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About Randall Jarrell

William Pritchard

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Randall Jarrell
Philippe Halsman/HarpersCollins

He was born in Nashville, Tennessee, moved with his parents to Los Angeles soon after, then returned to Nashville with his mother after his parents divorced. In 1926-7 a visit to his paternal grandparents in Los Angeles would provide him, decades later, with the remembered sensations and experiences that inforn 'The Lost World', the three-part title-poem of his last and best book of verse. Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom. (Later his mentor would be, for a short time, another Vanderbilt graduate, Allen Tate.) These poet-critics were associated with the Fugitive group of writers that had come together in Nashville in the 1920s; but Jarrell showed little interest in Fugitive or 'Southern' political and cultural ideas. His early poetry, some of it published while he was still an undergraduate, is apocalyptic, surreal, and humourless--much indebted to Auden's example, though lacking Auden's wit and formal brilliance.

When Ransom accepted a job at Kenyon College in Ohio, Jarrell followed him as an assistant, taught courses in the English department, and wrote his Master's thesis on A. E. Houseman’s poetry. At Kenyon he roomed first with Robert Lowell, then with a group of talented literary people which included Lowell and the fiction writer Peter Taylor, who later became Jarrell’s closest friend. After two years at Kenyon he took a job at the University of Texas, married Mackie Langham in 1940, and brought out his first book of poems Blood for a Stranger, in 1942. Meanwhile, encouraged by Edmund Wilson, who published him in The New Republic, he made a reputation for himself as a fierce and fiercely humorous critic of other poets. His penchant for the devasting one-line dismissal (e.g. Oscar Williams's poems give the impression of 'having been written on a typewriter by a typewritee) caused recipients acute pain, but established Jarrell, in his twenties, as a highly readable force to be reckoned with.

In 1942 he entered the Army Air Force, but failed to qualify as a flyer and became a celestial training navigator in Tucson, Arizona. During his nearly four years of service he wrote many poems about the army and the war, accumulating the bulk of his next two books, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). In these poems his earlier, Audenesque style modulated into a flatter, greyer, more homely idiom, appropriate for recreating the dailyness of barracks life as well as the disasters of combat. During the latter part of his service, in 1945, he wrote a number of letters to Lowell about the manuscript of Lowell's soon-to-be-published book of poems, Lord Weary's Castle--letters filled with valuable suggestions for improving what Jarrell thought would be the most important poetry collection since Auden's Poems (1930). After the war Jarrell spent a year as literary editor of the Nation, whose back pages he filled with poems and reviews from many of the best writers in America and England. He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, which he would later make use of as a model for the mythical Benton College in his satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

Jarrell's post-war appreciations of Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams helped to establish their reputations as significant American poets; they also marked a change of emphasis in his criticism, in that he now mainly celebrated poets rather than awarded them demerits. His essays on Frost (whose influence on his own poems was significant), Whitman, Marianne Moore, Stevens, Williams, Ransom, and others (mainly collected in Poetry and the Age, 1953) remain classics of clear-eyed, informed, and loving description, written in a wholly accessible and always humorous prose. His poetic reputation however did not keep pace with his critical one, and it was not until The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), which won the National Book Award, and The Lost World (1965) that he showed how original and attractive a poet he could be. The best of his later poems—like 'The Woman at the Washington Zoo', 'Next Day', 'The Lost Children', 'The Lost World', and 'Thinking of the Lost World', are narratives, frequently spoken by women, which have some of the strength and human compassion of Frost's dramatic monologues (much admired by Jarrell). They also express, in a distinctive way, what Karl Shapiro called 'the common dialogue of Americans'.

Jarrell married his second wife, Mary von Schrader, in 1952, and for most of his remaining years taught, with notable success and pleasure, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was an active poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in Washington for two years, and--during periods in the late 1950s and early 1960s when his rate of poetry production was low--he translated Faust, Part 1, a Chekhov play, and several of Grimm's tales. Near the end of his life he wrote some remarkable children's stories, of which The Bat Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965) are pre-eminent. Soon after completing The Lost World he became mentally ill, first elated and later depressed, and eventually attempted suicide by slashing his wrist. Recovering, he went back to teaching in the fall of 1965, then entered a hospital in Chapel Hill for therapy on his wrist. While there, and while walking at dusk on a nearby highway, he was struck by a car and killed immediately. The coroner's verdict was accidental death, although the circumstances will never be entirely clear.

Jarrell will be remembered for his poems which, as Lowell claimed, rank with 'the best lyric poets of the past'; for his brilliantly engaging and dazzling criticism; and for his passionate defence, in what he termed 'the age of criticism', of writing and reading poems and fiction. The Complete Poems (New York, 1969) includes hitherto uncollected and unpublished work; while Selected Poems, ed. William H. Pritchard (New York, 1990) contains fifty of his best. Poetry and the Age (New York, 1953) and Kipling, Auden & Co. (New York, 1980) are collections of essays and reviews. Randall Jarrell's Letters, ed. Mary Jarrell (Boston, 1985; London 1986), has much valuable commentary. See also Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, by William H. Pritchard (New York, 1990).

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