Books: Poetry's Ideal Critic: Randall Jarrell |
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Poetry's Ideal Critic : Randall Jarrell

As a figure representing the Poet’s Fate, Randall Jarrell bulks large in the necrology of the American heavies: the patchwork epics of both John Berryman and Robert Lowell are liberally embroidered with portentous musings on his death. Is this, one wonders, what Jarrell’s name now mainly means? The thought is enough to chill the bones.

Luckily Jarrell’s publishers are now doing what they can to dispel the graveyard mists. Whether his Complete Poems did much for his reputation is debatable: his poetry, though he would have hated to hear it said, was a bit light on those Blakean ‘minute particulars’ he thought good poetry should have a lot of — there was a tendency to the prosaic which rigorous selection did something to disguise. He once said that even a good poet was a man who spent a lifetime standing in a storm and who could hope to be struck by lightning only half a dozen times at best. Disablingly true in his case. One would memorize a needle-thrust like ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and wonder why someone who could command that kind of penetration should spend so much time lapsing into a practised, resourceful, elegant but in the end faintly wearying expansiveness. He thought that writing came first and that the Age of Criticism — i.e., of writing about writing — was a bad dream from which we needed to pinch ourselves awake. A bitter truth then, that his writing was merely distinguished whereas his writing-about-writing was inspired. Jarrell is poetry’s ideal critic, and the current reissue of Poetry and the Age couldn’t be more welcome. If ever there was a necessary book, this is it. A few more like it and there would still be a chance of saving the humanities for humanity.

A Shaw rather than a Beerbohm, a Sickert rather than a Wyndham Lewis, Jarrell had one of those rare critical minds which are just as illuminating in praise as in attack. We never feel, when reading him, that he is at his most concentrated when he is being most destructive. It is in the effort to draw our attention to merit that he achieves real intensity, and there are very few critics of whom that can be said. Yet there was nothing indulgent about his capacity for admiration. In his definitive essay on Frost, he grants — indeed rubs in — the poet’s defects of personality with an epigrammatic disgust which would dominate the argument, were it not for his insistence that Frost’s cracker-barrel Wisdom shouldn’t distract us from the fact that being wise about life is nevertheless one of the things his poems do supremely well. Jarrell can see clearly that the best of Frost is the best critic of the worst, and that the Critical Task (a locution which would never have crossed his lips) is to demonstrate how good that best is — the best which we tend to reduce to the level of the unremarkable by being so knowing about the worst. Jarrell was against knowingness, and possessed the antidote: knowledge. His wide knowledge of literature impresses you at every turn. He alludes without effort, compares without strain, and makes being simple seem easy.

John Crowe Ransom and Walt Whitman are as well served as Frost. Speaking for myself, Jarrell’s remarks helped give me the courage of my secret convictions about Ransom (I had thought it would be intellectual suicide to admit that his luxuriant diction struck me as a kind of strength); they were also instrumental in dismantling a self-designed, home-constructed apparatus of formalistic priggery that kept me from Whitman for ten years. Better introductions to such a brace of obfuscation-ridden poets couldn’t be imagined. Opening his Whitman essay, for example, Jarrell typically outlines the kind of misunderstanding he thinks needs to be eradicated:

But something odd has happened to the living, changing part of Whitman’s reputation: nowadays it is people who are not particularly interested in poetry, people who say that they read a poem for what it says, not for how it says it, who admire Whitman most. Whitman is often written about, either approvingly or disapprovingly, as if he were the Thomas Wolfe of 19th-century democracy....

True when it was said, and true now. That Whitman was read by people who couldn’t read seemed to me to be sufficient reason for refraining from reading much of him myself. Jarrell, though, had the confidence and independence to insist that to defend your taste by such a refusal is simply to connive at philistinism and encourage the view that Whitman was an ordinary rhetorician. On the contrary, he was an extraordinary one, whose worst language was not just awful, but unusually awful (‘really ingeniously bad’), and whose finest flights were poetry about which there could be no argument. (‘If the reader thinks that all this is like Thomas Wolfe he is Thomas Wolfe; nothing else could explain it.’) Quoting the passage from ‘ I understand the large hearts of heroes’ down to ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there’, Jarrell says that Whitman has reached a point at which criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd, since the lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence. Jarrell’s use of quotations approaches the mark Walter Benjamin set for himself, of writing a critical essay consisting of nothing but. The catch — that the quality of the quotation is self-demonstrating only to the reader who doesn’t need telling — was one Jarrell recognized and was worried by. Luckily he didn’t let it stop him.

The essay on Wallace Stevens is as important as the others already mentioned. Written as a review of The Auroras of Autumn, it measures the aridity of Steven’s later work by evoking the exfoliating fruitfulness of the earlier, and gets the whole of the poet’s career into proportion without even a hint of cutting him down to size. But the strictures are gripping when they come. Of The Auroras of Autumn Jarrell says that one sees in it

the distinction, intelligence, and easy virtuosity of a master — but it would take more than these to bring to life so abstract, so monotonous, so overwhelmingly characteristic a book.

Italics his, and transfixingly placed.

With Jarrell, the urge to share a discovered excellence leads to a mastery of critical language which can only be called creative. The forms of Marianne Moore’s poems, he writes,

...have the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; but they work as those work — disregard them and everything goes to pieces.

Not satisfied with that, he goes on:

Her forms, tricks and all, are like the aria of the Queen of the Night: the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion but is its vehicle.

If his experience had not been so rich, he could not have been so right: it takes range to achieve such a fine focus.

Scattered throughout this book are minor moments of the trouble which in a later collection of essays, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, coalesced into a persistent anxiety. The foe of academic crassness and critical arrogance, Jarrell was obliged to rely on the good sense of those who read books for love. He knew they were in a minority but was too much of an American to fully accept the fact that this had something to do with inequality: he seemed to think that if you could just speak plainly enough you would break through. There is a distressing moment in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket when he tries to tell his popular-magazine audience that that the word ‘intellectual’ is not one to be frightened of since a mechanic or carpenter is just as much an intellectual about practical things as a poet is about literature. He chose not to notice that the two states of mind are not interchangeable, and probably never began to realize that his own critical writings, among the most readily intelligible of the century, depend for a good part of their clarity on a scope of cultural reference so broad that only the educated can take it in. Too much of a democrat to take pride in his own uniqueness, Jarrell hungered for an egalitarian society with uniformly high standards. Wishful thinking, but of a noble kind. Those sensitive to literature can be taught literature, but sensitivity to literature cannot be taught — a point which should be borne in mind by anyone who runs away with the idea that setting Poetry and the Age as a first-year text would humanize our university English schools overnight. It wouldn’t, but it’s a measure of Jarrell’s gifts that even the most level-headed reader suddenly finds himself suspecting that it could.

(New Statesman, 26 October 1973)