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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Randall Jarrell: poetry in "plain American which cats and dogs can understand"

I've been leading a study at a local retirement home on the work of the poet Randall Jarrell.  We are looking at his unpublished poems that finally have been published by including them in The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.  Jarrell's last teaching post was at Woman's College, which later became UNC Greensboro.  His students went on to publishing successes of their own, under the foundational tutorage of this fine poet and critic, and author of one novel about the foibles of faculty in a college setting.

His poems speak in our own vernacular, that we can understand the way the poet Marianne Moore describes clear writing, as seen in the title of this blog.  Yet very few of us can use the language with the skill that Jarrell brings to it.  Even his prose is rhythmic, so that whether he is writing poetry or prose it resembles unmetered poetry.

I was attracted to his writing because of the poignant recall of moments, the recollections and the musings, in a tone that not only could speak in upbeat tones but could also pull from me my own feelings of sadness and loss.  And so I chose to work with his unpublished poetry for my Master's thesis at what is now UNC Greensboro.  Jarrell didn't invent this language of the commonplace in poetic form.  Wordsworth was one of the forerunners of such, and no doubt many lesser English poets of his day.  He simply polished the poetry he offered to a higher state.  Others who have written like this are Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.  So I can't claim Jarrell to be original in this common language usage.  I can simply offer his work as one exemplary collection in the extraordinary use of words.

Another characteristic of Jarrell's poetry is that it speaks not only to the modern American, but with the understanding of the educated middle-class.  Yet he emphasizes simplicity of life, as he expresses it in one poem by the phrase "the dailiness of life."  Nothing fancy, nothing high-falutin' about the poems, unless possibly some of his translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's poems which speak from the upper class perspective.  He was also uncanny in his ability to speak in the voices of women.  Very few male writers can do that well.  He does this in poems on women who have passed their prime, some regrettably, others simply accepting their changes from the young brides they once were.   

I worked very closely with his Rilke translation of "The Widow's Song," where he takes that poem and translates it into his own vernacular yet retains the Rilke language somehow.  This poem may have been chosen because it echoes his poetic treatment of his own themes: loneliness, death, loss or absence, and does so through the persona of a woman.  The feelings of  vulnerability to fate and death define universal feelings of loss, with its emptiness and despair.   Yet in spite of such dark emotions, Jarrell doesn't weigh the reader down through these poems.   We simply appreciate knowing that there is someone who can express our feelings when we are inarticulate.

Randall Jarrell died in 1965 at the age of 51, an untimely death in many ways.  I think of all the poetry we would have enjoyed from him had he lived into his elderly years.  His widow, Mary Jarrell, was able to keep him before the reading public through her own reflections about him, her public readings of his work, and her  published collection of his letters and her memories of him.  Her own death a few years ago has now lost for us any reminders she would have been able to offer us still about this remarkable poet.  But we can find his work and read for ourselves the brilliance of his writings, in his criticisms and his poetry.

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