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Clean Poetry

John Bayley, 18 August 1983

Collected Poems 1970-1983 
by Donald Davie.
Carcanet, 172 pp., £5.95, May 1983, 0 85635 462 7
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... New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom, I.A. Richards, Allen Tate, and young up-and-coming members like Randall Jarrell, a world in which the academic and the poet were entering together a new world of feeling and technique, joining tradition and novelty. Bliss was it in that dawn when American campuses beckoned hospitably and offered glittering prizes. From ...


John Bayley: On V.S. Pritchett, the Man of Letters, 30 January 1992

... of the Leavis collective, though never needing its authoritarian pose. Good critics – Leavis and Randall Jarrell, Updike, Furbank, A.S. Byatt, Pritchett himself – are more alike than not. In contrast to high-tech men, they share with the authors and novelists who are their subjects a readiness to enter into the diversity and viscosity of the written ...

Sour Plums

John Lanchester, 26 October 1989

The Letters of John Cheever 
edited by Benjamin Cheever.
Cape, 397 pp., £14.95, September 1989, 0 224 02689 5
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Mary McCarthy 
by Carol Gelderman.
Sidgwick, 430 pp., £12.95, March 1989, 0 283 99797 4
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The company she keeps 
by Mary McCarthy.
Weidenfeld, 246 pp., £4.50, October 1989, 0 297 79649 6
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... encountering something one would not be at all pleased to hear said about oneself. The character Randall Jarrell based on Mary McCarthy, in his novel Pictures from an Institution, is described as having ‘a bark worse than her bite. But what am I saying? Gertrude’s bark was her bite – and many a bite has stayed awake at night, wishing it was ...

In Coleridge’s Bed

Ange Mlinko: Dead Poets Road Trip, 20 April 2017

Deaths of the Poets 
by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.
Cape, 414 pp., £14.99, February 2017, 978 0 224 09754 3
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... These boasts defy the many Greek myths that punish artists for ambition (Marsyas, Arachne etc). Randall Jarrell said a poet is a man who spends a lifetime standing out in thunderstorms waiting to be struck by lightning; that was a metaphor for inspiration, though a literal interpretation also suggests itself. Even Pindar, Horace and Ovid threw down the ...

Golden Boy

Denis Donoghue, 22 December 1983

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage 
edited by John Haffenden.
Routledge, 535 pp., £19.95, September 1983, 0 7100 9350 0
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Auden: A Carnival of Intellect 
by Edward Callan.
Oxford, 299 pp., £12.50, August 1983, 0 19 503168 7
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Drawn from the Life: A Memoir 
by Robert Medley.
Faber, 251 pp., £12.50, November 1983, 0 571 13043 7
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... There were exceptions. Joseph Warren Beach thought Auden’s textual shenanigans were treachery, Randall Jarrell thought Auden’s wit and elegance quite enjoyable up to a point – or rather, up to the point of their becoming needlepoint – but after that a pretty dispiriting spectacle. Reviewing The Shield of Achilles, he said that ‘Auden is using ...

John and Henry

Christopher Reid, 2 December 1982

The Life of John Berryman 
by John Haffenden.
Routledge, 451 pp., £15, September 1982, 0 7100 9216 4
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Poets in their Youth: A Memoir 
by Eileen Simpson.
Faber, 272 pp., £10.95, September 1982, 0 571 11925 5
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... marriage and of the extraordinary circle of friends, including Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell and Saul Bellow, that Berryman gathered at this period. Berryman’s life can be summarised, albeit crudely, as follows: he was born in 1914, the son of John Allyn Smith, who died in 1926, apparently by suicide; his mother then married the ...

Dark and Deep

Helen Vendler, 4 July 1996

Robert Frost: A Biography 
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Constable, 424 pp., £20, May 1996, 0 09 476130 2
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Collected Poems, Prose and Plays 
by Robert Frost, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson.
Library of America, 1036 pp., $35, October 1995, 9781883011062
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... Frost’s ‘greatest poem’? Meyers’s observations are tediously un-new (drawing as they do on Randall Jarrell and Lionel Trilling); but he adds one triumphant new wrinkle: ‘In “Design” the normally black spider and blue heal-all ... are both wickedly white – a play on Elinor’s maiden name.’ Well, well; so Elinor is the witch who assembled ...

It is still mañana

Matthew Bevis: Robert Frost’s Letters, 19 February 2015

The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. 1: 1886-1920 
edited by Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen.
Harvard, 811 pp., £33.95, March 2014, 978 0 674 05760 9
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... and the unassuming aspects of Frost animates – and sometimes enervates – the poems. Randall Jarrell once referred to his ‘cast-iron whimsy’, and noted that ‘we begin to read Frost, always, with the taste of “Birches” in our mouth – a taste a little brassy, a little sugary.’ The taste might have something to do with the ...

My Heart on a Stick

Michael Robbins: The Poems of Frederick Seidel, 6 August 2009

Poems 1959-2009 
by Frederick Seidel.
Farrar, Straus, 509 pp., $40, March 2009, 978 0 374 12655 1
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... published by Random House, is laboriously indebted to Lowell, though the poems often resemble what Randall Jarrell described as the ‘academic and clumsy’ lines of ‘The Mills of the Kavanaughs’ rather than the febrile inventiveness of Life Studies or History. The best of the work is competent and even beautiful, but in light of the corpse paint to ...


James Wood: The ‘TLS’, 27 June 2002

Critical Times: The History of the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ 
by Derwent May.
HarperCollins, 606 pp., £25, November 2001, 0 00 711449 4
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... any work of literature; it can only hinder or chivvy the institutional success of a work of art. Randall Jarrell used to say that the critic’s duty was to be ‘right’; he liked rhetorically to wonder how many of us would have recognised Moby-Dick’s greatness in 1851. But there is no evidence that the weather of reviewing affects the climate of ...

Places Never Explained

Colm Tóibín: Anthony Hecht, 8 August 2013

The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht 
edited by Jonathan Post.
Johns Hopkins, 365 pp., £18, November 2012, 978 1 4214 0730 2
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... sat waiting sentence in the bull pen beside a Negro boy with curlicues of marijuana in his hair. Randall Jarrell’s five-line poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ must be one of the best-known American poems about the war: From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from ...

Old Gravy

Mark Ford, 7 September 1995

Robert Graves: Life on the Edge 
by Miranda Seymour.
Doubleday, 524 pp., £20, July 1995, 0 385 40423 9
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Robert Graves and the White Goddess 
by Richard Perceval Graves.
Weidenfeld, 618 pp., £25, July 1995, 0 297 81534 2
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Robert Graves: His Life and Work 
by Martin Seymour-Smith.
Bloomsbury, 600 pp., £25, June 1995, 0 7475 2205 7
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Robert Graves: Collected Writings on Poetry 
edited by Paul O’Prey.
Carcanet, 560 pp., £35, June 1995, 1 85754 172 3
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Robert Graves: The Centenary Selected Poems 
edited by Patrick Quinn.
Carcanet, 160 pp., £15.95, April 1995, 9781857541267
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... double role, while Graves felt that no homosexual man could hope to be authentically inspired. As Randall Jarrell first pointed out in an excellent essay of 1955 (collected in The Third Book of Criticism), the psychic configurations mapped by Graves’s dotty belief-system are not particularly unusual, indeed can be shown to make perfectly clear ...

Perfect Companions

C.K. Stead, 8 June 1995

Christina Stead: A Biography 
by Hazel Rowley.
Secker, 646 pp., £12.99, January 1995, 0 436 20298 0
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... by becoming old age pensioners. The upturn in Stead’s literary fortunes began in America when Randall Jarrell discovered The Man Who Loved Children. It was reissued in 1965, 25 years after its first appearance, with his introduction describing it as a book like Moby Dick – a masterpiece which at the time of publication ‘nobody praised and nobody ...

All the girls said so

August Kleinzahler: John Berryman, 2 July 2015

The Dream Songs 
by John Berryman.
Farrar, Straus, 427 pp., £11.99, October 2014, 978 0 374 53455 4
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77 Dream Songs 
by John Berryman.
Farrar, Straus, 84 pp., £10, October 2014, 978 0 374 53452 3
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Berryman’s Sonnets 
by John Berryman.
Farrar, Straus, 127 pp., £10, October 2014, 978 0 374 53454 7
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The Heart Is Strange 
by John Berryman.
Farrar, Straus, 179 pp., £17.50, October 2014, 978 0 374 22108 9
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Poets in their Youth 
by Eileen Simpson.
Farrar, Straus, 274 pp., £11.50, October 2014, 978 0 374 23559 8
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... seemed, was ceded pride of place, the ‘most important American poet now at work’. Lowell and Randall Jarrell, roommates at Kenyon College in the 1930s, and to a lesser extent Berryman too, were big on rating and ranking: the top three poets, the top three oyster houses or second-basemen, the three best Ibsen plays – they seemed especially to like ...
... times in the last thirty years, the era of the ‘post-modern’, most famously in a 1955 essay by Randall Jarrell called ‘The Age of Criticism’. Jarrell noticed that the typical literary quarterly in the Fifties had ‘two and a half pages of poems, 11 of a story and 134 of criticism’. He also traced the three ...

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