Also in Poetry Pages:

Editor's Note: Poetry and the Web (April 11, 2001)
A personal view, on the fifth anniversary of The Atlantic's online Poetry Pages. By Wen Stephenson

Soundings: Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" (April 11, 2001)
"Four decades later," Peter Davison writes, "it still 'sticks like a fishbone/ in the city's throat.'" Frank Bidart and Robert Pinsky join Davison in reading Lowell's masterpiece aloud.

Appreciations: "Prufrock, J. Alfred Prufrock" (April 11, 2001)
Christopher Ricks on T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—and its unlikely leading man.

More on poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on books, literature, and the arts in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

From The Atlantic:

High-Performance Poets (April 2000)
W. H. Auden, James Merrill, and Sylvia Plath read from their work in recordings previously unavailable. A review of the first installment of the "Voice of the Poet" series. By Wen Stephenson

Atlantic Unbound | April 11, 2001
Poetry Pages
The Voice of the Poet-Critic

In the latest installment of the "Voice of the Poet" series—with recordings of Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, and others—the unexpected star is Randall Jarrell, a poet who was known to write some criticism

by Sven Birkerts

The Voice of the Poet: Randall Jarrell

The Voice of the Poet: Randall Jarrell
edited by J. D. McClatchy
Random House
64 pages, 1 cassette, $17.95
andom House has just issued the third installment of its audiobook series "The Voice of the Poet," which consists of three tape compilations of poets reading their own work, each accompanied by a small booklet containing the featured poems. It's a diverse offering, with John Ashbery and Randall Jarrell each meriting his own volume, and five women poets—Gertrude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.D., Louise Bogan, and Muriel Rukeyser (not one of them known to be a shrinking violet)—jostling for space in what feels like the crowded room of the third.

The release is timed to coincide with National Poetry Month—April—and reminds us, again, that however much we think of poetry as a disciplined scatter of words on white, or the proud aestheticism of the thin volume, it remains, at root, historically and performatively, a pneumatic event. Pneumatic, from the Greek root pneuma, relating to wind or air, but inescapably carrying overtones of "spirit" and "soul."

Where does poetry most truly live? In the body breath as it is expelled in audible meaning, in the moment? Or in preservation, as a fixed arrangement of symbols on a page? The answer is not an either/or, I'd say, but something more like both/and, each habitat in some elusive way presupposing—and energizing—the other. For, of course, when we read, silently, we are still in some way recounting to ourselves the ghostly sound valences, and when we listen, on tape or at a reading, the idea of the page is never entirely absent.

The Random House tapes, each boxed with text, readily plant the listener in the hovering between space. If you play a tape and follow along on the page, the text becoming a kind of libretto, you may discover, as I did, that the feeling of this space changes dramatically with each reader. Ashbery, so referentially and syntactically diffuse on the page—you always feel in arrears, as if you must be missing something—is readily domesticated, if not exactly clarified, by the nasal casualness of the voice; he can sound, at times, like a milder, more meditative Jack Nicholson. Gertrude Stein comes across not like the Valkerie priestess of Modernism, but more like an antic Main Line matron, while H.D., so classically spare on the page, has a wavering, dramatic sound, a real "poetess" voice, of the kind we might imagine and parody. Edna St. Vincent Millay goes further, more into vibrato, but as the poems themselves are so headlong and passionate we are less surprised. Bogan, meanwhile, is straight-on serious, transmitting dignity. Muriel Rukeyser, urban-sounding, forceful, exerts some of the moral leverage of the fearsome Jewish matriarch as she cries out: "No More Masks!"

Elsewhere on the Web:

Randall Jarrell
A brief biography, selected bibliography, and the texts of five poems. Posted by the Academy of American Poets.

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)
A brief biography by William Pritchard, excerpts from Jarrell's Army letters, and excerpted commentary on Jarrell's poetry. From the Modern American Poetry site at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For me, though, the real revelation—enlightening shock—came with listening to Randall Jarrell. I realize now that, without ever having heard the poet, I had imagined a voice for him. This from reading the poems for years, certainly, but also from the civilizing arabesques of his criticism, the beautiful deadpan of his novel, Pictures From an Institution (1954)—one of the funniest books of the modern period—even from the photographs that pop up here and there and show a dashing, insouciant, but also strikingly sad-eyed man. I'd featured his sound as ironic and nuanced in the extreme, almost derisive in its exactitudes. What else could you expect of one who could write—and I pick blindly from the huge barrel of his criticism—apropos Sir Stephen Spender: "That a poem beginning I think continually of those who were truly great should ever have been greeted with anything but helpless embarrassment makes me ashamed of the planet upon which I dwell."

Never would I have conjured a voice like the one that so hesitantly offered itself when I hit the play button on my machine. It was, I would say, an almost perfect reversal of expectation. I wrote down a flock of characterizing tags: courtly, feminine, decorous, obliquely Southern, damaged, lacking resistant fiber, naked. And these most disconcerting qualities are present whether he is reading one of his aesthetically descriptive tours de force, like "The Bronze David of Donatello," or one of his morally scalding war poems, like the much anthologized "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner":
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 flack and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

audioear pictureListen to Randall Jarrell read "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (requires RealPlayer).
From The Voice of the Poet: Randall Jarrell. Courtesy of Random House. Used by permission.
The space between feels charged with contradiction.

arrell's reputation as a poet seems to be slowly growing into its deserved stature. Part of the legendarily tormented generation of poets that includes Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, and John Berryman, Jarrell and his melancholy luminosities were for a long time overshadowed by the more manic performances—in life and in art—of some of his contemporaries. Moreover, the fact that he achieved such renown for his deft and deadly criticism seemed to put the case that he was a critic who wrote poetry, rather than vice versa. But time sifts and clarifies. The publication in recent years of his Selected Poems, as edited by William Pritchard, and No Other Book: Selected Essays, edited by Brad Leithauser, has brought Jarrell forward again.

As a poet, Jarrell is known principally for his poems of war, his autobiographical evocations of childhood, and his desolate probings of the adult heart. These last, including poems like "The Face," "Next Day," and "The Woman at the Washington Zoo"—all represented on this cassette—seem to be not only the most harrowing of the lot, but also to resonate with a shuddering emphasis in our era of blow-dried narcissism.

In his introduction to the Jarrell volume, series editor J. D. McClatchy writes, "The theme of transformation is at the heart of all his poetry." He does not specify, however, whether he means transformation as a dynamic process intrinsic to all life, or simply as a primal longing we carry. Certainly it is more the latter than any actual change that we find in these three great monologue poems, all of them, interestingly, in the voices of aging women.

The best, and to my mind the most devastating of the group, is "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," which was the title poem of Jarrell's 1960 National Book Award-winning collection. To hear him read the opening lines for the first time is a strangely wrenching experience.
The saris go by me from the embassies.

Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.

And I....

audioear pictureListen to Randall Jarrell read "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." (Requires RealPlayer.)
From The Voice of the Poet: Randall Jarrell. Courtesy of Random House. Used by permission.

Elsewhere on the Web:

"The Woman at the Washington Zoo"
The complete text of Jarrell's poem, posted by the Academy of American Poets.
Jarrell's voice throughout the poem is soft, tremulous, conveying from the outset with stubborn reluctant insistence not only that speech is emerging at some threshold of sorrow, but that, for the persona of the poem, thought—existence itself—proceeds in the face of some deep obstacle. The reader might not pick that up, yet, just from the page, though by poem's end the woman's state is heartbreakingly manifest. When read, the fragment line—"And I...."—lands like a sigh.

A woman is sitting alone in a public place, the Washington Zoo, thinking—thinking not with a velocity of purpose, but episodically, her reflections prompted by what she observes. But then, with frightening inevitability she finds the track of her innermost preoccupations. Already—so we will discover—the cast of her mind is clear. Already in picking out the exoticism of the saris she has begun to mark out the idea of distance. "Cloth from another planet," she thinks, invoking the distance of those women from herself, and, implicitly, of all human beings from the animals in their cages.

This feeling of distance, of primal estrangement, intensifies and layers on complexity as the poem now unfolds. The woman's first thought, obvious and reflexive, is for her own dress:
                       this print of mine, that has kept its color
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
To my bed, so to my grave ...
What may seem a rather startling leap—navy print to grave—to the literal-minded reader, will seem familiar enough to anyone of a more depressive disposition. This is the feeling-path of wounded inwardness. We are but a few lines in and already we have sounded a soul. Her "dull null/ Navy" is the garb of her condition, its banner.

And now that we have taken in the first flashing glimpse of her state, the poem rushes forward. From the dress, which elicits, she says, no comments or complaints from her boss, she moves to pronouncement: "Only I complain.... this serviceable/ Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses." Suddenly she imagines herself, her body:
                                        small, far-off, shining
In the eyes of 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!
It is hard to read through this passage without thinking of Rilke's famous panther, that utterly self-enclosed creature pacing out its instinct life as if oblivious of its captive state. Jarrell was surely mindful of his predecessor. At moments it seems he is almost annexing some of the power of that perception for himself. But it is to entirely different effect. For it is the distance from us of the creature world—the distance of its unconsciousness—that drives home the insistent power of the idea of death, allowing the poet then to feature that awareness as a cage far more imprisoning than what the zoo animals are forced to inhabit.

"The world goes by my cage and never sees me," the woman now reflects. "And there come not to me, as come to these/ The wild beasts, the sparrows pecking the llama's grain." But now, rising to the occasion of her despair, pushing it to the end—concluding—she calls out:
When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
Take off the red helmet of your head, the black
Wings that have shadowed me, and step to me as man:
The wild brother at whose feet the white wolves fawn,
To whose hand of power the great lioness
Stalks, purring....
                              You know what I was,
You see what I am: change me, change me!
xclamation mark notwithstanding, Jarrell's voice registers the final words unemphatically. This is not a bid for self-renovation but a cry for oblivion. Yes, Jarrell is, as McClatchy wrote, a poet of transformation, but in this case—and in the other poems written in the voices of aging women—it is not the exalting but the despairing transformation that is meant. The vulture, death's ugly factotum, is invited into a strange, sexually morbid embrace—"step to me as man"—and the plea is for the consummation that is the end of suffering. The poem is perfectly hopeless, really. If there is anything exalting, it exists outside the frame—the stringent artistic exaltation of having exacted a look at the worst.

Still, what fresh urgency we feel. While some poetic subject matters and preoccupations change, inflect differently as time passes, others remain. Perhaps Jarrell's recognition—his raising to the level of tragedy the awareness that the soul not seen, not addressed, withers, first into nullity, then into self-negation—is as true in our distracted era as it was in his own. Maybe more so. Advanced as we are, having sensitized ourselves and militated for public tokens of recognition for all who might desire them, I doubt that on other, deeper levels, we see one another any more than we ever have. But going through my day now, Jarrell's poem newly in my thoughts, fixed there with the poet's own voicing, I suddenly see them—us—everywhere, not just women, not just older people, but people of every sort, moving by themselves through the strangeness of modern space, sitting in cars, over cups of coffee in restaurants, lingering at counters, the new Whitmanic multitude, full of its wanting to be seen and known. And while I don't know that I want to thank Jarrell for heightening the recognition, I know I must. It is the hard ennobling truth of poetry.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays, most recently Readings (1999). He will publish Those First Affections, a memoir, early next year.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.