Poetry’s Ball Turret Gunner

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.


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.

Because I was already familiar with Jarrell’s virtues, on this rereading his limitations were more noticeable than they were twenty-five years ago. He is much better at lobbying than at explaining. Only a few essays (like “Texts from Housman”) go into detailed analysis of poems, and these are a bit leaden. More typical and effective are his celebrated deep-sea dives into a body of work, from which he resurfaces with a dripping netful of treasure. Most of his criticism consists, in effect, of saying, “Just look at that. Isn’t it wonderful?” And it’s clear you qualify as a fool in his eyes if you don’t quite see it. Because of his intelligent exasperation and basic good will, you don’t want to let him down by resisting his views, even when unsupported by evidence or argument. He had an odd habit of settling on single good lines to justify a whole poem. There’s also his characteristic iron confidence, which, like all bullying, suggests secret doubt. Still, given the polemical task he’d assigned himself, it was a method that got results. We take the centrality of Whitman and Frost so much for granted, it’s hard to recall that before Jarrell began stumping for them, critical orthodoxy didn’t have much use for either. His essays were the first step in a rehabilitation that soon brought them to the front rank in American poetry. It’s not often that credit goes to a single figure for a fundamental change in sensibility.

Jarrell didn’t have the benefit of the insights made available by the feminism of the seventies, so, from our standpoint, he seems to go wrong when dealing with women authors. Sometimes the abuse is trivial, as when he says (in “Fifty Years of American Poetry”) that he regards Moore and Bishop as “the best women poets since Dickinson.” Why situate excellence in terms of gender? Well, that’s the way men talked back then if they bothered with women writers at all. Granted, he was a strong advocate for Moore and Bishop (and in fiction, Christina Stead). But his Moore essay engages in the critical fallacy of castigating her too much for what she didn’t do rather than focusing on the value of what she did. Moore never married and had a nineteenth-century sense of propriety, but that’s no reason for viewing her poetry as a spinster’s accomplished needlework, as Jarrell comes close to doing. He has plenty of good things to say about her and a few other women, but sometimes the praise is faintly oppressive because of its paternal tone and clear intent to control. Adoration is a poor substitute for equal rights or equal pay for equal work.

Mary Jarrell tells of her first meeting with Randall in the early fifties at the Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference, where she was an eager student. So far as I know, this memoir and her editorial framing of Jarrell’s Selected Letters are the sum total of her publications. Both attest to solid literary skills; but the opening chapters of the memoir hint that whatever aspirations she had as a writer were quickly swallowed up in Jarrell’s omnivorous talent. She joins that group of gifted women–Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Carlyle, Zelda Fitzgerald and many others–who gave substance to male writers close to them, whether or not the debt was ever publicly acknowledged. Mary Jarrell recounts several instances in which she presented her husband with subject matter, much as a cat will bring birds or mice it has decided not to eat and lay them on the master’s doorstep. Not that the results were always brilliant. Once, when the Jarrells were having breakfast at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Mary eavesdropped on a conversation from the next table, where three unmistakably rich and idle people were discussing various luxury problems. She reported the fruit of her eavesdropping to Randall, who used it as the basis for his poem “The Three Bills,” among his weakest, and not just because of its mild homophobia. And maybe it was a mistake to satirize the neighboring Ritz crackers whose privacy had been invaded, considering that someone outside might have felt much the same about the Jarrells having their breakfast in the Edwardian Room before she went off to buy a dress on sale at Bergdorf’s while he went off to spend a small fortune on records at Sam Goody’s. Probably the best thing to do is to lump the poem together with Jarrell’s love of English tailoring and spiffy sports cars as part of the eccentric baggage all poets carry around with them.

I don’t doubt that Jarrell was liberal and even libertarian. But it’s puzzling that, beginning with the 1954 antisegregation Supreme Court decision and on up through the genesis of the civil rights movement, neither Jarrell’s criticism nor his poetry gives evidence that he was aware of progressive social movements or of any political concerns. All the inhabitants of his poems are white, with the exception of “Lady Bates,” which is sympathetic in a paternalistic way to its subject but, like so many poems by white authors dealing with blacks, doesn’t avoid using the N-word. Meanwhile, he never mentions African-American writers in his criticism. Someone who has the time may also want to check to see how many poems by African-Americans he selected for publication in this magazine. On the plus side, he suffered from no anti-Semitism at all; among the Jews, Freud, Kafka and Arendt were very high in his pantheon. His powerful “Jews at Haifa” is based on an incident when British authorities in Palestine denied sanctuary to a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Germany during World War II. Still, only in this poem and “A Prussian Camp in the Forest” does he deal with the Holocaust. The subject never comes up in his prose, and that fact makes it a little harder to digest his often expressed devotion to German artistic culture.

A hypothesis often discussed in private but never aired publicly is that Jarrell had repressed homosexual desires. Or not so repressed in the poem “The Bronze David of Donatello,” in which Jarrell’s customary cool yields to a passionate response to Donatello’s nude version of David as a boy warrior about 13 years old. The statue gets this response from Jarrell: “The rib-case, navel, nipples are the features/Of a face that holds us like the whore Medusa’s–/Of a face that, like the genitals, is sexless.” But how sexless can genitals be? Attraction and repression both reside in the weird modifier “whore” for the mythological character whose gaze petrified anyone who returned it. Apparently Jarrell could allow homosexual desire to surface so long as it was sanitized by statue-fetishism and pedophilia. Meanwhile, none of his poems dealing with his feelings toward women are as drenched in desire. He expresses physical interest in a woman just once (without loss of cool) in “A Man Meets a Woman on the Street,” where the woman turns out to be his wife–wearing the very dress she went out to buy at Bergdorf’s, the memoir tells us. On the other hand, his interior monologue of an unnamed woman in “Next Day” soon gets to her aching disappointment that the grocery-store bag boy doesn’t see her as a sexual being.

If Jarrell repressed his homosexual side, that might help explain the savagery of his essay about Auden, who’d been willing to take the rap for being gay during one of the most repressive periods in American social history. Auden’s poetry has flaws, but so does Eliot’s and Frost’s and Williams’s; the indulgence Jarrell was willing to extend to them was denied to Auden. I remember a reported comment of Auden’s in response to some critic’s hatchet job, to the effect: “Oh, he must be attracted to me, or he wouldn’t be so nasty.” The reviewer wasn’t named. Could it have been Jarrell, who, even if not attracted to Auden himself, might have been tempted by Auden’s freedom, not to mention the unsuccessfully repressed attraction to bronze ephebes and bag boys?

Mary Jarrell’s account of their marriage is suffused with cheer, and you sense that he was kind, playful, thoughtful and affectionate with her. But passion and lust don’t come into the picture. It’s interesting that “The Meteorite,” the first poem Jarrell wrote with Mary in mind, allegorizes her as a star, whom the poem designates as “sister.” Jarrell was sufficiently Freudian to understand the mechanics of sublimation. His ardency was poured out in poems and essays, which don’t do everything criticism can do but do some things very well. Even toward the end, there’s no sign he had definitively closed up shop. I wish he had lived longer. Childlike in many ways, he kept the child’s ability to continue learning and would probably have gone on to be even better as a critic and poet than he was.

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