Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Wishing for Randall Jarrell

I've been thinking about Randall Jarrell, one of the poets I knew well as a child--I had a copy of The Complete Poems in high school (soon after it appeared--thank you, mother-librarian!) and knew them well at that time. He wrote in many different genres, and so I trailed after him into novel, children's books, and criticism. I believe his was the first criticism I enjoyed. I've been thinking about how strongly he felt about about the changes in culture, back in the 1950's, and how much of what he says could only be repeated or made stronger now. He was certain very able to empathize with the person (or the bat) who was lonely and desperate, longing for more in life and for change. ("Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!") And he thought that a poet's role was, in part, braving and living up to the lonesome idea that being misunderstood might be part of the call: "If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries, you will never look just right to posterity. Every writer has to try to be, to some extent, sometimes, a law unto himself."

Here's a comment from Suzanne Ferguson that shows how critical Jarrell was about the trajectory of cultural change. (Elsewhere, he lamented, "The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced."*)
The magnitude of what had been lost in American culture reaffirmed for Jarrell "the final, important, intense value" of art, of poetry for making sense of that loss. Paradoxically, his depression about the political climate, the devaluation of art in a consumer culture, and the plight of undereducated, oversocialized*** children created a need for him to write the tales, the now-classic children's books, and the late poetry in which he gives voice to the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people trying to transform their lives that are "commonplace and solitary." More and more it is the strength of this last creative work, after a struggle with what he saw as "ominous" changes in "the climate of our culture" (Sad Heart 86)*, that makes Jarrell a central figure in mid-century letters, one who cannot be relegated to the margins, where off "in a bright spot somewhere in the corner / Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth" (CP 333).* --from Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, and Co: Middle-generation Poets in Context
*A Sad Heart at the Supermarket.
**The Complete Poems
***Somewhere he complains about American children being raised on applause, rather like current complains of an "everybody gets a prize" sort of schooling.

There's a grand bouquet of flowers to chose from when we think about American poets. But who is the most important critic in the states? It might be Eliot, though he left us. Or Auden, who is ours and not ours. But it just might be Randall Jarrell. I hope we grow some more poet-writer-critics of his kind.

The soul has no assignments, neither cooks
Nor referees: it wastes its time. It wastes its time.
Here in this enclave there are centuries
For you to waste: the short and narrow stream
Of life meanders into a thousand valleys
Of all that was, or might have been, or is to be.
The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly.
            --from "A Girl in a Library"


  1. bertrand russell: " the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time". leonard woolf, husband of virginia, player in the political and publishing world of england for fifty years(died 1969) claimed that european civilization had been totally and permanently destroyed by the first world war. maybe he was right?...

    1. I've often thought that writers appear to waste a great deal of time, even though you could call dreaming and fooling around endlessly with words an essential portion of their work. Of course, what you do with your time affects what is written because it changes you.

      Woolf wanted a united Europe, didn't he? I wonder what he would think of the EU. But certainly he would still find many of the same tendencies that he abhorred.

    2. What a grand exit! Shades of Whitman here: "I loaf at my ease." Also love this: "If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries, you will never look just right to posterity. Every writer has to try to be, to some extent, sometimes, a law unto himself." I think it extends to all great artists. The opera "Carmen" was rejected when it was first was staged—and Bizet, like Jarrell, committed suicide. Great joy is so often accompanied by despair. It's damn hard to live in the world and yet "be a law unto" oneself! And yet I will embellish Jarrell's point: If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries, you will never look just right to yourself. Truly---but it takes a looong time to learn this!

    3. It is a needful thing to say to anyone in the arts, I think, yes.

  2. I know too little of Randall Jarrell, but because of your posting I know that I ought to (re)introduce myself to him very soon. Thanks!

    1. He is so wide-ranging and clear-thinking that, yes, I think you should do that!

  3. I read a fair bit of Jarrell when about 20. It was owing to his criticism that I have volumes of Graves, Stevens, Frost, Tate, and Ransom. But it was also owing to his criticism that I spent time trying to see what he saw in Auden and Lowell: I never managed to. On the whole, of the critics I have read most then, Hugh Kenner seems sounder in judgment

    Still, bits and pieces of his poems stick with me. And I was delighted to see that the University of Chicago Press brought Pictures from an Institution back into print.

    1. It was bad at me to forget Kenner! I once read "The Pound Era" aloud (well, half was read aloud to me) while taking turns driving cross country, and that sticks in my mind as pleasant way to travel.

  4. Also, as regards the note '***', that occurs in Pictures from An Institution, in section 10 of the chapter "Constance and the Rosenbaums: '("you Americans do not rear children, you incite them; you give them food and shelter and applause")'.

    1. Ah, thanks! I read that novel more than half my life ago...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.