Our book today is Randall Jarrell’s magnificent 1953 classic Poetry and the Age – after all, just because we’ve stopped reading poetry now that National Poetry Month is over doesn’t mean we have to stop reading about poetry! The problem with that goal, however, is that truly good poetry criticism is really tough to find – most of it, the gigantic preponderance of it, is utterly unreadable, lost in a sargasso sea of cant and jargon, in a hysterically over-excited sub-language so absurd that the TLS isn’t the only mainstream critical journal over the decades that’s had some fun lampooning it. In the years since T. S. Eliot moved poetry firmly into the realm of the pinhead scholar (and in the aftermath of the Beats entering that realm and closing the doors firmly behind them), the genre has almost entirely stopped speaking to anybody but its own practitioners – an inherently losing game, since each new generation of poet is far less intelligent and well-read than the previous one. The result, alas, is absurd: poetry ‘experts’ (who couldn’t recite a line of Keats to save their condos) writing nonsense (“these verses strap on their sneakers and run – they run! Dogs chase them! Sometimes they stop for a soda! All is pomegranates!”) to an audience that not only doesn’t care but is contemptuous of all efforts to get it to care. The auditorium seats are empty, and the professor is turned around, talking gibberish to the blackboard.
It wasn’t always so, however. In the first half of the 20th century, smart, involved poetry criticism still lingered in some isolated pockets of the literary world. And with all due respect to Sam Daniel, Jarrell’s book might just be the single greatest volume of poetry-criticism ever assembled.
It’s a collection of previously published works, of course – Jarrell, like countless other great critics in the last two millennia, often found it convenient to patronize the literary journals of his day, since a) they paid upfront (usually) and b) they reached an active, volatile audience … they could make a name for somebody who was good enough (or, in the case of Michiko Kakutani, bad enough). They certainly made a name for him – his hatchet jobs became justifiably dreaded by poetasters everywhere, and more importantly, his extended considerations of both well-known and obscure poets often changed the very flow and nature of the discourse about those poets. That’s what the best literary criticism does, after all: it takes us aside at a loud, inane party, pulls from the shelf a volume we’ve either ignored or dismissed, and says “Have you ever thought about this in this way? What about this way? I think this is better than you give it credit – why not try it again?” Sometimes these attempts get lost in the noise of the party and go nowhere – but far more often, they lodge somewhere and do their work, prompting readings and re-readings, germinating reconsiderations. Literary journalism is the reason we still study Virgil. It’s the reason we remember Melville. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason we currently denigrate Dryden and Longfellow – although even those things are testament to its power (and the process is ongoing: in the latest American Scholar, Jill Lepore makes an utterly masterful attempt to reclaim Longfellow for serious consideration – and not just any Longfellow, but “Paul Revere’s Ride”!).
Jarrell was well aware of that power – these essays are most certainly not the professor going slumming. Here he takes on such figures as John Ransom, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman (in a bravura essay from which Whitman studies may never fully recover – or want to), Marianne Moore, and James Russell Lowell, and he subjects all of them to his unsleeping inquiry, struggling with them right in front of us and rendering the results in that inimitable and hypnotic prose-style of his:
Anyone who compares Mr. Lowell’s earlier and later poems will see this movement from constriction to liberation as his work’s ruling principle of growth. The grim, violent, sordid constriction of his earliest poems … seems to be tempermental, the Old Adam which the poet grew from and only partially transcends; and a good deal of what is excessive in the extraordinary rhetorical machine of a poem like “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” which first traps and then wrings to pieces the helpless reader – who rather enjoys it – is gone from some of his later poems, or else dramatically justified and no longer excessive.
But as great as his various analyses are, the true joy of Poetry and the Age comes from the fact that Jarrell, as Harold Bloom says about Shakespeare, could never stop watching himself perform: yes, he’s doing what he was hired to do, talking about X poet or Y poet – but a good deal of this book is also about the purpose of writing literary journalism itself, regardless of subject. It was a notion on which Jarrell could reliably be brought to a voluble boil while he was still alive, and it loudly echoes throughout all his work, where in one way or another he’s always asking that central question:
What is a critic, anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader – one who has learned to show others what he saw in what he read. He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence. Of course, it is often the accident and not the essence that we read the critic for: pieces of criticism are frequently, though not necessarily, works of art of an odd anomalous kind…
“Criticism,” Jarrell wrote, from the depths of his own personal experience, “demands of the critic a terrible nakedness: a real critic has no one but himself to depend on.” What he meant by this but would never think to say was that good criticism, real criticism, is a brave act – and he himself was among the bravest ever to try it. In his view the critic was an integral part of the perfecting of reading – both for the critic’s own sake and for the sake of the reader. It’s this sense of nerve-ending open looking that makes his literary journalism so thrilling even half a century after it was written. “Around the throne of God,” Jarrell writes here, “where all the angels read perfectly, there are no critics – there is no need for them” – but literature will always need passionate, eloquent readers, and those angels would have to be nuts not to read Randall Jarrell.