Printer Friendly

Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood.

Nearly thirty years after his untimely death, Randall Jarrell's poetry continues to polarize even his most devoted readers. James Dickey set the parameters in 1956 by splitting Jarrell's readers into two diametrically opposed factions, A & B. By summarily declaring that Jarrell will be remembered as a critical genius, but only as a talented poet, Helen Vendler anticipated William Pritchard, whose brilliant biography (Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, 1990) attempts to integrate all of Jarrell but still seems to prefer the criticism - and the poems which inform and are informed by it - to the poetry that was Randall Jarrell's raison d'etre. Now, more than twenty years after Suzanne Ferguson's groundbreaking book The Poetry of Randall Jarrell (1971), Jarrell's poetry and fiction deserve thorough interpretation and evaluation apart from his criticism, which alone seems assured of a secure place in the annals of twentieth-century literary history.

To paraphrase his remark about Auden, you never step twice into the same Jarrell. In Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood, Richard Flynn has foregrounded the Randall Jarrell who, in 154 poems, one novel, and four books of fiction for children has evoked the elusive consciousness and experiences of childhood. For Flynn, Randall Jarrell's "great subject is childhood ... experienced and remembered ... lost and forgotten" (p. 1). The author, a spirited Jarrell partisan, has taken on the difficult task of explaining, if not always defending, each and every allusion to childhood in Jarrell's oeuvre, as he leads the reader chronologically in a chapter-by-chapter, book-by-book revisitation of Jarrell's entire output of poetry and fiction.

Like Pritchard, Flynn blames Jarrell's rather embarrassing early poems on inadequate "parents," his biological mother and father and the Fugitives who were his artistic progenitors, but stops short of pin-pointing, as Pritchard does, the poems' real weaknesses in obtuse diction, elliptical syntax, and overblown rhetoric. For Flynn, "Jarrell's early view of childhood [is] a clouded battleground between innocence and experience [that is] rooted in observations of how children are victimized by adults who are cut off from their own childhoods through prior victimization" (p. 16). Poems in Blood for a Stranger (1942) and Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) "mirror a pattern of human development from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, a parody of development in which the betrayed child grows into an unsuccessful adult" (p. 16). In a perceptive reading of "90 North," Jarrell's most important early poem about childhood, Flynn finds that "the retrospective view of the experienced adult toward the life of the innocent child reduces innocence to ignorance" (p. 27). Flynn diverges from earlier critics by proclaiming Jarrell's soldiers and airmen not children but adolescents, who "mirror his own struggle from adolescence toward maturity" (p. 29). In "The Pilot from the Carrier" and Losses," Jarrell, who never participated in combat, can only sympathize with men who are "caught in a vise between the worlds of childhood and adulthood" (p. 31). In Losses (1948), however, Flynn discovers the beginnings of a more mature perspective on the war," especially in "Eighth Air Force," wherein Jarrell discovers an "empathetic voice" which enables him to identify with the pilots' predicament rather than merely to condemn a situation in which he and his subjects are helpless victims (p. 34).

The Seven League Crutches (1951) is for Flynn the "watershed volume" (p. 43), wherein his search for the "once a child" in Jarrell's poetry begins to bear fruit. If earlier poems gave us the adult world against the child, with the poet detached from both, these poems of the fifties present a poet who can be a child again and mediate between two poles of experience. About this collection Flynn writes so passionately and subjectively that one feels deep sympathy, not only for Jarrell but also for Flynn and for oneself. Especially does the reader become painfully aware of the plight of the gifted child, of Jarrell as Ganymede, who, because never really a child, can neither grow up nor cease grieving for his own deprivation. Flynn's reading of "Quilt Pattern" is his most eloquent and telling argument (pp. 52-53). But there are other important concerns in this volume which Flynn ignores to the detriment of his own enterprise. Even though this one volume does emphasize and emblemize the child, there are also poems like "A Girl in the Library," "The Face" and "Hohensalzburg: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Romantic Character" wherein maturity speaks.

Writing on Jarrell's one "novel," Pictures from an Institution (1959), allows Flynn little chance to push his thesis, since children (as opposed to immature college students and their childlike professors) have relatively little to do with the small-college milieu that is Jarrell's subject. Benton is a progressivist Eden where children are more to be ignored or exploited than abused, where everyone is stuck in adolescence, a stage of development with which neither Jarrell nor Flynn is especially comfortable. Flynn leans heavily on Ferguson but must finally admit that Pictures from an Institution is an atypical interlude. lf Jarrell had reviewed rather than written this book, his title might well have been "This Is NOT a Novel."

Flynn's chapter on The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1955), for Jarrell essentially an exercise in the evasive strategies of dramatic mode and translation, forces him to deal with some of Jarrell's worst, most self-pitying poems - "Windows" and "The Elementary Scene" for example - and to neglect some virtuoso performances, such as "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" and "Cinderella," wherein self has been successfully transcended. Both Flynn and Jarrell want passionately to deny the necessary gulf between childhood and adulthood that Words-worth, who along with Rilke forms the basis of Jarrell's vision of childhood, could accept and use as a source of renewal. Talking of the art poems draws Flynn off the subject and into some Procrustian interpretations. The subject of Jarrell's "The Bronze David of Donatello," for instance, is said to be a "monstrous child" while the woman in "The End of the Rainbow" is "an arrested adolescent" (pp. 93, 96). And although the Rilkean translations do compete with the original poems for the reader's attention, to call "the lament for lost childhood" the "underlying theme of the volume" seems unduly limiting. Flynn admits that by 1955 Jarrell was ready to say that if "we try to recapture divinity through lost childhood or art, as in |Nestus Gurley,' we always fall short" (p. 97).

With "Happy Families Are All Invented," on the children's books, Flynn returns to home turf. Although he discerns in back of these stories about lost and endangered children a dark side, an "apprehension about aging," Flynn has nothing but praise for these charming but deceptively sophisticated books which, in his words, "lent a new vitality to all [Jarrell's] writing, but also served to reinforce his apprehensiveness about aging" (p. 99). In fact, as John Updike remarked in his 1976 review of the posthumous Fly by Night, these stories turned out to be almost inappropriate for children and ominously revealing of Jarrell himself, whose childhood was marred by feelings of alienation from and hostility toward his parents. Flynn agrees with those critics who read in Jarrell's children's stories themes of "separation anxiety" (Griswold) and the desire of "familial affection ... separate from sexual affection" (Sale) (Flynn, p. 102). From this point onward, the child and the aging woman dominate Jarrell's poetry, suggesting that Jarrell could never accept his own mature sexuality.

In The Lost World, 1965, the volume which crowned Jarrell's career and should have won him a Pulitzer Price, the child's vision is complemented by the adult's. For Flynn, however, the adult's perspective seems always to be submerged within the child's; and the adult's uncertainty exists only to form the basis for the child's insecurity. In Next Day," "The Lost Children," and "Hope," the child has grown up and the adult consequently regresses. Flynn makes no distinction between the dramatic modes of "Next Day" and "The Lost Children," wherein women are speakers, and "Hope" or "The Lost World," wherein Jarrell shifts to the dramatic lyric and is almost confessional. Flynn's reading of the latter poem is, however, one of the strongest in the book, although what some read as a mediation between past and present is presented as yet another nexus of parched despair. The greenroom of memory is a greenwood wherein the leaves are drying on the vines, and Flynn seems pained to admit that "something valuable may still be reclaimed from ... these Hollywood ruins" (p. 122). He seems to forget the Jarrell who fairly worshipped pop culture - professional football, movies, race cars - for whom a movie set with its pink sphinx and fake dinosaurs was magically authentic, both to the child who saw them on the way home from school and the middle-aged professor who recalls them near the campus of a Southern college. Flynn correctly interprets the middle poem in the sequence, "A Night with Lions," "as a treatment of awakening sexuality" but insists, ominously, that for the speaker, its primary message is of the "sexual confusion of approaching adolescence" (p. 124). For Flynn, "The Lost World" in its entirety constitutes a painful discovery of the adult world and a forlorn wish that its "secrets" of sex, money, death may be avoided as long as possible. Flynn's somber sense of the poem denies the possibility that the poet of "90 North" may have located as much wisdom as pain in his recovery of lost childhood.

Flynn's reading of the companion poem "Thinking of the Lost World" is, however, the occasion of his most eloquent summary statement: that Jarrell sought and almost found in "the lost world of childhood a sustaining fiction, a romantic source that can be drawn upon in adulthood..." (p. 130). Although for Flynn that quest does not fully succeed, he nonetheless concludes, on a positive note, that Jarrell "was able to begin a project of reclamation in which the child's consciousness, |really remembered,' rather than sentimentally recalled, could give the poet the ability to |make'" (p. 130). Exploring John Crowe Ransom's two responses to the poem's ambiguous ending, Flynn ultimately finds neither "obsession with terror" nor retreat into a "second childhood" but "an acceptance of maturity, and consequently of humanity" (p. 132).

Flynn's concluding chapter, also entitled "Thinking of the Lost World," brings out his talent for polemic in a spirited challenge to Jarrell's detractors, including Helen Vendler, Bruce Bawer, and the much vilified Jeffrey Meyer. Flynn accurately distinguishes Jarrell from the other poets of the "middle generation" by his "narrative patience, a tender yet realistic view of humanity, and a concern for the lives of the powerless, particularly children and woman" (p. 138). By pointing out in Jarrell's poetry a "humanity ... [that] speaks more directly to our needs than the pyrotechnical displays of Lowell and Berryman that occupy more esteemed places in the canon" (p. 138), Flynn offers the best explanation to date of why readers, especially college students who are often puzzled by Lowell and embarrassed by Berryman, find Jarrell so appealing.

Richard Flynn's exploration of Jarrell's "lost world of childhood" complements Jerome Griswold's The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell in calling due attention to a strongly pervasive aspect of the poetry and fiction of Randall Jarrell. For those who value other Jarrells, Flynn's is not, and does not claim to be, a complete guide through the Jarrellian landscape. To project all of Jarrell's poetry and fiction through the child's limited vision can, however, prove (to use Flynn's own word) reductive. For those who also value the soldier, the professor, and the woman who also resides in Jarrell's poetry, there is more than a single world to rediscover and reclaim.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Beck, Charlotte H.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Witness to Sorrow: The Antebellum Autobiography of William J. Grayson.
Next Article:A Scholar's Conscience: Selected Writings of J. Saunders Redding.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters