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On Randall Jarrell’s War Poetry

Robert Lowell

In the first months of the war, Jarrell became a pilot. He was rather old for a beginner, and soon "washed out," and spent the remaining war years as an aviation instructor. Even earlier, he had an expert's knowledge. I remember sitting with him in 1938 on the hill of Kenyon College and listening to him analyze in cool technical detail the various rather minute ways in which the latest British planes were superior to their German equivalents. He then jokingly sketched out how a bombing raid might be made against the college. Nine-tenths of his war poems are air-force poems, and are about planes and their personnel, the flyers, crews, and mechanics who attended them. No other imaginative writer had his precise knowledge of aviation, or knew so well how to draw inspiration from this knowledge.

In the turret's great glass dome, the apparition, death,
Framed in the glass of the gunsight, a fighter's blinking
Flares softly, a vacant fire. If the flak's inked blurs—
Distributed, statistical--the bombs lost patterning
Are death, they are death under glass, a chance
For someone yesterday, someone tomorrow; and the fire
That streams from the fighter which is there, not there,
Does not warm you, has not burned them, though they

More important still, the soldiers he wrote about were men much like his own pilot-students. He knew them well, and not only that, peculiarly sympathized with them. For Jarrell, the war careers of these young men had the freshness, wonder, and magical brevity of childhood. In his poetry, they are murderers, and yet innocents. They destroyed cities and men that had only the nominal reality of names studied in elementary geography classes.

In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out


In this year of our warfare, indispensable
In general, and in particular dispensable

Finally, the pilot goes home for good, forever mutilated and wounded, "the slow flesh failing, the terrible flesh / Sloughed off at last . . . / Stumbling to the toilet on one clever leg / Of leather, wire, and willow." There, knowledge has at last come to him:

And it is different, different--you have understood
Your world at last: you have tasted your own blood.

Jarrell's portraits of his pilots have been downgraded sometimes as unheroic, naive, and even sentimental. Well, he was writing beyond the war, and turning the full visionary powers of his mind on the war to probe into and expose the horror, pathos, and charm he found in life. Always behind the sharpened edge of his lines, there is the merciful vision, his vision, partial like all others, but an illumination of life, too sad and radiant for us to stay with long--or forget.

From The New York Review of Books (1965)

R. W. Flint

I have avoided those somewhat coercive adjectives, "tender" and "compassionate," not, God knows, that the poetry is not all of both in an ultimate sense, but because in the best poems these qualities are so much the whole story that it seems indecent to mention them, extended beyond the usual limits to literally everything; men, machines, landscape, women, children--everything. He moves beyond the avuncular-idyllic manner of Whitman's Drum Taps, beyond the lovable Kipling fantasy of marching, campfires, and taverns, beyond even the comradeliness of Owen, to a place that mixes pity and philosophy, exact knowledge of war and sympathy for its victims, on a grand scale; a fresh visionary tension. The air force is the new military elite. In addition to its usual disciplines, it seems to foster an anarchy of spirit that begets its own antidote--distaste for war--more readily than earlier kinds of militarism. After the first Futurist inanities of Italian flyers over Ethiopia, no airman has, to my knowledge, written anything good that might be construed as glamorizing war. What Jarrell imagined with great clarity and force was this final detachment of the flyer, the dumb animism of his life among the planes and the planes' lives among themselves, the rarefaction and dissolution of most of the earth-bound certitudes of earlier wars. He thereby gives us a new measure of war altogether, in spite of the persistence of its older forms.

I remember being shown on the carrier a movie in color about carriers called The Fighting Lady, some of it shot earlier from my gun mount. It had a sickly sweetness around the edges that must have revolted Jarrell if he saw the film at home, as I imagine he did. His splendid long poem, "Pilots, Man Your Planes," is a demonstration of how the same thing should be done. Here are the last eleven lines:

The planes fly off looking for a carrier,
Destroyers curve in their long hunting arcs
Through the dead of the carrier: the dazed, vomiting,
Oil-blackened and fire-blistered, saved or dying men
Cling with cramped shaking fingers to the lines
Lowered from their old life: the pilot,
Drugged in a blanket, straining up to gulp
From the mug that scrapes like chalk against his mouth,
Knows, knows at last; he yawns the chattering yawn
Of effort and anguish, of hurt hating helplessness--
Yawns, sobbingly, his head falls back, he sleeps.

This reaching back for an older mode of writing about war was also a reaching forward to the solitary terrors of the "small-scale" professional wars to come, fought by the new soldier-technician with his elaborately absorbing gear, somewhere beneath the headlines about burning Caribbean cruise ships and the almost normal politics and holidays of home. It is a world where islands on a map are dragons, where planes are "green, made beasts run home to air," where the soldier is set before a blackboard to learn, "the rifle steady at his back, / The functions of a variable: to die." In other words, a pure and evil irrationality. The poet’s deepest pity is for what these clumsy mechanical animals and their child-guardians might become in rational circumstances, free of the ugly necessity, at just this time and place, of a fire birth into mere legend.

From Commentary (1966)

David Perkins (1987)

… During the war he served in the air force, though not as a pilot. By 1942 he had published two collections of poetry. The preface to the first (1940) confessed his wish and failure to replace Modernism with something else. At the air base he listened to the stories of the pilots and read newspaper war reports and out of these materials he composed, in Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), what remain for many readers the finest "war" poems of our time. They are vivid and moving incidents of combat, told with an exceptionally sensitive psychological insight and moral perplexity. And the emotions of Jarrell’s pilots were in some ways unfamiliar in the literature of modern war. He expresses the pity and protest typical of the better poets of the First World War, the shock, horror, weary resignation and sense of doom common in war poetry, but also a nexus of other feelings; they do not belong just to Jarrell (or to[W. H. ] Auden, whose perceptions helped form Jarrell’s in these poems), or just to the Second World War, but persist to the present moment. The planes have more reality, more identity than their crews ("A Front"). Enclosed in machines in remote sky, the pilots are psychologically detached from the deaths they distribute and fall toward. They are murderers who are likely themselves to be murdered, yet also passive, helpless, and innocent ("Eighth Air Force"). In short, in his pilots Jarrell expressed the feelings of alienation, helplessness, regression, irresponsibility, and vulnerability that our vastly unmanageable, bureaucratic, technological civilization seems to create.

From "Breaking Through the New Criticism" (Chapter 16) in A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987), 393.

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