Randall Jarrell

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Randall Jarrell (1914-05-06 - 1965-10-15) was an American poet, novelist, critic, children's book author and essayist.


  • Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write — a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.
    • "Verse Chronicle," The Nation (1946-02-23); reprinted as "Bad Poets" in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Gödel believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems — people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets — it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, "Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry."
    • "Verse Chronicle," The Nation (1946-02-23); reprinted as "Bad Poets" in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • When you begin to read a poem you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own; but to accept it because its stews taste exactly like your old mother's hash, or to reject it because the owl-headed goddess of wisdom in its temple is fatter than the Statue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibility to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet," Harvard University lecture (1950-08-15) delivered at the Harvard University Summer School Conference on the Defense of Poetry (August 14-17, 1950); reprinted in Partisan Review, XVIII (January/February 1951) and published in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader — that non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame: "Our poems are too hard for him." But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet," Harvard University lecture (1950-08-15), published in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.
    • "Reflections on Wallace Stevens," Partisan Review, vol. 18, (May/June 1951); published in Poetry and the Age (Knopf, 1953)
  • If we meet an honest and intelligent politician, a dozen, a hundred, we say that they aren't like politicians at all, and our category of politician stays unchanged; we know what politicians are like.
    • "The Intellectual in America" (1955), from A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962)
  • The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced.
    • "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket," Daedalus, vol. 89, no. 2 (Spring 1960); published in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962)
  • One of the most obvious facts about grown-ups to a child is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child.
  • Delmore carries such a petty, personally involved, New Yorkish atmosphere around with him it's almost unpleasant for me to see him. He thinks that Schiller and St Paul were just two Partisan Review editors.
    • Quoted in Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times," The New York Times (1985-05-06) [1]. The quote is cited from a 1952 letter in Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection, ed. Mary Jarrell, assisted by Stuart Wright (Houghton Mifflin, 1985).

Blood for a Stranger (1942)

  • I see at last that all the knowledge

    I wrung from the darkness — that the darkness flung me —
    Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
    The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
    And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

    • "90 North," lines 28-32

  • The nurse is the night
    To wake to, to die in: and the day I live,
    The world and its life are her dreams.
    • "Variations," lines 31-33

  • And the world said, Child, you will not be missed.
    You are cheaper than a wrench, your back is a road;
    Your death is a table in a book.
    You had our wit, our heart was sealed to you:
    Man is the judgment of the world.
    • "Variations," lines 40-44

Little Friend, Little Friend (1945)

  • 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.

Losses (1948)

  • For this last savior, man,
    I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying?
    Men wash their hands in blood, as best they can:
    I find no fault in this just man.
    • "Eighth Air Force," lines 16-20

  • We read our mail and counted up our missions —
    In bombers named for girls, we burned
    The cities we had learned about in school —
    Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
    The people we had killed and never seen.
    When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
    When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."
    They said, "Here are the maps"; we burned the cities.
    • "Losses," lines 21-28

The Seven-League Crutches (1951)

  • The soul has no assignments, neither cooks
    Nor referees: it wastes its time. It wastes its time.
    Here in this enclave there are centuries
    For you to waste: the short and narrow stream
    Of life meanders into a thousand valleys
    Of all that was, or might have been, or is to be.
    The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly.
    • "A Girl in a Library," lines 32-29

  • The ways we miss our lives are life.
    • "A Girl in a Library," line 92

  • Somewhere there must be
    Something that's different from everything.
    All that I've never thought of — think of me!
    • "A Sick Child," lines 18-20

  • His eye a ring inside a ring inside a ring
    That leers up, joyless, vile, in meek obscenity —
    This is the devil. Flesh to flesh, he bleats
    The herd back to the pit of being.
    • "The Knight, Death and the Devil," lines 17-20

  • Death and the devil, what are these to him?
    His being accuses him — and yet his face is firm
    In resolution, in absolute persistence;
    The folds of smiling do for steadiness;
    The face is its own fate — a man does what he must
    And the body underneath it says: I am.
    • "The Knight, Death and the Devil," lines 34-39

Pictures from an Institution (1954)

  • President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.
    • Ch. 1: The President, Mrs., and Derek Robbins
  • The Southern past, the Southern present, the Southern future, concentrated into Gertrude's voice, became one of red clay pine-barrens, of chain-gang camps, of housewives dressed in flour sacks who stare all day dully down into dirty sinks.
    • Ch. 2: The Whittakers and Gertrude
  • The faculty — insofar as they were real Benton faculty, and not just nomadic barbarians — reasoned with the students, "appreciated their point of view," used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made — that the students might be right about something, and they wrong.
    • Ch. 3: Miss Batterson and Benton
  • It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.
    • Ch. 4: Constance and the Rosenbaums
  • She said to Constance, parodying a line of poetry that attracted her, "In the United States, there one feels free." But she spoiled it by continuing, "Except from the Americans — but every pearl has its oyster."
    • Ch. 4: Constance and the Rosenbaums

The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960)

  • Animals, these beings trapped
    As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
    Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
    Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death
    — Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!

    The world goes by my cage and never sees me.

    • "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," lines 14-19

The Bat-Poet (1964)

  • A bat is born
    Naked and blind and pale.
    His mother makes a pocket of her tail
    And catches him. He clings to her long fur
    By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
    And then the mother dances through the night
    Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting —
    Her baby hangs on underneath.
    • "A bat is born," lines 1-8; reprinted as "Bats" in The Lost World (1965)

The Lost World (1965)

  • Be, as you have been, my happiness;
    Let me sleep beside you, each night, like a spoon.
    • "Woman," lines 170-171

  • The new masters paint a subject as they please,
    And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition
    For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ,
    The earth is a planet among galaxies.
    Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract
    Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts
    Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe
    In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner
    Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.
    • "The Old and the New Masters," lines 53-61

  • A farmer is separated from a farmer
    By what farmers have in common: forests,
    Those dark things — what the fields were to begin with.
    At night a fox comes out of the forest, eats his chickens.
    At night the deer come out of the forest, eat his crops.
    • "Field and Forest," lines 11-15

  • At night there are no more farmers, no more farms.
    At night the fields dream, the fields are the forest.
    The boy stands looking at the fox
    As if, if he looked long enough — he looks at it.
    Or is it the fox is looking at the boy?
    The trees can't tell the two of them apart.
    • "Field and Forest," lines 45-50

  • You give me the feeling that the universe
    Was made by something more than human
    For something less than human.
    But I identify myself, as always,
    With something that there's something wrong with,
    With something human.
    • "The One Who Was Different"

Kipling, Auden & Co: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964 (1980)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, ISBN 0-374-51668-5

  • We live in an age which eschews sentimentality as if it were a good deal more than the devil. (Actually, of course, a writer may be just as sentimental in laying undue emphasis on sexual crimes as on dying mothers: sentimental, like scientific, is an adjective that relates to method, not to matter.)
    • "Ten Books," The Southern Review (Autumn 1935) [p. 8]
  • The writer does not get from his work as he writes and reads it the same aesthetic shock that the reader does; and since the writer is so accustomed to reading other stories, and having them produce a decided effect upon him, he is disquieted at not being equally affected by his own.
    • "Ten Books," The Southern Review (Autumn 1935) [p. 8]
  • An author frequently chooses solemn or overwhelming subjects to write about; he is so impressed at writing about Life and Death that he does not notice that he is saying nothing of the slightest importance about either.
    • "Ten Books," The Southern Review (Autumn 1935) [p. 9]
  • Consider some of the qualities of typical modernistic poetry: very interesting language, a great emphasis on connotation, "texture"; extreme intensity, forced emotion — violence; a good deal of obscurity; emphasis on sensation, perceptual nuances; emphasis on details, on the part rather than on the whole; experimental or novel qualities of some sort; a tendency toward external formlessness and internal disorganization — these are justified, generally, as the disorganization required to express a disorganized age, or, alternatively, as newly discovered and more complex types of organization; an extremely personal style — refine your singularities; lack of restraint — all tendencies are forced to their limits; there is a good deal of emphasis on the unconscious, dream structure, the thoroughly subjective; the poet's attitudes are usually anti-scientific, anti-common-sense, anti-public — he is, essentially, removed; poetry is primarily lyric, intensive — the few long poems are aggregations of lyric details; poems usually have, not a logical, but the more or less associational style of dramatic monologue; and so on and so on. This complex of qualities is essentially romantic; and the poetry that exhibits it represents the culminating point of romanticism.
    • "A Note on Poetry," preface to The Rage for the Lost Penny: Five Young American Poets (New Directions, 1940) [p. 49]
  • The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.
    • "Poetry in War and Peace," Partisan Review (Winter 1945) [p. 129]
  • A good religious poem, today, is ambergris, and it is hard to enjoy it for thinking of all those suffering whales; but martyrs are born, not made.
    • "Poetry in War and Peace," Partisan Review (Winter 1945) [p. 133]
  • We know from many experiences that this is what the work of art does: its life — in which we have shared the alien existences both of this world and of that different world to which the work of art alone gives us access — unwillingly accuses our lives.
    • "The Profession of Poetry," Partisan Review (September/October 1950) [p. 166]
  • One is forced to remember how far from "self-expression" great poems are — what a strange compromise between the demands of the self, the world, and Poetry they actually represent.
    • "The Profession of Poetry," Partisan Review (September/October 1950) [p. 168]
  • It is better to have the child in the chimney corner moved by what happens in the poem, in spite of his ignorance of its real meaning, than to have the poem a puzzle to which that meaning is the only key. Still, complicated subjects make complicated poems, and some of the best poems can move only the best readers; this is one more question of curves of normal distribution. I have tried to make my poems plain, and most of them are plain enough; but I wish that they were more difficult because I had known more.
    • "Answers to Questions," from Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi, 1950 [p. 170]
  • A successful poem says what a poet wants to say, and more, with particular finality. The remarks he makes about his poems are incidental when the poem is good, or embarrassing or absurd when it is bad — and he is not permitted to say how the good poem is good, and may never know how the bad poem is bad. It is better to write about other people's poetry.
    • "Answers to Questions," from Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi, 1950 [p. 171]
  • Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the eighteenth century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.
    • "On the Underside of the Stone," The New York Times Book Review (1953-08-23) [p. 177]
  • Malraux writes in a language in which there is no way to say "perhaps" or "I don't know," so that after a while we grow accustomed to saying it for him.
    • "Malraux and the Statues at Baumberg," Art News (December 1953) [p. 180]
  • Many young poets, nowadays, are insured against everything. For them poetry is a game like court tennis or squash racquets — one they learned at college — and they play it with propriety, as part of their social and academic existence; their poems are occasional verse for which life itself is only one more occasion.
    • "Recent Poetry," The Yale Review (Autumn 1955) [p. 231]
  • Underneath all his writing there is the settled determination to use certain words, to take certain attitudes, to produce a certain atmosphere; what he is seeing or thinking or feeling has hardly any influence on the way he writes. The reader can reply, ironically, "That's what it means to have a style"; but few people have so much of one, or one so obdurate that you can say of it, "It is a style that no subject can change."
    • "Recent Poetry," The Yale Review (Autumn 1955) [p. 237]
  • If you look at the world with parted lips and a pure heart, and will the good, won't that make a true and beautiful poem? One's heart tells one that it will; and one's heart is wrong. There is no direct road to Parnassus.
    • "Recent Poetry," The Yale Review (Autumn 1955) [p. 237]
  • When you call people we you find it easy to be unfair to them, since you yourself are included in the condemnation.
    • "Five Poets," The Yale Review (Autumn 1956) [p. 263]
  • The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.
    • "The Taste of the Age," The Saturday Evening Post (1958-07-26) [p. 290]
  • If we judge by wealth and power, our times are the best of times; if the times have made us willing to judge by wealth and power, they are the worst of times.
    • "The Taste of the Age," The Saturday Evening Post (1958-07-26) [p. 290]
  • A poem is, so to speak, a way of making you forget how you wrote it.
    • "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," from Understanding Poetry, third edition, ed. Cleanth Brooks (1960) [p. 319]
  • You often feel about something in Shakespeare or Dostoevsky that nobody ever said such a thing, but it's just the sort of thing people would say if they could — is more real, in some sense, than what people do say. If you have given your imagination free rein, let things go as far as they want to go, the world they made for themselves while you watched can have, for you and later watchers, a spontaneous finality.
    • "On Preparing to Read Kipling," introduction to The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling (1961) [p. 335]


  • I think that one possible definition of our modern culture is that it is one in which nine-tenths of our intellectuals can't read any poetry.

About Randall Jarrell

  • His dogmatism is more wild and personal than we are accustomed to, completely unspoiled by the hedging "equanimity" that weakens the style and temperament of so many of our serious writers. His murderous intuitive phrases are famous; but at the same time his mind is essentially conservative and takes as much joy in rescuing the reputation of a sleeping good writer as in chloroforming a mediocre one.
  • Your tenderness and terrorization, your prose sentences — like Bernini graves, staggeringly expensive, Italianate, warm, sentences once-and-for-all.
    • Karl Shapiro, "Randall Jarrell," from The Bourgeois Poet (1964)
  • What he could do in poetry he did early and with prodigious security; he was one of our true poets for thirty years and practically the only American poet able to cope with the Second Great War; many of us both younger and older would acknowledge him as a master in one degree or another. It was this gift of true pitch that made his teaching voice, his critical voice, as penetrating as it was.
    • Robert Fitzgerald, "Randall Jarrell: A Memoir," from Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, ed. Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), p. 75
  • Randall had a great flair for the poetry of desperation.
    • John Crowe Ransom, "The Rugged Way of Genius," from Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, ed. Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), p. 160
  • To have your poems criticized by Jarrell — when they didn't please him — was like meeting your fate, like a foretaste of death. To go with his daunting judgement, he had an unlimited stock of images for catching exactly each poet's inadequacies, so that their predicaments were far more vividly expressed than anything they themselves had written. Jarrell made literature out of their failure to make it.

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