Posted on Sep 1, 2015
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, William Logan writes about a reading by Randall Jarrell. It was recorded live at 92Y on April 28, 1963.
I might have heard Randall Jarrell read, had I lived in New York in 1963 or given a damn about poetry. I was twelve. A year or so after, I happened to stay a few blocks north of the Y with my newly married uncle, but I was too late. All I saw was the World’s Fair.
It’s spooky listening to a dead man read—far stranger, in its way, than hearing recordings of Hendrix or Joplin or Jim Morrison, all of whom I saw on stage. Writers die with their deaths, while musicians live on after theirs; and all the recordings in the world won’t save the writer from his immediate pastness once he’s in the grave—indeed, some writers are consigned there long before they die. There is a difference between an artist who lives on the page and one who lives in air. Perhaps that’s only a psychological deceit, because we shouldn’t be able to hear anyone after he dies—sound is a living thing. The page is twice dead.
On Sunday, April 28, 1963, The New York Times reported that Khrushchev would not promise help in Laos, Castro had arrived in Moscow, and the railroad unions were deadlocked with management in a labor dispute. That’s the distance from to Jarrell to us. A four-track stereo tape-recorder could be purchased for $359.95, the equivalent of almost $3000 now. The night before, clocks had moved forward to Daylight Savings Times.
Jarrell was introduced that evening by Eric Bentley, who began by grumbling that he didn’t much like the modernists and didn’t much like the Beats, either. He complained of Pound and Eliot in a voice that bore unhappy resemblance to a mosquito’s: “There was something rather awful about that older generation, the whole Harvard-St. Louis-upperclass and then transferred-to-Oxford business of Eliot, and the pseudo-Europeanism of Pound. Although great work was written, it was written through hideous personalities.” Bentley preferred his own generation—Jarrell’s generation—not poetry of the “pseudo-aristocratic” or the “pseudo-gutter.” As introductions go, this could scarcely have been worse.
Jarrell, who had invited Bentley, brushed off the remarks with an offhand amiability, and not without a barb or two:
I enjoyed very much what Mr. Bentley said, and it even made me think about it. . . . I hope as an audience that you’re full of minds too fine to be violated by any ideas, because of course, thinking about the generations, and so on, would be awfully bothersome for the poems. It’s kind of enchanting to belong to a good generation between two bad ones. I guess it’s the exact opposite of what Arnold said about himself: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”
He agreed about Wyndham Lewis, singled out by Bentley for particular abuse, but continued:
On the other hand, I’m crazy about Eliot, his poetry and his criticism both. I think Eliot began, you know, as a bad man, and just neurotic to no end, and few people have ever been more superior; but I think, by his poetry and plays, he cured himself; and he became such a good man, in the end he couldn’t write any more poetry and plays.
I could listen to that Jarrell all day. One of the virtues of old recordings is that they restore the presence, the hesitations and slight missteps that do more to revive the absent voice than any page of prose. Jarrell was even wittier than I expected—and I recognized in the audience, or thought I did, the same little gasps of pleasure I sometimes hear in my students when I’ve said something that shocks them to their shoes.
Jarrell explained that he was going to read only new poems, the work of recent months:
If you don’t write poetry, I guess your big fear is that you’ll stop breathing, or that people will stop loving you, or something like that. If you write poems, too, the regular thing that scares you so is that you’ll stop writing poems, because a lot of the time you can’t write any poems—or, anyway, I can’t. Many times, for a year or so, I can’t write any at all . . . . At the moment, I feel like a hen with fifteen or sixteen great big eggs! I’m going to read you only nine or ten of them.
It’s an unalterable law that, if the poet threatens to read poems before the ink is dry, you must run for the door. The poems Jarrell brought to the podium that evening were among the last he ever wrote, though he didn’t die until two years later. They formed most of the first half of his final book, The Lost World
, published in early 1965, the year of his probable suicide.
I love Jarrell’s war poems, especially those in the voices of airmen and dead children. He had a sentimental streak as long as an airstrip; but then he’d missed out on the war. Having washed out of flight school, he was consigned Stateside to menial camp jobs, sorting mail, typing, or running a massive dishwasher (by the end of the war he was at least teaching celestial navigation). Jarrell imagined the war through the voices of those pilots, borrowing the stories from returning flyers. The war drew out something magnificent in him. I can forgive a certain amount of sentiment in the poems spoken by the dead—but however far I’m willing to let him go, Jarrell goes much farther.
The later poems were lesser things. The Lost World has its fans, but the poems are precious when not prosaic. As a challenge to Life Studies (1959), it was a stark failure. Jarrell’s late manner is Lowell and tap water, memories that sound like an insurance adjuster’s report. If we trust the poems, Jarrell’s sickly boyhood must have been not just lonely but, though fondly remembered, insulated as a refrigerator and overseen for a time by grandparents—at least as he portrayed them—more like Ma and Pa Kettle than flesh and blood. His boyhood involved a lot of mooning.
Jarrell, like Browning before him and few poets since, loved personae; but his long poems in the voices of women aren’t just unconvincing—they’re preposterous. He read “Next Day,” the opening poem in The Lost World:
Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All, I take a box And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens. The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical Food-gathering flocks Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise If that is wisdom.
I suspect no one in a supermarket has ever thought that way, not even Mrs. William James. Jarrell’s portraits of women lost in their lives are inadvertently condescending (like the joke here about the brands of detergent), projections of the poet’s psyche not onto the world but onto a movie screen. Jarrell once groused, in a review of The Mills of the Kavanaughs
, that Lowell’s characters acted like Lowell, not like real people—and so Jarrell’s women talk like Jarrell, not real people. Had he been a novelist a second time, he might have written Mrs. Bridge
Late Jarrell is the work of a poet who has lost one way and not yet found another. Worse, his reading voice was corny and affected. He had a pleasant tenor with deeper notes, not quite the high-pitched voice Lowell and Stanley Kunitz have described—but when he read he sounded overwrought, piping the lines as if he wanted to dance a jig on them, his pronunciation as prissily precise as Mr. Gradgrind’s. No doubt this was a period style. I’ve heard worse, readers of the forties and even the sixties who couldn’t deliver a line without auditioning for Hamlet. Though it’s hard to believe, there are poets who read poems, even their own poems, more badly than actors—actors have been trained to imitate a lot of things, but when reading poetry they cannot imitate being natural. Some poets now sound so natural, alas, you think they’ve just swallowed a handful of Xanax.
We often assume that a reading allows us to overhear the poet’s inner voice, not his outer one—that can’t be true, but it’s a fond delusion. The poet’s timbre, intonation, and pacing may make the man of paper more human; but the audience must never suppose the imagination is speaking. It’s only the poor lumpish man who happens to be the poet. I enjoy far more, because off the cuff, the patter between poems, the minor anecdotes, otherwise lost, in which the poet tries to soften the brute presence of poetry—and, by explaining it to others, explain it to himself.
There’s an offness about late Jarrell (and, I fear, much early and even middle Jarrell). The poems have had the life squeezed out, the lines hurtling toward artifice, the sentences poised like marble statues in the gardens of Versailles. Such work gave confessional poetry a bad name. All Jarrell’s intelligence could not make his childhood interesting, though it had to happen somewhere, and some of it happened to happen in Hollywood. The poems have the architecture of poems, but the windows have been nailed shut and painted black.
Jarrell wrote in the voices of women and children because he felt at ease with them, or at least easier than he felt around men. He and Robert Lowell once went to Princeton to visit John Berryman. Soon Jarrell was moaning about his hangover, having, he claimed, devoured a poisoned canapé the day before. According to Berryman, he was “walking up and down in my living room, miserable and witty. And very malicious . . . making up a brand-new Lowell poem full of characteristic Lowell properties, Lowell’s grandfather and Charon, and the man who did not find this funny at all was Lowell.” It’s no surprise that at parties Jarrell shunned other guests to talk to the children, if any could be found. Presumably he loved cats because they didn’t demand conversation. And they didn’t talk back.
Jarrell never found a voice entirely his. (Some of his early verse seemed a ventriloquist act by Auden.) Lowell and Bishop were poets immediately themselves. Jarrell sounded like a man trying hard to be a poet—the poetry is fiercely professional, but it is artful without art. The plain clumsy dullness of it was made duller that night by his halting and ponderous reading:
Sometimes as I drive by the factory That manufactures, after so long, Vicks VapoRub Ointment, there rises over me A eucalyptus tree. I feel its stair-sticks Impressed on my palms, my insteps, as I climb To my tree house. The gray leaves make me mix My coughing chest, anointed at bedtime, With the smell of the sap trickling from the tan Trunk, where the nails go in.
Imagine that read in winsome monotone, very slowly, and you’ll have it. Jarrell’s brief introductions, on the other hand, were sometimes hilarious:
Don’t you feel as if science fiction had been going on forever—you know, that the little Jesus read science fiction? . . . I can remember the first purely science-fiction magazine. It was named Amazing Stories, and I believe it started in the spring of ’26. And how I used to read it!
He could be charming even when he had to break the rhythm of reading:
I always hate it when the person reading takes a drink of water. It seems to me to indicate an overweening self-possession on his part. . . . If you won’t mind, I’ll take a drink of water in midflight, like the bat.
In his remarks about “In Montecito,” Jarrell explained that the last name of the character Greenie Taliaferro was pronounced “Toliver.” Such stray information is just what readings are good at preserving—otherwise the footnote is lost forever. The poem, however, borrows heavily from Elizabeth Bishop’s story “In the Village,” which Lowell had already pilfered in Life Studies
for his poem “The Scream”—yet neither Bishop nor Lowell wrote lines as hamfisted as “there visited me one night at midnight / A scream with breasts.”
Jarrell’s reputation has fallen a long way, like Delmore Schwartz’s (fairly) and John Berryman’s (not so fairly). If Jarrell’s poems figure-skated along the ice, his prose was raised from the dark water below. Pictures from an Institution remains one of the great comic novels of the last century. He was a decent translator, a marvel as an anthologist, a standard-bearer for writers out of fashion like Kipling and Graves, and a critic without peer. If you read his essays on Frost or Moore, Whitman or Lowell, you’ll hear an original view you’ll be tempted to make your own. Some of the things Jarrell said, sixty-odd years ago, we’re saying still, as if we’d just thought of them.
The reading at the Y was long, by our standards. We’re used now to Freud’s fifty-minute hour, though I’ve heard readers who packed it in after twenty. Their brevity, their short shrift, left me wondering why they’d bothered to appear at all. Late in the evening, Jarrell suffered an odd slip, forgetting a quote by Hofmannsthal. He made a joke about forgetting (“It’s Freudian, forgetting”), stumbled to recover, then completely lost his train of thought. At last he said, in despair, “I shouldn’t have got into all this. I beg your pardon.” He read the last sections of “The Lost World,” and the reading was over. Was that lapse an early sign of the gathering mania and depression that soon overwhelmed him?
His quarrelsome introducer, Eric Bentley, who did important work in the theater, is still alive at ninety-eight. That makes me wish Jarrell were, too.
William Logan’s new book of criticism is Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure.