Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Randall Jarrell's            Poetry and the Age (1953): A Retrospective Review

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     To haul an essay collection like Poetry and the Age by Randall Jarrell out of mothballs is to do simultaneously two very unlike, and most unlikely, things: hail the discovery of camphor and deplore for the umpteenth time the heights from which literary criticism has fallen since this book was published back in 1953. While the second of these things hardly needs a pretext these days, the first makes the point—if only by an associative stretch—that Jarrell as a critic was chiefly concerned that the means by which the finest American verse is propitiated be preserved and extended. Of course, anyone presuming to judge the achievement of someone like Jarrell is obliged to at least try to be as fair, far-sighted, critically astute and witty as Jarrell himself was; and that, as anyone who has read him with care and attentiveness will readily attest, is no easy job to take on.
     Or to pull off: Jarrell wasn't just a journeyman creative-writing technician or sometime scold of poetry's unwashed. Though he taught for a number of years at a little known girls' college in Greensboro, North Carolina, he remained a highly committed, even monkish, poet-critic who viewed what he and others said about the verse of their contemporaries as serious business, if not quite, as his elder colleagues in the field Yvor Winters and Allen Tate did, as one capable at times of rising up and eclipsing other, more important interests. During a 25-year poetic career Jarrell wrote no more than a handful of critical essays of any length and breadth on poetry and poets. Apart from those included in Poetry and the Age and the five pieces posthumously published in The Third Book of Criticism (1979), the remainder of his scattered reflections on verse, amounting to a few hundred pages, were finally gathered together in Kipling, Auden & Co. (1980), a miscellany composed largely of brief reviews—some, between the verse chronicles, on works as disparate as Allen Tate's Reason in Madness and Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History, Vols. VII-X—written for The Nation and Partisan Review and spanning the years 1935-1964. (A Sad Heart at the Supermarket [1962] contained no literary essays as such, just some articles on social issues that Jarrell had accumulated over the years.)
     But what a handful! And what a bounty of sheer critical wisdom, in the best and most life-enhancing sense, is to be found on page after page of this incredible book. While the most remarkable pieces in it are by almost everyone's account "To the Laodiceans" (on Robert Frost), "Some Lines from Whitman," and "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," no knowledgeable reader would exclude "Her Shield" (on Marianne Moore), "John Ransom's Poetry," or "From the Kingdom of Necessity" (on Lord Weary's Castle, by his friend Robert Lowell) from a list of marvels that also contains "The Obscurity of the Poet," "The Ages of Criticism," two verse chronicles and Jarrell's Introduction to the Selected Poetry of William Carlos Williams. These are essays that not only provide a model of how critics should conduct themselves—after all, T. S. Eliot, R. P. Blackmur, William Empson and W. H. Auden, to name but a few, had already done that to near-perfection—but also establish parameters for the judgment of literary merit that exceed academic narrowness without sacrificing truthfulness or necessary candor.
     Robert Lowell's most generous encomium on Jarrell as a critic appeared in a eulogy published shortly after Jarrell's death in 1965. It makes the case fairly, if a trifle more glad- than even-handedly, that the qualities that sustained him as a poet were the same as those that allowed him to be unusually perceptive about what was good and bad in the verse of his contemporaries. "Most good poets are also good critics on occasion," Lowell says, "but Jarrell was much more than this. He was a critic of genius, a poet-critic of genius at a time when, as he wrote, most criticism was 'astonishingly graceless, joyless, humorless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige-obsessed, and almost autonomous.'" That composing tributes to recently deceased poets was also something at which Jarrell himself excelled is a point Lowell makes in his own valedictory piece on Jarrell: ". . . {Eulogy] was the glory of Randall's criticism. Eulogies that not only impressed readers with his own enthusiasms, but which also, time and again, changed and improved opinions and values. He left many reputations permanently altered and exalted. . . ." In the course of recalling this, Lowell cites the essays on Frost and Whitman that I have already named, along with a gist-laden piece on Stevens's Collected Poems (not found in Poetry and the Age) in which Jarrell's earlier stated views on that poet's later verse in books like Auroras of Autumn underwent what Lowell calls a "dramatic reversal." Jarrell showed in this that he was not hidebound or had his contents irremediably sewn into him like a sausage. His views on something as vitally important as poetry were always open to modification and not only could, but sometimes did, suffer radical transformation if Jarrell found that he'd gone blind on the road back from some critical Damascus or other. And when Jarrell stepped out in front of a particular issue, he addressed his readers in a human voice, not one suggesting (in the manner of a candidate currently running for president) a village explainer coached on Mount Olympus.
     Such retrenchments, however, never quite obliterated the overview on a given poet that the altered perspective purported to supplant. It merely broadened Jarrell's sense of that figure's worth by having certain details of its formulation readjusted. Nor did this process, when it occurred, ever suggest a cutting of cloth to suit a new trend or seizure of fashion. Jarrell didn't care how his own views were received. As he saw it, his only responsibility was to the work of the poet under hand; everything else was to be subordinated to the need to be truthful about his or her virtues or deficiencies as a poet. And this remained for him an important distinction which had little or nothing to do with New Critical suppositions of the time excluding biographical considerations from criticism. It was simply that such ways of accounting for what got into poetry were in no way related to what readers got out of poetry. To talk about poets' lives is to reduce the liveliness of great poetry to the sort of lived-in generalities that make the essentially uneventful attending of be-ins lasting a lifetime biographical coin of the realm. All poets are the same under the skin, and if the critic believes his job to be flaying his subject alive nothing will emerge from it but a grubbiness that ends up soiling the characterizer as much as him or her in whom character is shown to be lacking. As Dostoevsky argued almost a century and a half ago, morbid psychologizing has today become, in criticism no less than in ideological politics, the first and last refuge of the scoundrel. Why, especially when there is no need to, should waters be muddied that even under ideal conditions are difficult to keep clear of impurities?
     "What is a critic, anyway?" Jarrell asks in "The Age of Criticism," certain that he knew at least part of the answer.

So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader—one who has learned to show to others what he saw in what he read. He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence. Of course, it is often the accident and not the essence that we read the critic for: pieces of criticism are frequently, though not necessarily, works of art of an odd anomalous kind, and we can sympathize with someone when he says lovingly about a critic, as [William] Empson says about I. A. Richards, that we get more from him when he's wrong than we do from other people when they're right.

But Jarrell knew that living with critics and the over-pervasive presence of what today's entertainment industry would call product was not all beer and skittles.

Critics . . . are often useful and wonderful and a joy to have around the house; but they're the bane of our age, because our age so fantastically overestimates their importance and so willingly forsakes the works they are writing about for them. We are brought into the world by specialists, borne out of it by specialists: more and more people think the critic an indispensable middle man between writer and reader, and would no more read a book alone, if they could help it, than have a baby alone. . . .

     It was Jarrell's main contribution to how criticism was conceived and written in his own time that he approached each new opportunity to appraise the contribution of a poet like Whitman or Frost as an agon fought against prejudice and facile stereotyping of poets and the pseudo-responses to their work they spawned. In the case of Whitman these rose up in the distorting shapes of the cliché-dispenser familiarly known as "Walt," or "the good gray poet," both of which function as ways of avoiding what is Whitman's true essence—one, according to Jarrell, much closer to Homer and the tradition of the epic than to that of either the romantic lyric or the prophetic apocalyptism of a Blake. For him the quintessence of Whitman lies in his utter adamantine refusal to be like anyone else:

. . . 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. (Even his free verse has a completely different effect from everybody else's.) Who would think of comparing him with Tennyson or Browning or Arnold or Baudelaire?—it is Homer, or the sagas, or something far away and long ago, that comes to one's mind only to be dismissed; for sometimes Whitman is epic, just as Moby Dick is . . .

Another critic—even an exceptionally voluble and unabashed one—might, having gone that far, stopped there, but not Jarrell, for whom such wind-ups were merely reculer pour mieux sauter preparations for the real pitch to come:

. . . Whitman is grand, and elevated, and comprehensive, and real with an astonishing reality, and many other things—the critic points at his qualities in despair and wonder, all method failing, and simply calls them by their names. And the range of these qualities is the most extraordinary thing of all. We can surely say about him, "He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again"—and wish that people had seen this and not tried to be his like: one Whitman is miracle enough, and when he comes again it will be the end of the world.

     It is a further hallmark of Jarrell's extraordinary critical style that his exaggerations convince us, if only for the moment, that perhaps they are not exaggerations at all, but rather overextensions of nature and the literary that Jarrell, and Jarrell alone, has managed to perceive. For after all, wasn't D. H. Lawrence, the brilliant exorbitancy of his Studies in Classic American Literature notwithstanding, also given to engaging in hyperbole, in thunderclouding issues of moment and of human solvency with nimbuses of rhetoric, yea, even prodigalities of implication that—well, judge for yourself:

Whitman has gone further, in actual living expression, than any man . . . Dostoevsky has burrowed underground into the decomposing psyche. But Whitman has gone forward in life-knowledge. It is he who surmounts the grand climacteric of our civilization.
Whitman enters on the last phase of spiritual triumph. He really arrives at that stage of infinity which the seers sought. By subjecting the deepest centres of the lower self, he attains the maximum consciousness in the higher self: a degree of extensive consciousness greater, perhaps, than any man in the modern world.

Than any man in the modern world? Yes, it is not at all unlikely that one could be made to go for that—if one read Lawrence long enough; and if one were willing to climb in with him into that lava-lamp sex-plasm he haruspicates from, and out of whose sun-hot and retractive light he gazes blindingly upon the modern Gehenna's field of folk; and if one believed that he believed that man, in his post Marxian and post-Freudian stupor, might seize the day and Laurentianize the world in time to save it from itself—and if one could envisage being convinced to hand over to Lawrence the keys to one's ego with all its gender-logging capacity for the duration of the coming reign of the sexless Antichrist.
     But what a surfeit of "and if's"! Jarrell's largesse may occasionally stray into overdraft but fealty to the check-writer is never part of the deal that he as critic is committed to with the reader. And when he finds things about Whitman to dispraise—for instance, the "abusages" of some of his worst language ("for, just as few poets have ever written better, few poets have ever written worse"), such as Walt's "O culpable! I acknowledge. I exposé!"—the authority of Whitman's world view doesn't rise or fall on the basis of them as often is the case with Lawrence. Jarrell trusts his reader to read the evidence aright and the evidence in one of his essays is displayed in unambiguous light and in full, through the use of varied, meaty, and thoroughly persuasive quotation, in the wake of which this same reader, having now been inundated with chapter and verse, can only nod in agreement and wonder how what was just shown could have ever been lost on him. To effect with equivalent point (but far fewer illustrations) what Jarrell does so well, it's best just to cite him citing his own preferred method for letting Whitman be Whitman. "To show Whitman for what he is," he writes, "one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote." Almost three whole pages of quotations from Leaves of Grass then follow, spotlighting every manner of Whitmanian avoidance of manner by singling out phrase after phrase in which some nail of eloquence, hit squarely on the head, creates an effect that is both memorable and of a beauty proportionate to its occasion. "How can one quote enough?" he concludes. "If the reader thinks that all this is like Thomas Wolfe he is Thomas Wolfe . . ." The argument is thus capped, leaving the unconvinced to locate the appropriate headgear for dunces on their own. It's no longer of interest to Jarrell where, or even if, they do.
     But such impatience as he was inclined to display with the inveterately stupid could turn to patient understanding when a work's complexity called for it. Jarrell's reader was never quite an "ideal" one; he was too much a Manichaean—and a pragmatist—to write either up or down to anyone. He knew that to have a chance at enlarging the audience for poetry—his reason for bothering to write criticism at all—the reader he cherished in the back of his mind had to become almost indistinguishable from the one who might actually come upon one of his pieces in The New York Times Book Review or The Nation. That reader was literate to be sure, but far from erudite; curious, but likely to require some prompting where anything that might be mistaken for esoterica was concerned. Added to that was a distinctly American intellectual slovenliness that at the least instigation further toadstooled into a pigging out on every imaginable equivalent of fast food in print. (All of this of course relates to a period when TV was still in its infancy and its future mass audience could imagine a leisure more diverting—not to mention rewarding—than having to stare at a flickering phosphorus tube for hours at a time.)
     Before anyone hastens to apply the above profile to readers akin to today's devourers of People Magazine or USA Today, he or she should be reminded that Jarrell was thinking primarily of that ordinary reader alluded to in the essay "The Obscurity of the Poet" who would readily consign Paradise Lost to "his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with Moby Dick, War and Peace, Faust, and Boswell's Life of Johnson." Does that sound at all like the sort of recent history we could imagine our part of the planet as having passed through—a time when the so-called "ordinary reader" had earned the right to label such classics as Jarrell lists as "dull" because he had at least made the effort to get through them in their entirety? How many readers of any kind are there today, and how many of them could be counted upon to even have heard of Faust or Boswell's Life of Johnson outside a PhD program in literature?
     Such questions aside, Jarrell could, when there was no other way not to, call a spade a spade and not flinch at having to use language like "dirty rotten shovel" when being less explicit might have seemed unduly euphemistic. A famous instance of his appearing to come down hard on a poet whose work he otherwise took enormous pleasure in may be found in "To the Laodiceans," his fullest appraisal of Frost's qualifications to be included among the very best American poets, along with a reconsideration of some of the laurel wreaths conventionally heaped on Frost so as not to be a party to a process by which a first-rate poet is declared immortal for all the wrong reasons. After all, a bum's rush is a bum's rush, even when it lands you in a hall of fame. One enormously problematic attribute of Frost's poetic style was its tendency—call it playfully duplicitous, if you like—to provoke multiple, even contradictory, readings in ways that even critics like William Empson in his groundbreaking Seven Types of Ambiguity hardly touched upon. Put as only Jarrell could put it, the following read-out unscrambles much that remains hopelessly reticular in other critics' braving of the Frostian spider in his web:

. . . Frost's daemonic gift of always getting on the buttered side of both God and Mammon; of doing and saying anything and everything that he pleases, and still getting the World to approve or tactfully ignore every bit of it; of not only allowing, but taking a hard pleasure in encouraging, fools and pedants to adore him as their own image magnified—all this has helped to keep us from seeing Frost for what he really is. And here one has no right to be humble and agreeable, and to concede beforehand that what he really is is only one's own "view" or "interpretation" of him: the regular ways of looking at Frost's poetry are grotesque simplifications, distortions, falsifications—coming to know his poetry well ought to be enough, in itself, to dispel any of them, and to make plain the necessity of finding some other way of talking about his work.

How restful to the critical eye (in a helpful sense, I mean) such commentary is can be gauged by checking out what's on offer in the store down the road. Here, from the opening of Reuben A. Brower's at times bonecrushingly technical The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention (1963), is how all this struck a contemporary:

There is no poet of whose voice we are surer than Frost's, no poet whom we hear more distinctly as we read. He is also a poet of distinct and clear statement: we are relatively certain of what he is saying. The combination of the two qualities has misled his admirers in two corresponding ways. There are those who mistake the voice of the poet for the voice of the actual man, who deny the dramatic premise of poetry, forgetting what Frost has always insisted on, that a poem is an "act," and not a report. There are others who reduce the poetry to "truths" (though truths are very much a part of his and any poetry), who miss the "brute throat noises" and, in attending to the subject, miss the poet's "subject matter." They miss, as he would say the "tones," those "pauses and rushes and intensities of sound" that are "more revealing" than the dictionary meaning of words.

     The "other ways of talking about" Frost's work called for by Jarrell are plainly circumvented in the amiably confidentializing shoptalk Brower is given to in his book, deriving as it does from a mindset willing to take at face value such false trails as are laid down for the unwary by so canny a Villon-esque type as Frost when he writes: "I've wanted to write down certain brute throat noises so that no one could miss them in my sentences. I have been guilty of speaking of sentences as a mere notation for indicating them, I have counted on doubling my meaning with them. They have been my observation and my subject matter." Jarrell gives Frost no quarter when it comes to talking out of both sides of his mouth because anything less would be doing things by halves; and having learned from experience that to shake the hand of this grizzled old flimflammer from Vermont is to be counting your fingers later, Jarrell ended by being of the opinion that in dealing with an intermittently sweet body of work like this poet's late poems, no loaf was sometimes better than one half-Frosted—especially if one had trouble figuring out which half was which.
     But if talking this way about Jarrell leaves one with the sense that he was only interested in poetry for the leverage it afforded traders on the floor of the Bourse known to Eliot and his ephebes as the "tradition," then that impression is both unfair and inaccurate. He had a gift for zeroing in on the sort of minutiae that could subtly define and even shape a poet's work. Marianne Moore—an almost obsessional favorite of Jarrell's—wove her own version of moral macramé, he noticed, turning plants and animals into axiological nodes, an antidotal system crying out at times, he was driven to think, for detoxification:

. . . Because so much of our own world is evil, [Moore] has transformed the Animal Kingdom, that amoral realm, into a realm of good; her consolatory, fabulous bestiary is more accurate than, but is almost as arranged as, any medieval one. We need it as much as she does, but how can we help feeling that she relies, some of the time, too surely upon this last version of pastoral?

Or he would point out that some of the "changes" (here playing on the additional sense of the word as it relates to music) in her work "can be considered in terms of Armour" (italics mine):

Queer terms, you say? They are hers, not mine: a good deal of her poetry is specifically (and changingly) about armour, weapons, protection, places to hide; and she is not only conscious that this is so, but after a while writes poems about the fact that it is so. As she says, "armour seems extra," but it isn't; and when she writes about "another armoured animal," about another "thing made graceful by adversities, conversities," she does so with the sigh of someone who has come home. She asks whether a woman's looks are weapons or scalpels; comments, looking out on a quiet town: "It could scarcely be dangerous to be living / in a town like this"; says about a man's nonchalance: "his by- / play was more terrible in its effectiveness / than the fiercest frontal attack. / The staff, the bag, the feigned inconsequence / of manner, best bespeak that weapon, self-protectiveness." That weapon, self-protectiveness! The poet knows that morals are not "the memory of success that no longer succeeds," but a part of survival ("Her Shield," 179-80).

     One feels one should apologize for having gotten carried away quoting Jarrell quoting Moore, or whoever the poète du jour is, but with the author of Poetry and the Age it's almost impossible to hug the quotational shore when the flow of semicolons and colons pulls one so strongly out to open sea. And not just the punctuation (at whose deployment Jarrell is past master), but the whole armamentarium of medicinals of which his style is composed, with not so much as a snake oil in a carload. Who but Jarrell would have thought to characterize the lucubrative embroideries of Stevens's Auroras of Autumn as "G. E. Moore at the spinet"? Which raises the question, now no longer suppressible, Why, O why, are there no Jarrells writing criticism today? And why, amid all the French-fried indigestibles currently impasse-ing for lit. crit., and amid all those piping tremolos, so redolent of Stratford atte Bowe, whose recitatives teach as little as their lispers have learned, is there not a single voice raised to demand that criticism return, if only in spirit, to the days of yore, rather than of Gore, when Jarrell and Blackmur and Empson and Burke rode the high ground and left the low to all the politically correct types (a.k.a. the helots of gender, race and class, and—I almost forgot—underdeveloped worldliness)? Why should the truth of what criticism was about have been so obvious to a repressive, McCarthy-ridden time like the '50s, and as recessive as a blonde gene in a Celtic car pool to our own? For Jarrell such truth remained as complex in conception as it stood out unequivocally as fact. Though it was there to inspire, it readily evaporated in the face of philistinism asserting itself as cultural conservancy or Wintersian moralism aspiring to supernal rationalism. This truth of which he spoke was in fact as plain as the nose on anyone's face—unless of course the nose in question belonged to a Pinocchio or a Cyrano de Bergerac:

. . . Real criticism demands not only unusual human qualities but an unusual combination and application of these: it is no wonder that even real critics are just critics, most of the time. So much of our society is based, necessarily, on lies, equivocations, glossings-over; a real critic, about part of this society, tries to tell only the truth. When it is a pleasant truth—and it often is—reader and writer and critic are a joy to one another; but when the critic comes to the reader's house and tells him causelessly and senselessly and heartlessly, that the book he is married to isn't everything she should be—ah, then it's a different affair! (Italics mine.)

What critic waxing vocal today, either in print or on the Internet, could we imagine qualifying an assertion that "our society is based on lies, equivocations, glossings-over" with that Jansenist adverbial, "necessarily"? Few, if any, I think, and that is why a book like Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age continues an unread classic of our prose by an unread classic of our poetry, who in "A War" put succinctly what it might be that keeps us marching to the beat of all those different drummers:

There set out, slowly, for a Different World,
At four, on winter mornings, different legs . . .
You can't break eggs without making an omelette
—That's what they tell the eggs.

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