The Poetry of Jarrell

Author Randall Jarrell (1914–1965)


By the time of his death, Randall Jarrell had become one of the recognized leading poets in America. His writing includes a satiric novel, PICTURES FROM AN INSTITUTION, two books of essays, literary and social-critical, two children’s books, several translations from German works, and seven books of poetry which collect the work of more than twenty years.

Perhaps his most important book was his second, LITTLE FRIEND, LITTLE FRIEND. These poems, published in 1945, marked the true beginning of his successful career. The book is largely composed of war poems—the title is the repeated name of an airplane—and the best of Jarrell’s work on this theme is here. The most famous, possibly because the shortest, of these is "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

Some critics have viewed this as a poem dealing with the theme of the individual in the modern world. This interpretation seems removed from the content of the poem, but we can see the line of reasoning which may lead to it: the gunner hunched in the belly of the State, which is also associated with the womb of his mother (see Jarrell’s note—"he looked like a foetus in the womb"); the transition is from the apparently prenatal life of dream to the waking "nightmare" of the fighters, a waking which is simultaneous with death. Presumably critics have felt that his epiphanic awakening to the fatal horror of the State symbolizes the general power of the mechanized State to crush out the life of an individual, to press him into dormancy. A less sympathetic critic has said of the poem that the last line, with its matter-of-fact expression of the grotesque, leaves much to be desired; that although horror may be unrelieved in poetry, a fuller vision of the implications of death must be present: the poem stops too soon.

Both of these views hurt the poem. The former finds so much that the poem becomes a sterile, rather trite idea; the latter demands so much that he does not see what is there. For us, the poem is a good capsule summary of three of Jarrell’s major themes: death, especially in war; the relationship of mother and child, and childhood in general; and social criticism of the kind that finds prose expression in his essays titled A SAD HEART AT THE SUPERMARKET. Further, one finds in many of Jarrell’s poems, as in this one, the exploration and use of dreaming.

"Losses" was published in the 1945 volume, and its title was used for the next book, Losses, of 1948. The men killed, as pictured in the poem, were not sufficiently alive, not old enough to have been quite alive; and only at the moment of vision which transcended cities could they die. It is the idea of Keats, that at the most intense moment of life there is death, and at death there is life.

In "The Dead Wingman" death and dream again merge, as a sleeping pilot dreams of searching for his wingman who was shot down. "Fires" is repeated in each of the stanzas, and it is implied that the sleeping pilot’s own plane is in trouble; so when we are told only at the end that the pilot is sleeping, we assume his death. In fact, were it not for Jarrell’s explanatory note, this would be the inevitable conclusion. This documentation raises a very real question in evaluating Jarrell’s work, for although he insisted that his notes are unnecessary, still they are often quite necessary to the understanding of the poems. Often rather than notes the necessary information is given at the head of the poem: often, as in the last two books, there are no notes and the reader finds that the poems require close concentration. The poet must decide what his poems will be, how self-contained they are, but readers will decide the depth to which they are willing to go in apprehending the whole poem.

"Burning the Letters," which appeared in Losses, is one of Jarrell’s finest. The wife of a pilot delivers a dramatic monologue to herself while burning his letters to her. A metaphorical equation is presented, that by a Man’s (Christ’s) death man lives, so by her husband’s death she lives. She wants now to disentangle her life and the pilot’s death, so she burns the letters and beseeches his grave, the "Great grave of all my years," to bury him. Her memory, not herself, will be his resting place. Specifically Christian associations are rare in Jarrell’s poetry, possibly accounting for his apologetic headnote that the woman was formerly a Christian, a Protestant. At the opposite extreme from "Burning the Letters" there are poems which are almost entirely description with little "philosophy." "Pilots, Man Your Planes" from Losses is a good example, a simple narration of the ironic destruction of a plane by a fire from its own carrier. The lines are chilling and evocative, as those in which the poet describes the pilot entering his plane and taking off the deck of a carrier.

The transition from the world of death and dreams to the world of childhood is an easy one after the Romantic poets. In fact, "The Skaters," from Jarrell’s first book, Blood from a Stranger, might remind one of Wordsworth’s skaters in THE PRELUDE; the sudden transformation of landscape at the end of "A Game at Salzburg" is likewise Wordsworthian. We should also look to Rilke for influence on the "childhood" poems—Jarrell translated several of them. The title of one book, THE SEVEN-LEAGUE CRUTCHES, itself juxtaposes childish fancy and morbidity. "Come to the Stone . . ." from LITTLE FRIEND, makes several connections with the poetry we have been discussing. A child sees some bombers, asks why people punish people, and answers easily that everything is childlike except his own death. The death of a child is his arrival into manhood. The theme of the poem is not the brutality of war, but the loss of innocence. This theme becomes increasingly important in Jarrell’s poetry until, in his 1965 volume, the title suggests the new theme: THE LOST WORLD. The world lost is that of childhood.

The title poem is roughly pentametric, seldom decasyllabic, as are many of Jarrell’s verses; but here we find a rhyme scheme, terza rima, very thoroughly hidden. This is an achievement in itself for nearly 250 verses. The poem is a narrative whose viewpoint shifts from childhood to adulthood with Proustian ease. In the opening of the third part the smell of Vicks Vaporub from a factory reminds the adult of the California eucalyptus tree he used to climb—Proust’s madeleine—just as in the sequel, "Thinking of the Lost World," at the end of the volume the chain of memory is set off by a spoonful of chocolate tapioca. The lost world is associated with classical and Biblical myths, along with the myths of our age: Tarzan, Peter Pan, and science fiction. In the opening lines toy weapons made by the child and his father’s coppersmith work remind us of Hephaestus; a play seen by the child becomes Shakespeare’s "Green Wood," Crusoe’s island, Eden, and at the end he returns to the world of servants and masters, where no one is generous or noble.

This real world is the subject of a third major theme of Jarrell’s poetry, the criticism of a mechanized society which has lost the innocence and mythos of childhood. "The State," from LITTLE FRIEND, LITTLE FRIEND, portrays a child accepting fascist encroachment until they take his cat; then the child wants to die. "Sears Roebuck," from LOSSES, is a rare humorous poem: unlucky Honest John, who becomes associated with the John of Patmos, author of Revelation, has a vision of the apocalypse as he falls into a wilderness of women’s undergarments in the catalogue. In THE WOMAN AT THE WASHINGTON ZOO, the title poem whose creation was detailed in an essay Jarrell wrote for UNDERSTANDING POETRY, is a sharp contrast between the bureaucratic world of Washington and the freedom of the ironically caged animals. The form, like that of "Burning the Letters," is a woman’s soliloquy—a favorite form of Jarrell’s exploited again in this book in "The End of the Rainbow," the confession of a woman who missed her chance in life, who lives in dreams.

Three of the best of the new poems appeared in his children’s book The Bat-Poet: "The Mockingbird," "Bats," and "The Bird of Night." In these Jarrell avoided two of his major flaws: occasional flatness and a tendency toward philosophizing and intruding ideas prosaically. In this respect THE LOST WORLD is less frequently faulted than the others, more concerned as a whole with smaller "themes" and tighter form and more careful language, a promise of developing craftsmanship and deeper insights left unfulfilled by the poet’s accidental and tragic death.