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Randall Jarrell and His Age

Randall Jarrell and His Age

Stephen Burt
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 320
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    Randall Jarrell and His Age
    Book Description:

    Randall Jarrell (1914--1965) was the most influential poetry critic of his generation. He was also a lyric poet, comic novelist, translator, children's book author, and close friend of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, and many other important writers of his time. Jarrell won the 1960 National Book Award for poetry and served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Amid the resurgence of interest in Randall Jarrell, Stephen Burt offers this brilliant analysis of the poet and essayist.

    Burt's book examines all of Jarrell's work, incorporating new research based on previously undiscovered essays and poems. Other books have examined Jarrell's poetry in biographical or formal terms, but none have considered both his aesthetic choices and their social contexts. Beginning with an overview of Jarrell's life and loves, Burt argues that Jarrell's poetry responded to the political questions of the 1930s, the anxieties and social constraints of wartime America, and the apparent prosperity, domestic ideals, and professional ideology that characterized the 1950s. Jarrell's work is peopled by helpless soldiers, anxious suburban children, trapped housewives, and lonely consumers. Randall Jarrell and His Age situates the poet-critic among his peers -- including Bishop, Lowell, and Arendt -- in literature and cultural criticism. Burt considers the ways in which Jarrell's efforts and achievements encompassed the concerns of his time, from teen culture to World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis; the book asks, too, how those efforts might speak to us now.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50095-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION (pp. xi-xx)

    Randall Jarrell showed us how to read his contemporaries; we do not yet know how to read him. Often he seems to have understood the writers around him as posterity would: for some poets (such as Robert Lowell and Robert Frost) he helped to shape that posterity, while for others (such as Elizabeth Bishop) he prefigured it. Many readers know Jarrell as the author of several anthology poems (for example, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”), a charming book or two for children, and a panoply of influential reviews. This book aims to illuminate a Jarrell more ambitious, more...


    “Tomorrow,” Jarrell complained in 1951, “some poet may, like Byron, wake up to find himself famous—for having written a novel, for having killed his wife; it will not be for having written a poem” (Age 15). Jarrell’s poetic contemporaries (Robert Lowell makes the best example) indeed became famous for the high drama of their lives and for their extraliterary deeds: Anthony Hecht even called Lowell, after his death, “le Byron de nous jours” (32). Jarrell himself displayed a striking personality, a demanding intellect, and a need for affection: his life, by his own choice and luck, lacked public drama...

  6. Chapter 1 JARRELL’S INTERPERSONAL STYLE (pp. 21-51)

    Randall Jarrell’s best-known poems are poems about the Second World War, poems about bookish children and childhood, and poems, such as “Next Day,” in the voices of aging women. “Next Day” begins in a supermarket, where its lonely shopper puns on brand names:

    Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,

    I take a box

    And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.

    The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical

    Food-gathering flocks

    Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James

    Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise

    If that is wisdom.

    If the henlike shoppers...


    Recent years have seen an impassioned debate about academic institutions and the profession of letters. Bruce Robbins has shown how some literary intellectuals “manufacture vocations for themselves … in speaking in public, of the public, to the public, and to some extent for the public” (21). Stanley Fish, however, has argued that “literary criticism is only, today, an academic discipline [whose] specialized language … is the mark of its distinctiveness” (Professional 43). Responding to Robbins, to Fish, and to David Simpson, Timothy Peltason asks that contemporary critics learn from Victorian thinkers how to make “complex characterizations of the experiences …...

  8. Chapter 3 PSYCHOLOGY AND PSYCHOANALYSIS (pp. 85-117)

    It has become commonplace to claim that mid-century literature owed much to Freud. The social theorist Eli Zaretsky explains that “For many [fifties intellectuals] Freud was at the center of [an] antirationalizing return to the personal” (“Charisma” 347).¹ Helen Vendler suggests that “the most inclusive rubric, perhaps” for “the lyric poetry written in America immediately after World War II is ‘Freudian lyric’ ” (Given 31). Alan Williamson calls Jarrell, rightly, “the most consciously psychoanalytic even of the poets of the ‘confessional’ generation” (“Märchen” 283). Jarrell’s interests in psychoanalysis differed from those of his poetic contemporaries (Lowell, Berryman, Bishop, Schwartz) not...

  9. Chapter 4 TIME AND MEMORY (pp. 118-144)

    “In order to have a sense of who we are,” writes Charles Taylor, “we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going” (47). The unconscious (in psychoanalytic terms) bears traces of early experience; clinical practice moves from present experience to its roots in the recent or distant past. For these reasons and others, Jarrell’s poems often seek a past self within present experience, or a child within an adult. With help from concepts central to psychoanalysis, and from literary sources such as Wordsworth and Proust, his characters try to understand themselves as...

  10. Chapter 5 CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH (pp. 145-181)

    A “person’s self,” Christopher Bollas writes, “is the history of many internal relations”: “infant, child, adolescent and adult” (9). These relations link us to our pasts but also to the classes in which others place us—to ideas about youth and adulthood, men and women, parents and children. Richard Flynn writes that Jarrell “fused his theory of child development with a theory of poetic development” (Lost 102). Childhood becomes for Jarrell a symbol of the kinds of value he found in the self: those kinds of value can appear as “play,” as creativity, and as ways of resisting fixed institutions...

  11. Chapter 6 MEN, WOMEN, CHILDREN, FAMILIES (pp. 182-218)

    Every family, John Demos writes, “is (and was) both a system of gender relations and a system of age relations” (12). Chapter 5 looked at children and at adolescents in Jarrell’s poems and prose; this chapter will examine women and men, mothers and fathers, the families they constitute, and how children fare within them. We have seen already how Jarrell, like his culture, associated femininity with private life and with sympathy—and how he associated himself and his work with all three.¹ Jarrell’s later poems depict some men and women who long for private connections and sympathies such as those...

  12. Conclusion: “WHAT WE SEE AND FEEL AND ARE” (pp. 219-236)

    We have seen in the “Lost World” poems and throughout Jarrell’s oeuvre how he took care to define and defend the self. We have seen how his lonely personae seek intersubjective confirmation and how his alienated characters resist the so-called social world. We have seen how Jarrell’s divided, conflicted selves depend on psychoanalytic ideas—both those of a familiar Freudianism and those of later object-relations theories. We have seen how concepts of work and play, and related ideas about childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, both inform and confine the ways Jarrell’s characters think about their lives. And we have seen how...

  13. NOTES (pp. 237-262)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 263-276)
  15. INDEX (pp. 277-292)