between the inheritors of transmitted values and the new breed of mass-manufactured philistines, between the Old World and the New, which shapes the poem, is characteristic of Jarrell. Also characteristic are the personae: the pensive, almost histrionic narrator who observes without acting and speaks with a Godlike finality, and the young woman, emblematic of a victimized, limited state of being. (I shall discuss Jarrell’s use of female characters below.)
The overflowing metre, Jarrell’s fluid, totally idiomatic lines — ‘[Tanya, they won’t even scan], — which exceed the bounds of regular verse, are typical, too, as is the cumulative syntax. Jarrell’s sentences begin simply enough, but they modify and expand as they continue, until they fill line after deceptively complex line. This exuberance, which works in concert with the extraordinary, almost prosaic naturalness of Jarrell’s diction, makes his poetry attractive and accessible, but it is also responsible for weaknesses in his style. As John Crowe Ransom put it, ‘I don’t know if the combination of prose properties and poetic properties in the same piece is as good as either prose or poetry by itself; the prose and the poetry seem to adulterate one another.’
Jarrell’s early poems are more formally intact, and adhere to the conciseness such precision requires. But they strike me as alien to his fundamentally earth-bound, discursive voice. Jarrell cares about the small stuff and nonsense, the messiness of this life; the ideal is a recourse to which he resorts when his love is not returned, which is almost always. Conventional form was a perfection into which his vivid sensitivity to organic disorder could not accommodate itself. In plotting the longer poems, which are, to me, most expressive of Jarrell when he is most himself, the reader needs to imagine an exploratory conversational logic pervading the total composition. Poems like ‘A Girl in a Library’ and ‘An English Garden in Austria’ and ‘Woman’ are complexes of interwoven ideas and attitudes, in which extracts from raw experience are juxtaposed with generalizing and mythic elements. (Compare, for example, Coleridge’s conversation poems.)
Myth is inherently dynamic. As Stanley Kunitz says, ‘In the mythic imagination metamorphosis is the great theme underlying all others.’ What Karl Shapiro called Jarrell’s ‘almost obsessive return to the great childhood myths’ is a search for a resolution to the dilemmas outlined in ‘A Girl in a Library’. In Jarrell’s early work, that resolution lies in the possibility of change, effected through a freed consciousness. The narrator of Pictures from an Institution praises Constance Morgan, saying, ‘We were grateful to her for that best of gifts, a change in one’s own self.’ That is the goal, actually to learn from what one reads, to absorb the truth of fiction into one’s own frame of reference. And yet, the fact is that books play a more passive role in ordinary experience. Literature is a matter of life or death only to littérateurs; otherwise it placidly gathers dust in libraries, those distant mausoleums which provide the setting for many of Jarrell’s pre-war poems on this theme. ‘The Carnegie Library, Juvenile Division’, for instance, ends:
We learned from you so much about so many things
But never what we were; and yet you made us that,
We found in you the knowledge for a life
But not the will to use it in our lives
That were always, somehow, so different from the books’.
We learn from you to understand, but not to change.
And the same thought is reworked in ‘Children Selecting Books in a Library’:
What some escape to, some escape: if we find Swann’s
Way better than our own, and trudge on at the back
Of the north wind to — to — somewhere east
Of the sun, west of the moon, it is because we live
By trading another’s sorrow for our own; another’s
Impossibilities, still unbelieved in, for our own . . .
‘I am myself still’? For a little while, forget:
The world’s selves cure that short disease, myself,
And we see bending to us, dewy-eyed, the great
CHANGE, dear to all things not to themselves endeared.
The tragedy, for intellectuals of Jarrell’s breed, was that ‘the great/ CHANGE’ of the poems remained basically ‘another’s /Impossibility, still unbelieved in’. His lament of the remoteness of literature from life was another version of the complaint of the misunderstood, ignored artist who felt deprived of a significant function in late industrial society.
In the Second World War, however, Jarrell found a subject drawn from direct rather than literary experience, one that was capable of both encompassing and broadening his concerns. Jarrell’s own tour of duty in the Air Force brought him face to face with the repressive impersonality of corporate organization, a force whose debilitating influence he had not yet explicitly come to terms with. The political nature of the anomie that fills the isolated lives of his earlier characters comes to light in his poems of barracks and battlefield. The result was the most powerful and compassionate poetry to come out of the war.
The social machine is the protagonist and the real enemy in these violent, death-ridden vignettes of a war in which the ‘bare lives’ of individual men were exploited as mass Man’s ‘last commodity’,
Defiled, annihilated — the forgotten vessels
Of the wrath that formed us; of the murderous
Dull will that worked out its commandment, Death.
In ‘The State’, for example, a featureless narrator muses about her victimization by faceless Authority:
When they killed my mother it made me nervous;
I thought to myself, It was right:
Of course she was crazy, and how she ate!
And she died, after all, in her way, for the State.
But I minded: how queer it was to stare
At one of them not sitting there.
The grisly irony reminds one of Auden, an inevitable influence on Jarrell’s work of this period, but there is a horrible closeness to the event which Auden would not have ventured. Jarrell’s best war poems, and the best part of many of the others, are similarly rich in dramatic tension, and grounded, as his best work always is, in vivid detail. His ubiquitous generalizations earn their significance from gorgeously terrible descriptions of carnage and fear. Poems like ‘Eighth Air Force’, ‘Losses’, ‘Siegfried’, ‘Pilots, Man Your Planes’, ‘Mail Call’ and ‘The Dead in Melanesia’, to name only a few of the most compelling, tell a reader from another generation all he can ever want to know about war. It is ‘the dream from which no one wakes’, a dose of reality so brutal and unprepared-for that even those who live, the so-called victors, sustain irreparable losses, abandoned by the dead in a world abandoned by freedom:
We endure to fulfillment; it is victory
The living lose. And loss? The living lose
All things alike; and, recompensed, in the survival
That brings them, daily, that indifference, death,
Ride in the triumph of the world in trains —
Their world, their triumph.
(from ‘The Survivor among Graves’)
Jarrell’s post-war studies of the world of the military-industrial complex manifest a deepened understanding of the severely circumscribed situation of the modern individual. The glorification of change is transformed into a consciousness of the losses for which time and man are together responsible. Change occurs, ceaselessly, but usually in the form of degradation, a further distancing of the dreamer from the attainment of his most basic desires. Man no longer merely exists in an alienated state, but the possibility of a return to innocence, too, has to be relinquished in the long run:
When you looked at Constance you wanted change and chance and choice to leave her alone: you were angry at existence, that could think of this, and then temper it into wisdom with time, and then destroy it.
Natural change is decay, wholeness is a dream. What ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ wants when she cries, ‘You know what I was,/You see what I am: change me, change me!’ is a miracle. She begs for an impossible liberation from ‘the bars of my own body’, in which she has suffered through an obedient ‘dull null’ bureaucratized half-life. The only change she has experienced is loss. She wants to be returned to a primitive state she has never known. Like her sister in ‘Next Day’ she feels, ‘What I’ve become/Troubles me even if I shut my eyes. . . . As I look at my life,/I am afraid/Only that it will change, as I am changing.’
Such a perspective offers no hope for salvation; man appears through these characters as a powerless victim, betrayed not only by society, but by nature, too. Significantly, Jarrell frequently chooses women as the protagonists of these poems of cultural protest. A glance at ‘Woman’ and ‘In Nature There is Neither Right Nor Left Nor Wrong’, which begins, ‘Men are what they do, women are what they are’, will show that his conception of femininity was more or less traditional, and to present-day readers, stereotypic. According to the received view, women were the frailer and more vulnerable sex, and Jarrell would appear to have capitalized on that commonplace in representing mankind’s defencelessness through female characters.
Most frequently, Jarrell’s women, though conscious there is something wrong in their lives, are unable to define precisely or to respond creatively to their predicaments; they are merely witnesses to their victimization. It is to children, the humans closest to their state of original grace that Jarrell looks for inspiration, to those who, because they have lost the least, remain endowed with many of their innate faculties. For them, according to the romantic programme, the world is a Märchen; myth is reality. Through a child’s eyes, change regains its redemptive properties. In ‘Hope’, for instance, the narrator, who claims ‘we are children’, insists in the face of fact,
You wake up, some fine morning, old.
And old means changed; changed means you wake up new.
The major poems of Jarrell’s last period are devoted to the pursuit of that childlike clarity of vision. ‘The Lost World’ and ‘Thinking of the Lost World’, two poems about his own youth, recreate the outlook and experience of an exceptionally receptive creature, utterly aware of those exhilarating sensations that lose potency with age. (‘The island that the children ran is gone.’)
‘The island sang to me: Believe! Believe! . . . There was nothing for me to disbelieve.’ The Lost World harbours the intensity that adult invalids ache for when they want ‘something from outside the machine . . . to burst in and hand them life’ (in ‘The X-Ray Waiting Room in the Hospital’). That kingdom of imagination is the breeding-ground of poetry:
this first Rome
Of childhood, so absolute in every habit
That when we hear the world our jailor say:
‘Tell me, art thou a Roman?’ the time we inhabit
Drops from our shoulders, and we answer: ‘Yea [. . .]’
The Lost World is a universe of integration from which alienation is barred. But it is Lost, i.e., it belongs to memory, and a seemingly boundless expanse of pain and loss — the territory of alienation itself — separates the dreamer from what he imagines he remembers. ‘A certain number of years after,/Any time is Gay, to the new ones who ask’, Jarrell says in ‘Thinking of the Lost World’, the concluding poem in the last book of poems he was to publish. His true theme here, as it can be argued to be in much of his work, is the creative act itself, the imaginative attempt to bridge the gap between the ideal, (which is itself the product of imagination and its handmaiden memory) and the imperfections of what we see with jaded adult sight as poor fact, and out of which our conception of the ideal has to arise. The poet, still endowed with something of his childhood brilliance, can restore us, if only partially and momentarily, to a fuller consciousness of the limitless potential of fact, as Jarrell suggests in opening the poem with a Proustian moment of recall:
This spoonful of chocolate tapioca
Tastes like — like peanut butter, like the vanilla
Extract Mama told me not to drink.
Swallowing the spoonful, I have already traveled
Through time to my childhood. It puzzles me
That age is like it.
He goes on to describe a trip to California, and the discrepancy between what he found there and what he remembers. (‘Back in Los Angeles, we missed/Los Angeles.’) Though his childhood has dissolved, his mind clings to it, unable or unwilling to keep pace with the metamorphoses of his body:
When my hand drops to the wheel,
It is brown and spotted, and its nails are ridged
Like Mama’s. Where’s my own hand? My smooth
White bitten-fingernailed one?
Jarrell’s beard is grey now. When a boy calls him Santa Claus, he exclaims: ‘It is miraculous/To have the children call you Santa Claus.’ The miracle resides in the fact that one’s mind can encompass, however distortingly, the span of life, that one can somehow manage to be both child and man at once. And yet, of course, the child is an inhabitant of the Lost World, a fiction:
I reach out to it
Empty-handed, my hand comes back empty,
And yet my emptiness is traded for its emptiness,
I have found that Lost World in the Lost and Found
Columns whose gray illegible advertisements
My soul has memorized world after world:
LOST - NOTHING. STRAYED FROM NOWHERE. NO
I hold in my own hands, in happiness,
Nothing: the nothing for which there’s no reward.
In summarizing Jarrell’s career, John Crowe Ransom wrote of these lines:
I felt at first that this was a tragic ending. But I have studied it till I give up that notion. The NOTHING is the fiction, the transformation, to which both boy and man are given. The World is not Lost because it never existed; but it is as precious now as ever. I have come to think that Randall was announcing the beginning of his ‘second childhood’.
For Jarrell here, victory over reality resides in recognizing that the powers of primal consciousness, of imagination, can defeat ‘fact’ when we let them, that we, like ‘A Girl in a Library’, are always the creatures of myth, whether we know it or not, characters in dramas whose scripts we write ourselves.
And yet, the assertion is too desperate. In the end, reality has the final say. Jarrell’s early death broke off the ongoing tug-of-war between fact and imagination which preoccupied him throughout his career; the ecstatic resolution of ‘Thinking of the Lost World’, to this reader at least, doesn’t comprehend the anguish and irony of his social poetry.
Jarrell wrote about imperfect persons in real places:
‘. . . I identify myself, as always,
With something that there’s something wrong with,
With something human.’
He tried to show us finer, more brilliant, more whole than the vagaries of time allowed us to seem. The age was against him, of course, as any age would have been; the intensity he championed belonged beyond it, as his work said, in the realm of art. Great poems, he wrote in ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’, ‘manage at once to sum up, to repudiate, and to transcend both the age they appear in and the minds they are produced by’. Jarrell’s poems masterfully sum up and repudiate their time; no more accurate index of the silent anxiousness of America at mid-century exists. A few of them — and ‘The Island’, ‘The Death of the Bali Turret Gunner’, ‘The Dead in Melanesia’, ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ and ‘Thinking of the Lost World’ are merely five — also succeed in transcending both their era and the despondent, yearning intelligence that brought them into being. In these poems, and in some of his sympathetic appreciations of other poets, Jarrell achieved that synthesis of enthusiasm and disinterestedness, that realized ideal, toward which his whole work was a striving, and earned himself a lasting place among the significant American writers.
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- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
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- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
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- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
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- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
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- New Welsh Review
- North, The
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
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- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
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- Yellow Crane, The