Knives, Wounds, Bows

John Bayley

  • Randall Jarrell’s Letters edited by Mary Jarrell
    Faber, 540 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 571 13829 2
  • The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore edited by Patricia Willis
    Faber, 723 pp, £30.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 571 14788 7

It was once observed by J.B. Priestley that the literary life in England was ‘a rat-race without even a sight of the other rats’. English authors on the whole prefer to work on their own and find their friends outside the confraternity – indeed, because of this preference, there is hardly such a thing as a confraternity. ‘Very bad – very good too,’ as Conrad’s Stein would say. With us, both the best and the worst writing seems unconscious that anything else is being written. Writing in America, on the other hand, is a joint pioneering venture, undertaken in a spirit, if not exactly of co-operation with other authors, then of mutual comment and criticism, malice or kindliness equally supportive. In the vast contingency of the American scene, writers must cling together.

This truth is brought home in the prolonged minutiae of Marianne Moore’s criticism, and in the small talk of Randall Jarrell’s correspondence. Both have great collective charm, giving the effect of looking through the glass into a well-matured aquarium. ‘American literary culture’ seems far-off, sweetly homogeneous, infinitely attractive, whether mirrored in the Dial, edited by Marianne Moore from 1921 to 1929, or in what now seems that cosy world of forty years ago, presided over by the Nation and Partisan Review. In 1946, Jarrell served a year as Literary Editor for the Nation, doing so well at matching books and reviewers that John Crowe Ransom said he deserved a Pulitzer Prize for it. ‘Not since Poe had an American poet laid down the law in quite such a carnival spirit.’ In those days of talented amateurs the Eng Lit business was still the Gay Science. Used by Nietzsche, and as a title for his book on criticism by the Victorian reviewer E.S. Dallas, that phrase goes back to the troubadours, beloved of Ezra Pound: and there is a troubadour spirit in both these American poets, the collective spirit that Pound did so much to foster. More and more, he appears as the presiding genius not only of ‘Modernism’ but of modern American literary culture.

In the aquarium with Jarrell, to be more precise at the Bloomington, Indiana School of Letters, one of his several groves of academe over the years, were Jacques Barzun, R.P. Blackmur, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz, Allen Tate, Kenneth Burke, Robert Fitzgerald, Leslie Fiedler and John Crowe Ransom – this last its founder as a school of literary criticism ‘to teach those who teach it’. Marianne Moore, in Brooklyn, had a quieter time, but was just as much in touch with them all through friends and books. All the critics were poets and all the poets critics. There were giants in those days, and their daily voices are audible in these reviews and letters in a way that they are not in their other writings, as these survive time. Time here is very local, very much in the past, and that is its fascination.

Marianne Moore’s best poems are beyond its grasp, but about Jarrell’s one cannot be so sure. Of this query he was himself acutely aware, and it may have contributed to his mysterious death – accident or suicide – struck by a car when walking on a main road. The tone and import of his letters are as bland as apple pie, and their reader has no sense of the tensions and traumas that led him to mental hospital. It may partly be the reticence expected of a Southern gentleman, a quality to be admired, which makes a change of wives seem as smooth and effortless as the gears on the sports cars Jarrell so much fancied. Mary Jarrell has done a loyal and meticulous job, her comments on friends and situations are humorously vivid: but she also leaves the surface of the literary life quite undisturbed. There is no trace here of the competitive insight which produced the memorable portrait of Gertrude in Pictures from an Institution, that coruscating but already time-haunted novel which allegedly put Mary McCarthy on the spot. Jarrell himself discounted this, claiming hardly to know her: but Philip Rahv at Partisan, who knew her much better, politely declined to print any of the novel, and Jarrell replied by sending him no further articles or poems. Gertrude is certainly his idea of the archetype of the American woman writer, and in this, as with other matters, his vision may now appear out of date.

There may indeed be a certain ominous correlation between the bland friendliness of these letters and something easy – too easy – in the texture of his poems. It has been said that of the big three – himself, Berryman and Lowell – Jarrell is the likeliest to survive as a poet, but this strikes me as an improbable verdict, if only because the other two are so much more all of a piece with their poetry. Jarrell, like his master John Crowe Ransom, seems to stand outside his. Ransom has so much style that in his case this does not matter, but in Jarrell’s it does. His poetry has the unpersonal friendliness of his letters – he was an excellent instructor who loved to teach – as if it were there to illustrate the academic and cultural process, rather as Gertrude in Pictures from an Institution illustrates the willpower of the American cultured female. Himself a dedicated and totally competitive intellectual who was also an expert ball game player, Jarrell seems to have suffered from the lack of a private identity, including a sexual one. In spite of what Robert Lowell called his ‘upsettingly brilliant air of knowing everything’, he also ‘gave off an angelic impression’. ‘His mind, unearthly in its quickness, was a little boyish, disembodied and brittle. His body was a little ghostly in its immunity to soil, entanglements and rebellion.’ At one time Jarrell and Lowell shared an attic together in the Crowe Ransoms’ house, and Jarrell’s detailed comments on his friend’s early poems are the best things among his letters. They are founded on the New Criticism, on Empson and on Jarrell’s own highly Empsonian master’s thesis on Implication in A.E. Housman, but they display, too, a remarkable impersonal insight. Not every critic in 1945 would have said of Lowell that ‘you write more in the great tradition, the grand style, the real middle of English poetry, than anybody since Yeats.’ At the same time Jarrell was telling all his friends that Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children was ‘one of the best novels I have ever read’. There is something endearing about that.

The impression of a disembodied intelligence remains, as strong in the letters as it must have been in life. Observing that he had ‘the most glittering IQ you ever met’, William Barrett at Partisan Review said of Jarrell that ‘one would be unlikely to take him for a poet at all, so intensely cerebral did he appear to be.’ In New York Jarrell’s nervous defensiveness intensified this impression – ‘uneasy with New York intellectuals, he felt perpetually challenged, whereas he in his nervousness was the challenging one.’ In a letter to Lowell at the time of the Korean War Jarrell included a poem ‘I just wrote’ called ‘A War’:

There set out, slowly, for a Different World,
At four, on winter mornings, different legs ...
You can’t break eggs without making an omelette
That’s what they tell the eggs.

Like the still more famous ‘Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’, this makes us admire its wit rather than moving us; and even the wit has to be set up too methodically – the first two lines and the rhyme are there only to explode the joke. No one could accuse Jarrell of being an unfeeling intellectual, but the poetic wit is just the same as the poetic sentiment in ‘Girl in a Library’ and other poems: both are competing, as it were, in different matches in the tournament, and all set to win in both. There is no doubt that the wonderfully monstrous Gertrude in Pictures from an Institution, is really a kind of self-portrait, like Flaubert’s of Madame Bovary, based on Jarrell’s knowledge of his own will. At the same time there is something extremely likeable about him, and his need to give and receive affection, and this comes through in all the letters.

Marianne Moore is certainly all of a piece – poetry, personality, prose. At Bryn Mawr she was on the board of the college magazine, which had the engaging but mysterious name of Tipyn o’Bob, and contributed to it not only poems but short stories of delightful quaintness (‘“Heigh-ho,” cried the restive Prince, “where can she be? and why this infidel delay when she cares not a jack about me” ’). A totally conscientious editor, Patricia Willis lets no sparrow fall to the ground. One is impressed by the sheer volume of the reviews, done over a very long period, as editor of the Dial, and after that for every sort of periodical up to 1968. Marianne Moore needed the money, particularly after the Dial folded in the slump of 1929.

Like an endless quilt of intricate stitchwork, the notices find something worth praising in every poet, a line to savour, a colour to admire. In some ways this gentle technique lasts better than the intellectual rigour of a critic who has a definite line on what is good and what is bad. Randall Jarrell flays Conrad Aiken and dismisses Archibald MacLeish, but time would have done the work more civilly and more effectively, and – personified by Marianne Moore – would have meticulously saved the little bits and pieces that are worth saving. How refreshing in ‘ “New” Poetry since 1912’, a Dial editorial of 1926, to find examples of Adelaide Crapsey’s ‘apartness and delicately differentiated footfalls, her pallor and colour’ laid side by side with Wallace Stevens’s ‘sensory and technical virtuosity ... the almost imperceptibly modern, silver-chiming resonance of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” ’. These aspects of the ‘new’ poetry ‘do much to ameliorate popular displeasure’. Certainly under Marianne Moore’s considering eye all the starkness of the new disappears into her own vision of ‘all this fiddle’, as graceful in her reading of Stevens or Cummings or Harold Monro, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell (‘if not purely modern, properly within the new movement’) as in her considered praise of the millionaire poet Scofield Thayer: ‘a new Victorian – reflective, bi-visioned, and rather wilfully unconventional’. Her curious alchemy is to make everything she quotes, and she has a beautiful eye for quotations, seem a version of her own poetry, not taking over but revealing essential kinship. One of her best pieces, called ‘Memory’s Immortal Gear’, is on Hardy’s 1926 collection, Human Shows, Far Fantasies, Songs and Trifles. Her eye is unerring for the Hardyan effect (Jarrell and his friends also adored Hardy’s poems) which joins with her own placing of words as things and people:

As I enter chilly Paul’s,
With its chasmal classic walls.
– Drifts of gray illumination
From the lofty fenestration ...

How enchantingly exact she makes us realise that is! And then her eye lights on ‘the woman who emerges in muslin from a mansion’s front’:

You stand so stock-still that your earring shakes
At each pulsation which the vein there makes.

Almost the next piece – ‘i compose curves’ – joins what she calls Hardy’s ‘chasmal’ effects to herself again, and to E.E. Cummings.

Cats which move smoothly from neck to neck of bottles, cats
smoothly willowing out and in between bottles.

None of these is ‘a repeater of things secondhand’, not even Scofield Thayer with his ‘gracile crescent/Which calls itself a fern’. He was, incidentally, the proprietor of the Dial, which he was compelled to give up in 1929, also a patron of Cummings and of Marianne Moore herself. She acknowledges the debt as adroitly as any Renaissance poet could have done.

One is struck now by the boundless optimism of these pieces, muted and delicate as they are. Praising William Carlos Williams especially as ‘not a repeater of things secondhand’, she quotes Pound’s verdict that there could be an ‘age of awakening in America’ which would ‘overshadow the quattrocento’, since ‘our opportunity is greater than Leonardo’s’ and ‘we have more aliment.’ And so the piece on Williams is entitled ‘A Poet of the Quattrocento’. The Southerners who discovered and moulded Randall Jarrell were inspired by a hope and prophecy not so different. But with this emphasis on poetic renaissance – modernism’s rediscovery of the ages of scholarship and aristocratic literary distinction – there soon went a much more romantic sense of the price to be paid. To every bow its wound, as Edmund Wilson, who much admired Jarrell, was to insist, and certainly the theory could be said to be borne out in the lives and work of the younger generation, the one which included Jarrell, Berryman and Lowell.

In the life of Marianne Moore bows and wounds would seem equally incongruous, and yet even in the midst of all the delicious fiddle in this collection there falls a shadow – the shadow that takes shape in her poem ‘Marriage’ – and which brought in time the nemesis of becoming the grande dame of American letters, deferentially hired by Ford to suggest names for new models. The great lady glitters into a world wholly composed of things. ‘I have a knife held by two nails flat to the casing of my kitchen china closet. It has a blade about eight inches long, of high-grade steel, joined to an ebony handle by a collar of brass – trade-marked Encore, Thomas Turner, Cutler to his Majesty – bought in Oxford in 1911 for cutting bread and cheese, by my mother and me who had lodgings in Magpie Lane, formerly Grove Street, not far from the Bodleian.’

Almost the major fascination in both books is a sense of the personality developing in darkness behind the words. In Jarrell’s case we feel that the wound continued to fester but the bow fell from his grasp: his sense of possibility abandoned him dramatically, as it had done in the case of Delmore Schwartz and many others. Photos of himself and friends belong to a vanished world of promise, never quite making it to the quattrocento, except for a touching portrait of himself, his first wife Mackie, and the cat Kitten, a huge furry creature who accompanied them everywhere. The picture tells a story, but of what it’s hard to say. Mackie, also an instructor in English, has a beautiful face, clear-cut and dignified: Jarrell looks angelic but a little anxious, a little like the young Raymond Chandler. There is a story by Tommaso Landolfi which, though set in Italy, has a peculiarly American twist to it. Two young men visit a prostitute, and one, who is psychologically impotent, pays her to tell his friend that all went normally. Jarrell wrote that everyone has a vulture eating his liver, but that every vulture has its own vulture too. He would have smiled at Landolfi’s story, and would have continued to commend Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children to all his friends.