Wednesday, October 14, 2009

`Because They Can't Help Themselves'

Randall Jarrell was that rarest of mutations -- a critic one reads for pleasure. His poetry, I regret saying after decades of readerly devotion, is mostly dull but many of his essays and reviews remain incisive and funny. Best known for the gleeful savagery of his negative reviews, he was more influentially a generous celebrator who championed the reputations of Whitman, Kipling, Frost, Moore, Stevens, Auden, Bishop, Lowell and Stead, often when their critical reputations were ebbing or ebbed. One of my favorite passages – call it a hymn of praise – is from “Some Lines from Whitman.” It follows a selection from “Song of Myself”:

''There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter: the serious truth, the complete realization of these last lines make us remember that few poets have shown more of the tears of things, and the joy of things, and of the reality beneath either tears or joy.''

One of Jarrell’s unremarked strengths as a critic is his willingness to stand speechless before work that pleases him. Sometimes excellence is self-evident. To push the issue seems vulgar. It’s enough to shake your head and whisper, “Look at that, will you?” As he writes of Moore: “It might be better to say…`Words fail me, my lords,’ and to go through [Moore’s poems] pointing.”

If a reader were to ask, “Are there any critics you trust?” I would send him to No Other Book: Selected Essays, the Jarrell collection edited 10 years ago by Brad Leithauser. All the best pieces are included. I can’t think of another critical work at once so reliable and laugh-out-loud funny. In his most recent collection of critical essays and reviews, Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, William Logan – our Jarrell -- admits wanting to channel the poet-critic’s spirit:

“Critics get things wrong all the time; if a critic ever suffered insomnia, it would be because he had dismissed the Emily Dickinson of his day. Yet critics know the future may pluck up some writer they think a nonentity and say, `Here, here, the critics were blind to genius!’ Randall Jarrell said something similar fifty years ago, but Randall Jarrell often said fifty years ago the very things I want to say about poetry now.”

Forty-four years ago today, Jarrell, age 51, was struck and killed by an automobile as he walked at dusk along a highway near Chapel Hill, N.C. His biographer, William Pritchard, believes the death was not a suicide. Others, including his old friend Robert Lowell, were convinced it was, and the reality of what happened that night probably will never be inarguably known. As readers, we’re left with the enthusiasm of Jarrell’s best prose, including his novel Pictures from an Institution. When demoralized by the state of literature, the preponderance of dreary poems and fiction beyond resuscitation, Jarrell is my cheerleader. Or rather, as in his introduction to Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, he is literature’s cheerleader:

“As Wordsworth and Proust say, a good enough book in the long run makes its own readers, people who believe in it because they can’t help themselves.”

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