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Modern American Poetry: Randall Jarrell
New York Times featured author: Randall Jarrell
Randall Jarrell (May 6, 1914 - October 15, 1965) was a native of Nashville, Tennessee and graduated from Vanderbilt University. At Vanderbilt, he was acquainted with poets of the Fugitives group. Jarrell followed critic John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where Jarrell wrote a masters thesis on the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman, and roomed with poet Robert Lowell. He taught at Kenyon College, the University of Texas, the University of Illinois, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
On October 14, 1965, while walking along a road in Chapel Hill near dusk, Jarrell was struck by a car and killed. The coroner ruled the death accidental, but Jarrell had recently been treated for mental illness and a previous suicide attempt. In 2004, the Metropolitan Nashville Historical Commission approved placement of a historical marker in his honor, to be placed at Hume-Fogg High School, which he attended.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro has an extensive Randall Jarrell Collection which "includes over two thousand manuscript items and books relating to one of the mid-20th century's most important American poets and critics."
His first collection of poetry, Blood from a Stranger, was published in 1942 — the same year he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. He failed to qualify to fly, however, and instead worked for the Army stateside as a control tower operator. His second and third books, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), drew heavily on his Army experiences, dealing with the fears and moral struggles of soldiers. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a particularly famous Jarrell poem in this vein. During this period, however, he earned a reputation primarily as a critic, rather than as a poet. Encouraged by Edmund Wilson, who published Jarrell's criticism in The New Republic, Jarrell quickly became a fiercely humorous critic of fellow poets. In the post-war period, his criticism began to change, showing a more positive emphasis. His appreciations of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams helped to establish their reputations as significant American poets. He is also noted for his essays on Robert Frost — whose poetry was a large influence on Jarrell's own — Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and others, which were mostly collected in Poetry and the Age (1953). Many scholars consider him the most astute poetry critic of his generation.
His reputation as a poet was not established until 1960, when his National Book Award-winning collection The Woman at the Washington Zoo was published. His final volume, The Lost World, published in 1966, cemented that reputation; many critics consider it his best work. Jarrell also published a satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution in 1954 — drawing upon his teaching experiences at Sarah Lawrence College, which served as the model for the fictional Benton College — and several children's stories, among which The Bat-Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965) are considered prominent. He translated poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and others, a play by Anton Chekhov, and several Grimm fairy tales. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress — a position today known as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry — from 1956-1958.
Children Selecting Books in a Library
With beasts and gods, above, the wall is bright.
The child's head, bent to the book-colored shelves,
Is slow and sidelong and food-gathering,
Moving in blind grace ... yet from the mural, Care
The grey-eyed one, fishing the morning mist,
Seizes the baby hero by the hair
And whispers, in the tongue of gods and children,
Words of a doom as ecumenical as dawn
But blanched like dawn, with dew.
The children's cries
Are to men the cries of crickets, dense with warmth
-- But dip a finger into Fafnir, taste it,
And all their words are plain as chance and pain.
Their tales are full of sorcerers and ogres
Because their lives are: the capricious infinite
That, like parents, no one has yet escaped
Except by luck or magic; and since strength
And wit are useless, be kind or stupid, wait
Some power's gratitude, the tide of things.
Read meanwhile ... hunt among the shelves, as dogs do, grasses,
And find one cure for Everychild's diseases
Beginning: Once upon a time there was
A wolf that fed, a mouse that warned, a bear that rode
A boy. Us men, alas! wolves, mice, bears bore.
And yet wolves, mice, bears, children, gods and men
In slow preambulation up and down the shelves
Of the universe are seeking ... who knows except themselves?
What some escape to, some escape: if we find Swann's
Way better than our own, an trudge on at the back
Of the north wind to -- to -- somewhere east
Of the sun, west of the moon, it is because we live
By trading another's sorrow for our own; another's
Impossibilities, still unbelieved in, for our own ...
"I am myself still?" For a little while, forget:
The world's selves cure that short disease, myself,
And we see bending to us, dewy-eyed, the great
CHANGE, dear to all things not to themselves endeared.
Did they send me away from my cat and my wife
To a doctor who poked me and counted my teeth,
To a line on a plain, to a stove in a tent?
Did I nod in the flies of the schools?
And the fighters rolled into the tracer like rabbits,
The blood froze over my splints like a scab --
Did I snore, all still and grey in the turret,
Till the palms rose out of the sea with my death?
And the world ends here, in the sand of a grave,
All my wars over? How easy it was to die!
Has my wife a pension of so many mice?
Did the medals go home to my cat?
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The Black Swan
When the swans turned my sister into a swan
I would go to the lake, at night, from milking:
The sun would look out through the reeds like a swan,
A swan's red beak; and the beak would open
And inside there was darkness, the stars and the moon.
Out on the lake, a girl would laugh.
"Sister, here is your porridge, sister,"
I would call; and the reeds would whisper,
"Go to sleep, go to sleep, little swan."
My legs were all hard and webbed, and the silky
Hairs of my wings sank away like stars
In the ripples that ran in and out of the reeds:
I heard through the lap and hiss of water
Someone's "Sister . . . sister," far away on the shore,
And then as I opened my beak to answer
I heard my harsh laugh go out to the shore
And saw - saw at last, swimming up from the green
Low mounds of the lake, the white stone swans:
The white, named swans . . . "It is all a dream,"
I whispered, and reached from the down of the pallet
To the lap and hiss of the floor.
And "Sleep, little sister," the swan all sang
From the moon and stars and frogs of the floor.
But the swan my sister called, "Sleep at last, little sister,"
And stroked all night, with a black wing, my wings.
The Woman at the Washington Zoo
The saris go by me from the embassies.
Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.
And I. . . .
this print of mine, that has kept its color
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
To my bed, so to my grave, with no
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief--
Only I complain. . . . this serviceable
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns,
Wavy beneath fountains--small, far-off, shining
In the eyes of animals, these beings trapped
As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death--
Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!
The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
And there come not to me, as come to these,
The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas' grain,
Pigeons settling on the bears' bread, buzzards
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded. . . .
When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
Take off the red helmet of your head, the black
Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man:
The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn,
To whose hand of power the great lioness
Stalks, purring. . . .
You know what I was,
You see what I am: change me, change me!
The Player Piano
I ate pancakes one night in a Pancake House
Run by a lady my age. She was gay.
When I told her that I came from Pasadena
She laughed and said, "I lived in Pasadena
When Fatty Arbuckle drove the El Molino bus."
I felt that I had met someone from home.
No, not Pasadena, Fatty Arbuckle.
Who's that? Oh, something that we had in common
Like -- like -- the false armistice. Piano rolls.
She told me her house was the first Pancake House
East of the Mississippi, and I showed her
A picture of my grandson. Going home --
Home to the hotel -- I began to hum,
"Smile a while, I bid you sad adieu,
When the clouds roll back I'll come to you."
Let's brush our hair before we go to bed,
I say to the old friend who lives in my mirror.
I remember how I'd brush my mother's hair
Before she bobbed it. How long has it been
Since I hit my funnybone? had a scab on my knee?
Here are Mother and Father in a photograph,
Father's holding me.... They both look so young.
I'm so much older than they are. Look at them,
Two babies with their baby. I don't blame you,
You weren't old enough to know any better;
If I could I'd go back, sit down by you both,
And sign our true armistice: you weren't to blame.
I shut my eyes and there's our living room.
The piano's playing something by Chopin,
And Mother and Father and their little girl
Listen. Look, the keys go down by themselves!
I go over, hold my hands out, play I play --
If only, somehow, I had learned to live!
The three of us sit watching, as my waltz
Plays itself out a half-inch from my fingers.
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