On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly –Isms
Beating Horses Live Or Otherwise:
The Fundamental Poses & Wasting Of Randall Jarrell
by Dan Schneider, 10/16/01

Bonus: RJ’s 2 most famous poems- The Woman At The Washington Zoo & The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

  [Apologies to readers who have read parts 1 & 2 of this essay series & are saying, ‘When are we actually gonna get to APC itself?’ Well, here it is- unvarnished. Parts 1 & 2 were merely ramparts. On to APC!]
  Randall Jarrell was a good poet. Sometimes he was a very good poet, but never a great poet. Sometimes he was a bad poet, but overall he was good- a solid poet with a handful of memorable poems. But Randall Jarrell [RJ] is far more well known as a poetry critic- & not a good 1- but a GREAT poetry critic! The added emphasis is in keeping with his reputation as such. In fact, he probably is known as the best poetry critic America produced last century. But this is wrong. RJ was a bad poetry critic- often very bad. Not that he did not have a good prose style, but because his prose style so overwhelmed his critical acumen that he got lost in rapture of his own wit & wordplay that he often forgot he was critiquing a poem, or book of poetry. In a sense RJ loved the pose as critical arbiter to such a degree that he rarely had time, it seems, to actually arbitrate! To the contrary of his perceived rank as poet & critic, RJ was a better poet than critic- by far! And it’s not that RJ occasionally did not flash brilliance- but it was not critical, merely rhetorical, brilliance- & was far overwhelmed by his defects. The style over substance remark would be apt here.
  Digression time- cue the wavy flashback sequence! Let me tell you of a bad poet & critic. In 1987 I attended the Writers Forum at SUNY Brockport. I saved up for a few months to go to a ‘real’ Forum. I was excited because this must be a quantum leap beyond the mere poetry groups & workshops I attended in people’s apartments & at the West Side Y in Manhattan. The 2 ‘guest’ poets/instructors were local diva/professor Judith Kitchen [who had a very talented poet in her son Matt] & ‘name’ poet William Matthews. WM was a mediocre-bad poet of no real talent who was very laconic during the week-long gathering. JK did most of the grunt work of organizing & running the poetry part of the Forum- classes, workshops, discussions, etc. WM generally caroused about town, showed up to events when he wanted to, & was very hesitant to discuss actual ‘ideas’- especially since there seemed to be only 1 certain loudmouth 22 year old punk who did not accept his fiats. I even recall an incident at the Lift Bridge Book Shop [where I incidentally 1st bought RJ’s Collected Poems] when WM tried impressing a nubile blond coed by quoting a snippet from Pound’s Cantos. When I interjected, that I believed the quote was from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, WM was indignant at my intercession. When I took Pound’s Personae off the shelf & proved it, to the delightful giggle of the coed, I was toast! WM seemed to go out of his way to disagree with my voiced opinions- & in truth my callowness often showed; much to the pounce-happy WM’s delight! But the fateful tolling of WM’s demise was already limned- 1 does not antagonize me [even a callow 22 year old me- still well-versed in the field of rank-outery!] without the inevitable price. Came the day we were to have a poem of our own read & dissected in public. The group of 15-20 strong seemed to enjoy my pretty good poem called Desert Meanderings. WM salivated. Some real weaknesses were pointed out by Forum goers, but then WM- who had given half-hearted & generally useless criticisms to others- weighed in. My poem described the aridity of the desert, & the effects of dessication were strong in the poem. WM leapt at it & declared the poem a failure because, in case I did not know it, the desert is often abloom & experiences many flash floodings! My poem was untrue, therefore a failure! No structural critique was given. WM ‘proved’ this by asking if I’d ever been to a desert. I answered no. WM basked, unrealizing the Robespierrean fate ahead of him. A few of the Forum goers mildly disagreed with his condemnation of my poem. Then it was my turn. Said I: ‘But, William, in MY desert, it is VERY dry!’ WM thundered a no. I countered, ‘Have you ever been to MY desert?’ WM railed at my preposterous query. Others seemed to pick up that I was using imagination-this is an oft-forgotten & neglected part of art! But WM was indignant! He shook his head & fortunately for him, the session was over. WM was red-faced that my seemingly very obvious statement of point was missed! Needless to say WM avoided me for the rest of the Forum. But it was at that moment that the suspicions I had, that most published poets- especially Academics- were poseurs, were viscerally confirmed. This man- then 45 & twice my age fundamentally did not understand poetry or art. & to attempt to aid this man who did not want to be aided would simply have been beating a dead horse- so to speak. But it was no waste since the man had nothing to offer. He simply did not GET IT!- cue the wavy flashback sequence!
  Back to RJ- now he was never as stolid as WM, but he did have the typical poet’s (& critic’s) failing in that he often let his personal biases intrude into his professional criticisms. Yet he was such a good stylist that, read occasionally, his essays effectively mask those biases. Even I bought into his pose as a good critic. However, awhile back I picked up a copy of RJ’s Kipling, Auden & Co. I was faced for the 1st time, in bulk, with the full brunt of how pedantic, preachy, off-base, & snippy his reviews were- not to mention almost always bereft of good poem selections- & often void of selections! His criticism’s flaws almost scream at the discerning reader.
  As is often the case I will go through the book’s pieces chronologically. The book’s pieces appear chronologically from those written as early as 1935 until shortly before his death- the last in 1965. The 1st essay worth looking at is Poetry in a Dry Season from a 1940 Partisan Review. 9 books are dealt with in a mere 4 pages, including the essay title, date & listing of the books reviewed. This sort of compression is almost designed to facilitate puffery in the writing & excuse real criticism. The 1st 4 poets are long forgotten journeymen of the craft: William Bacon Evans, Florence Becker, Walter Roberts, & Reuel Denny. When dealing with minor voices a critic should be especially wont to give a sense of their work- lest why bother writing of them at all?  Of Evans- not a hint of the poetry save for the 1 paragraph devoted being summed up as letting us know Evans’ book’s title should suffice as a review: Chorus of Bird Voices, Sonnets, Battle-Dore, Unconventional Verse, etc. He ends the paragraph with: ‘[Evans] dislikes nothing but cigarettes- and won my heart immediately....But then, Mr. Evans is no poet.’ This is funny & offhand, & works as writing- but as criticism we are not given a taste of his poems- which, given the title, probably clues us in that RJ is right in his opinion; would that we had even a slight opportunity to judge. Of Becker RJ at least gives us a sniff of her verse- apparently 3 lines- but since it is not given in its poetic form we are clueless as to whether the lines contain more. His critique in toto: her sonnets are ‘all Italian, all regular, and all bad.’ But she shares her paragraph with Roberts- dismissed in but 2 sentences. Of his Panorama RJ ends: ‘One often sees an animal one likes, a phrase worth picking up cheap; but the whole is formless, meaningless, and useless.’ RJ feels the reader is not obliged to know why, apparently. Denny gets a full paragraph twice the size of the previous & a few poem quotes; plus a nice zinger: ‘He uses apiece of slang as though he had just looked it up in the dictionary, and puts it in the middle of phrases that look as if he had found them illustrating a definition of poetic diction.’ Yet RJ’s examples do not back him up- & since he did not do justice to them I feel no obligation  to respew his stupidity, enough of that will emerge as we go on. From this it seems RJ feels no obligation to his readership. So, why the bother?
  But well known writers fare little better- although they get longer paragraphs, & occasionally 2. Archibald MacLeish’s America Was Promises is treated as if the book was a parody ghosted by someone with a grudge against AM. This is a humorous tactic, & were this the last paragraph of a substantive review it would work. That it is not reveals itself as so much mental self-stroking: ‘the reader ends by sympathizing with Mr. MacLeish, the parody is too exaggerated to be convincing. Whoever wrote it has been foolish enough to make an elaborate hoax of it (Archibald MacLeish is actually printed on the title page); but no one of us is likely to believe that any poet would end a serious poem: “Believe/America is promises to/Take!/America is promises to/Us/To take them/Brutally/With love but/Take them./{Big gap} O believe this!”’ Again, a nice barb, but is the admittedly weak piece of poetry offered assailed for, oh- say, its poor enjambment? No, it’s merely a prop for RJ to preen off of. Nice writing- BAD criticism. Kenneth Patchen’s First Will and Testament gets a whole 2 paragraphs! Of the poet who was perhaps the best monologist in English since Shakespeare- but in his own crude way- RJ shows all his class-based contempt by contrasting him to e.e. cummings: ‘But Mr. Patchen is less delicate, very much less original, and very much more disorganized, strained, and sentimental.’ & then nailing William Carlos Williams with a charge of doublespeak: ‘[KP] is a hawk on the grave of John Donne.” I should have called him a parrot on the stones of half a cemetery.’ But still no poem selection- RJ’s desire for class warfare precludes even letting the reader a sniff of this barbarous waif; even if WCW’s inapt metaphor is far more accurate in its choice of KP’s comparison than RJ’s links to cummings or- Swinburne? Perhaps he meant the obscure Communist poet Schlomo Swinburne- he cannot mean old carrot-top Algernon himself?  Robert Graves’ Collected Poems & Muriel Rukeyser’s A Turning Wind share a paragraph. Of RG all we learn is he is not a good poet, get some more failed wit, & no excerption. Of MR we learn she has promise but that RJ ‘did not enjoy Miss Rukeyser’s poems as much, and disapproved of them more: A Turning Wind is full of gratuitous disorganization and obscurity, lapses in taste, hit-or-miss symbolism, muddy intensity’ I know- how? is your query. We get no answer nor excerpt. All we learn is that RJ had something up his ass!
  By now RJ’s failings as a critic should be evident. Given what I’ve already relayed, any reader of savvy can just about dead-on nail what RJ’s opinion would be of a given poem, book, or poet- & how he would quip off on it! Of Dylan Thomas? The World I Breathe informed RJ that DT was ‘very Welsh....and very good.’ RJ feels him more original than Hart Crane, yet ‘the best and most brilliantly written pieces usually say less than the worst’ for ‘Even at his worst he is a sort of idiot savant of language.’ An excerpt? Takin’ odds yet? Idiot savant of language? Nice coin, but any clue to what that means critically? Is any of this idiocy displayed? No. More air. We end with W.H. Auden’s Another Time & RJ’s declaration: ‘Now I have much to say- ’ & for 3- yes 3- paragraphs he says it! WHA has improved too much from his earlier self, to the point that he is living in the 18th century- ‘the good poems are magnificently and carefully right, the bad ones full of effects that have almost the wrongness of a fallacy.’ See, readers, that this type of meaningless tripe did not originate with the emergence of PC Elitism in the 1980s- there it was merely indulged to surfeit! In paragraph 2 we learn WHA’s titles- such as The Composer or The Novelist are bad because they are merely- gasp, ‘occasional’! Woe betide my Le Bestiaré poems were RJ to scan their tables of contents. Yet, paragraph 3 tells us that ‘the best poems in Another Time are worth all the rest of these books put together’. No excerptions & no real hint of flavor of the poems of WHA or anyone else. This is bad, & obnoxious criticism. It bristles with all the bad things that PC Elitists decry- & unfortunately, they are right on this score! Pithy descriptions, hit & miss wit, no excerptions, philosophical pomp, naked biases within & out the purview of art, & all around puffery make this a typical RJ review.
  1941 brought about The Rhetoricians in The New Republic- less than 2 full pages- but only 2 poets taken on- Conrad Aiken’s And in the Human Heart & Raymond Holden’s The Arrow at the Heel. We learn CA’s book is a 43 sonnet sequence ala Shakespeare’s mode. We learn of CA’s recent crusade against contemporary poetry & a call to revive capita R Romanticism. We learn the sonnets are about a love affair, ostensibly- but really about CA’s love of certain rhetorically-larded words- of which we are listed their appearance numerically- an impressive feat of accounting- but the lone excerpt to appear 2/3s of the way into the essay is this. ‘The Good, the True, the Beautiful/Those are the things that pay!’ Devoid of even an attempt at context we have no idea of the validity of RJ’s charge. Then we get this condemnation- which is so absurd for it is applicable to any poet who’s written!: ‘deprive him of the use of his favorite words and he would be simply unable to write poetry at all.’ This is not even rhetoric- this is just thinly-veiled ad hominem because of CA’s looking backwards. A few snide remarks fill out the rest of the commentary on CA. The wraithic Holden gets the patented 1 paragraph! Of RH we learn his sonnets are ‘as if one of Millay’s or Wylie’s poems had been rewritten to serve as the majority opinion of the Supreme Court.’ That RJ displays a certain viciousness is commendable, & RH’s status as a poetic wraith tells us that RJ was probably right in his assessment but statements about reading his book being like ‘attending Dali’s lecture from a diving suit.’ serve no purpose, save inform us that RJ’s hands found his way into his pants again. & lest you think my last comment apes RJ’s masturbatory technique, I counter: note I quoted from RJ & countered. RH’s work does not have even a sniff to inform us these 6 decades later. RJ is not generally lumped in with the New Critics. The reason being that his style was much better & he occasionally scored big hits at the right times & in the right ways. But vagaries & naked accusations are just as wrongheaded as the slim purview New Criticism espoused. Given what he titled the piece 1 would hope RJ would have at least practiced a bit of that art well.
  Now I shall veer into the dread Post-Mod or Post-Struc or Post-Something, for the next essay of RJ’s worth commenting on [those I don’t are generally passable or too banal to elicit comment] is called Contemporary Poetry Criticism. Thus I will be criticizing a critic’s criticism on critics. Add to that that the title is passé for what was then contemporary at the essay’s publication is now seen as the glory days of High Modernism. The essay appeared in the July 21st, 1941 issue of The New Republic. The reason for choosing this essay is because of its content & a point that RJ makes that borders on [back to those days of yore!] the Surreal. The main thrust of the piece is APC’s failures & the need for these failures to get moolah so they are no longer failures. Bear with me, please. We are told by RJ that criticism sells books- especially good criticism. Advertisers advertise in magazines that publish good criticism. A rather pedestrian- especially for RJ- recounting of capitalism & publishing ensues. RJ then gives initials for noted Modernist critics  [R.P. Blackmur, Louis Untermeyer, & Elinor Wylie] who gave ‘wrong’ opinions on noted poets- a cat & mouse game so devoid of coyness 1 wonders if the WW2 period really was (cliché time) ‘a foreign country’. We learn why negative criticism is bad for book sales. We learn that reviewers write of contemporary poetry, while scholars write of past poetry. The best- in fact, only good- retort RJ lobs in this dessicated & overwrought piece of didacticism is, ‘Carl Becker [?- me] has defined a professor as a man who thinks otherwise; a scholar is a man who otherwise thinks.’ After another couple of pages of such insight we get this remarkable piece of contradiction unabated: ‘Personally, I believe it would be profitable for critics to show less concern with poets, periods, society (big-scale extensive criticism), and more concern with the poems themselves (intensive criticism).’ That RJ violates such a dictum in this piece of mini-Das Kapital, & other pieces is, I guess, easily overlooked. He has the soul of the New Critic, but the c.v. of the anti-PC Elitist. Yet he ominously (& chillingly- with 60 years hindsight of workshopped poetic crap) ends with this call to arms: ‘Encouraging [good critics] means buying or publishing their books, running  magazines for them, giving them fellowships, hiring them in universities: it is a mercenary word.’ Thus lucre is the salvation for bad thought. Wonder how much RJ brought in for this piece of enlightenment?
  The next piece of note- blithely skipping over dull pieces on Allen Tate, W.B. Yeats, & Archibald MacLeish, among others- we come to a May 25th, 1946 piece from The Nation & his column Verse Chronicle. Here, 4 decidedly minor poets are assailed in a fashion so bad, yet so totally opposite of today’s, that one wonders [read: fears] if his criticism is pendularly bound for a reascent. Oscar Williams- better known as an anthologizer than a poet- gets the requisite paragraph & good zinger sans excerpt: his poems ‘gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter.’ The more pallid Arnold Stein gets a paragraph & a 5 line excerpt that is bad, indeed. A comparison of the poems to Hit Parade shines, although he defends AS as not ‘one of Leibniz’s monads after all’. Stanton Coblentz- the minorest of the quartet- has a paragraph designed to show RJ’s wit, yet he cannot help his pedantry when he ends with, ‘at their worst they make Frederick the Great’s adaptations of Voltaire seem res gestae.’ Perhaps Ruth Pitter was a former lover for she gets 2 paragraphs from RJ, & an ill-advised paragraph excerpted from the painter Elstir on ‘wisdom’. The quote of RP’s that is given is, ‘the stinging nettle only/Will be found to stand’. In short we are given nothing of these poets & must assume RJ was correct since 99.63% of you reading my words have never heard of these 4 poets. However, a good critic surmounts their worst tendencies & at least make an effort to give a feeling of the thing critiqued. This review is a 2 page lesson in self-pleasure. Is that horse flesh I sniff?
  RJ is bad not only for reasons previously stated, & what he says; but for why he says what he says. In Corrective For Critics [The New York Times Book Review, 8/24/47] RJ essays In Defense Of Reason by Yvor Winters. The essay is a competent 1- & RJ is generally better reviewing poetry critics than poets themselves- but the fealty to this manifestly flawed New Critic is revealed in this lone admission of YW’s weakness: ‘Winters’ greatest theoretical mistake is this: he takes the act of criticism, assumes that the values involved are moral, that the act is an act of moral judgment, and then assumes that this process of judgment is itself the act of creation by which any work of art is produced.’ Well, let’s breathe deeply. I’ve given a sampling of RJ’s own critical writing above- he clearly violates this reproval himself.- not only in my examples but in virtually all of his published criticism. Yet, this is YW’s lone error? This fact virtually assures that the man’s opinions have no basis in objectivity (or at least its verisimilitude). Is RJ so blind to his hero’s failings? Apparently, for despite not being a New Critic- per se- RJ certainly carried the jock. The really sad thing is that the people who later pointed these failings out- the Confessionalists of the 60s & the PC Elitists of recent vintage- pulled their very own RJ by decrying this quality in him & the New Critics- while further propagating its fallacy- except from a different parallax, or so they hope poetry’s audience to believe.
  Yet another trap bad critics fall in to is recommending good poets for the wrong reasons, or worse- stating a bad poet/poem is good & then trying to cover their personal biases with wordplay. RJ is guilty of both, yet he rarely backs his assertions up with excerptions; & when he does it’s usually an unfailingly poor excerpt- most often a good poet declaimed bad & ‘proven’ by a not too bad piece of poetry being excerpted- or the reverse; a bad poet whose bad excerpt is hailed as ‘good’ poetry. Nonetheless its bad critical technique. My last excerpt from RJ’s terrible book is proof of these failings. It is perhaps the worst essay in the book. It is Five Poets, from the Autumn 1956 Yale Review. Reviewed are minor poets Rolfe Humphries & Katherine Hoskins. Also reviewed are Ezra Pound’s latest Cantos, & 2 old faves of mine: Adrienne Cecil Rich’s The Diamond Cutters, & Donald Hall’s Exiles and Marriages. AR’s is rhapsodized over- oddly enough for a book she later disowned as juvenilia. AR gets almost 3 full PAGES- not paragraphs- of worship! AR’s ‘scansion, even, is easy and limpid, close to water, close to air; she lives nearer to perfection....than ordinary poets do, and her imperfections themselves are touching as the awkwardness  of anything young and natural is touching.’ & AR is ‘also an endearing and delightful poet, one who deserves Shakespeare’s favorite adjective, sweet.’ So what do we get in way of excerption? Actually, & surprisingly for RJ, a lot. But it is very ill-chosen. Witness: from Pictures by Vuillard ‘the wild pear-tree,/The broken ribbons of the green-and-gold/Portfolio, with sketches from the old/Algerian campaign; the placid three/Women at coffee by the window, fates/Of nothing ominous, waiting for the ring/of the postman’s bell.’ If I need to point out the 1st 2 & last 2 lines are clichés, well- thankfully you’re not that obtuse a reader! ‘Our fathers in their books and speech/Have made the matter plain:/The green fields they walked in once/Will never grow again.’ Even without context this excerpt is indefensible. We also get ‘Who sleeps, and dreams, and wakes, and sleeps again/May dream again.’ That these bad excerpts are chosen, along with some mediocre ones- I admit, is bad enough- but that they are held up as GOOD? We then get Ezra Pound- or rather RJ’s accurate take on the Cantos as a fraud. You may as well just read it yourself for to condense it is to miss his point- but it is probably the only excellent piece of criticism in the whole book. We actually get good excerptions of Pound’s nonsense & this final summation: ‘I cannot imagine any future that will think it a good poem; but then as now, scholars will process it, anthologies present one or two of its beauties, readers dig through all that blue clay for more than a few diamonds.’ Very accurate, yet he could have been talking of his whole critical output as well. Then he turns to old faithful, Donald Hall. Of DH we get 1 single sentence!: ‘Donald Hall’s poems are very commonplace, but they are so complacent about themselves that they shock us into awareness of their commonplaceness.’ Very apt- but c’mon. Even DH deserves a more critical rigor applied to him- even if just to expose his commonplaceness by showing rather than telling. 1 SENTENCE!? As cute & flippant a diss that it may be, it really ill serves the reader for there are many ways a poem can be commonplace. This is all-too common a practice in RJ- he will follow a brief flicker of brilliance with irredeemable self-indulgence. The 2 minor poets actually get treatment as extensive as AR & EP; but if there is a more representative series of criticisms, than these 3 consecutive takes, that RJ ever penned then I shiver to read it. The last quarter of the book is just more of the same. & the flesh is tanned.
  Yet RJ’s critical shortcomings are not limited to this book. Let’s look at his famed 1953 minitract Bad Poets. Here it is, in toto: ‘Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write - a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize. If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Gödel believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems - people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets - it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, "Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry."
  It seems a detestable joke that the national poet of the Ukraine - kept a private in the army for ten years, and forbidden by the Czar to read, to draw, or ever to write a letter - should not have for his pain one decent poem. A poor Air Corpse sergeant spends two and a half years on Attu and Kiska, and at the end of the time his verse about the war is indistinguishable from Browder's brother's parrot's. How cruel that a cardinal - for one of these book is a cardinal's - should write verse worse than his youngest choir-boy's! But in this universe of bad poetry everyone is compelled by the decrees of an unarguable Necessity to murder his mother and marry his father, to turn somersaults widdershins around his own funeral, to do everything that his worst and most imaginative enemy could wish. It would be a hard heart and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe, such poets for anything that they have done - or rather, for anything that has been done to them: for they have never made anything, they have suffered their poetry as helplessly as they have anything else; so that it is neither the imitation of life nor a slice of life but life itself - beyond good, beyond evil, and certainly beyond reviewing.
  Yes, that’s it- in toto. You may ask, uh- OK; but why is this 1 of his 3 or 4 most famous pieces? Concision? True- but he merely states the same ills that have afflicted bad poetry from the start of publication for the masses a century or 2 earlier. The brilliant ending/summation? Well, no. What’s so brilliant about, ‘It would be a hard heart and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe, such poets for anything that they have done - or rather, for anything that has been done to them: for they have never made anything, they have suffered their poetry as helplessly as they have anything else; so that it is neither the imitation of life nor a slice of life but life itself - beyond good, beyond evil, and certainly beyond reviewing.’? We get nothing in this summing up but a string of clichés: hard heart, dull head, sacred awe, suffered their poetry, imitation of life, slice of life, beyond good, & beyond evil. This piece of criticism, in short, is the critical equivalent of all the bad poems RJ rails about. We have seen that RJ is lazy, prefers attempts at witticism to real criticism, is pedantic, biased, & rarely gives excerptions of the discussed poets & poems. This was an utter waste of both his & the reader’s time. Not to mention his occasionally incisive mind. Is any of this ever mentioned when writing of RJ? No. He is revered as a critic near-nonpareil. Why? Before we attempt to sort this out let me give a couple of pretty contemporary justifications for RJ’s godhead. The 1st comes from a 6/30/99 New York Times by Richard Eder, called Randall Jarrell: How a Poetry Critic Becomes Loved. This may be the title of the reviewed book as well, since RE does not bother to mention the book’s title within the piece. RE starts off with the standard encomium often found on book jacket blurs: ‘I doubt there has been a critic since George Bernard Shaw who got so much joy and outrage out of his subjects as Randall Jarrell....’ Well, maybe- I mean a reader of criticism might likely have found a similar claim put in for William Empson, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, R.P. Blackmur, etc. Of course, there is the requisite I doubt to allay any fears that RE is forcing his opinion at you. We then get from RE the classic obfuscatory ploy of namedropping another writer’s opinion; or in RE’s case we get the Post-Mod equivalent- namedropping a writer who namedrops: ‘Brad Leithauser introduces his selection of Jarrell's essays: "Randall Jarrell once wrote, in praise of William Carlos Williams, 'When you have read "Paterson" you know for the rest of your life what it is like to be a waterfall.' Yet there's another way to ascertain what it is to be a phenomenon that flows, coruscates, sings and revitalizes: you might turn to the essays of Jarrell himself."’ At this point all we know is RJ is great, & if you do not understand why RE will not help you for it easier to play the game of literary criticism than to explicate a critic’s failings or successes. Leithauser apparently feels RJ was a Typhoid Mary of critical pleasure- an odd metaphor- & gives us a sampling of quotations by RJ on others:
Wallace Stevens. "There is about him, under the translucent glazes, a Dutch solidity and weight; he sits surrounded by all the good things of this earth, with rosy cheeks and fresh clear blue eyes, eyes not going out to you but shining in their place, like fixed stars."
Marianne Moore: "She has great limitations -- her work is one long triumph of them." Not over them but of them; as you might say a pride of lions. For Jarrell, great poetry can make even worms glow, not as glowworms but as themselves.
For gilt or brass or fool's gold:
Stephen Spender, who began one poem with the line, "I think continually of those who were truly great": "It isn't Mr. Spender but a small, simple -- determinedly simple -- part of Mr. Spender that writes the poems; the poet is a lot smarter man than his style allows him to seem. (If he were as soft and sincere and sentimental as most of his poems make him out to be, the rabbits would have eaten him for lettuce, long ago.)"
On W.H. Auden, plain, reasoned and socially responsible: "We see not the will, but the understanding, trying to do the work of the imagination."
Also -- not because it is poetry but because it is as pertinent as 40 years ago -- Jarrell on the optimism of the Enlightenment:
"Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us."
  Now this is a lot better excerption than RJ ever provided. However- track down the original essays & see how utterly skewed BL’s & RE’s opinions are by their selection. You will not see that 99.5% of the rest of the pieces where RJ does not & will not engage the reader at all. Yet we have seen repeatedly how little RJ actually cares to inform his readership of the reviewed’s actual work. & while these read as nice excerptions, let’s put them under a microscope. For WS we get a hosannah of clichés- do BL or RE think these are cogent points? For MM we get an apt comment- but why choose this excerpt? To the reader encountering MM this is a fairly meaningless statement since- to a good degree- this could apply to about any old artist of some excellence. SS gets a decent summation but another gibe. WHA gets another nice quote, but we’ve seen RJ’s earlier take on WHA- it amounted to- trust me, honey. Then we get silly hyperbole on relating Rousseau to those ever-handy Nazi bogeymen. Not only a trite observation- but a wrong one! Any reader of savvy can see that this piece is not ‘real criticism’- merely a puff piece on a book  Yet RJ, dead since 1965, needs be exhumed so he can ‘resume a nervy literary conversation that is as pungent today as it was then.’ OK, but shouldn’t we be given some substantive reason rather than hero-worship? We get more banalities: ‘You feel not just how fresh and apt his pronouncements still are but also how irreplaceable.’ & ‘nobody argues poetry that way anymore: inhabiting and performing it.’ The evidence of hero-worship comes with this line: ‘a car struck and killed him while he was out walking. There were rumors of suicide, but Mrs. Jarrell quietly chooses to believe the official accident verdict; rightly, no doubt.’ Anyone familiar with RJ’s life, problems, & previous suicide attempts, must find this a very untenable claim. I choose to display this because it is a rather obvious example of how reviewers betray their true aims with Freudian slips. We then get the standard ‘slight negativity’ in a review, to show that this is not mere hero-worship. Of course, the negativity is directed at RJ’s widow: ‘Her gifts as a writer are limited: the reiterated finding of happiness is not so much conveyed as willed. In its selective details the memoir is more of a sundial than a weather report.’ This tells us nothing except that RE is trying out a little creative writing. BTW- did you notice that we are no longer talking about RJ’s essay book? Nice of RE to inform us. We also get the requisite anecdote: ‘at the White House meeting. There is the glowing, courtly Jarrell trying to sell Allen Ginsberg on Robert Frost. He was barely a few lines into "Home Burial" when the Beat poet broke in: "Coupla squares yakking."’ We end with the rationale for the reviewers’ biases [note the multi-leveled namedropping]: ‘"Randall was the only man I have ever met who could make other writers feel that their work was more important to him than his own." Perhaps that was the key: an instinct, one that made him such an extraordinary critic, for pitching his tent on the common ground of poetry in preference to his particular pea patch. What a contrast with the Alpha-poet claim staking of a Frost, a John Berryman and of Lowell himself.’ The piece ends with a bland- yet touching- personal note on RJ’s widow.
 Ask yourself: In reading RE’s piece do I understand RJ or his work better? Do I have even a sense of what his critical style was really like? Compare RE’s piece with an equal length excerption of mine from earlier in this essay- or any of RJ’s pieces. The difference is manifest. Or am I abusing animals again? Unlike RJ I expect the reader to be able to make judgments- ill or bad- on my views, & I provide enough to enable the reader to do so; unlike RE I am neither here to damn nor praise- simply rip open a man’s work for review. Yet, why is RE in such stoop-kneed fealty to RJ. The most likely explanation is that just as bad writing is perpetuated in university workshops, so are poor critical skills. & RJ- despite his reputation to the contrary- really does not stand in opposition to modern PC Elitist critics- his views are simply different. It is in his style of bad excerption & delight in his own genius, however, that his role as the progenitor of the modern critical plague is evidenced. Do BL or RE acknowledge this? Do they seize upon this supreme waste? No. They blow their chance to demarcate & chart APC’s downward leap from its beginning. Do BL or RE even practice the supposed ‘hard criticism’ they see in RJ  & lament in current critics? No. So, why the worship? Because they do pay unintended homage to their Master by their very evasions, poor excerptions, & self-masturbatory delights. Indeed, no one ever denied RJ was influential- the query is just who & how that influence outflowed.
  Let’s take a look at another poet who is better known as a critic. Dana Gioia has often been called the heir to RJ, as well Wallace Stevens. His poetry book Can Poetry Matter? was an early 1990s bestseller- by critical & poetic standards. &- in truth- it is not a bad book, albeit a hit & miss grab bag of opinions. In 1999 DG wrote an essay Bewitched and Beloved that is now on his website. If the title is not enough to tip you off that DG planned on making RE look like an RJ-hater then read this opening paragraph: ‘"Help! Help!" Randall Jarrell sometimes shouted from his desk. "A wicked fairy has turned me into a prose writer!" If the poet was indeed telling the truth, the evil enchantress did a bang-up job. She took a fine poet and made him a prose writer of genius. A reader of Jarrell’s essays never doubts that magic was involved. Literary criticism just isn’t meant to be so enthralling.’ DG later states: ‘there is only one critic–Randall Jarrell–who could credibly be called beloved. He is not read with detached admiration but savored with reckless abandon. He is the one poet-critic who is reread simply for pleasure.’ We are told that other critics have qualities RJ lacked; then we get this incredible admission & weak defense: ‘A skeptic could, in fact, compile a long list of Jarrell’s critical shortcomings. He rarely offers detailed analysis of the poems he praises or censures. He shamelessly exaggerates the virtues and faults of the books he reviews. He has no interest in systematic thinking. Examined closely, his critical arguments often rest mostly on ingeniously worded assertions of personal preference.
  If Jarrell had been writing academic criticism, these faults would have proved fatal. What he offered instead were essays of such compelling discernment, abundant invention, and attractive personality that the reader experiences them primarily as literature. Other critics wrote with formidable intelligence, but Jarrell poured his whole humanity into the form.’ 1 is tempted to smack DG upside the head. Uh, DG- discernment does not square with a lack of detailed analysis, abundant invention is not ‘ingeniously worded assertions of personal preference’, & an attractive personality- were 1 even to grant that- has nada to do with criticism. DG’s rationale- it seems- is that RJ’s whole humanity- however divined from his writings- is enough to counterbalance & even greatly outweigh the manifest flaws even DG cites. & if these faults are rationalized, yet admitted, how does DG  think RJ ‘demands the reader feel, taste, see, and hear a poem, not just think about it.’? But before we are left to ponder such a query DG distracts with more huzzahs- the next sentence: ‘By the end of an essay, it hardly matters if one agrees with Jarrell. The journey itself was unforgettable.’ Ah, OK- well, if that’s the case why even bother to critique? Just let us at him & shut the fuck up, DG! Please note the recurring tricks that critics use, as witnessed in this essay- be it RJ, RE, BL, or DG- & in other examples throughout this series of essays on APC. Check out this piece from later in DG’s essay & see if you can spot things we’ve seen earlier: ‘"Many bad critics are bad, I think, because they have spent their life in card-indexes, or if they have not, no one can tell." [Leithauser, p. 293] Jarrell understood the power of humor not only to hammer home a critical point but also to provide a human connection between author and reader. Otherwise criticism so easily becomes an arid and airless medium.’ I’ll give you a few seconds to ponder it…. Alright, if you are ahead of me, please forgive my going over the obvious. For the rest of you let us begin: We get a flippancy supposedly as an example of humor- DG explains such in the next line; not content to let us an idea that perhaps the preceding was bile- not humor. We then get the statement about bad criticism which is meant to be so bald as to distract us from the very shortcomings of RJ’s criticism mentioned earlier- which while not arid, are certainly airless- i.e.- without any life. DG at least lets us know the title of the books he means to comment on [the same 2 RE neglected to tell us of]: ‘Brad Leithauser’s superbly edited No Other Book. Leithauser reprints twenty-five essays on subjects ranging from Wallace Stevens to Rudyard Kipling along with a potpourri of short excerpts from Jarrell’s often outrageously tough reviews. (He also provides an introduction strong enough to stand against the works that follow it.) One cannot overpraise this substantial volume. These essays stand among the finest writing about literature ever done in America.’ Note the critical feint of bashfulness proceeded by a damn it- I gotta be ebullient me counterthrust. We also learn the title of the other book RE wrote of: ‘Issued concurrently with the selected essays is Remembering Randall, a memoir of the poet written by his widow, Mary von Schrader Jarrell.’ I guess we can be thankful that DG at least is compelled to tell us the titles his blather’s inspiration is founded on. But does he ever step backward to examine his approach to criticism- either in RJ or reviewing RJ? DG is so rapt that there is not even the obligatory ‘slight negativity’ RE engaged in- in fact, DG counters RE directly: ‘Mrs. Jarrell proves herself so capable a writer–and so deeply interested in her subject–that the book is utterly engaging.’ RE- you’re a Philistine! We then get a little biography & the standard anecdote: ‘My favorite is Mary Jarrell’s wry account of enduring both Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac as six-pack toting houseguests. (Kerouac described his visit to "Random Varnum the great American poet" in his autobiographical novel, Desolation Angels.) Mary’s teenage daughter Alleyne was so concerned by Kerouac’s poverty that she gave him her two completed green-stamp books.’ The final counterpoint that separates DG’s from RE’s piece is this: ‘Mary Jarrell makes a cogent case for the accidental nature of his death, though others–without specific evidence–have declared it a suicide.’ Despite just 1 sentence earlier stating: ‘Things went well until 1965 when Jarrell entered a long depression that ended in a suicide attempt. Six months later he was struck and killed by a car under mysterious circumstances.’ I won’t even touch this baldness.
  Perhaps RJ is the critical equivalent of Rilke’s poetic pose: Rilke was the self-centered, deceitful schemer whose work lauds truth, beauty, & spirituality. RJ was the self-important, disdainful pedant whose criticism championed skill, music, & efficacy. That there was a gaping contradiction in both men seems to have eluded both. However, it is RJ’s pose that is the most troublesome because the very nature of a critic is to recognize such flaws. Also, RJ’s flaws were lauded as virtues  [whereas Rilke’s were swept aside] & used a template for future generations of lazy critics. He struck a chord- the chord of lazy criticism bent to quips & homilies- 1 that his horsebeating heirs will just not let go. Perhaps my earlier digression to WM was not really a wasted digression after all- as with he & the many others writing bland critical pieces- RJ simply did not GET IT! Perhaps there was no real waste since there was only the pose to begin with. Perhaps this was a part of his suicidal impulse- the man knew that all the plaudits received for his criticism were ill-directed. This a final whinny? But let us conclude with a thought & fresher metaphor. It’s always the later generations that uncover what was refused in its own day- be it art or opinions. Similarly it’s those same generations that round file the refuse accepted in its own day! There it is: Schneider in the lane- posts up for the J- YES!


The Woman At The Washington Zoo

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. . . .
                   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, with no
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief--
Only I complain. . . . this serviceable
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns,
Wavy beneath fountains--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!

The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
And there come not to me, as come to these,
The wild beasts, sparrows pecking the llamas' grain,
Pigeons settling on the bears' bread, buzzards
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded. . . .
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!
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 flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
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