Randall Jarrell (1914 -1965)

Life and Works

Talking about Walt Whitman, Randall Jarrell has expressed that "to show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote. He himself said, 'I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, / We convince by our presence'."1 These words may be applied to multitalented poet Randall Jarrell, who was at the time poet, translator, and critic. As poet-critic, for instance, he earned the respect of his elders, including poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Marianne Moore. He always provided both a deep insight into the poetic processes he was analysing and a modern and up to date look into the achievements of the texts of reference. Eventually shy and soft spoken before an audience, he gained a reputation for impassioned public readings and fierce public debates on the status of modern poetry.

Randall Jarrell was born May 6, 1914 in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of Owen and Anna Campbell Jarrell. A single sister died in infancy before Randall Jarrell's birth. Brother Charles was born in 1915 after the family had moved to California. When Jarrell was one year old his parents moved to Los Angeles where his father was employed as a photographer's assistant. His parents divorced and Randall and his younger brother Charles moved back to Nashville with their mother. Randall also lived for a time with his grandparents in California. He then returned to Nashville where he attended Hume-Fogg high school from 1927 to 1931.

In the fall of 1932 Jarrell entered Vanderbilt University where his professors included John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. While attending University, Jarrell wrote for its humour magazine, Vanderbilt Masquerader which he also edited during 1934/35. He completed his course work in three years by attending summer school at George Peabody College. Jarrell's first published poems appeared in the May, 1934 issue of The American Review. He eventually earned money grading papers for two of John Crowe Ransom's classes. Robert Lowell was a fellow student as was Peter Taylor who became Jarrell's best friend. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1935. At Vanderbilt, he was acquainted with poets of the Fugitives2 group. Jarrell followed critic John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he wrote a masters thesis on the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman3, and roomed with poet Robert Lowell. Randall moved in 1939 to take a teaching position at the University of Texas. There he met Mackie Langham, an English Department colleague. They married the following year.



Initially influenced by Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, Jarrell published verse in the anthology of Five American Poets (1940). Two years later, in 1942, Jarrell's first volume of poetry, Blood for a Stranger, was published. Dedicated to Allen Tate, it was an impressive debut of witty, sardonic, and technically accomplished verse, establishing him as a relevant new poetic voice: "In my dream last night, I remember, / Your face was sick and old; / Your voice shook; when I touched you / My hand was cold" ("The Lost Love"). Jarrell left Austin in 1942 to join the Army Air Corps as a flying cadet, but he washed out as a pilot and ended up working for the Army stateside as a control tower operator.

Little Friend, Little Friend was published in 1945. Critics detect a new depth and directness in contrast to the poet's earlier witty, acerbic style and attribute the change to the poet's participation in the war, serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps. These are Jarrell's words in retrospect concerning the extraordinary edition of his Complete Poems:

I have read these poems many times to audiences of different sorts, and all the audiences liked listening to them better, and found them easier, if I said beforehand something about what a ball turret was, or a B-24, or Tatyana Larina - and said it in 'plain American that cats and dogs can read.' Not that my poems aren't in plain American, but there it's verse, not prose. Prose helps; it helps just by being prose. In the old days, when readers could take or leave prose, poets sometimes gave them a good deal of it: there are hundreds of pages of notes and prefaces and reminiscences in Wordsworth's or Tennyson's Collected Poems. But nowadays, unless you're reading Marianne Moore or Empson or The Waste Land, you rarely get any prose to go along with the poems. The war - the Second World War - has been over for a long time; there are names and events people knew they would never forget which, by now, they have forgotten they ever knew. Some of these poems depend upon, or are helped by, the reader's remembering such names and events; other poems are helped by the reader's being reminded of some particular story or happening or expression - something you remember if you have lived in the South, or been in the Air Force, or gone to Der Rosenkavalier, or memorized some verse of the Bible. I've put into this introduction some prose sentences about a few of these things. But they are here for the reader only if he wants them - if you like poems without prose, or see after a few sentences that I am telling you very familiar things, just turn past this introduction4.

Both 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. Poems within these collections lead the reader back to the so called "war poetry" or more specifically "anti-war poetry", where influence of poets such as Wilfred Owen or W. B. Yeats is noticed. "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner", recovered later for Jarrell's 1955 Collected Poems, is a particularly piercing poem. "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" may be one of the most quoted poems to come out of World War II. Jarrell's own note to the poem adds further insight into this short masterpiece:

A ball turret was a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine-guns a fighter attacking his bomber below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.5

Enfolded in the plexiglass dome posed like a blister on the underside of a B-17 or B-24 bomber, the speaker provides an oneiric frame connected to outer experience ("mother's sleep", "dream of life", "I woke to black flack", "nightmare fighters"). The highly cohesive semantic fields worked out in an intensely compressed poem allow the flowing of that connection, creating a sense of verisimilitude applied to an irrational fact, the death of the I in the radical context of war but with a voice contextualized after the deeds of war: "When I died". The coldness from which the last line is expressed projects feelings of uneasiness and dissociation as an intentional final effect. The reversion of the idea of creation adds an interesting dimension to the poem: the body is "washed out" to death. With this poem Jarrell has achieved to develop a poetic process where meaning is recreated in the reader's mind in very powerful ways. It is the reader that constructs the war scene or air combat from the starting point of view of the ball turret gunner. It is worth quoting the poem here:

"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.

Following his discharge from the Army early in 1946, Jarrell accepted an invitation from Margaret Marshall, literary editor at The Nation to come to New York as her temporary replacement. While in New York Jarrell taught a writing course at Sarah Lawrence College and became a good friend of Hannah Arendt who credited Jarrell for teaching her to appreciate English language poetry. When the year at The Nation was over, Jarrell accepted a teaching position beginning in the fall of 1947 at The Woman's College of the University of North Carolina located in Greensboro (now UNCG). His close friend, Peter Taylor had preceded Jarrell to the Greensboro campus the year before. Although Taylor did not remain in Greensboro - he taught from 1946 to 1948, 1949 to 1952, and 1963 to 1967 - Jarrell was on the permanent faculty at UNCG until his untimely death in 19656.

Jarrell took advantage of his Guggenheim Fellowship that he'd received in 1946 during the 1948/49 academic year. He remained in Greensboro, teaching only one class and devoting most of his time to writing. During his years at UNCG Jarrell served on panels of the annual Arts Forum, gave poetry readings and public lectures. He loved teaching and has been quoted often as saying that if he were a rich man, he'd pay money to teach.

Losses, the poet's third collection was published in 1948. As a response to the war, it included the striking long poem "Orestes at Tauris" establishing an implicit parallelism between the war of Troy and the Second World War. The epigraph runs as follows:

Iphigenia and Orestes were children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. When the Greek fleet, on the way to Troy, was delayed by contrary winds at Aulis, Agamemnon killed Iphigenia as a sacrifice. Later versions of the myth have her snatched from the altar by Artemis, who makes her a priestess at Tauris, in the Crimea. Coming home after the fall of Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. He was pursued from country to country by the Furies, and finally was required, in expiation for his crime, to bring back to Greece that image of Artemis to which the Tauri sacrificed the strangers cast up on their shores.7

The asymmetry created between tone and content allows the rise of very powerful feelings, challenging the reader. The poem "Losses" concentrates on death. The word "death" envelopes the poem with its echoing, and the poet progressively empties the word from its meaning. But in the final stanza, the meaning is being recovered in a kind of journey back to the significance of war: "It was not dying - no, not ever dying; / But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead, / And the cities said to me: 'Why are you dying? / We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?" ("Losses").

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 analysis of Robert Lowell's early poetry ("From the Kingdom of Necessity") is a step forward into Lowell's early hermetic and highly symbolic verse. At the same time, his analysis of the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams, show a critic with a sophisticated love for poetry. He was then 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).

In short, the mature stage of his career included publication of a series of critical essays in Poetry and the Age. Less successful was a satirical novel, Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy (1954), a witty putdown of academic life, drawing upon his teaching experiences at Sarah Lawrence College, which served as the model for the fictional Benton College. His most famous works appeared in The Seven-League Crutches (1951); Selected Poems (1955); The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations (1960), winner of a National Book Award; and The Lost World (1966). He displayed the whimsical side of his nature in the playful children's works the Gingerbread Rabbit (1963), The Bat-Poet (1964), The Animal Family (1965), and Fly by Night (1976). In 1951 his fourth book of poetry, The Seven-League Crutches appeared; Jarrell and his wife, Mackie Langham separated; and the academic year found him teaching at Princeton University. The summer following, Jarrell was in California where he met Mary von Schrader. They married in November, 1952. Still on leave from the Greensboro campus, Jarrell lectured at Indiana University and the University of Illinois before returning from Laguna Beach with his new wife and her two young daughters.

The Seven-League Crutches was published in 1951, and includes Jarrell's first translations. It was enthusiastically praised by Robert Lowell, who declared Jarrell to be "our most talented poet under 40." Jarrell's satirical novel Pictures from an Institution anatomizes incivility, complacency, and provincialism in a progressive women's college. Robert Lowell calls it "a unique and serious jokebook," and others regard it as a clever portrait of the intellectual life of the period.

In 1955 the poet compiles selections from his previous volumes (Selected Poems), many revised, in addition to two new works, along with an introduction that explains the background and intent of some of his poems. This edition became an essential reference regarding the poet's work, and would become part of the material included in the great volume of the Complete Poems.8

In 1956 Jarrell served as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress for two years. Following the appearance of Selected Poems, Jarrell would produce only four new poems and a handful of Rilke translations during his tenure at the Library of Congress. In 1958 the Jarrells returned to Greensboro and to academic life at the Woman's College.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo was published in 1960. Published to critical acclaim and winning a National Book Award, the collection includes the title work that may be considered as a kind of confessional poem disguised as a monologue delivered by an imaginary speaker, a poetic technique that becomes one of Jarrell's hallmarks. The poem sketches the inner landscape of a passive uniform-clad figure, overwhelmed by feelings of estrangement, walking among cages and fearfully observing the exhibits. At the zoo, the diaphanous patterned silks rival the gorgeous rippling hide of the leopard: "Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet. / They look back at the leopard like the leopard." At the same time, the startling colours clash with the speaker's '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." The speaker mourns that she is a voiceless entity caged in flesh, longing for transfiguration. Unlike the zoo animals, she acknowledges the measure of her life and chafes at the pageant of the capital city, where 'the world' passes by her desk without alleviating despair, alienation and loneliness. Starved for passion, she visualizes a shape in the vulture, a gallant, red-helmeted idealised figure who has 'shadowed me, and step to me as man" like approaching death, surrounded by animals, noises and a contrastive chromaticism. Ending this experience of displacement, the last three lines express an outburst of passion contrasting against the previous passive pose of the speaker: "You know what I was. / You see what I am: / change me, change me!".

Jarrell's Woman at the Washington Zoo, received the National Book Award for poetry in 1961. This honor was followed in 1962 by the University of North Carolina's Oliver Max Gardner Award. During the early 1960's Jarrell began writing children's books: The Bat-Poet (1963), The Animal Family (1965), dedicated to the Jarrell's cat, Elfi, and Fly by Night (published posthumously in 1976); all were illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Jarrell's last book of poetry, The Lost World was published by Macmillan in the spring of 1965, and includes an appreciatory introduction by Robert Lowell. Poems in this volume follow the style and autobiographical subjective technique of the previous The Woman at the Washington Zoo.

According to William Pritchard9 in his literary biography of Jarrell, uncertainties still surround the chronology of events during the last year of Jarrell's life. It was a difficult time in his life, and his last semester of teaching in the Fall of 1965 was hardly begun before it was ended.



On October 14, 1965, while walking along a road in Chapel Hill near dusk, Jarrell was struck by a car and killed. He died instantly. Jarrell is buried in Guilford College, N.C. not far from the home he shared with his wife, Mary. The coroner ruled the death accidental, but Jarrell had recently been treated for mental illness, manic-depressions, 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." Colleagues Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren mourned Jarrell's abrupt death with a collection of tributes: Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 (1967).

1Randall Jarrell. Poetry and the Age ("Some Lines from Whitman"), London: Faber and Faber, 1996 [New York: A. Knopf, 1953], pp.98-99.

2The Fugitives were a group of poets and literary scholars who came together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee around 1920. They published a small literary magazine called The Fugitive from 1922-1925, which showcased their works. Although its published life was brief, The Fugitive is considered to be one of the most influential publications in the history of American letters. The Fugitives made Vanderbilt a fountainhead of the New Criticism, the dominant mode of textual analysis in English during the first half of the twentieth century. Even apart from this, the group would be remarkable for the number of its members whose works would claim a permanent place in the literary canon. mong the most notable Fugitives were John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren. Less closely associated were the critic Cleanth Brooks and the poet Laura Riding.

3Alfred Edward Housman (March 26, 1859 - April 30, 1936), usually known as A.E. Housman, was an English poet and classical scholar. During his years in London, A E Housman completed his cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad. After several publishers had turned it down, he published it at his own expense in 1896, much to the surprise of his colleagues and students. At first the book sold slowly, but Housman's nostalgic depiction of brave English soldiers struck a chord with English readers and his poems became a lasting success. Later, World War I had a further increasing effect on their popularity.

4Randall Jarrell. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996 [1935; 1969], p. 4.

5Randall Jarrell. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996 [1935; 1969], p. 8.

6For further information, William Pritchard's literary biography of Jarrell may be consulted.

7Randall Jarrell. The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996 [1969; 1935], p. 406.

8Randall Jarrell. The Complete Poems. New York: The Noonday Press; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996 (1969)

9Pritchard, William H. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.


Autor: Gabriel Torres Chalk (UNED)