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.

Maybe the university jobs came to Jarrell too easily, or too early. A full-of-himself student in Nashville in the 1930s, he was taken up by Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and most of his later academic appointments could be traced back to this connection. Not that Jarrell ever felt inclined to gratitude: another of his famous, and most joyous, thrusts as a reviewer was aimed at the vitals of his early Agrarian mentors: ‘To expect Tate’s and Warren’s poems to be most influenced by Ransom’s is like expecting two nightmares to be influenced by a daydream.’

To ‘get’ most of Jarrell’s reviewing jokes you had to be well in the know, and maybe this off-the-cuff allusiveness was one of the keys to his success. For example, to begin to fathom this Agrarian jest, you needed to know something of Tate’s stormy narcissism, and of Ransom’s detached courtliness, and to suspect that lovable Red Warren may not have been as cheerful as he seemed. The deft insiderism that marked some of Jarrell’s most memorable quips could easily be taken as an earnest of his genuine highmindedness – this mockery, the manner seemed to say, was literary not personal – and for many readers, to be sure, it was bracing to have such a celebrated know-all assume that they knew almost as much about modern poetry as he did. Jarrell, even at his most murderously flippant, appeared to expect from his readers a commitment to the cause of Excellence that, well, entitled them to read him. Thus, when he found in Kenneth Patchen’s poetry ‘a big violet streak of Original Swinburne-with-a-dead-baby’ or dubbed the philosophical Stevens a ‘G.E. Moore at the spinet’, he took it for granted that his arrows would strike home, that there was an audience out there that knew how to echo his own chuckles.

In much the same way Jarrell rarely felt the need to labour his recommendations, or to support them with the kind of New Critical textual analysis in which he had been trained by Tate and Ransom. ‘Look at this,’ he’d say. ‘Isn’t it self-evidently marvellous? Only a fool could fail to like it’ Nor did he bother much to substantiate his loathings. It was usually sufficient to wheel on the offending text, with jokes attached. From time to time there were no jokes attached, and this absence tended to signal some really major authorial delinquency. Something had been written that was too rubbishy even to be laughed at: ‘That a poem beginning I think continually of those who were truly great should ever have been greeted with anything but helpless embarrassment makes me ashamed of the planet upon which I dwell.’ To which even the most sycophantic audience might well respond: calm down. And maybe it was this kind of vein-popping hyperbole that Leslie Fiedler had in mind when he wrote of Jarrell: ‘He is resolutely unsystematic, committed to no methodology or aesthetic theory – responsible only to his own responses, hushed only before the mystery of his own taste. And what unfailing taste he possessed; though its roots were something nearer to madness than to method.’ (Fiedler’s remarks, I notice, are cited on the back jacket of Brad Leithauser’s useful new selection from Jarrell’s prose, but the reference to madness has been cut. The quotation ends with ‘What unfailing taste he possessed’ – full stop.)

Jarrell, as Robert Lowell once observed, was actually more of a eulogist than a destroyer and it was in the realm of eulogy that his weakness for near-spluttering exaggeration was at its most off-putting. When Jarrell admired a writer, that writer had to be vaunted to the skies – who but the very greatest could have earned such admiration? Hence we get (on Whitman): ‘these lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence, and one is ashamed of anything one can find to say about them’; (on Frost): ‘anyone who knows these poems will consider the mere mention of them enough to justify any praise, any extravagance – and anybody who doesn’t know them doesn’t know some of the summits of our poetry, and is so much to be pitied that it would be foolish to blame him, too’; (on Williams): ‘When you have read Paterson, you know for the rest of your life what it feels like to be a waterfall.’

When Jarrell’s friends heard of his breakdown in the early 1960s, they responded with bewilderment. For Randall to go mad was the last thing they had envisaged, and yet they found that they were less surprised than they would have expected to be. Overridingly, at first, there was a feeling that Randall was too clever to go mad. There had always seemed to be something impregnable about his sense of his own worth. ‘When I’m right, I’m right,’ he used to say. He played tennis all the time, he kept himself in shape, he had – with stunningly abrupt efficiency – exchanged an insufficiently worshipful first wife for one who was prepared to dedicate her waking hours to Randall’s adoration. (‘To be married to Randall was to be encapsulated with him,’ this second wife contentedly reports in her adoring memoir, Remembering Randall.) His poetry was nothing if not sane: indeed, it was quite often distended by an excess of common sense (and not unlike his own version of late Auden: ‘too conscious, too thin, too merely rational’).

Altogether, Randall seemed pretty good at looking after Number One. He was a winner, and he knew it. He wrote successful children’s books but had no children; he translated Goethe and Rilke but knew hardly any German; he was praised as one of America’s best war poets but saw no military action; he wrote several poems in the voices of downtrodden women but was fairly adept at downtreading them himself, or so it seems. And the kind of people he most noisily despised kept giving him awards. Jarrell’s self-esteem, it could be said, was fed at every turn by a culture he became expert at denouncing. Essays like ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’ and ‘Sad Heart at the Supermarket’ can still be valued as eloquent and heartfelt tirades against American philistinism, and few of Jarrell’s essays on individual poets are altogether free of complaints about society’s indifference to Poetry. For Jarrell, it could sometimes seem, there was only one thing worse than being a bad poet and that was to be a non-reader of bad poems: after all, most so-called poems were – as he kept insisting – actually no good. Why then, one has to wonder, all this fuss about Neglect? Jarrell’s favourite poet was Robert Frost – probably the only poet Americans did read, from time to time.

For Jarrell’s friends, this near-compulsive indignation was just another aspect of his overall self-confidence, a self-confidence that made him seem well-armoured against madness. It’s true, his admiring but unstable poet-friends tended to steer clear of him when they were going through hard times. They accepted him as a first-rate judge of literary texts but shrank from seeking his companionship during periods of, shall we say, indiscipline. As John Berryman has glumly testified, Jarrell was ‘the only poet that I’ve ever known in the universe who simply did not drink’. And Robert Lowell, knowing his friend’s strict views on verbal ‘coarseness’, made sure that ‘bullshit’ became ‘bull’ when he was talking to Jarrell.

In other words, this critic’s famous ‘taste’ did not (as Fiedler hinted) equip him well for what Lowell called the ‘soil’ and ‘entanglements’ of actual living. Lowell was a fervent admirer of Jarrell the critic – as he had reason to be, since it was Jarrell’s ecstatic praise that had originally launched him – but on only one occasion did he make the mistake of exposing Jarrell the friend to one of his own frequent manic episodes. In 1956, Lowell – during a bout of mania – announced to the world that he was about to leave his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in order to marry a young Italian he had fallen for. He quite often made announcements of this kind, when mad, but this time he decided to deliver the good news in person to Jarrell. Of the encounter that ensued, Jarrell’s widow has recorded: ‘Elizabeth Hardwick was not Randall’s type and he even congratulated Lowell on leaving her, but after that he wanted to talk about Malraux and Chekhov.’

Her husband, it appears, had simply not noticed that Lowell was in the grip of an ‘elation’. When his ranting visitor brushed aside Malraux and Chekhov so as further to extol the wonders of his new romance, Jarrell ran out of patience. He bundled Lowell into his car and drove him to the nearest railway station, where he bade his lifelong chum a ‘surly goodbye’. Next stop (for Lowell), the Payne Whitney mental institution in New York, although Jarrell, we can be sure, had not checked out the destination. So far as he was concerned, he had expelled a nuisance, a non-literary bore. Of all this, Mary Jarrell has observed: ‘except for this one instance, Jarrell had no direct involvement in Lowell’s abnormal states, and he wanted it that way.’ And Lowell, she said, ‘took care to shield Jarrell from the romantic or pugilistic behaviour that accompanied his affliction’.

The critic John Thompson once opined that it was ‘Jarrell’s sense of his own precariousness that made him keep Lowell’s madness at arm’s length’, and this seems plausible. Thompson knew both Lowell and Jarrell at Kenyon College in the late 1930s and even in those early days Randall was looked on as an oddball. He was brilliantly erudite and talkative but insufferably arrogant as well. And this arrogance fed into his mystique. He was pampered and indulged by Tate and Ransom, although even the benign Ransom took exception to Jarrell’s ‘untactful manners’ and altogether found him trying, ‘an insistent and overbearing talker’. And Tate in later years would call him a ‘self-adulating little twerp’. Even so, they did encourage this ‘strange boy’. Jarrell’s derivative verses – sub-Hart Crane followed by sub-Auden followed by sub-Frost – were printed in the Southern Review and the Kenyon Review, and before long his famous arrogance was let loose on the review pages of the New Republic. Jarrell was 21 when he published his first major axe-job, a round-up of new fiction in which, said the reviewer, he had tried ‘to temper justice with mercy’.

When you read about the youthful Jarrell – and, it is worth remembering, most of his best work as a critic was written before he had turned 40 – it is not at all difficult to see that this turbulent intelligence might one day crack. His enthusiasms are so melodramatic, his condemnations so absolute, his changes of mind (on Stevens, Graves, Williams and – somewhat – on Marianne Moore) so vehemently unashamed that quite often one does fear for his mental balance, even as one registers the thrillingness of such excited prose. He took refuge, one could almost say, in cleverness and self-importance. Certainly, his friends seem to have believed that he found such a refuge, and was safe there. It was only when he broke down that they could look back and see that from the start he had in truth been no more sane and sensible than they were; and see also that his real distinctiveness may have been to bring the erratic sensibilities of a poet into the supposedly well-ordered realm of literary criticism. His essays were always more vivacious than his poems, more springily intense. As admiring readers of the essays, we can be grateful that he exercised his inspiration in a genre for which he had not much respect. But for Jarrell, as he testified more than once, being a great poetry critic was a paltry thing, involving a measure of self-relegation which, in the end, he perhaps found impossible to bear.