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Book Review : A Poet’s Life Without True Literary Demons

Times Book Critric

Randall Jarrell’s Letters, edited by Mary Jarrell (Houghton Mifflin: $29.95)

Randall Jarrell was afflicted by whatever consumes the moth that doesn’t fly into the flame.

True, his gift for imagery and for a poetic line of handholds along a rock face was not far from that of such friends as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. And his failure to win a Pulitzer, which contributed to his later depressions, is no reflection on a poetic achievement that at least equaled that of Richard Wilbur, who got one, and surpassed that of other winners such as Teter Viereck.

What was missing, judging from the letters selected and copiously annotated by his widow, Mary Jarrell, was one kind of poetic identity, a clamorous insistence on making a world out of his own voice. It’s not that his style and conceits were not individual; they were. And there was a quality to the man, sensed and loved by his poet friends, of idiosyncratic sweetness and intelligence.

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Appreciated by Colleagues

“At first meeting, and always to me, Randall Jarrell was the embodiment of triumphant anticipation, gratitude to life, naturalness,” Marianne Moore wrote, in a passage quoted by Mrs. Jarrell. In another quoted letter, Lowell--with a self-effacement not altogether characteristic and, it’s nice to think, caught from Jarrell--recalls a line in which the latter pins down a Lowell weakness. “You generally have one line in a poem where the rhythm gets, not harsh, but tetanic, like a muscle under too long tension.”

If Jarrell sometimes wished he’d written Lowell’s poetry, there is hardly a writer who would not covet a line like that. What Jarrell lacked was something else. Modern poets write out of a sense that the world has vanished and write to re-create one. This demands a self-confidence amounting to obsession; whether of the demonic kind associated with Lowell and Berryman, the Mandarin kind of Wallace Stevens or Moore’s zoological gardens.

Jarrell leaned into such re-creating and leaned out again. It’s not that he lacked demons. Under treatment for alternate spells of depression and mania, he was killed by a car while walking along a highway at night, dressed in dark clothes. The driver thought Jarrell might have moved into his path; the authorities, expressing some uncertainty, labeled it an accident rather than a suicide.

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Dismounting a Demon

But if there is a demon in riding an obsession out, there is a different one in dismounting. Jarrell suffered from writer’s block, a sense of failure, and shifting dry-wells of affection. His early love letters to Mary Jarrell, his second wife, give an ecstatic sense of new possibilities. Toward the end, in a manic state involving a clutch of new projects, he asked for a divorce, later changing his mind. Even more than most poets, he shopped publishers, looking for a loving editor: from Harcourt Brace to Dial, back to Harcourt, then successively to Knopf, Macmillan and Pantheon.

His sense of self would fail him, and when he looked for compensation in some new person or project, that would fail him in the measure that he made it his own.

He was torn, the letters show, between faith in his art and a stubborn belief that it must always be in tension with life. At worst, this resulted in the yahooism of suggesting that the Washington Zoo monkeys were the true abstract expressionists. Possibly, a feeling of insufficient powers led him to stress the sensible against the arcane.

Yet some of the best things in the letters are his efforts to reason out this feeling. Writing about Robert Penn Warren’s early work, he raises questions about its extremities of despair. “It’s plain that he manages his life by pushing all the evil in it out into the poems and novels.” He writes that ". . . in the best art the dialectical contradictory relationship is inside the work of art.” Warren lacked taste, he added, “because taste is proportion and sensibleness and comes from knowing and being used to things.”

Later, writing about the surly intransigence of the critic R. P. Blackmur, he has this to say about the arrogance of aesthetes: “You ought to realize that even if you’re really good it’s just in comparison to other people, that really you’re practically a joke compared to what you might be.”

The letters themselves are both revealing and unrevealing. Jarrell lacked some of the concerns of the best letter-writers. Except when he was offering detailed and specific poetic advice to Lowell, Bishop and Adrienne Rich--and some of it is a treasure--he did not engage very far with what his correspondents were up to. His letters to his two wives are full of news about himself and descriptions of his love for them. Yet there is hardly a word in response to what they have written. A good letter gives more of a sense of the other person.

Skirting Some Issues

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As for himself, though he is free with emotions, opinions and day-to-day news, the letters tend to skirt a good deal. There is almost nothing about the writing process. And many important concerns and events in his life are not mentioned at all. We get them through Mary Jarrell’s perceptive and lucidly written commentary, and through her quotes from others.

Mrs. Jarrell has clearly tried to choose the most significant material among the more than 2,000 letters she obtained. She tells us cryptically that she has tried to restrict herself to literary and autobiographical material in the letters written to her, to Jarrell’s first wife, and to an Austrian woman he fell in love with. Since her editing displays an impressive and difficult balance between candor on the one hand, and tact and love on the other, there is no great reason to think we are being cheated. Still, not knowing what is not there is like confidences over a tapped telephone line.

A good many of the letters are individually forgettable, written for the purpose of communicating some particular event or feeling that does not outlive the occasion. But splendid lines stand out. Of the difficulty of writing stories about army barracks life during World War II--he never went overseas--he writes that while “people expect something to happen in a story . . . the whole point of the army is that nothing ever does happen.” The events “are just like lumps in Cream of Wheat, almost indistinguishable from the Cream of Wheat.”

Taken as a whole, the letters chart the life of an artist whose temperament was exuberant, who plunged vigorously into the literary wars and celebrations of his time, and who won a very special love and respect from his peers. The sadness that comes through is that of someone committing an exultant parabolic leap while sensing that it does not reach quite high enough.


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