Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy 
by Randall Jarrell.
Chicago, 277 pp., £10.50, April 2010, 978 0 226 39375 9
Show More
Show More

Born in 1914, Randall Jarrell belonged to the first generation of American poets who found a ready home in the country’s burgeoning university system. Of the great modernists of the previous era, only Robert Frost assumed the role of pedagogue to undergraduates, taking his first job at Amherst College in 1917. Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane all lived by other means; though it’s worth pointing out that the poetry and criticism of Eliot in particular, and to a lesser extent of Pound, played a significant role in shaping the curriculum and methodologies these expanding departments adopted. Certainly those who fell under the sway of the New Critics, taking so many of their cues from Eliot, liked to present literary history as culminating in The Waste Land, a poem that required their expert professional guidance to be understood.

Jarrell once planned a study of Eliot that would have cut decisively across the grain of New Critical source-hunting and explorations of Eliot’s use of Grail mythology or Wagner or the Fisher King of the kind one finds in Cleanth Brooks’s 1939 study of TheWaste Land. ‘T.S. Eliot and Obsessional Neurosis’, Jarrell planned to call it, and one can surmise the argument he intended to make from the paragraph he devotes to Eliot in a lecture of 1962 called ‘Fifty Years of American Poetry’. ‘Won’t the future,’ Jarrell exclaims,

say to us in helpless astonishment: ‘But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytical point of view he was far and away the most interesting poet of your century. But for you, of course, after the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below the deluge of exegesis, explication, source listing, scholarship and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived, its eyes neither coral nor mother-of-pearl but plainly human, full of human anguish!’

Once you start quoting from Jarrell’s essays, it’s hard to stop. Such a passage exemplifies many of his virtues as a critic: his urgency, his unstuffiness, his mixing of the colloquial and the rhapsodic, his daring (‘human anguish!’), his scorn for orthodoxy and jargon, his indifference to cliques and party lines, his unwavering trust in his own intuition. Jarrell spent nearly all his adult life in academic departments whose raison d’être was the professionalisation of responses to literature, and yet he managed to retain the power to read, and to talk about his reading, with the excitement of a child.

‘Child Randall’, Lowell addresses him, inevitably, in the second of his sonnets for Jarrell, the one that restages his friend’s peculiar death (Jarrell was sideswiped by a car in the course of an evening walk):

black-gloved, black-coated, you plod out stubbornly
as if in lockstep to grasp your blank not-I
at the foot of the tunnel … as if asleep, Child Randall,
greeting the car, and approving – your harsh luminosity.

It was never decisively established whether or not he intended to commit suicide, but the coroner decided it was an accident. While the premature deaths of, say, John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath seemed somehow implicit in the trajectory of their careers, there was nothing remotely maudit about Jarrell, until the last couple of years of his life, when the approach of his 50th birthday induced a bout of what he called, after Freud, Torschlusspanik – door-closing panic, as it were. This led to the prescription of a drug that converted his depression into manic fits of elation and erratic behaviour – on one occasion he tried to tip a waitress $1500 – as well as hospitalisation, the slashing of a wrist and his lonely, ambiguous death at the edge of a road near Chapel Hill in North Carolina, at the age of 51.

Children abound in Jarrell’s poetry. ‘90 North’, one of his earliest successful poems, opens with a child imagining a heroic voyage to the North Pole, then cuts to the adult, actually at the North Pole, disappointed, as romantics must always be, by the gap between fantasy and reality. The flag he has planted ‘snaps in the glare and silence’, and all the explorer who has at last fulfilled his dream can think is: ‘And now what? Why, go back.’ Another poem from the same period, ‘Children Selecting Books in a Library’, celebrates the pact made by all book-lovers, who live ‘By trading another’s sorrow for our own; another’s/Impossibilities, still unbelieved in, for our own.’ The child reader is figured in a state of ‘blind grace’, a phrase that seems to me to capture perfectly the effect of Jarrell’s criticism at its most potent, as in his passage on Eliot, for instance, or in his extended dissection of Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial’. This gripping 25-page essay manages, through pure instinct, to irradiate every aspect of the poem’s workings, and to make the reader experience to the full each carefully nuanced horror of the psychological torment Frost’s warring couple inflict on each other. It’s Jarrell’s most impressive feat of sustained close reading, and if asked to mount a defence of criticism, it would, I think, be among the first of the pieces I’d summon to the witness stand. Jarrell’s criticism has never, of course, lacked advocates or admirers. As well as inspiring an interest in poetry in a wide and general readership, it played a major role in establishing or consolidating the reputations of many of the 20th-century poets whose work has survived best. Jarrell, to put it simply, had great taste in poetry, and an infectious enthusiasm when he wrote about it.

His own poetry, however, has fared less well. His habit of making sick children or unstable, often marginalised women the subjects or narrators of his poems has led to numerous charges of sentimentality, and it seems that his first – or possibly only – suicide attempt was in part prompted by a vicious review in the New York Times of his final and most child-saturated collection, The Lost World (1965). It accused him of ‘doddering infantilism’, ‘of familiar, clanging vulgarity, corny clichés, cutenesses’, and poured scorn on ‘the intolerable self-indulgence of his tear-jerking, bourgeois sentimentality’. On the other hand, in recent years Jarrell’s concern for the helpless or voiceless or overlooked has elicited from critics such as Stephen Burt and Langdon Hammer and James Longenbach favourable comparisons with the predatory, will-to-power poetics of Lowell, or the rampant self-aggrandising confessionalism of Berryman and Plath.

Assessments of Jarrell as a poet inevitably play him off against his mid-century peers, either lamenting or lauding the absence of the combination of ruthlessness and brinkmanship that led to the ‘breakthroughs’ made in volumes such as Life Studies or Ariel or 77 Dream Songs. Certainly, he lacked Lowell’s or Plath’s gift for the deadly single phrase, though he liked to try to end his poems with some grand-sounding abstract truth: ‘but, alas, eternity!’ or ‘I, I, the future that mends everything’. And yet, as Michael Hofmann has argued, Jarrell the poet is really at his most original when he is at his most wayward and leisurely, in prolix, rambling pieces like ‘The End of the Rainbow’, which presents the life of an ageing New England-born landscape painter called Content. Content has settled in California, where she runs a shop and lives with a succession of dogs, all called Su-Su. The poem consists mainly of her indecisive reflections on not having done all that much with her life. Gazing into her mirror, through tears, she says:

‘Look at my life. Should I go on with it?
It seems to you I have … a real gift?
I shouldn’t like to keep on if I only …
It seems to you my life is a success?’

Death answers, Yes. Well, yes.

Certainly we’re a long way from Lady Lazarus and the art of dying exceptionally well.

Frost’s studies of lonely women in poems like ‘The Hill Wife’ or ‘A Servant to Servants’ are undoubtedly the poetic progenitors of Jarrell’s gallery of unhappy women, whose plight might be summed up by the sigh that concludes the monologue of the middle-aged housewife in ‘Next Day’: ‘I stand beside my grave/Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.’ However one responds to the sufferings of Plath or Lowell or Berryman or Sexton, one is unlikely to call them ‘commonplace’ – unless one really really wants to insult them. They, as much as the Beats, thought of themselves as special and different, while Jarrell, though in many ways as singular as any of the pure products of America who went so dramatically crazy, filled his poetry with low-key, average, muted misery, or, on occasion, low-key, average, muted joy: one of his last poems, ‘A Man Meets a Woman in the Street’, gives us a man pursuing a woman as she walks towards Central Park, catching up with her, then touching her: ‘Because, after all, it is my wife/In a new dress from Bergdorf’s …’ It’s a good job Joseph Bennett, the New York Times critic who savaged The Lost World, wasn’t able to get his teeth into this poem, which was published posthumously.

Jarrell’s fascination with the helpless probably had its origins not only in Frost’s poems about women, but in his youthful Marxism, and his wide reading in psychoanalytical theory. His characters are disabled either by some kind of primal hang-up, such as fear of sex, which is what warps Content in ‘The End of the Rainbow’, or by institutions that rob them of all agency. The air force personnel of Jarrell’s numerous World War Two poems could hardly be more removed from the joyous self-command with which Yeats and Auden invested the figure of the airman, revelling in the Nietzschean ‘lonely impulse of delight’. Jarrell’s wingmen and pilots and bombers are tiny cogs in a vast machine that is utterly indifferent to their lives. It’s a point that his most famous, five-line long poem, ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’, makes in its startling opening line, ‘From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,’ and dramatically enacts in its gruesome final one: ‘When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.’ Life in the army (Jarrell spent three and a half years training pilots at air force bases in Texas, Illinois and Arizona) perfectly illustrated his vision of the individual’s alienating subservience to the state; the bulk of army life, he observed in a letter from this period, involves ‘passively suffering … not knowing why anything’s happened, helplessly ignorant and determined’. Only sleep and dreams offer his airmen temporary respite from the grinding mechanism of the war.

Jarrell began his only novel, Pictures from an Institution, in 1951, and it was published in 1954 (not 1986 as the jacket copy to this reissue impossibly states). The year after he was demobbed he spent a semester teaching at Sarah Lawrence college in Bronxville, New York; one of his colleagues there was Mary McCarthy, who used the experience to write her own campus novel, The Groves of Academe (1952). As in his analysis of the army, to which he at one point compares the semi-fictional college of Benton, Jarrell sets out to show how an institution is ‘always a man’s shadow shortened in the sun’ (he’s alluding to Emerson), even if that institution fancies itself a progressive liberal arts college. Jarrell’s focus is not, however, on the rank and file, who in this case would be the students – they barely appear in the novel – but on the staff, and the genre switches from sentiment to satire.

Pictures from an Institution not only features a campus with no students, it also has no plot. Its seven linked chapters are really extended portraits of particular faculty members, and their characters were modelled to some degree on real people: the acerbic novelist Gertrude Johnson has long been linked with McCarthy, for instance, and Irene Rosenbaum with Hannah Arendt. The book’s self-effacing narrator is a poet who bears a striking resemblance to Jarrell himself. I say ‘self-effacing’, but only in so far as he takes a backseat in the various scenes the book dramatises; his descriptions of the people around him crackle with a wit not dissimilar from that on display in Jarrell’s reviews and letters. The book is really an extended sequence of bons mots, some quite funny, some less so. We meet the novel’s characters pretty much entirely through the prism of the narrator’s witticisms: ‘Jerrold was almost courtly, like a wooden leg of the old school; Fern smelled, surely, of brimstone and sulphur; and John was like a saint – a saint of the future, perhaps. He was no more trouble around the house than a Field Book of North American Reptiles.’ It’s probably best read in short bursts, or dipped into, for Jarrell’s determination to sparkle at every turn can become a little wearing. Although he published two children’s books in the 1960s illustrated by Maurice Sendak, he never attempted another novel.

Dwight Robbins, the president of Benton, is described as being ‘so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.’ Like his creator, Robbins is a wunderkind, president of Benton by the age of 34, and he would have reached this pinnacle by the age of 29 had he not spent his early years pursuing a successful career in diving. Jarrell’s animosity towards him perhaps reflects his own anxiety at being well suited to the academic institutions that nurtured him, and in which he shone. He was spotted as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt by John Crowe Ransom, and he followed his mentor to Kenyon for graduate study; there he roomed with Lowell in the attic of Ransom’s house, and submitted his thesis on the poetry of A.E. Housman in 1939. That same year he was offered, and accepted, a job at the University of Texas at Austin. By all accounts a superb and charismatic teacher, he once declared he loved teaching so much he’d pay to do it. Most of his academic life was spent at the Woman’s College of North Carolina in Greensboro, though he also had a not particularly happy year at Princeton (1951-52), where he lectured on Auden, remorselessly itemising the wrong turns that, in Jarrell’s opinion, had led to his once great hero’s catastrophic fall from poetic grace. (‘Jarrell is in love with me,’ was Auden’s witty riposte.) Imaginatively and spiritually Jarrell decried institutions, but until his sad and difficult last two years, he operated skilfully and successfully within them, and they in turn treated his talents with respect. No one seems to have complained about his maverick, anti-academic brand of criticism, or demanded he finish his book on T.S. Eliot for an upcoming tenure review.

‘If only, somehow, I had learned to live!’ laments the narrator of the late poem ‘The Player Piano’, one of Jarrell’s finest. Many of his poetry’s characters feel they have missed out on life, or are trying to come to terms with their sense of being superannuated. They long to be transformed – ‘You know what I was,/You see what I am: change me, change me!’ as the woman at the Washington Zoo bursts out. A related fear about the growing inauthenticity and intellectual decline of American culture stalks the essays Jarrell wrote late in his career, pieces such as ‘The Taste of the Age’, or ‘A Sad Heart at the Supermarket’, in which he complains, a little naively, that the trouble with capitalism is that it’s all about making people buy things. The same point is made in ‘Next Day’, which opens in a supermarket. The narrator is trying to choose between detergents:

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.

Postwar plenty and the expansion of consumer choice – that wild rice, those Cornish game hens – prove, alas, no compensation for the indignities of ageing. The boy who carries the housewife’s groceries to the car fails to notice her as appreciatively as she’d like, and this triggers her descent into the ‘commonplace’ despair, the quotidian Torschlusspanik so many of Jarrell’s poems seek to dramatise:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of grey discovery
Repeats to me: ‘You’re old.’ That’s all, I’m old.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences