Over the past few years, I’ve made it a point to read as much of Randall Jarrell’s poetry criticism as I can. He was a very good poet himself (although maybe not absolutely top-tier), and he was, maybe, the most astute critic of his time. His work established or resuscitated the reputations of certain poets: Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell. Try reading some of his essays, like “To the Laodiceans,” his profound appreciation of the greatness of Robert Frost, when all that is Yankee-hokeyness has been wiped away. He is generous and eager, and his criticism always points, not to himself as critic, and not to criticism as an end in itself, but to the work. You always leave Jarrell wanting to read. Perhaps most astonishing of all is the way he was always right. Many critics fit in with the taste of their age. It is one critic in thousands who is still showing us the truth of poetry a couple of generations later.
A Sad Heart at the Supermarket is a collection of Jarrell’s essays on a pretty fair variety of topics, though not quite as diverse as they were in the marvelous Poetry and the Age. The first few (“The Intellectual in America,” “The Taste of the Age,” “The Schools of Yesteryear,” and “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket,”) are wry accounts of how literary matters are going to hell in a handbasket in America today (that would be 1962.) Jarrell points out from different angles that literature, and perhaps particularly the reading of poetry, is now considered “over-intellectual” or “too difficult,” though just a few years ago schoolchildren did it all the time. One of my favorite passages compares our unhappy state to that of Queen Victoria:
If the young Queen Victoria had said the Duke of Wellington: “Sir, the Bureau of Public Relations is in a deplorable state,” he would have answered, “What is a Bureau of Public Relations, ma’am?” When he and his generals wanted to tell lies, they had to tell them themselves; there was no organized institution set up to do it for them….People gossiped about her, but not in gossip columns; she had never heard a commentator, a soap opera, a quiz program. Queen Victoria — think of it! — had never heard a singing commercial, never seen an advertisement beginning: Science says… When Disraeli and Gladstone made speeches for her government, the speeches weren’t written for them by ghost-writers; when Disraeli and Gladstone sent her lovingly or respectfully inscribed copies of their new books, they had written the books themselves. …
Queen Victoria never went to the movies and had an epic costing eight million dollars injected into her veins — she never went to the movies. She never read a drugstore book by Mickey Spillane; even if she had had a moral breakdown and had read a Bad Book, it would just have been Under Two Flags or something by Marie Corelli. She had never been interviewed by, or read the findings of, a Gallup Poll….
And all the other people in the world were just like Queen Victoria.
Jarrell puts a humorous cast on the state of affairs, but he is quite serious about the effects a consumerist society may have on poetry and on literature more generally — on writers, on readers, and on critics.
There are also some blessed critical essays in this book. They are all wonderful, but my favorite is “On Preparing to Read Kipling.” Kipling enjoys much the same reputation today that he did in Jarrell’s time: either people consider him a writer for children (The Jungle Book, Kim) or they veer away from the straw man they’ve made of his colonialist opinions. He’s one of the people We Are Too Virtuous to Read.
Randall Jarrell wants to change your mind. In fact, he wants to stoppeth one of three, and take you by the lapels, and explain to you at great length, while you miss the wedding, why you ought to love Kipling: because Kipling is one of the world’s great story-writers, that’s why. Henry James thought Kipling was a genius, he says, by way of support, but most of the essay is dissection: look at the piles of proof that show what a master storyteller he was. I grew up on Kipling, from the children’s books to Stalky & Co. to the poetry to the many astonishing short stories. I couldn’t agree more with Jarrell. But his essay left me wanting to go straight back and begin again, the morrow morn.
And now, sadly, I’ve reached the end of Jarrell’s criticism: I’ve read all the essays that good-humored, passionate, fascinating, accurate essayist had to write. What critic should I try now? Who will give me sharp insight on literature, and make me want to read more? All suggestions welcome.