Terrible to be alive

Julian Symons

  • Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life by William Pritchard
    Farrar, Straus, 335 pp, $25.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 374 24677 7
  • Randall Jarrell: Selected Poems edited by William Pritchard
    Farrar, Straus, 115 pp, $17.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 374 25867 8

To look again at The Shores of Light, Edmund Wilson’s collection of his reviews in the Twenties and Thirties, is to marvel at his ability to discern, analyse and assess the American talents of the period as soon as they poked nose above ground. Hemingway was spotted with the first publication of In our time in 1924 (the edition 170 copies) as a writer of distinctive prose which had ‘more artistic integrity’ than anything else written about World War One by an American. Wilson’s piece about The Waste Land, written on its appearance, remains one of the most perceptive articles about the poem, and in it he remarks that the earlier Prufrock volume can now be seen ‘to stain the whole sea’ of modern verse. His advocacy of Scott Fitzgerald began with, or endured through, the appalling This Side of Paradise to the triumph of Gatsby. Stevens, Cummings, Pound, Crane, Dos Passos: their merits and possibilities of development were noted at an early stage in their careers. For two decades or a little more, Wilson was almost infallibly discerning about recent American writers, about their British counterparts much less so. He observed at one point that Louis MacNeice sometimes sounded like ‘a serious Ogden Nash’.

There has been no British critic so finely tuned to the sound of the modern as Wilson was in his two great decades. Neither Leavis nor Empson was conspicuously successful in discovering young talent: during World War Two Empson was for a time passionately enthusiastic about the mild romantic verse of Sidney Keyes. In America, Wilson seems in later years to have sensed that the youthful Randall Jarrell might emulate his discernment of the Twenties about a new generation of writers. In 1940 he gave Jarrell a run as poetry reviewer in the New Republic, and suggested to the New Yorker that they should publish his poetry: ‘His writing interests me more, I think, than that of the other younger people.’ Wilson’s sensibility did not fail him. Jarrell became critic, adviser and friend of the best poets in his own generation, Lowell and Berryman among them. ‘He was Randall Jarrell/ and wrote a-many books – he wrote well,’ run a couple of pretty bad lines in a Berryman ‘Dream Song’. Lowell also paid tribute to his friend’s passionately disinterested critical concern for the work of those he admired. Jarrell would not, though, have wished to be remembered simply as a critic. Poems, a work of fiction and critical books have been published in England, published and praised. The collected poems appeared in 1971. Yet Lowell and Berryman are famous names here, Jarrell’s not one to set beside them. Even in his own country, his biographer William Pritchard says, his reputation ‘is not nearly so firm and pre-eminent as I think it deserves to be’. This biography and a selection from the poems (a severe weeding, no more than a fifth surviving) are meant to put that right.

Pritchard’s book is both more and a little less than a biography. The facts of the life are here, but they are interlaced with commentary on the work and particularly on the poems, the one designed to illuminate the other. The approach is similar to that in his book on Frost a few years back, and on the whole works very well, although there are times when the biographer’s reluctance to speculate about the psychological basis of Jarrell’s split personality left this reader feeling short-changed. Pritchard’s reaction would probably be that the important, hence the truly interesting, thing about Jarrell is the poems and the way they work. It is Jarrell’s ideas and ideals, and how near he got to fulfilling them in poetry, that principally concern him.

That there was a crack in the personality from the beginning there seems to me no doubt. The crack widened to a split and led to some manic activities, a voluntary period in hospital, a half-hearted attempt at suicide, and then the death by accident or design when on an evening walk he was ‘sideswiped’ and killed by a car. To put it simply, the criticism and the fiction Pictures from an Institution seem to have been written by a different person from the one who wrote the poems. The prose writer is an aggressive, wonderfully witty intellectual, the poet a vulnerable character agonised by much he sees around him in the present and dreaming of a past when everything was better, especially of a lost childhood.

Jarrell’s extraordinary talent was apparent in youth. He was the child of Southerners who divorced during his childhood, which was divided between Tennessee and California, mother and grandparents. (Pritchard very effectively relates the return of letters written by him to his mother in this period with the writing of the last poems.) From the time he went at the age of 18 to Vanderbilt and attracted the attention of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren it was glory all the way until he enlisted in the services a decade later. When in 1934 Allen Tate put together a poetry supplement for a magazine, it included several poets with firm reputations, but was headed by five poems from a twenty-year-old undergraduate named Jarrell. A published volume received respectful reviews, but it was as a critic whose wit was informed by devastating common sense that Jarrell made his mark. Or perhaps it was the wit that devastated. Of William Carlos Williams he said that ‘even his good critical remarks sound as if they had been made by Henry Ford’; of Edith Sitwell’s then fashionable poems that they ‘sound as if Madame Blavatsky had written them for a Society of Latterday Druids’. In a sonnet series by Conrad Aiken ‘any similarity between the poems and reality is purely coincidental: they are produced by the extravagantly emotional, rhetorical and sentimental manipulation of the beautiful objects of an imaginary universe.’ E.E. Cummings is said to be ‘a fine poet in the sense in which Swinburne is one: but in the sense in which we call Hardy and Yeats and Proust and Chekhov poets, great poets, he is hardly a poet at all.’

Does this sound like a smart young man having fun at the expense of his seniors? (There is a great deal more of it in these early reviews, and in some later ones.) It is true that Jarrell was adept at one or two-line put-downs. Yet as the comments on Aiken and Cummings suggest, these are not mere hatchet-jobs but examples of a critic coming to grips with the considerable, lesser and nonexistent creative talents of his time. Throughout his life Jarrell continued to grapple with what seemed to him the greatest of them, Auden and Frost. In the end, he concluded despairingly that judgment of the various Audens was impossible and one had to sit back and enjoy them, although he did a bit of judging when asking rhetorically whether Auden ever again wrote as well as at the beginning, in Poems and Paid on Both Sides.

Frost, like Auden, was always revealing new aspects to him, not all of them congenial. Auden, regarding some sharp phrases about The Age of Anxiety and other middle-period poems as vindictive attacks, deduced that their writer must be in love with him. Jarrell’s interpretive genius as a critic, however, was shown in full flower as early as his student thesis on ‘texts from Housman’. In the exposition and explication of two short poems (‘Crossing alone the nighted ferry’ and ‘It nods and curtseys and recovers’) he reveals and analyses Housman’s often disregarded rhythmic and textual wit better than anybody else has ever done, and truly makes us read the poems more intelligently, with greater appreciation of their almost invariable verbal felicity.

To his poetic coevals Jarrell was the voice of sanity, somebody able to bring their fancies down to earth because his own were so firmly placed on the ground. He was a corrective to excesses in other ways, drinking little, uneasy at parties, disliking sexual jokes and gossip, saying, ‘Me for Queen Victoria, as far as Public Life is concerned’: yet by no means a solemn fellow, keen on sport and having an enduring love-affair with fast cars. (He wrote a piece on them later for Mademoiselle called ‘Go, Man, Go!’) Lowell regarded his opinions as a touchstone, and remained unoffended by Jarrell’s view that in the long poem ‘The Mills of the Kavanaughs’ the characters ‘too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act’, and that ‘the heroine is first of all a sort of symbiotic state of the poet’. Others were less tolerant. The short story writer Peter Taylor, also Jarrell’s close friend, remembered him at Vanderbilt as treating almost everybody badly, from arrogance rather than conceit. Another student recalled that he was preternaturally bright, and ‘knew everything’. Those who know too much are rarely loved, but Jarrell appeared not to care, seeming confident in the arrogance of his knowledge and his power to express it wittily.

For the English poet, a job after leaving university in journalism, radio, a publishing house or television is a usual way of making ends meet. For an American, it is academia. With the war over, Jarrell envisaged a future that included a couple of years in New York on a Guggenheim, critical books on Auden and Hart Crane, and, it seems, a life in liberal journalism. He got his Guggenheim, was for a year literary editor of the Nation but disliked New York, and eventually settled for the University of South Carolina, where, Pritchard tells us, ‘he taught happily for the rest of his life’. This retirement to South Carolina with his second wife (there had also been a European love-affair when he taught briefly at Salzburg) was presumably what he wanted, yet it seems also an acceptance of his limitations. The books on Auden and Crane were never written, and during the Fifties he published little poetry. Instead, in 1954, there appeared the remarkable Pictures from an Institution.

The book is based on his experiences at the ‘advanced’ or ‘experimental’ Sarah Lawrence College outside New York, where he gave a writing course while at the Nation, although ‘observations’ would be a better word than ‘experiences’ since he spent little time at the college. The people at his fictional Benton are more or less recognisably some he met at Sarah Lawrence, yet as Pritchard says, the book is not an ‘academic novel’ like Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe. He finds it to be full of ‘brilliant one-liners’ about which he is less than enthusiastic, remarking that it is a book easily put down. Certainly Pictures is a firework display of wit rather than a novel, but the very general idea that it is full of one-liners is mistaken. They exist, but only as crackers in the firework display. A typical passage, like this one about President Robbins, absorbs them, they become part of the general effect:

  It Gertrude had asked Dwight Robbins what two times three is, he would have hesitated a fraction of a second and then spontaneously replied – or rather, would have replied with charming spontaneity, with a kind of willing and unconsidered generosity, of disinterested absorption in her problem –

  What did it matter what he would have said: you could always find it worked out in percentages in the monthly poll of public opinion Fortune, back under the heading Opinions of Liberal Presidents of Liberal Arts Colleges. He loved to say to you, putting himself into your hands: ‘I know I’m sticking my neck out, but ...’ How ridiculous! President Robbins had no neck.

  From The Wealth of Nations one learns that the interest of each is, in the end, the good of all; if one observed President Robbins one saw that the good of all is, in the beginning, the interest of each. We have read in the Gospels that the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light; but both, when they choose between God and the world, are stupider than those who know that we do not need to choose. President Robbins had no complaints about this Paradise, the world. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Tree of Life, he knew; and President Robbins lay sleeping in its branches, his parted lips smelling pleasantly of apples.

The whole book, or almost the whole book, is maintained on a level that puts it among the wittiest fiction of the century. If one looks for a comparison it would be Wilde or Disraeli rather than any recent writer. Jarrell’s wit, like theirs, often has little relevance to the context of the play or fiction in which it appears but is to be enjoyed, as it was written, for its own sake. Perhaps it is right to say, as Pritchard does, that in the book ‘nothing happens except stylistically’ and that the heart of it is ‘Jarrell’s continuous presence, in his sentences, as a performing self’: but whoever enjoyed Wilde, or read Disraeli, for the plot rather than the wit? If you approach the book with hostility it can be said to show Jarrell’s shortcomings as a human being, but it seems mean to think about short-comings when the end-result is a work whose qualities are unique.

Pictures is the peak of Jarrell’s achievement as a prose writer: it is, as it were, the consummation of his finest criticism. What about the poems, written by the other Jarrell who, in his biographer’s words, ‘knew that life was unendurable and that poetry, in telling the truth about this fact, was only a palliative’? British resistance to him as a poet has been based chiefly on a sense that he is often intent on treating important themes in extravagant language, in what seems a particularly American way. Jarrell admired Larkin, but his own practice frequently seems to be exclaiming, ‘Look at me revealing my sensibility in exciting words and image, see how I’m feeling all this,’ in a way altogether the opposite of Larkin’s self-deprecation. Here is a verse, typical of many, from ‘The Subway from New Britain to the Bronx’:

Under the orchid flowering from the hot
Dreams of the car-cards, from the black desires
Coiled like converters in the bowels of trade
To break like sunlight in one blinding flame
Of Reason, under the shaking creepers of the isles.

Perhaps this clotted rhetoric a long way after Hart Crane is no worse than the windy rhetoric of George Barker, but it is more alien to British readers, and reminds us of Jarrell’s remark that most poets, even good ones, write badly most of the time. But this selection from the poems is exemplary, presenting the case for Jarrell as a poet at his best the equal of anybody writing in his generation. It begins with ‘90 North’, the poem that first attracted Wilson’s attention, and concentrates on the war poems (including the famous ‘Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’) and the poems from the last volume The Lost World, a book that got a surprising caning from several critics.

The war poems, given this context, show up as very fine, simple, direct and vigorous, perhaps all the better because of their impersonality. Jarrell spent more than three years in uniform but never left the United States, so that his poems about airmen, bombing, concentration camp inmates, men in a field hospital, are wholly imaginative. They take their power in part from the fact that their creator is no more than a nominal presence in poems like ‘A Camp in the Prussian Forest’, where

Men were drunk like water, burnt like wood,
The fat of good
And evil, the breast’s star of hope
Was rendered into soap.

I paint the star I sawed from yellow pine –
And plant the sign
In soil that does not yet refuse
Its usual Jews.

The strictness, orderliness, shapeliness of other poems like ‘The Breath of Night’ and ‘A Country Life’ are part of what makes them effective. The self-questioning and on the whole pessimistic personality they reveal (the last line of ‘The Face’ is ‘It is terrible to be alive’) will seem to many more sympathetic than that of the self-confident prose writer.

The other aspect of Jarrell emphasised in this selection is his playfulness, love of children’s make-believe and yearning for a lost childhood. Sometimes these feelings are embodied in fairy-tales, at others they are visions of the poet’s imagined childhood. Almost always the note is melancholy. ‘Cinderella’ is found, years on, as a discontented wife and mother gossiping with the fairy godmother by the fire. A sequence called ‘The Lost World’ gives a passing nod to Conan Doyle’s dinosaurs and pterodactyls before settling to memories of ‘the helmet and the breastplate Pop/ Cut out and soldered for me’ and into many other recollections, imaginings, things yearned after. ‘90 North’ alternates between a child’s dreams of reaching the North Pole, and an adult reaching a polar point in his life, which he finds meaningless. Dream and actuality are interwoven through the poem’s eight stanzas to a final realisation that

              all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness – that the darkness flung me –
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

It is a moving poem, yet there is a sense that the effects are achieved too easily, don’t spring from a given cause, so that one wants to say: Come on now, what makes the man so miserable, why shouldn’t this be a poem about a man who reaches his symbolic North and says hurrah?’ This is not to deny the charm and elegance with which these visions of childhood, as seen by an adult, are rendered. Whimsicality can never be far off in poems where a child talks to an imaginary lion, and an MGM lion at that, or asks Pop whether a mad scientist could really destroy the world: but the intensity of the feeling and style of the writing end by convincing us that these are works of imagination, not fancy. The last poem in the book, the posthumously-published ‘The Player Piano’, seems to me the most perfectly successful piece on this theme of remembered childhood. Jarrell has been lucky in finding an editor who has done such a fine job of pulling up the weeds, leaving the flowers to charm us.

So this is the best of Jarrell the poet. If we look at it beside the best of Lowell, Berryman or Elizabeth Bishop, though, the sensibility at work seems of a lesser order. About some poems there is an air of contrivance, and the deeply-felt pieces about childhood are both affecting and sentimental. Pictures is a strange, sometimes strained, minor masterpiece, and of the two Jarrells this seems the important one. Beyond any argument about the work, though, he remains the most fascinating figure of his literary generation. Lowell, Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and some lesser figures were fairly dotty, and the dottiness both coloured and damaged their work. Jarrell’s emotional complications were as great as theirs (Pictures can be seen as a desperate attempt to show that prose can be as ‘creative’ as poetry), and he walked an emotional high wire for much of his life. It was a triumph of the rational intelligence that until the last months of near-collapse and attempted suicide he never fell off.