Cultural Cohesion, p.12Clive James
Reliable Essays, 2001
POETRY’S IDEAL CRITIC:
As a figure representing the Poet’s Fate, Randall Jarrell bulks large in the necrology of the American heavies: the patchwork epics of both John Berryman and Robert Lowell are liberally embroidered with portentous musings on his death. Is this, one wonders, what Jarrell’s name now mainly means? The thought is enough to chill the bones.
Luckily Jarrell’s publishers are now doing what they can to dispel the graveyard mists. Whether his Complete Poems did much for his reputation is debatable: his poetry, though he would have hated to hear it said, was a bit light on those Blakean “minute particulars” he thought good poetry should have a lot of—there was a tendency to the prosaic which rigorous selection did something to disguise. He once said that even a good poet was a man who spent a lifetime standing in a storm and who could hope to be struck by lightning only half a dozen times at best. Disablingly true in his case. One would memorize a needle thrust like “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and wonder why someone who could command that kind of penetration should spend so much time lapsing into a practised, resourceful, elegant but in the end faintly wearying expansiveness. He thought that writing came first and that the Age of Criticism—i.e., of writing about writing—was a bad dream from which we needed to pinch ourselves awake. A bitter truth then, that his writing was merely distinguished whereas his writing-about-writing was inspired. Jarrell is poetry’s ideal critic, and the current reissue of Poetry and the Age couldn’t be more welcome. If ever there was a necessary book, this is it. A few more like it and there would still be a chance of saving the humanities for humanity.
A Shaw rather than a Beerbohm, a Sickert rather than a Wyndham Lewis, Jarrell had one of those rare critical minds which are just as illuminating in praise as in attack. We never feel, when reading him, that he is at his most concentrated when he is being most destructive. It is in the effort to draw our attention to merit that he achieves real intensity, and there are very few critics of whom that can be said. Yet there was nothing indulgent about his capacity for admiration. In his definitive essay on Frost, he grants—indeed rubs in—the poet’s defects of personality with an epigrammatic disgust which would dominate the argument, were it not for his insistence that Frost’s cracker-barrel Wisdom shouldn’t distract us from the fact that being wise about life is nevertheless one of the things his poems do supremely well. Jarrel can see clearly that the best of Frost is the best critic of the worst, and that the Critical Task (a locution which would never have crossed his lips) is to demonstrate how good that best is—the best which we tend to reduce to the level of the unremarkable by being so knowing about the worst. Jarrell was against knowingness, and possessed the antidote: knowledge. His wide knowledge of literature impresses you at every turn. He alludes without effort, compares without strain, and makes being simple seem easy.
John Crowe Ransom and Walt Whitman are as well served as Frost. Speaking for myself, Jarrell’s remarks helped give me the courage of my secret convictions about Ransom (I had thought it would be intellectual suicide to admit that his luxuriant diction struck me as a kind of strength); they were also instrumental in dismantling a self-designed, home-constructed apparatus of formalistic priggery that had kept me from Whitman for ten years. Better introductions to such a brace of obfuscation-ridden poets couldn’t be imagined. Opening his Whitman essay, for example, Jarrell typically outlines the kind of misunderstanding he thinks needs to be eradicated:
But something odd has happened to the living, changing part of Whitman’s reputation: nowadays it is people who are not particularly interested in poetry, people who say that they read a poem for what it says, not for how it says it, who admire Whitman most. Whitman is often written about, either approvingly or disapprovingly, as if he were the Thomas Wolfe of 19th-century democracy . . .
True when it was said, and true now. That Whitman was read by people who couldn’t read seemed to me to be sufficient reason for refraining from reading much of him myself. Jarrell, though, had the confidence and independence to insist that to defend your taste by such a refusal is simply to connive at philistinism and encourage the view that Whitman was an ordinary rhetorician. On the contrary, he was an extraordinary one, whose worst language was not just awful, but unusually awful (“really ingeniously bad”), and whose finest flights were poetry about which there could be no argument. (“If the reader thinks that all this is like Thomas Wolfe he is Thomas Wolfe; nothing else could explain it.”) Quoting the passage from “I understand the large hearts of heroes” down to “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” Jarrell says that Whitman has reached a point at which criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd, since the lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence. Jarrell’s use of quotations approaches the mark Walter Benjamin set for himself, of writing a critical essay consisting of nothing but. The catch—that the quality of the quotation is self-demonstrating only to the reader who doesn’t need telling—was one Jarrell recognized and was worried by. Luckily he didn’t let it stop him.
The essay on Wallace Stevens is as important as the others already mentioned. Written as a review of The Auroras of Autumn, it measures the aridity of Stevens’s later work by evoking the exfoliating fruitfulness of the earlier, and gets the whole of the poet’s career into proportion without even a hint of cutting him down to size. But the strictures are gripping when they come. Of The Auroras of Autumn Jarrell says that one sees in it
the distinction, intelligence, and easy virtuosity of a master—but it would take more than these to bring to life so abstract, so monotonous, so overwhelmingly characteristic a book.
Italics his, and transfixingly placed.
With Jarrell, the urge to share a discovered excellence leads to a mastery of critical language which can only be called creative. The forms of Marianne Moore’s poems, he writes,
have the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; but they work as those work—disregard them and everything goes to pieces.
Not satisfied with that, he goes on:
Her forms, tricks and all, are like the aria of the Queen of the Night: the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion bat is its vehicle.
If his experience had not been so rich, he could not have been so right: it takes range to achieve such a fine focus.
Scattered throughout this book are minor moments of the trouble which in a later collection of essays, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, coalesced into a persistent anxiety. The foe of academic crassness and critical arrogance, Jarrell was obliged to rely on the good sense of those who read books for love. He knew they were in a minority but was too much of an American fully to accept the fact that this had something to do with inequality: he seemed to think that if you could just speak plainly enough you would break through. There is a distressing moment in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket when he tries to tell his popular-magazine audience that the word “intellectual” is not one to be frightened of since a mechanic or carpenter is just as much an intellectual about practical things as a poet is about literature. He chose not to notice that the two states of mind are not interchangeable, and probably never began to realize that his own critical writings, among the most readily intelligible of the century, depend for a good part of their clarity on a scope of cultural reference so broad that only the educated can take it in. Too much of a democrat to take pride in his own uniqueness, Jarrell hungered for an egalitarian society with uniformly high standards. Wishful thinking, but of a noble kind. Those sensitive to literature can be taught literature, but sensitivity to literature cannot be taught—a point which should be borne in mind by anyone who runs away with the idea that setting Poetry and the Age as a first-year text would humanize our university English schools overnight. It wouldn’t, but it’s a measure of Jarrell’s gifts that even the most level-headed
New Statesman, October 26, 197 3;
previously included in At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979
Not knowing much about him apart from his work, I wrote about an ideal Jarrell. Later on I found out that his reputation among his American contemporaries was as a vituperative reviewer of their poetry. He was repaid for this habit by attracting vituperative reviews in his turn, retaliatory hatchet-jobs which led him first to an attempted suicide and then to a successful one: if that, indeed, was what his death was. The last point is still in dispute. But there should be no dispute about his cogent force as a critic. If it had been less, his fellow poets would have cared less when he carped: they could have dismissed him, with some justification, as a would-be poet envious of his rivals, and a shameless aspirant for academic preferment.
My colleague the late Ian Hamilton had a large knowledge of American literary politics. In London, as the most admired editor of his day, he was necessarily engaged in literary politics himself, but they were of a different kind, concerned entirely with poetry and never with its attendant prestige. He regarded the American poetic world as a living museum of egomaniacs trying to write their own descriptive tickets, and he built up hilarious anecdotal dossiers on all of them. There was a clear-cut cultural difference, which Hamilton was the first to analyse. In Britain, even the most important poets, and only when they felt like it, wrote poems one at a time. Later rather than sooner they would be collected into a book, for which there would be no prize more valuable than a week’s supply of cigarettes. In America, the poetic heavies were always “working on a book of poems,” usually with the benefit of a large support system—a sojourn at the expense of the Corporation of Yaddo, for example—and almost invariably with the intention of winning a National Book Award at the very least. For the securing of the awards, the poet’s hunger for self-promotion and the upmarket media taste for the alpha celebrity went hand in hand: they were made for each other. There were always exceptions, and the exceptions were among the best: to my mind—if not to Hamilton’s, which harboured little affection for formal bravura—Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht have been enhanced in their achievement by their ability to stay out of the loop, a reticence that was implicit in their care for craft. But you heard less and less about Wilbur, and never enough about Hecht. They didn’t make enough noise. America was a different planet, inhabited by larger, if lumbering, beings.
The fruits of Hamilton’s interplanetary observation can be read in his posthumous volume Against Oblivion, from which Jarrell emerges as an unsettling example of ambition on the rampage. I have no doubt that Hamilton’s portrait of the real man was an accurate one, but equally don’t doubt that my portrait of the ideal man is finally more true. The weakness of Jarrell’s poetry is that he could never disappear into it. The strength of his criticism is that he could. We can’t return to the state of naivety in which all we knew of him was what he wrote. But the critic’s job is to get back to that first response despite subsequent knowledge. When Jarrell wrote about other poets, with his eye on their achievement rather than on his own ambition, he was a touchstone. Admittedly he found that easier to do if they were dead. If they were still alive, he sometimes sounded as if he was trying to kill them. Harsh reviews are written in Britain and Australia too, but usually in the belief that nobody will suffer irreparable damage. In America, and especially in Jarrell’s generation, that belief did not hold; and the thought that Jarrell took a razor to his wrist because of what somebody said about him in a newspaper was powerful evidence that some of the energy of the American post-war literary world came from the childishness of its practitioners. Deadly serious about being thought successful as artists, they forgot that a better guarantee of seriousness would have been to pursue their art even if they were thought to have failed. The risk run by the adepts of a spiritual activity in a materialist society became threateningly clear: when all the measures are set internally, peer-group pressure can be fatal. Lowell, Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath: to any of them, nothing mattered more than the ticker tape that carried the stock market quotation of their status. A ten-point drop could send them to the window sill: for the artist concerned with his own share price, it is always 1929. High on the short list of good things that can be said about the Beat poets is that they sought out an audience and let it decide. The mandarins would have fared better if they had done the same. As things happened, the best and the brightest had too much respect for one another’s opinion. Jarrell was merely among the most prominent. He should have cared less about what the others said. They all should have.
TWO ESSAYS ON
1. On His Collected Poems
When Theodore Roethke died five years ago his obituaries, very sympathetically written, tended to reveal by implication that the men who wrote them had doubts about the purity and weight of his achievement in poetry. Now that his collected poems have come out, the reviews, on this side of the water at least, strike the attentive reader as the same obituaries rewritten. Roethke was one of those men for whom poetic significance is claimed not only on the level of creativity but also on the level of being: if it is objected that the poems do not seem very individual, the objection can be headed off by saying that the man was a poet apart from his poems, embodying all the problems of writing poetry “in our time.” It is a shaky way to argue, and praise degenerates quickly to a kind of complicity when what is being praised is really only a man’s ability to hold up against the pressures of his career. Criticism is not about careers.
From the small amount of information which has been let out publicly, and the large amount which circulates privately, it seems probable that Roethke had a difficult life, the difficulties being mainly of a psychic kind that intellectuals find it easy to identify with and perhaps understand too quickly. Roethke earned his bread by teaching in colleges and was rarely without a job in one. It is true that combining the creative and the academic lives sets up pressures, but really these pressures have been exaggerated, to the point where one would think that teaching a course in freshman English was as perilous to the creative faculties as sucking up to titled nobodies, running errands for Roman governors, cutting purses, grinding lenses, or getting shot at. If Roethke was in mental trouble, this should be either brought out into the open and diagnosed as well as it can be or else abandoned as a point: it is impermissible to murmur vaguely about the problems of being a poet in our time. Being a poet has always been a problem. If the point is kept up, the uninformed, unprejudiced reader will begin to wonder if perhaps Roethke lacked steel. The widening scope and increasing hospitality of academic life in this century, particularly in the United States, has lured many people into creativity who really have small business with it, since they need too much recognition and too many meals. Plainly Roethke was several cuts above this, but the words now being written in his praise are doing much to reduce him to it.
This collection is an important document in showing that originality is not a requirement in good poetry—merely a description of it. All the longer poems in the volume and most of the short ones are ruined by Roethke’s inability to disguise his influences. In the few short poems where he succeeded in shutting them out, he achieved a firm, though blurred, originality of utterance: the real Roethke collection, when it appears, will be a ruthlessly chosen and quite slim volume some two hundred pages shorter than the one we now have, but it will stand a good chance of lasting, since its voice will be unique. In this respect, history is very kind: the poet may write only a few good poems in a thousand negligible ones, but those few poems, if they are picked out and properly stored, will be remembered as characteristic. The essential scholarly task with Roethke is to make this selection and defend it. It will need to be done by a first-rate man capable of seeing that the real Roethke wrote very seldom.
Of his first book, O
Intricate phobias grow
From each malignant wish
To spoil collective life
It is not assimilating tradition to so take over the rhythms of poetry recently written by another man, especially a man as famous as Auden. It is not even constructive plagiarism, just helpless mimicry. To a greater or lesser degree, from one model to the next, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot, Roethke displayed throughout his creative life a desperate unsureness of his own gift. In his second book, The Lost Son, published in 1948, the influence of Eliot, an influence which dogged him to the end, shows its first signs with savage clarity.
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