Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrel’s tragic death in October, 1965, deprived American literature of one of its most illuminating voices. Marianne Moore’s intimation of that loss, a characteristic memoir from one of America’s most distinguished poets, will appear in RANDALL JARRELL, 1914-1965‚ a collection of critical essays and memoirs, to be published this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

by Marianne Moore

LIKE Randall Jarrell’s bats, we live by hearing, by vibrations; by having heard what makes us happy — by his way of saying what he says. I cannot think of anyone who gives me more incentive than Randall Jarrell, as I read him or think about him.

Even a touch of affectation would have spoiled it — what he says in “The Lost World” of himself as a child, reading at bedtime, “Forced out of life into / Bed.” Safe in his naturalness, he says, “I’m not afraid,” and goes on in his glow of gratitude to existence.

There off Sunset, in the lamplit starlight,
A scientist is getting ready to destroy
The world. “It’s time for you to say good night,”
Mama tells me; I go on in breathless joy.
“Remember, tomorrow is a school day,”
Mama tells me; I go on in breathless joy.
Then I go back
To my bedroom; I read as I undress.
The scientist is ready to attack.
Mama calls, “Is your light out?” I call back, “Yes,”
And turn the light out.

Randall Jarrell’s evaluation of others is descriptive of himself. He says, “. . . the poems of Miss Bishop or Mr. Williams or Mr. Graves are a lonely triumph of integrity‚ knowledge, and affection.”

War engulfs him. “ The engines rise to their blind laboring roar.”

“The great drake
Flutters to the icy lake —
The shotguns stammer in my head.
I lie in my own bed,”
He whispers, “dreaming”; and he thinks to wake.
The old mistake.
The tags’ chain stirs with the wind; and I sleep
Paid, dead, and a soldier. Who fights for his own life
Loses, loses: I have killed for my world, and am free.
No; the dead are not afraid, cannot refute
The grave’s cross, the grave’s grass, the grave’s polished granite
— that I may live! —

Like Jonah, the soldier is vomited into life from the grave — not bitter or with uncertainty but with emphasized comprehension.

“Integrity, knowledge, and affection.” Of these attributes it seems as though affection, affection unaided, might have demonstrated the abounding unsnobbishness of his heart. He says, “In my / Talk with the world,”

how strange that I
Know nothing, and yet it tells me what I know! —
I appreciate the animals, who stand by Purring. Or else they sit and pant. It’s so —
So agreeable.

One might say here something about an art of appreciation that does not estrange the beneficiary from the giver. Randall Jarrell could invest a creature with romance which makes it seem the counterpart of a luna moth with seagreen wings that have violet crescents on them—a creature that was a worm‚ and that only respects compliments which respect modesty.

Randall Jarrell’s integrity is inescapably graphic in the testfire of anomalous associates described by him in his Pictures from an Institution. The institution was Benton College; and Dwight Robbins was its Piesident. He had inherited Miss Camille Batterson, teacher of creative writing, “and there was nothing he could do about her. Nothing, that is, that wouldn’t have been cruel and inexpedient the University of Iowa, or Illinois, or Indiana had offered Miss Batterson a better job, a Chair in fact. . . . [The President] hid the joy he felt, and expressed . . . the sorrow he did not feel.”

The Head of the Department that had made the offer “was the informing intelligence of the committee that revised the English curriculum of the secondary schools of his state.” “His field was Cowper.” “When you pronounce Cowper properly‚ you say Cooper. . . . But when people who didn’t know how to pronounce Cowper heard the head referred to by people who did . . . they thought him an authority on Cooper and spoke of him as such.” “ . . . before long he and his wife were spending evenings with deans.” “ it did no good to remind himself that Cowper had been, for a good deal of his life, insane.”

“Nobody except the English Department had thought it sensible of him to be interested in Cowper; now everybody thought it sensible of him to be interested in the English Department. Each member of the Department did something that seemed to the world impractical at best, idiotic at worst; to be in charge of the whole idiocy and impracticality seemed impractical or idiotic to no one.”

His wife was a daughter and granddaughter of Justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia. “She was Miss Batterson’s oldest and dearest friend. She . . . had heard Ellen Glasgow refer to Miss Batterson as ‘a woman of the finest sensibility.’ ” After she left Benton, Miss Batterson sent postcards “home to Benton.” “It was as if she were attending the University, not teaching at it.”

“In March, the first spring after she left Benton‚ she died.” “The next day, when the first girls came to Dr. Rosenbaum’s office for their conferences, there was only a note on the door postponing these. . . . Dr. Rosenbaum was looking out the window of a plane ... on his way to a funeral.”

Dr. Gottfried Rosenbaum and Mrs. Rosenbaum seem the most lovable residents of Benton. “And [yet] they did not like America so well as one would have wished them to like it . . . Irene, for instance, had a name that is pronounced i RA ne, more or less‚ over most of Europe; here in America she was called I REEN.” Dr. Rosenbaum “had published three volumes of an immense work showing how content gets expressed in, and modified by, the forms of its time.” He was composer in residence, known for his Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bach.

One cannot degrade the Rosenbaums’ house by calling it exotic. “ . . . there were, badly arranged on its rarely dusted bookshelves, books in English, German, Russian, French, Latin, Greek — all the languages of the earth . . . printed scores, photostats of scores, scores in manuscript, scores in Esperanto‚ almost ... a pale engraving of Vivaldi, Beethoven and Liszt letters in stand-up frames, glass on both sides so that one could see both sides of the page. There was no end to the confusion and richness of the house.” A student friend “would close her eyes, and then open them again and look at the Rosenbaums ‘like puzzled urchin on an aged crone / Who keepeth closed a wond’rous riddle-book.’ ”

Gertrude Johnson (English Department) was a spoiled one, spoiled beyond repair, marred forever in the making — a novelist who “listened only as A Novelist.” Her books “did not murder to dissect, but dissected to murder. The blush on the cheek of Innocence is really — one learned this from Gertrude — a monomolecular film of giant levorotatory protein molecules‚ and the bonds that join them are the bonds of self-interest.”

In Randall Jarrell, we have an author who somehow unshackled himself from self and could have a good time; have as companions a bat, a chipmunk, a bird. This was in the South and a mockingbird frequented the yard. He was somewhat mercurial. “ ... on his bad days he’d dive on everything that came into the yard—on cats and dogs, even. . . . The day the bat went to him the mockingbird was perched on the highest branch of the big willow by the porch, singing with all his might . . . every part of him had a clear, quick, decided look about it. He was standing on tiptoe . . . sometimes he’d spring up into the air. This time he was singing a song about mockingbirds.

“The bat fluttered to the nearest branch, hung upside down from it, and listened; finally when the mockingbird stopped for a moment he said in his little high voice: ‘It’s beautiful, just beautiful! . . . I listen to you every night. Every day too. I — I . . . could listen to you forever.’ ” [The bird was pleased.] “ ‘I’ll sing it for you again.’ . . . When the mockingbird had finished, the bat thought: ‘No, I just can’t say him mine. Still, though —’ ” Later “the bat said: ‘Sometimes when I wake up in the daytime I make up poems. Could I — I wonder whether I could say you one of my poems?’ ”

“Till a bat is two weeks old he’s never alone: the little naked thing . . . clings to his mother wherever she goes. After that she leaves him at night; . . . almost dreaming, the bat began to make up a poem about a mother and her baby.”

A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him:
She lives by hearing.
The mother eats the moths and gnats she catches
In full flight; in full flight
The mother drinks the water of the pond
She skims across. Her baby hangs on tight.
at daybreak
The tired mother flaps home to her rafter.
The others are all there.
Bunched upside down‚ they sleep in air;

The bat-poet’s art is like Randall Jarrell’s — never forced‚ but a thing of integrity, knowledge, affection. The weak rhymed foot not always matching the strong foot (“the moonlight” and “beak is bright”); “through the night / Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting” — as inconspicuous as prose; or “In full flight; in full flight / . . . Her baby hangs on tight,” emphasized as if giving directions to an inexperienced child.

(After seeing Maurice Sendak’s pictures of Randall’s animals — of the bat fleeing from the owl, while “the night holds its breath” as the owl “calls and calls”; or a mother possum with all her baby possums holding tight to her, in the moonlight where apples have fallen under the apple tree — I am sure that if he were not an artist‚ he would not work for an exterminator.)

“The X-Ray Waiting Room in the Hospital,” “In Galleries,” The Bat-Poet, “They All Go” — no “steps echoing along the corridor.” These storydramas are not labored; they ignite imagination and just stop; they have no end. But the magic never ends.