The Poets Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)


About the Poet

An intimidating perfectionist wedded to compassionate humanism, Randall Jarrell (pronounced juh rehl) combined the talents of author, translator, and strident critic. Like poet-critic T. S. Eliot, he earned the respect of his elders, including poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Marianne Moore. Essentially shy and soft-spoken before an audience, he gained a reputation for impassioned public readings, zippy sports cars, delight in fairy tales, and fierce public debates on the status of modern poetry, including that of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation.

Jarrell maintained his Tennessee mountaineer's decorum and naïveté by refusing alcohol, tobacco, gossip, and racy talk. He was born on May 6, 1914, in Nashville and spent his childhood in Hollywood, California. After the divorce of his parents, he returned to his hometown at age 12 to live with his grandparents. Although he majored in psychology in his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University, he studied under Fugitive Agrarians John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren and demonstrated a remarkable intellectual range and gift for language and analysis. He completed an M.A. in English in 1938 and taught at Kenyon College until 1939, when he joined the faculty of the University of Texas and married his first wife, Mackie Langham.

Influenced by the plain-spoken truths of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, Jarrell published verse in Five American Poets (1940) before producing his own collection, Blood for a Stranger (1942). Then World War II intervened in his career. He served for three years as an army flying instructor and tower operator. He regretted that he was too old for combat, but nevertheless turned his wartime experience to advantage in Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). From 1949 to 1951, he edited poetry for Partisan Review, establishing a reputation for truth-telling evaluations at whatever cost to fellow poets.

The mature stage of his career included publication of a series of pro-Frost, pro-Whitman critical essays in Poetry and the Age (1953). Less successful was a satirical novel, Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy (1954), a witty putdown of academic life. His most famous works appeared in The Seven-League Crutches (1951); Selected Poems (1955); The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations (1960), winner of a National Book Award; and The Lost World (1966). He displayed the whimsical side of his nature in the playful children's works The Gingerbread Rabbit (1963), The Bat-Poet (1964), The Animal Family (1965), and Fly by Night (1976).

On October 14, 1965, while in Chapel Hill at UNC's Memorial Hospital undergoing a skin graft on his hand, Jarrell stepped in front of a car, leaving unsettled whether his death was accidental or self-inflicted. Complicating the coroner's task were Jarrell's hospitalization earlier that year for manic-depression and episodes of death wish. Issued posthumously were The Complete Poems (1969) and two essay collections, The Third Book of Criticism (1969) and Kipling, Auden & Co. (1980). Colleagues Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren mourned Jarrell's abrupt death with a collection of tributes, Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 (1967). In 1985, his widow edited Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection.

Chief Works

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (1955), a grim, brooding masterpiece, is the most quoted poem to come out of World War II. Enfolded in the plexiglass dome posed like a blister on the underside of a B-17 or B-24 bomber, the speaker is ripe for catastrophe. To intensify the image of doom, the poet robs the five-line poem of suspense by establishing in the title that the speaker does not survive the war. To enhance the stark terror of a gunner's task, Jarrell makes him soft and vulnerable, like a tender, unborn fetus. Swiveling like a latter-day watchman in the round, the gunner hunches in the turret to track the enemy below with .50-caliber machine-gun fire. The collar of his napped flight jacket freezes in the frigid air six miles up, where he meets the death-dealing black bursts that "loosed" him from a "dream of life," the poet's term for late-teen unsophistication and a forgivable idealism.

Jarrell's skill with imagery derives from incisive wordcraft. Within the brief poem are few rhymes: froze/hose as end links and "black flak" as an abrupt, cacophonous internal punch at the airman. The victim jolts awake from his youthful illusions to a "State" necessity — the waste of callow, expendable warriors. The unseen challengers are "nightmare fighters" who leave the shattered gunner in pitiable shape. The conclusion is sensational, ghoulish: Like a dismembered fetus, his remains are jet-washed from the turret with a steam hose. Without comment, the poet halts, leaving the reader with the inhuman remnants of air combat.

"Lady Bates," also written in 1955, is a demure, affectionate apostrophe to a black girl who drowned during an outdoor baptism. The poem bears Jarrell's characteristic rejection of false comfort. Like John Crowe Ransom's duo "Janet Waking" and "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," the tender girl lies sedately entombed in the South's hard red clay. With a bittersweet jest, the poet mimics bouncing jump-rope rhymes by chanting "They looked for you east, they looked for you west, / And they lost you here in the cuckoo's nest." Tweaking the crisp, curly hair and ebony complexion, the poet remarks that her dark-skinned ghost startles even the sharp-eyed owl. Decking her spirit's progress through the wild are delicate glimmers of lightning bugs and "darning-needles that sew bad girls' mouths shut," the touches of terror that remind the reader of death's permanent silencing.

The leisured, protracted perusal of Lady Bates' death raises goose bumps for the juxtaposition of a girlish gentility and the persistence of Night, an ambiguous cavalier who rescues the girl from a future of hard knocks. Set against the chain gangs and kitchen jobs of hard-handed Southern racism, the premature loss of an innocent soul suits the unblinking inscription in "the Book of Life." Recorded among other "poor black trash" tragedies, the short life bears Jarrell's characteristic sweet melancholy offset by a teasing cruelty that taunts, "Reach, move your hand a little, try to move — / You can't move, can you?"

The gently evocative "Lady Bates" prefigures somber, disappointed female figures in Jarrell's later works, particularly "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" and "Next Day." Published in 1960 as the title poem in the collection The Woman at the Washington Zoo, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," a work of Jarrell's mature years, was a favorite for recitations during the emotion-charged early years of American feminism. The poem has a subdued reverie at the beginning and sketches the inner landscape of a passive uniform-clad figure walking among cages and fearfully observing the exhibits. In the surreal atmosphere of Washington, saris on embassy women are not uncommon. At the zoo, the diaphanous patterned silks rival the gorgeous rippling hide of the leopard. At the same time, the startling colors clash with the speaker's "dull null" navy, a rigid, dutiful, stultifying fabric that will follow her joyless days and deck her corpse.

The speaker mourns that she is a voiceless entity caged in flesh, an unwilling sacrifice to mortality. Terrified at a soul-withering desk job, she pleads with the self-imposed bars to "open, open!" Unlike the zoo animals, she acknowledges the measure of her life and chafes at the pageant of the capital city, where "the world" passes by her desk without alleviating despair and loneliness. Starved for passion, she visualizes a man-shape in the vulture, a gallant, red-helmeted figure who has "shadowed" her like approaching death, which the poet glimpses in fly-blown meat torn by buzzards. Ending this scary eye-to-eye experience, the plaint in the last three lines is one of Jarrell's most compassionate cries, rising to an imperative: "You know what I was. / You see what I am: / change me, change me!"

A lament for the unfulfilled 1960s woman, "Next Day," from Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays and Fables (1962) is one of Jarrell's inventive psychological portraits. As the female persona studies the merchandise of the grocery soap aisle, the bubbly optimistic names — Cheer, Joy, All — mock her attempts at self-expression when she creates exotic menus from wild rice and Cornish hens. Without success, she attempts to "overlook" the mundane by distancing herself from a flock of average shoppers. As though words can mask her misgivings, she asserts, "I am exceptional."

The first of ten stanzas begins a series of stanza-to-stanza run-on lines, which link the querulous voice to a station wagon, the typically suburban conveyance that carries her away from the unseeing bagboy. A flash of nostalgia returns her to youth, when men noticed her. Now, she is an untempted, middle-aged, upper middle-class housewife with a dog and maid for companionship. Starved for attention, she languishes.

The straightforward, conversational narrative unleashes a discontent similar to the office drone in "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Disappointed by former choices, the speaker longs for a change other than death, a finite transformation that she witnesses in the rearview mirror. At a friend's funeral the previous day, the made-up corpse seemed to admire the speaker's youth. Jarrell presses the character to an acknowledgment — "I stand beside my grave." The fearful frankness of the concluding lines depicts a quandary of the modern age — a confusion and terror at the ordinariness of a life made precious by its brevity.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Compare empathy toward violent death in Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" and "Mail Call" to that of Donald Davidson's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" and Karl Shapiro's poem "The Leg" and the hapless battlefield casualties in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, Mariano Azuela's The Underdogs, and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.

2. Analyze Jarrell's lucid re-creations of the female outlook in "Next Day" and "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Contrast his depiction of malaise with that of poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

3. In "Next Day," the female speaker says, "I am exceptional." Is she? Why or why not?