Poetry's Ball Turret Gunner
Has anyone read John Dennis? Irving Babbitt? Gorham Munson? Probably not, though they were considered important critics in their day. Putting aside one or two classical figures like Aristotle and Longinus, the fact is that only those critics who were themselves authors of imaginative literature are read (except by PhD candidates) after their day--Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot, Empson, Marianne Moore. Randall Jarrell wrote as much or more criticism than he did poetry, and most people think that he was a better critic than poet; but the criticism depended on the poetry and would hardly have been written with as much commitment if Jarrell hadn't been out there in the bardic trenches himself. Serving as the literary editor of this magazine in the forties and publishing many of his sharpest reviews here also count as pivotal engagements in his one-man critical campaign, to which he brought his (literal) military experience in World War II. Though he never saw combat himself, he trained Air Force pilots who did and worked in the "celestial navigation tower," an exposure intense enough to lend weight and authenticity to his reflections on warfare. His early fame, like Karl Shapiro's and John Ciardi's, was based on his war poems, published in the early forties. They include "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," not his best but certainly his most anthologized poem, probably because of its gruesome last line: "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Spilled guts will always command the crowd's attention, but a much better poem is "Eighth Air Force," in which Jarrell debates the issue of the just war. Speaking of one of his fellow "murderers," he says:
I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,
Many things; 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.
"What is truth?" Pilate (pun?) asked, and his conflation here with Jesus makes Jarrell's point: When a savior goes for a soldier, he renounces innocence in favor of something more terrifying and more dire. Justice will be paid for in human lives and thereby changes its nature. With torched villages in Kosovo and a haphazardly targeted Belgrade, the poem suddenly bristles with contemporary relevance. Only those who can shoulder that moral ambiguity along with their M-1s should wage war. The same problem extends to reviewing--and, beyond that, to poetry, whose violence, even though purely figurative, even so has real consequences.
As a critic Jarrell never abandoned his ball turret, and the literary landscape was soon strewn with bodies of work targeted by his exacting standards. The question is whether adverse reactions to his own poems inevitably resulted in his being "hosed out" himself. Mary Jarrell's memoir of her husband, Remembering Randall, records the clinical depression that dogged the last year of his life, the first bad siege brought on by a notice of The Lost World written by Joseph Bennett and published in the New York Times Book Review. Jarrell must have felt like a baby seal that had been clubbed; within a week he made a botched suicide attempt and before the year was out had been killed by an oncoming car, either because the driver failed to see him walking along the highway in the dark or because he stepped into its path. His widow's view is that the death was accidental, noting that physical trauma was all on one side of Jarrell's body, impossible if he'd thrown himself in front of the car. But there's no way to be certain.
If a negative review was partly responsible for Jarrell's depression, that's not the same thing as saying Bennett should have lied about what he thought. No one should publish a book without being fully prepared for ax-murder reviews. Still, Jarrell might have brought his experience of literary factionalism to bear on the incident. Joseph Bennett was a former student and admirer of Allen Tate, who, as an anti-Romantic Modernist, had begun to be alarmed at what was happening to American poetry in the early fifties, including Lowell's defection when he published Life Studies. Jarrell had been trying for more than a decade to bring down the gavel on Modernism, both by precept and example. Bennett could hardly be expected to endorse the opponent of his mentor, not to mention other friends like Oscar Williams, whose poems, Jarrell once said, sounded like they'd been "written on a typewriter by a typewriter." Criticizing Jarrell's poetry was another way of knocking a postmodern aesthetic he'd been arguing for. (I mean "postmodern" in the sense of returning to narrative transparence in place of Modernism's hermeticism and allusive texture. Art now described as "postmodern" should really be called "Modernism II," based on techniques of abstraction, disjunctiveness and irony.)
As reviewer and essayist himself, Jarrell slipped on his brass knucks often enough, mostly in the form of one-liners. His essay "Changes in Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden's Poetry" was of the kind that makes grown men cry, though there's no record that Auden did. Even with authors he favored, he often threw in a few drops of acid along with the praise, particularly with Marianne Moore and even with his idol Frost. All the important essays, reviews and public addresses Jarrell produced are gathered in this new, one-volume collection, edited by Brad Leithauser, whose introduction matches Jarrell's intelligent, expository deftness. Jarrell seems to have had roughly the same impact on Leithauser as on many others, including myself, when we were beginning to write. Instead of criticism that was vague, pompous or false, Jarrell's was clear, unaffected and humanly credible. He had both ethics and a sense of fun, never making literature seem like a painful duty but instead the most fascinating pursuit on earth. Truth, the "holiness of the heart's affections" and the magic potency of art were his touchstones, and he brought to the job an astonishingly complete knowledge of world literature, as well as a more than average competency in music and visual art. (He didn't fathom Abstract Expressionism at all, as his essay on the topic shows; but he cared about pre-twentieth century art as few poets have before or since.) His commitment to authors he admired was in itself admirable; he was willing to go to bat for them over and over, which won him a reputation for "generosity," though he never thought of it that way. To shirk the task of advocacy would amount to lounging on the shore while the good and the beautiful drowned.