Ashamed of the Planet

Ian Hamilton

  • No Other Book: Selected Essays by Randall Jarrell, edited by Brad Leithauser
    HarperCollins, 376 pp, US $27.50, June 1999, ISBN 0 06 118012 2
  • Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic and Teacher Randall Jarrell by Mary von Schrader Jarrell
    HarperCollins, 173 pp, US $22.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 06 118011 4

In April 1965, Randall Jarrell’s just published book of verse, The Lost World, was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Joseph Bennett. Bennett quite liked four of the poems but the rest of them, he said, were ‘taken up with Jarrell’s familiar, clanging vulgarity, corny clichés, cutenesses, and the intolerable self-indulgence of his tear-jerking bourgeois sentimentality ... His work is thoroughly dated; prodigiousness encouraged by an indulgent and sentimental Mama-ism; its overriding feature is doddering infantilism.’

A few days after reading this, Jarrell cut his left wrist in a suicide attempt. He had been in a depressed state for several weeks and a year earlier had had some kind of nervous breakdown but, according to his widow, this Bennett onslaught was the final straw, the pits, the door that slams. Six months later he was dead – hit by a car when out walking, after dark, on a North Carolina highway. Accident or suicide? On this question there is still much argument, and the evidence is inconclusive. It is generally agreed, though, by his friends that in the past two years or so (Jarrell turned 50 in 1964) this imperiously vital poet-critic had all of a sudden lost his taste for living. ‘Don’t make mountains out of molehills,’ his Mama had advised him in 1964. And he had answered: ‘When you are depressed, there are no molehills.’

Joseph Bennett probably knew nothing of Jarrell’s troubles when he wrote his New York Times review. Let’s hope he didn’t By any standards the piece was pretty nasty. But it was, we must assume, aimed not at a mentally ill 50-year-old but at the friskily cocksure Jarrell who, 20 years earlier, had been American poetry’s most celebrated hatchetman. If certain of Jarrell’s early poet victims had heard of his response to Bennett’s taunts, they would probably have said: so he can dish it out, but can he take it? Or something of that sort. And by this stage, Jarrell might well have mumbled in reply: ‘No, no he can’t.’

But dish it out he could and, in his heyday, did, although never – I think – with the calculated wish-to-wound that marks this Bennett piece. Jarrell the hard man nearly always managed to give the impression that he was up to something richly virtuous, that he saw himself not as a mere clobberer of dunces but as Poetry’s high-purposed bodyguard – his task was protective not offensive, as he seemed to see it. At the same time his protective knifework could indeed be deadly, and he did make enemies galore, some of whom in later years came back to haunt him. He was deadly and yet often very funny, so that now and again even his victims had to laugh (‘I feel as if I had been run over but not hurt,’ said Karl Shapiro, somewhat eerily, after Jarrell had called his Trial of a Poet ‘a sort of bobby-soxer’s Mauberley’).

In the early 1940s, to be on the receiving end of one of Jarrell’s sizzling assassinations was to put oneself in line for immortality. Who would nowadays remember Oscar Williams’s verses if Jarrell had not said that they seemed to have been written on a typewriter by a typewriter? Williams at that time was a powerful anthologist and in career terms it was bad policy to mock him. Jarrell, though, seemed not to care about careers – the very word would have set his teeth on edge. Although he spent his whole life teaching in universities – apart from war service, a year on the Nation and a stint as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress – he repeatedly let it be known that he did not belong on campus. In his letters from academia, he casts himself as a highly superior misfit, and his wearyingly witty ‘novel’, Pictures from an Institution, is mostly a celebration of this stance.

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