Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), poet and critic, was one of the most versatile American men of letters during the two decades immediately after World War II.
Randall Jarrell was born June 6, 1914, in Nashville, Tennessee, but spent most of his early years on the West Coast, in Long Beach and Hollywood, California. His troubled, lonely childhood is reflected in some of his most vivid poems. When he was 11 his parents separated, and he lived for a time with his father's parents before joining his mother back in Nashville. He took business courses in high school, but as a student at Vanderbilt he came under the influence of John Crowe Ransom, with Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren one of the leaders of an earlier Southern poetry renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s.
Jarrell's early poetry was largely shaped by a continuing relationship with Ransom. He took bachelor's and master's degrees at Vanderbilt, and in 1937 followed Ransom to Kenyon College where they both taught English. Jarrell's early poems appeared in the American Review and Southern Review, and also in the Kenyon Review, founded by Ransom. During the years before World War II Jarrell had rich association with a number of young writers who also gained recognition later, such as the poet Robert Lowell and the fiction writer Peter Taylor.
Jarrell served in the U.S. Air Force during much of World War II. Ironically, he owed much of his reputation with the general public to his war poems: "Eighth Air Force," "Losses," and most especially "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," one of the most famous short poems to come out of this conflict:
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.
Actually, Jarrell had been washed out of flight training and spent most of the war on the ground in Illinois and Arizona.
In the two decades after World War II, Jarrell did most of his writing in an academic setting. After a short appointment at the University of Texas, he spent most of the last 18 years of his life as a professor of English at the Women's College of the University of North Carolina, in Greensboro. His greatest influence on American letters and in the lives of younger poets was exercised during this period. He was always encouraging and generous in his support of these writers. Two official positions enhanced this influence: poetry consultant of the Library of Congress and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Jarrell was also the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships. In this fruitful period he became respected as much for his criticism as for his poetry, serving at various times as poetry editor or critic for Nation, Partisan Review, and the Yale Review.
Jarrell also made one notable contribution to the newly important academic novel with Pictures from an Institution (1954). This is a satire of a "progressive" college and closely observed feuding among faculty and administration described with wit and epigrammatic characterization.
Writing about his own poetry, Jarrell was characteristically modest. "I have tried to make my poems plain, and most of them are plain enough; but I wish they were more difficult because I had known more." If they are plain they are often deeply meaningful, more resonant and complex than may at first appear. His most common themes, in addition to the "knowing yet innocent" child's view of the world and the horror of war, are the energies of art and the banalities of postwar American consumerism. The materialist way of life is scathingly anatomized in a series of satirical poems, one of the best of which is "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" (1960).
Jarrell's idiomatic poetry was written to be listened to, joining the popular style of the 1960s and younger poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. But Jarrell's work is much more disciplined, his persona more varied, than that of the Beat School. He was a gifted prosodist, equally at ease with free and traditional verse forms, and he wrote vivid modern versions of such established forms as the sestina. Also, he could effectively combine different poetic modes. A fine fusion of person portrait with social satire is to be found in "In Montecito" (1963).
In the historical context of Anglo-American poetry Jarrell's work echoes back to the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, through the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, presaging, ultimately, the last confessional poems of his friend Robert Lowell. Although Jarrell is not a Sylvia Plathlike confessional poet, late in his life he became more directly personal in "The Lost World" and "Thinking about the Lost World" (1965).
There are still other facets of Jarrell's expression. He translated works by Rilke, E. Morike, and Tristan Corbiere and was working on a translation of Goethe's Faust at the time of his death. He also wrote highly successful children's books, among which are The Bat Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965). In his quiet way he was a Renaissance person, a versatile "man of letters in the European sense, with real verve, imagination and uniqueness" (Robert Lowell). This still evolving career was cut short when Jarrell was struck and killed by an auto in Greensboro, North Carolina, on October 14, 1965.
Jarrell's works include, among others, The Complete Poems (1969). His books of criticism include: Poetry and the Age (1953); A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962); and The Third Book of Criticism (1971). Randall Jarrell: 1914-1965 (1967) is a book of personal reminiscences edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren. Suzanne Ferguson's The Poetry of Randall Jarrell (1971) is a comprehensive critical assessment. Twenty years after his death his widow, Mary Jarrell, edited Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (1985).
Jarrell, Randall, Randall Jarrell's letters: an autobiographical and literary selection, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Meyers, Jeffrey, Manic power: Robert Lowell and his circle, London; New York: Macmillan London, 1987.
Pritchard, William H., Randall Jarrell: a literary life, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. □