I was reading Poetry and the Age the other day while my students were taking a test here in France. The room was quiet, pens busily at work, and suddenly, into the silence I dropped a helpless, delighted laugh. My students all looked up and were completely bewildered to see that I was laughing over a book of… poetry criticism? But that’s the effect Randall Jarrell has on me: surprise, enlightenment, joy, and a fierce desire to read, read, read the work he so effortlessly explains.
You may know Jarrell as a poet (he is often anthologized with “Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner” or “The Woman at the Washington Zoo”), and he also wrote some wonderful children’s books (Animal Family and The Bat-Poet.) But his real place in American literature, the place he was unerringly right about the enduring value of what he read, was in the matter of criticism. He studied under Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom, and went on to know many other poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, and William Carlos Williams. He knew — he always knew — when he was reading real, original poetry: he could pick out two lines from an otherwise mediocre poem and say, “Yes, that’s it, if he can write that, he is a poet,” or he could look at a poem by Auden and say, “This is one of Auden’s worst poems, but Auden’s worst poems are more worth reading than the best poems of anyone else writing today.”
This book is cram-jammed with essays of the finest and most piercing insight. There are two essays on Robert Frost. The first, “The Other Frost,” discusses Frost’s weaknesses, his superficiality, his homey-wisdom-till-the-cows-come-home. The second, “To the Laodiceans,” is a careful, fine-drawn analysis of some of Frost’s best poems, and it makes you want to do nothing but read Frost all day and all night. Nothing — nothing — gives Jarrell more joy than a good poem. About “Provide, Provide,” he says,
For many readers this poem will need no comment at all, and for others it will need rather more than I could ever give. The poem is — to put it as crudely as possible — an immortal masterpiece; and if we murmur something about its crudities and provincialisms, History will smile tenderly at us and lay us in the corner beside those cultivated people from Oxford and Cambridge who thought Shakespeare a Hollywood scenario-writer. Since I can’t write five or six pages about the poem, it might be better to say only that it is full of the deepest, and most touching, moral wisdom — and it is full, too, of the life we have to try to be wise about and moral in (the sixth stanza is almost unbearably actual.)
From which you can see that Jarrell’s standards are not merely about innovation or technique or some sort of dialectic. They are about humanity. What creates a world, what shows us the world we live in, with all its intense relational and moral and psychological complexity? How can a poem do this, with its tensions and language and structure? (I will return to structure later.)
Jarrell’s essay on Walt Whitman was completely eye-opening for me, mostly because I have completely neglected Whitman. How could I? Jarrell says, “To show Whitman for what he is, one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote,” and then he does just that: pages and pages of quotations, glossed and explained, the beauties pointed out in the manner of a proud parent looking at a photo album. He finishes the essay by saying, among other things,
They might have put on his tombstone, WALT WHITMAN: HE HAD HIS NERVE. He is the rashest, the most inexplicable and unlikely — the most impossible, one wants to say — of poets. He somehow is in a class by himself, so that one compares him with other poets about as readily as one compares Alice with other books.
And of course, I wanted to rush out right away and buy a volume of Whitman (only I can’t, I’m in France.)
This particular effect of Jarrell’s is one I’ve come to adore: he makes you want to read the poetry he’s criticizing. His insights are true and deep. He tells you about form and structure, about the way one image at the end of Frost’s poem completes the image called upon at the beginning; or he tells you that this doesn’t happen, that the poem is weak and off-balance; or he tells you about the extreme precision of Marianne Moore’s language, or her repeated imagery of shields and protection, or about the marvels of Wallace Stevens’s early poetry and the disappointment of his later work. But whatever he’s doing, he makes you want to go get the poem and see for yourself. So much criticism seems to be done as an end in itself, a means of thinking about criticism, not as a means of thinking about a primary work. It leads you, if it leads you anywhere, to other critics; to books and articles of criticism. Jarrell leads you straight to poetry. He is at the service of the work. When he finds a bad poem, he is as sorry as you would be if you found a friend was getting a divorce; when he finds a good poem, nothing can compare to his solemn joy.
And this — leading readers to poetry — is his stated purpose, too: in “The Age of Criticism,” he talks quite a bit about bad criticism, which is not only written badly, but is a slave to trends, and leads nowhere but to more criticism.
Similarly, the most impressive thing about the bad critic is his methodical and oblivious contempt for unfashionable masterpieces, his methodical and superstitious veneration for fashionable masterpieces and their reflections; but to be properly impressed with this you must have responded to the works themselves, and not to their reputations. There is a Critical Dilemma which might be put in this form: To be able to tell which critics are reliable guides to literature, you must know enough about literature not to need guides….It is easier for the ordinary reader to judge among poems or stories or plays than it is for him to judge among pieces of criticism. Many bad or commonplace works of art never even succeed in getting him to notice them, and there are masterpieces that can shake even the Fat Boy awake.
This faith, this trust in the art itself, in the poetry, in the story, is one of Jarrell’s hallmarks, and one of the things that makes his criticism not only such a pleasure to read, but so unerring. Those he marked as true poets are still with us; those he marked as mediocre have faded.
I read this book, enthralled, over a few days, but this is the kind of book you could dip into and out of for months. There is much more here than I’ve had time to talk about, including that essay on poetic structure: Jarrell talks about the fact that very few poets think about structure at all — far more about language — which makes me think about how few novelists think about structure, either. Those that do, it seems to me, are creating something of quite a different order. But all that for another time. This book was marvelous. My students found it pretty amusing to think of dead poetry critics having groupies; they clearly don’t understand me yet.