Randall Jarrell in Washington
Peter Montgomery

He was a kind of conscience of poetry. . .His influence on the poetry of his time has yet to be fathomed: it worked through his own poems, his published criticism, his teaching, his involvement with the work of his friends. For many of us, if asked that old question: "To what or whom do you address your poems?" the truthful answer would be: "To the mind of Randall Jarrell." —Adrienne Rich


Randall Jarrell (pronounced juh-RELL,1914-1965) was well known as a poet, literary and cultural critic and essayist. He was also a novelist, editor of a collection of short stories, and late in his life, a children’s book author. He served in World War II and gained wide recognition for his 1948 collection Losses, which includes the short poem that may be his most well known, “Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner.” He published critical essays in a wide variety of journals throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1953, Jarrell published Poetry and the Age, a collection of critical essays that sold well enough, according to literary biographer Stephen Burt, for Jarrell to buy the convertible Mercedes sports car that he later loved driving around Washington. That year, Delmore Schwartz, writing in the New York Review of Books, called him “one of the most gifted poets and critics of his generation.” James Baldwin wrote in the New Yorker that “reading Jarrell’s critical essays is like watching Fred Astaire dance.”

In 1955, Jarrell’s Selected Poems was published, 22 years after the first publication of his poems in The American Review. The following year he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. During his tenure, he produced four new poems as well as a number of Rainer Maria Rilke translations. “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” became the title poem of a collection that received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1961. His final book of poetry, The Lost World, was published in 1965, the year he was hit and killed by a car in an apparent suicide. Many of his papers are collected at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Although Jarrell thought that there were many excellent poets writing, he had a curmudgeon’s eye for much of contemporary poetry and even more so for mass culture. He frequently bemoaned the loss of a broad public for poetry and literature in general. Poetry, he complained, needed readers. In one 1956 letter responding to good wishes he’d received from an old friend, he wrote, “I agree that poetry isn’t a bit dead—all we need is more readers.” In a letter to the publisher of Encyclopedia Brittanica, he wrote that “all poetry needs, really, is an audience, but that’s precisely what it doesn’t have at present.”

Jarrell was a big fan of his hi-fi equipment and he hoped that records would bring more poetry back in to American life. At Jarrell’s first press conference after his selection he said, “Edna St. Vincent Millay was the last contemporary poet to be read by young men to young women in canoes. But I’ll bet that last night hundreds of young men were playing Dylan Thomas to hundreds of young girls in Greenwich Village.”

The Village Voice responded by going into bars and coffeeshops with questionnaires asking women, “Does your boyfriend read poetry to you?” Three women said yes and 104 said no. Jarrell in turn responded to their report:

“I’m sorry that more Villagers don’t read poetry to their loved ones. You know the Bible says, If this is done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry? And I rather feel that way about Greenwich Village and the world outside. Don’t the people of Greenwich still feel it’s their duty, their joy, their vocation, to read Rilke and listen to Bartok and look at Bonnard? I know they do—nothing can make me believe they don’t.”

The Washington Post summarized Jarrell’s tenure in its obituary by saying that he “spent his official Washington sojourn (1956-58) as he spent most of his adult life—deploring the pretty pass to which poetry had come.” More from the Post’s obit:

The bearded 51-year-old English teacher and novelist studded his two years here with interviews in which he found few kind words for his craft and fewer still for its contemporary practitioners – including, on occasion, himself….In the course of his periodic broadsides at things cultural, Mr. Jarrell wasn’t above excoriating the whole field. The visual arts, architecture and interior decoration, he conceded at one point, are flourishing—but:

‘A great many people are perfectly willing to sit on a porcupine if you first exhibit it at the Museum of Modern Art and say that it is a chair. In fact, there is nothing –nothing in the whole world that somebody won't buy and sit in if you tell him that it’s a chair. It’s the great new art form of our age….’

Randall Jarrell
Randall Jarrell in his office at the Library of Congress.
photo credit: Library of Congress

Jarrell in Washington

It’s unlikely that any other laureate embraced Washington more enthusiastically than Jarrell. “I’m not a native Washingtonian,” he wrote in one letter, “but I wish I were—it’s my favorite American city.”

Jarrell had a taste for the good life, and Washington allowed him to indulge it. Among his many enthusiasms were his sports car, his hi-fi equipment and collection of classical recordings, and tennis. In addition, Jarrell was a passionate fan of the Redskins. He and his second wife, Mary von Schroeder Jarrell, seemingly loved everything about the city. In Remembering Randall, the memoir by his widow, she wrote:

In Washington Plain Old Pearson’s liquor store upgraded Randall from Lowenbrau to Pilsner Urquell and taught him his way around the Rieslings. Brooks Brothers made him taller and Elizabeth Arden made me a blond. Washington catered to all our enthusiasms and we settled in for two incomparable years of hearing the Budapest and their four Strads live at the Library instead of recorded on our pitted 78s. Season tickets to the Opera Society in its infancy and the Redskins in their prime. Bonnard, Vuillard, Cezanne, Degas, Eakins, and Matisse? Just down the road at the Phillips Gallery, Vermeer and Donatello just downtown at the National.

She also reports that in an interview Jarrell did with the Washington Post’s Mary McGrory, he exclaimed, “Oh, Washington would be ideal if I could just find a good singles partner.” That morning he got a call from someone who filled that need. The only thing he really missed was students. He loved teaching and said that after his tenure at the Library of Congress he would never again go anywhere without students.

The Jarrells lived at 3916 Jenifer Street and regularly made the long walk down Connecticut Avenue to wander the trails at the National Zoo and break the rules by surreptitiously feeding a Lynx with whom they developed a particular affinity. “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” one of only four poems Jarrell wrote during his two-year tenure, became the title poem of the collection which won the National Book Award in 1961, which the award citation called “a book in which fantasy opens out into terror and the effervescence of wit subserves the seriousness of thought.” The walks to the zoo also inspired the poem “Jerome.”

In addition to traveling widely during his tenure, Jarrell made himself part of the literary life of Washington, spending time at local universities, with DC public school English teachers, meeting with congressional spouses and Naval Academy faculty wives, and more.

Jarrell met with reporters when he arrived in Washington in September 1956 and immediately had kind words for the city and its literate citizens. He sported a full beard, unusual for its era, and he reported that he was accustomed to people making remarks about “Santa” or his having misplaced his razor blade. But in Washington, he said, as he drove through town in his convertible, he was greeted at one corner with an enthusiastic “Grant!” and on another with “Shakespeare!” And while he was waiting at one light, a young boy cried dramatically, “Oh white Mercedes, have you come for me?”

Mary paints a lovely picture of a spring drive during their final months in Washington:

Late that spring the cherry blossoms burst forth simultaneously with the hedge-high azaleas, blessed or cursed wisteria: tree lilacs and tunneled avenues of white dogwood like driving through the corps de ballet in Slyphides. Several huge buckeyes bloomed on Jenifer Street and our garden bench was in a bower of pink weigelia. Our grass had more violets in it than grass and our own mockingbird was gloriously in voice. Many afternoons, after I picked up Randall at the Library, we put the top down on the Mercedes and headed for Howard-Johnson-on-Wisconsin for takeout milkshakes and to ride around in the spring.

“Washington is giving itself to us,” Randall said half sadly…

He also apparently enjoyed the environment of the Library of Congress itself. In a letter to poet and former Consultant Karl Shapiro, he referred to the experience of walking through the underground tunnels that connect the buildings and the machinery used to deliver books back and forth between them:
“How’d you happen not to write a poem about the Library? Walking through the Tunnel listening to the turbines and looking at the different tribes walking along, I marvelled that you hadn’t. But don’t now, I will.”

Among the items in the Library of Congress archives is a hand-written note from Mary in response to condolences she had received from the Library of Congress staff after Jarrell’s death. “We had some of our best days in Washington, and the Library was fun to be a part of on account of all of you.”

Jarrell as Poetry Consultant

Jarrell , who in 1956 was teaching at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (now UNCG), was offered and accepted the position in March 1956, but had to survive a period of uncertainty when the father of a disgruntled student made charges that his politics and character made him unfit. The Library of Congress was not exempt from the McCarthy-tinged politics of the day (one of the reasons the position had sat vacant for four years) and it was clear that his appointment was dependent on his passing a security clearance.

A letter in the Library’s archives from Jarrell’s detractor includes this:

“Mrs. Berry or I would be glad to elaborate on any of the material contained in the article, and I imagine you might find it of benefit to seek a statement from Mrs. Mackie Langham Jarrell, first wife of the immature and irresponsible ‘poet.…..While we are glad to see Jarrell leave this vicinity, I feel it my duty to bring this information to your attention.”

After getting the university chancellor to vouch for his character and passing the security clearance, the Jarrells headed to DC.

Jarrell threw himself into the work of the consultant. “Jarrell by all accounts performed spendidly,” writes Burt, “soliciting poets to record their works, requesting that they will their manuscripts to the library, arranging public programming in Washington and elsewhere, involving himself in the city’s intellectual life, and answering random letters from literary-minded citizens.” He stopped writing reviews for Yale Review, thinking that writing critically of other poets would be in conflict with the position. And he agreed to join the editorial board of the American Scholar.

In 1956 the Librarian of Congress described the requirements that came with the $8,000 stipend.
The Consultant in Poetry would be expected to be in residence in Washington “not less than nine months of the fiscal year (preferably September through May)” and be available in his office at the Library twenty hours each week. Among the requirements: serve as liaison to the literary profession; recommend poets to be recorded for the archive; assist in making recommendations about the library’s collections; and deliver lectures and readings on request of educational institutions and literary organizations.

Jarrell took these job requirements seriously. He reinvigorated the library’s program of recording poets and its program of Fellows in American letters. He traveled and spoke extensively as the official face of American poetry. He took calls from congressional staffers to settle arguments about who had written a certain poem (the role of the expert in the pre-Google age!). And he answered a lot of individual correspondence with grace and wit.

Shortly after settling in he left for a major tour of the West Coast, lecturing at the San Francisco Art Museum, San Francisco State, Berkeley, St. Mary’s College, the Universities of Washington, Oregon, and Utah, and more. In November he read Yeats at Georgetown.

In January 1957 he did a series of lectures and readings as Visiting Lecturer in Language and Criticism in English at the University of Texas College of Arts and Sciences, for which he received a $1,000 stipend.
That same month he spoke at the Poetry Society of America and appeared on “Good Morning,” a CBS television show hosted by Will Rogers, Jr. He agreed to serve as judge for a poetry contest at Converse College. He was sent a packet of 14 poems with a request that he choose the winners within two weeks. He wrote back having picked the top three and saying, “I felt reasonably sure about first, less so about second, still less so about third. I don’t think I’ve done anybody any real injustice, though—none of the poems that might have been third are too appealing.”

In March 1957 he proposed a long list of English and American poets to considered for recording, both for the Library’s archives and for its series of LP releases. He named sixty poets whose work was important enough to justify issuing recordings, and 86 whose work “is of enough interest for their readings to deserve preservation” in the archives, suggesting that some of the young ones might later be issued to the public. He concluded his recommendations by noting that many good poets would never be recorded by commercial publishers:

"We should like to emphasize the fact that commercial recordings of poets are influenced – have to be influenced – primarily by commercial considerations; the younger or less fashionable poets simply are not recorded. The contemporary equivalents of Keats or Hopkins will never by recorded by commercial companies, but will have to depend on libraries or universities, institutions whose interests are broadly cultural."

In March he read poetry for Voice of America’s Polish section. In April he was shopping to Knopf an anthology of modern poetry and a translation of The Three Sisters, which he called the greatest modern play.

Jarrell’s papers at the Library of Congress include his written report on his second year as Consultant. In addition to discussing his recordings and the naming of John Crowe Ransom, Elizabeth Bishop, Eudora Welty, Maxwell Anderson, Cleanth Brooks, and R.P. Blackmur as Honorary consultants in American Letters, his gives this somewhat breathless rundown of his activities:

In October, 1957, the Consultant in Poetry gave his annual lecture at the Library, one named “Poets, Critics, and Readers.” During February and March of 1958 the Consultant gave the George Ellison Lectures at the University of Cincinnati; in March he was the speaker at the annual National Book Awards; at other times he lectured or read poems at Syracuse University, Drew University, the University of Florida, Swarthmore College, St. Lawrence College, the University of Tennessee, Southwestern University, the University of Richmond, and American University. He lectured, on Robert Frost, to the English Teachers of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia; he spoke at Annapolis, at the Washington Club and at Richmond and Minneapolis (to the National Association of Teachers of English, in these last two places); he spoke several times on television or the radio, generally about American culture; and he prepared, for the Voice of America, interviews on American poetry. He judged the poetry contest of the Veterans’ Writers Project; received many foreign visitors, among them the Speaker of the Legislature of East Pakistan, who brought with him many of his own translations of Pakistani poetry; regularly read the English, French and German National Bibliographies, in order to suggest to the Library desirable acquisitions; advised poets about poems, scholars about crucial projects, translated Rilke and Goethe—several of the Rilke translations were printed in the Spring issue of the American Scholar; finished selecting, and wrote an introduction to, the Anchor Book of Stories, which has just been published; and worked on a Selected Chekhov and an anthology of modern poetry for the Modern Library. The Consultant, in the nature of his job, has time to read, to look at pictures, and to work on his own poems.

Jarrell dutifully encouraged other poets and writers to consider donating their papers to the Library—and the Librarian let him know that they would like to have his, but he had already decided to have them kept at the Women’s College, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (His widow later sold a significant number of papers to the Berg Collection in New York City). He also employed his critical skills internally, as in an unsparing internal memo to the head of general reference and bibliography division taking him to task for what Jarrell saw as stilted and bloviating language in a draft letter to authors seeking their papers.

Library of Congress documents also reveal some the workings of the institution as a bureaucracy: March 1956 instructions on having a fingerprint chart made by local police for his security clearance; memos granting him the right to withdraw books; internal debate about whether to grant him leave to accept the University of Cincinnati’s prestigious George Elliston Lectureship in Poetry in the spring of 1958, a six-week gig paying $4,500. (He got approval to be on leave from February 7 to March 24 by spelling out in writing how he would make up the hours).

The Public Voice

It’s clear that Jarrell did a lot of speaking about poetry, but it’s safe to say that his public voice during his tenure was more that of a broader cultural critic, one who decried what today we would call the “dumbing down” of school curricula and children’s literature, who lamented that poetry and good literature in general had no mass audience, and who dismissed complaints that some literature is difficult:

And after a long vacancy in the position, his arrival attracted significant attention in the Washingon press. In his first meeting with reporters when he arrived, he rejected the notion that young poets were “wild and woolly” or difficult to read and said instead that “today our young poets are tame and fleecy.” (Washington Daily News, September 9, 1956)

Another reporter had this take: “Mr. Jarrell, whose positive animated manner belies his somewhat gloomy picture of the American intellectual scene, said he cannot convince himself that the new electronic culture— even including long-playing records-will be good for the Nation. ‘Reading in general no longer has the same prestige it once had,’ he declared." (Washington Evening Star Sept 6 1956).

But he believed that much good poetry was being written. At that same event with reporters, he said poetry was “in a better state than we have any right to expect seeing as how people aren’t much interested in poetry.”

The Appalling Taste of the Age

Jarrell’s first formal lecture, “The Taste of the Age,” was delivered at the Library of Congress on December 17, 1956. You can hear the lecture in Jarrell’s somewhat high-pitched sing-songy voice on the Library’s recording. In a hand-written note in the archives, Jarrell calls the address a “fairly funny and fairly gloomy speech.” And it is both mordantly humorous and a bit of a diatribe against the state of literary culture in America. He declared himself stunned at what school children weren’t learning, and reported on a recent Gallup finding that “fewer Americans read books than in any other major democracy.”

Jarrell noted that people of many ages complain about their times and lack the perspective that history brings. “We say people didn’t know what they were missing…. people in a golden age go around complaining how yellow everything is…..We can see that Goethe and Arnold’s ages weren’t so bad as Goethe and Arnold thought them; after all, they produced Goethe and Arnold. In the same way, our times may not be so bad as we think them: they have produced us. Yet this, too, is a thought that isn’t so reassuring as it might be.”

Here are a few excerpts of the speech:

People have learned to process words, too—words, and the thoughts and attitudes they embody. One sees in stores ordinary old-fashioned oatmeal or cocoa; and, beside it, another kind called Instant Cocoa, Instant Oats. Much of our literature is Instant Literature: the words are short, easy, instantly recognizable words; the thoughts are easy, familiar, instantly recognizable thoughts: the attitudes are familiar, already-agreed-upon, instantly acceptable attitudes. And if this is so, can these productions be either truth or—really—literature? The truth is sometimes complicated or hard to understand; different from what we expected; difficult to accept. Literature can almost be defined as the union of a wish and a truth, or as a wish modified by a truth. But this Instant Literature is a wish reinforced by a cliché, a wish proved by a lie. The makers of Instant Literature, whether it is a soap opera, a Saturday Evening Post serial, or a historical, sexual best seller—treat us as advertisers treat the readers of advertisements; they humor us, flatter our prejudices, pull our strings, show us that they know us for what they think us to be: impressionable, emotional, ignorant, somewhat weak-minded Common Men….

The greatest American industry is the industry of using words. We pay tens of millions of men of words—writers, advertisers, commentators, politicians—to spend their lives lying to us, or telling us the truth, or supplying us with a nourishing medicinal compound of the two. We are living in the middle of a dark wood—a bright Technicolored forest—of words, words, words. It is a forest in which the wind is never still: there isn’t a tree in the forest that is not for every moment of its life, of our lives, persuading or seducing or overawing us into buying this, believing that, voting for the other.

And yet, the more words there are, the simpler the words get. The words are processed as if they were baby food and we babies: all we have to do is open our mouths and swallow. Most of our mental and moral food is predigested, spoon-fed. …Our century has produced some great and much good literature, but the habitual readers of Instant Literature cannot read it; nor can they read the great and good literature of the past….

Each year Harper’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Sunday supplements seem more nearly the same magazine. Each year they depend less on fiction, on the writer’s or reader’s imaginative or creative powers, and more on fact, on familiar or unfamiliar information which efficient, indistinguishable authors organize into articles. Such articles are part of the Reader’s Digest even before the Digest reprints them: they are, literally pre-Digested.

The lecture generated extensive coverage in the Washington Post and newsweeklies, and Library of Congress files are full of requests for the lecture and requests to publish it from places like Atlantic Monthly and Harpers Bazaar. He politely rejected all those requests, explaining that he would like to continue using the lecture when appearing as a speaker, and that he was afraid that once it was available in print it would be “dead.” A shortened version eventually ran the following summer in the Saturday Evening Post as “The Appalling Taste of the Age.”

Poets, Critics and Readers

Jarrell’s second “official” lecture, delivered at the start of his second year as Consultant in October 1957 was titled “Poets, Critics, and Readers,” and explored the relationships between them. A major theme was the lack of knowledgeable readers. “The public has an unusual relationship to the poet: it doesn’t even know that he is there.”

Some excerpts:

Of course, there are several publics for poetry—small, benighted, eccentric publics—just as there are publics for postage stamps, antique cars, and cobblers’ benches; but this is such a disastrous change from the days of Childe Harold and In Memoriam and Hiawatha, when the public for poetry was, simply, the reading public, that you can see why poets feel the miserable astonishment that they feel. The better-known poets feel it more than the lesser-known who—poor things—lie under the table grateful for crumbs, pats, kicks, anything at all that will let them be sure they really exist, and are not just a dream someone has stopped dreaming….

Now, a critic is half writer, half reader: just as the vices of men and horses met in centaurs, the weaknesses of readers and writers meet in critics. A good critic—we cannot help seeing, when we look back at any other age—is a much rarer thing than a good poet or a good novelist…..Art is long, and critics are the insects of a day….

I have had the pleasure and advantage of knowing many poets, many critics, and I have not found one less deeply neurotic than the other….

For to tell the truth, the first truth, the poem is a love-affair between the poet and his subject, and readers come in only a long time later, as witnesses at the wedding. But what would the ideal witnesses—the ideal public—be? What would an ideal public do? Mainly, essentially, it would just read the poet; read him with a certain willingness and interest; read him imaginatively and perceptively. It needs him, even if it doesn’t know that; he needs it, even if he doesn’t know that. It and he are like people in one army, one prison, one world; their interests are great and common; and deserve a kind of declaration of dependence….

Writers, Jarrell said, want

a public that reads a lot – that reads widely, joyfully, and naturally; a public whose taste is formed by acquaintance with the good and great writers of many ages, and not simply acquaintance with a few fashionable contemporaries and the fashionable precursors of those; a public with broad general expectations, but without narrow particular demands, that the new work of art must satisfy; a public that reads with the calm and ease and independence that come from liking things in themselves, for themselves.

His speech ends with a story about a critic who complains that he has no life beyond reading works that he critiques, that he has no time to “read at whim.” Jarrell urges people not to abandon the love of books and art in themselves:

The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means – that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence: Read at whim! read at whim!

About Culture

Jarrell was asked to give the keynote address at the 1958 National Book Awards in April. His speech, a long, academic, tendentious tirade against pop culture, commodification, and the publishing industry, was not particularly well received in that audience. During the speech, Mary Jarrell writes, Ayn Rand was among those fidgeting in the audience and could be heard saying “Ach thiss man, mein Gott! He should not be allow-ed. Vy don’t ve leaf?”A Chicago Tribune columnist in attendance wrote of Jarrell’s speech, “he was allotted 20 minutes and took 40….as nearly as I could get his message [and I’m nost sure I understood any of it,] unless you spend all your time reading Proust and Faulkner you’re a hopeless lowbrow.” The speech was a defense of “high culture” but also an appeal for noncomformity and for readers and publishers to make space for greatness that doesn’t fit a particular mold:

It’s to that wild part of us, not the tame, that I am talking. I don’t need to talk to the tame – our whole society does that for me. Our society tells us that being different, ill-adjusted, non-conforming, condemns us to a life of marginal isolation. Well, better to be alive and maladjusted on the margin of things than dead and adjusted in the middle…Better to be a Peeping Tom, and enjoy it, than to sit with your minister in front of The 64,000 Dollar Question till your eyes glaze, and the mortician comes for you, and the long day at last is done….

We ought to say what we know: It’s better to read Proust or Frost or Faulkner than to read Peyton Place. Better in every way; and we ought to do all that we can to make it possible for everybody to know this from personal experience. When we make people satisfied to have read Peyton Place and satisfied not to have read Proust, we are enemies of our culture – we are, truly, un-American, and are doing what we can to make the new America something that Jefferson and Franklin and Adams would look at not with puzzled respect, but with disgust and despair.

The Age of the Chimpanzee

In the Summer 1957 issue of Art News, Jarrell argued against “the canonization of Abstract-Expressionism,” drawing on the experience of poetry to argue against the embrace of art so abstracted from representation as to make metaphorical understanding impossible. He contrasted abstract expressionism with the work of artists such as Picasso and Klee:

The relation between the representing and the represented world sometimes is a direct, mimetic one; but often it is an indirect, far-fetched, surprising relation, so that it is the difference between the subject and the painting of it that is insisted upon, and is a principle source of our pleasure. In the metaphors of painting, as in those of poetry, we are awed or dazed to find things superficially so unlike, fundamentally so like; superficially so like, fundamentally so unlike.


The Consultant on Poetry

As a poet, Jarrell was known as one of the “younger generation” of poets (which included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Demore Schwartz) who followed the generation that included Frost, Stevens, Elliot, Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore, and John Crowe Ransom, who was one of Jarrell’s teachers. Adam Kirsch, who includes Jarrell in his book The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation In Six American Poets, wrote, “A young poet in the 1930s was faced with a body of poetry and criticism so authoritative that it took courage, and ingenuity, simply to avoid being crushed by it.”

As noted earlier, by the time Jarrell arrived at the Library of Congress, he had been publishing poems for more than twenty years, and had just published his Selected Poems. Jarrell did not produce a lot of poetry during his tenure. A few years later, when accepting his National Book Award, he referred to the dry periods he sometimes experienced: “Sometimes I read, in reviews by men whose sleep I have troubled, that I’m one of those poets who’ve never learned to write poetry. This is true: I never have learned. Sometimes a poem comes to me – I do what I can to it when it comes – and sometimes for years not one comes.” As he often did in periods when the poems weren’t coming, he focused on translations. And of course his position provided plenty of other work and distractions.

While on the West Coast, Jarrell had met and was initially quite taken with Gregory Corso, writing in a letter:

I met a really good (and wholly delightful) new young poet named Gregory Corso. He’s all that the tea-party or grey-flannel or World-of-Richard-Wilbur poets aren’t. Not that I don’t like Wilbur, but one is enough.

At Jarrell’s invitation, Corso stayed at their home in Washington writing a poem a day for weeks. (His stay included a somewhat disastrous visit by Jack Kerouac). Jarrell spent a lot of time with Corso but grew disillusioned with the poet’s refusal to edit his work, a hallmark of the Beats. In February 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote to Jarrell asking him to write an introduction to a forthcoming pocket book of Corso’s poetry, and noting that he had already, on Corso’s assurance, listed Jarrell as the author of the introduction. Jarrell begged off, telling Ferlinghetti:

I wanted to do an introduction to a book that would be a selection of all Gregory’s poems – the best of the poems in The Vestal Lady and the best of the new ones; but, as I said to Gregory when I found that this is going to be only the new poems, I couldn’t very well do an introduction to them. I like some of them, but only some, and they don’t seem enough for a new book; Gregory’s period of writing spontaneously—that is, of putting down anything that occurred to him, instead of what was right for the poem—pretty much interfered with his development, so that the new poems aren’t the advance over the old that they might otherwise have been.

Jarrell once wrote to Karl Shapiro, “I wish all the San Francisco poets would eat all the University poets and burst. It’s pretty awful to look at Mass Culture, and at its side High Culture, and hardly know which you like less.” (Burt, p 15)

Jarrell did believe there were many good poets, as his long list of recording recommendations attests. But he worried about good poets having an opportunity to find a readership. Interestingly, in response to a letter that put some contemporary poets in “major” and “minor” categories, Jarrell wrote, “I’ve always been troubled by the words major and minor …. may I never, till the day I die, use either word!”

In response to a letter from Rockaway, New Jersey, that was a long rant against modern “esoteric” poetry “which may be read forwards or backwards with equally meagre results,” Jarrell wrote back commending to the reader Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Wilbur, and saying:

I suppose in any age many of the best, and many of the worst, poets seem very difficult and obscure, though often they look much easier to the next age; nobody any longer considers Browning a difficult poet, though Victorians thought him the height of obscurity. Perhaps poets like Auden will seem a lot easier in 2000, though there are other poets who wouldn’t seem easy even in Heaven.

One younger poet, Richard Wilbur, writes clear well-formed lyrics that you would enjoy very much, I think; so does Adrienne Cecile Rich.

I like Frost’s poems as much as you do, and have often written about them; and I share your worry about the public’s lack of interest in poetry.

In the spring of 1957, Jarrell got a letter from Herbert Bailey, the director of the Princeton University Press, who had asked for advice as the press contemplated a poetry publishing project. Jarrell’s response echoes the themes of some of his public addresses:

It is hard for a good poet who is young and original (especially if he’s original in a fairly quiet way) to get published in magazines, and it’s very hard for him to get a book published. It’s easier if he’s a pleasant derivative poet who fits in some fashionable pigeon-hole. Most editors print names, not poems; until the poet gets a name things are very hard for him….

The most important thing about publishing poets is, simply: which poets do you publish. If you have a kind of jury system, or academic or conservative or Poetry Society judges, you end up printing exactly the sort of mediocre, mildly talented poetry that would certainly get printed anyway. I think that publishing books of poetry can be a very good but risky thing; if it isn’t risky it can’t be good.

Among the Library of Congress recordings are interviews that Jarrell did with a number of poets talking about their work and poetry in general. Listening to them provides some glimpses into the kinds of work Jarrell admired and into the minds of some fine poets.

In a conversation with Richard Wilbur, Jarrell said Wilbur’s "Baroque Wall Fountain" is among the best poems written recently. Wilbur talked about modern English language poetry’s rejection of “baroque” language and complex sentences. The commitment to “prose order,” he said, often made it hard to put important words in a sentence in the most important position in the line, and he envied modern Italian poets who still had “considerable liberty in shuffling around words.” Jarrell agreed, saying that when translating Rilke, it drove him crazy having to stick to English prose order.

Jarrell also recorded a long conversation with Robert Frost, who he deeply admired. He considered Frost’s “Home Burial” one of the best poems of its era, and it was among many that they discussed. Frost, responding to some praise from Jarrell, says at one point, “If I win with you, that’s a lot to me.”

Jarrell also had this to say about the range of emotions in Frost’s poems: “It seems to me that the terrible poems are much more terrible, and the tender and loving poems are much more tender and loving, because of the existence of the other half. When you have a poet that’s all one side, why, it’s marvelous but you don’t believe them to the same extent. It’s the opposite of what you say that makes you thoroughly believe in what you say, almost.”

Jarrell also got Frost to read some poems he said he’d never read in public, including “The Ingenuities of Debt,” which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1946 and which is frighteningly relevant to the financial crisis the U.S. economy was plunged into by its financiers. It includes these memorable lines:

Take care to sell your horse before he dies.
The art of life is passing losses on.

After reading the poem, Frost said, “That’s what I think is happening, that’s what I really think in economics, they just go on this way, until you know, all this junk, playing with money and dodging debts, that’s all it is until they really come home to roost, you know, and finally the nation perishes. That’s where we’re going.”

With both Frost and John Crowe Ransom, Jarrell discussed the role of women and the relationships between men and women in their poems. Ransom also decried the lack of biblical literacy among younger readers and writers, saying students “miss the power of biblical imagination.”

Jarrell asked Ransom to read a poem “Puncture” that Ransom also said was the first time he’d been asked to read. An interesting tidbit – both Frost and Ransom used the word “wound” – as in an injury – but pronounced it to rhyme with “bound” rather than “tuned” – which Merriam Webster says is an archaic or dialectical pronunciation.

A couple of recordings of Jarrell after his tenure as Consultant also provide some insight into the poems of which he was proud. At a poetry festival at Johns Hopkins in 1961, he read several Rilke translations (including “The Blind Man’s Song” and “Washing the Corpse”) that appear in his final collection of poems. Among his poems that he read were the often-anthologized “Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” “Cinderella” and “The Bronze David of Donatello.” Among the poems he read at the National Poetry Festival in 1962 were his translation of Rilke’s “The Blind Man’s Song,” read with great emotion and inflection, as well as “Losses” (about bomber crews dying during training: “we died among the people we killed”), and “Cinderella.”

Post-Script: Fifty Years of Poetry at the 1962 National Poetry Festival

At the National Poetry Festival on October 22, 1962, Jarrell delivered an ambitious speech called “Fifty Years of American Poetry.” In it he wrote that there had been a gap from the 1870s to 1910 “during which almost no good American poetry had been written.” But since then, he said, there had been a flowering:

If in 1912 someone had predicted that during the next fifty years American poetry would be the best and most influential in the English language, and that the next generation of poets would be American classics, men who would establish once and for all the style and tone of American poetry, his prediction would have seemed fantastic. Yet all this is literally true of the generation of American poets that included Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound Williams, Marianne More, Ransom. When we read the poems of these poets and of the Irishman Yeats, we realize that the whole center of gravity of petry in English had shifted west of England.

Jarrell’s speech dealt in specifics, not theories or trends. He gave his opinion on one American poet after another, more than two dozen of them, their strengths and weaknesses, ending with this line about Robert Lowell: “You feel before reading any new poem of his the uneasy expectation of perhaps encountering a masterpiece.”

Jarrell’s speech probably would have gotten more attention if the festival and the nation’s attention were not disrupted by the outbreak of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Regarding President Kennedy, Jarrell was delighted that Robert Frost had been invited to read at the inaugural, and that Kennedy appeared able to speak about Frost’s work with evident familiarity. “What a pleasure to think that for the next few years our art and our government won’t be complete strangers.”

The Correspondence

Jarrell’s papers at the Library of Congress give a sense of the kind of correspondence he got, even before he formally started the position, and the polite and sometimes humorous way he responded. When people sent him poems, he actually sent personal notes back, often saying which he liked best. Do current poets laureate treat unsolicited mail with such care? Here’s a sampling :

Just days after his selection was announced, a 76-year-old woman wrote to Jarrell, offering him $50 to tell her what was wrong with a poem that had been rejected by Saturday Review. In July, Mrs. Hugh Bullock, president of the Academy of American Poets, wrote that they had just made a deal with CBS radio network to sponsor a contest for “verse plays” and asked him for advice on judges, and invited a submission of his own: “Surely you, yourself, have a one-act play tucked away somewhere, which could be dusted off and sent in for this competition also.”

In response to a letter from a Kentucky poet seeking advice for getting a manuscript published, Jarrell wrote: “it’s beyond me and maybe Solomon. Most publishers publish an occasional book of poetry—but, since they do it more as a pious duty than as a real commercial venture, it’s hard to predict what they will or won’t print.”

In response to a request from Gladys Wenk of College Park, Maryland, seeking his participation in Poetry Day festivities on October 15, he sent his regrets but also these encouraging words: “I hope that you can do as much as you wish for the public recognition of poetry. I hope even more that you can help poetry to get from American readers that private recognition and affection that matter most of all: if even a few readers love good poems and get other readers to love them, we have nothing to worry about.”

When requested to write a poem for an invitation leaflet for an American Federation of Arts convention, Jarrell responded with these lines of verse:

The angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, “go little creature, formed of joy and mirth
And never write an invitation leaflet for
anybody on earth.”

And then noted, “The first two lines are Blake’s, the third just came to me.”

To an aspiring poet delighted by her own turn of the phrase but fearful that she was perhaps unconsciously plagiarizing it, he wrote, “Dear Miss Hirsch: I’ve never seen the phrase ‘round, centrifugal eyes’ in a poem; neither had several people whom I asked. I think it’s quite safe to use it. With all best wishes.”

In another letter: “What you say about writing for one’s ‘own sense of apprication’ rather than for anything else is just the way I feel about it, too. And teaching is like that, I think – I normally make my living by teaching literature and writing, and whenever I do anything else I notice how much I miss the students.”

And to a man with an exuberant multi-page proposal for an international league of poets:

Dear Mr. Katapodes: I read your letter—your truly poetic letter—with great interest. I noted, regretfully, that neither the Greek Government, Queen Elizabeth, the Russian Government, nor Mrs. Stevenson had been able to comply with your request. I feel that it is certain that the Library of Congress couldn’t help you in your imaginative and grandiose plan, since it is quite outside the scope and function of the Library’s program.

His files also contain the kind of letter than no author would be delighted to get from a publisher – a note from Alfred Knopf telling him that the publisher had an “overstock” of his 1954 humorous novel, Pictures from an Institution and informing him that they would be offering it to dealers at a reduced price of 80 cents, with a lower royalty to him. “On copies sold in this way, we will, of course, pay you the royalty stipulated for overstock on our contract.” Jarrell wrote back and said that at that price he couldn’t resist and ordered six copies.

Stephen Burt, Randall Jarrell and His Age, Columbia University Press, 2003.
Mary von Schrader Jarrell, Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, lecture and bibliography, Library of Congress, 1967

Further Reading
Jeffrey Meyer, “The Death of Randall Jarrell,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1982.
This essay gives insight into Jarrell’s difficult childhood, lifelong struggles with poetic dry spells and depression, and the events leading to his suicide, including dubious mental health treatments and some scathing reviews of his final book of poems, The Lost World. http://www.vqronline.org/articles/1982/summer/meyers-death-randall-jarrell/

Jarrell’s Poetry
The Lost World, Macmillan, 1965
The Woman at the Washington Zoo, Atheneum, 1960
Selected Poems, Knopf, 1955
Losses, Harcourt, Brace, 1948.
Little Friend, Little Friend, Dial Press, 1945.
Blood for a Stranger, Harcourt, Brace, 1942.

University of North Carolina Greensboro Jarrell Archives: http://www.uncg.edu/lib/arch/jarrell/over.html



Peter Montgomery has been a professional writer for over twenty years, working primarily in civil liberties. A graduate of Georgetown University, he has lived in Washington, DC for thirty years and writes poetry in his spare time.

Published in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009.


To read more by this author:
Peter Montgomery: Mapping the City
Peter Montgomery on Eugene McCarthy: Poetic Ancestors Issue