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Back to Jarrell

Jacques Khalip

Randall Jarrell and His Age
Stephen Burt
Columbia University Press, $29.50 (cloth)

8 Some years ago, Langdon Hammer published an article entitled “Who Was Randall Jarrell?” and it seems that his question has almost presided over Jarrell’s critical reputation throughout the century. Known popularly for several much-anthologized poems such as “90 North,” “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” and “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” Jarrell’s reputation has been modest yet vital, although the full measure of that vitality has been hard to gauge and evaluate. Indeed, Jarrell’s reception has been a mixed one: modernist, neo-romantic, or confessional, all of these classificatory terms given to Jarrell’s poetry testify not so much to his protean reputation as to a blind spot on the part of critics to discriminate and appraise Jarrell’s poetics and sensibility. In his splendid book Randall Jarrell and His Age Stephen Burt finally answers the question “Who was Randall Jarrell?” by setting his poems within several layers of aesthetic, social, and psychological contexts to not only illuminate the oeuvre (Burt includes several previously unpublished poems) but to better understand the complexity of Jarrell’s own intellectual interventions in the cultural climate of America from the late 1930s through his death in 1965.

“Randall Jarrell showed us how to read his contemporaries,” writes Burt; “we do not yet know how to read him . . . [Jarrell] is ambitious partly because his writings refuse certain public ambitions. He is complex in part because his verse style tries so variously to use the artless simplicities of nonliterary speech. And he is important partly because he tells us to forget whether a book seems important, and to care instead for what strikes us as good.” Jarrell’s complexities, then, have less to do with an overly intellectualized modernist program of self-betterment and more to do with contemplative and probing musings on the particular cognitive difficulties of aesthetic sensibility. What is interesting about Burt’s characterization of Jarrell’s importance is that it helps us to see him as an influential critical presence—rather than a vanishing mediator—for contemporary American literature (particularly on the careers of poets and friends Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop). Jarrell’s work, Burt argues, engages with and debates a cultural history of U.S. poetics—a history that has until recently misrecognized his contributions.

One of Burt’s approaches is to align Jarrell alongside work in Continental philosophy, feminist philosophy, and political and social theory. Although this might appear to be a ham-fisted mode of criticism, Burt doesn’t resort to easy juxtapositions and examples but formulates a complex argument of comparisons and meditations that carefully situate Jarrell within his cultural moment. Although the book’s first chapter gives a treatment of Jarrell’s life, the subsequent chapters each represent a unique critical lens through which to interpret his work. Throughout, Burt stresses the fact that Jarrell’s is not an insulated, confessional voice but a more interpersonal and socially conscious one. In fact, the sense of a withering away of poetic voice—a characteristic of confessional despair often read deeply into Jarrell’s work—has prevented us from attending to the more captivating claim in poems like “90 North” that a listener is always present in Jarrell’s work, marking a point of self-differentiation. Burt is interested in the “rhetorical questions . . . self-corrections . . . and repetitions” that represent a dynamic mode of articulation in Jarrell’s writings. The lyric, defined as such, doesn’t remain formally enclosed but rather is properly situated and subject to evaluation, with considerable value being placed on its capacity for articulating thoughts either as discursive propositions or as reserved yet equally vital meditations that resist public revelation.

What is interesting about Burt’s argument here is that in order to reclaim Jarrell’s reputation, he revives the element of romanticism, as opposed to modernism, in his thought and writings. Since Jarrell dubbed modernist poetry “The End of the Line,” Burt notes, “Modernism can be distinguished from romanticism, in Jarrell’s view, by its greater ‘specialization’: the modernist poet is much less like nonpoets, modernist poetic language much farther from nonexpert speech and prose, than Romantics and their language were.” Romantic demystifications not-withstanding, Burt here isn’t so much canonizing Jarrell as a modern Romantic as he is suggesting that the projects of romanticism are a part of modernity and are yet to be “completed”—that the difference of romanticism is still with us, and hasn’t been displaced by modernism’s abstractions. In this sense, Jarrell’s radicalism might be compared to another modernist misfit, Hart Crane, equally caught on the threshold of romanticism and modernism and experimenting with the social and political possibilities of poetic expression in the age of capital.

Jarrell’s complex romanticism, then, might be likened to a kind of modern Enlightenment, which Burt intimates by considering Jarrell in light of his evaluations and critiques of social institutions and social policies—critiques that ultimately underscore the problems with conformity and rebellion. Burt finely outlines the extent to which the literariness of Jarrell’s positions intersect with these complex commitments: in his literary criticism, for example, Jarrell confronts the problem of rendering aesthetic experience viable and measurable in an age where cultural capital becomes the product of institutions and professionalized discourses. “Jarrell suggests that readers and critics (even academic critics) can examine art with goals neither public nor professional, goals derived instead from personal and unpredictable reactions to individual works.”

Speaking less of deeply subjective and recalcitrant modes of confessionalism, and more of cognitively complex emotional responses to art that address an intellectually like-minded community, Jarrell seeks to enlarge the obligations of poetic inwardness.

It thus seems almost natural, once we come to the third chapter, to assess Jarrell’s interest in psychoanalysis, since the complexities of interiority and its obligations to the social world become an important component of Jarrell’s work. As Burt points out, psychoanalysis would provide Jarrell less with a confessional desire to exhume the self than with a discursive pattern for engaging interpersonally with it. Burt supports this distinction, comparing the “Freudian poems” of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies to Jarrell’s own experiments and arguing that the contrasts between the two “reflect the differences between thinking about undergoing analysis and thinking about how one might conduct it.” By considering himself more the analyst than the patient, Jarrell isn’t so much trying to establish a presiding attentiveness as he is imagining himself critically bent over the speaking voice. That is to say, he suggests a mode of judgment and evaluation over who is speaking and what is being said.

There is an extraordinary plenitude in Burt’s book—critical, biographical, archival, even emotional. And there is a great deal more to say in the subsequent chapters on temporality and memory, the lives of children and families, each one bringing up familiar topoi that are then turned inside-out to show not simply the social relevance of Jarrell’s work, but the communal complexity of these terms in the first place. One significant merit of Burt’s book is that one has the sense of his arguments going over the same ground repeatedly, but each time hitting that ground at a different angle or with softer or harder emphases. In this sense Randall Jarrell and His Age brings together the aspirations of a revisionist biography with an astute critical assessment: the shape of a life seems intertwined—cognitively and affectively—with the terms we ascribe to it. There is much to expect, to want, and to find fulfilled in Burt’s book; instead of merely trying to answer the question “Who was Randall Jarrell?”, it helps us understand the extent to which that question is itself freighted with considerable opinions and meditations on our contemporary culture. <

Jacques Khalip is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Duke University, where he is working on a dissertation concerning the ethics and aesthetics of anonymity in the Romantic period.

Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review

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