Randall Jarrell quotes

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Randall Jarrell

Birthdate: 6. May 1914
Date of death: 14. October 1965

Randall Jarrell was an American poet, literary critic, children's author, essayist, novelist, and the 11th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that now bears the title Poet Laureate.

Works

„Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy.“

—  Randall Jarrell

“Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 127, originally in Partisan Review, Vol. 18, (May/June 1951)
Poetry and the Age (1953)
Context: Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano.

„The face is its own fate — a man does what he must —
And the body underneath it says: I am.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"The Knight, Death and the Devil," lines 34-39
The Seven-League Crutches (1951)
Context: Death and the devil, what are these to him?
His being accuses him — and yet his face is firm
In resolution, in absolute persistence;
The folds of smiling do for steadiness;
The face is its own fate — a man does what he must —
And the body underneath it says: I am.

„Men wash their hands in blood, as best they can:
I find no fault in this just man.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"Eighth Air Force," lines 16-20
Losses (1948)
Context: For this last savior, man,
I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying?
Men wash their hands in blood, as best they can:
I find no fault in this just man.

„After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write — a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"Verse Chronicle," The Nation (23 February 1946); reprinted as "Bad Poets" in Poetry and the Age (1953)
General sources
Context: Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write — a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.

„I see at last that all the knowledgeI wrung from the darkness — that the darkness flung me —
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"90 North," lines 28-32
Blood for a Stranger (1942)
Context: I see at last that all the knowledgeI wrung from the darkness — that the darkness flung me —
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

„You had our wit, our heart was sealed to you:
Man is the judgment of the world.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"Variations," lines 40-44
Blood for a Stranger (1942)
Context: And the world said, Child, you will not be missed.
You are cheaper than a wrench, your back is a road;
Your death is a table in a book.
You had our wit, our heart was sealed to you:
Man is the judgment of the world.

„The soul has no assignments, neither cooks
Nor referees: it wastes its time.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"A Girl in a Library," lines 32-29
The Seven-League Crutches (1951)
Context: The soul has no assignments, neither cooks
Nor referees: it wastes its time. It wastes its time.
Here in this enclave there are centuries
For you to waste: the short and narrow stream
Of life meanders into a thousand valleys
Of all that was, or might have been, or is to be.
The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly.

„The world and its life are her dreams.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"Variations," lines 31-33
Blood for a Stranger (1942)
Context: The nurse is the night
To wake to, to die in: and the day I live,
The world and its life are her dreams.

„These writers, plainly, lived in different worlds.“

—  Randall Jarrell

“The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 17
Poetry and the Age (1953)
Context: Goethe said, “The author whom a lexicon can keep up with is worth nothing”; Somerset Maugham says that the finest compliment he ever received was a letter in which one of his readers said: “I read your novel without having to look up a single word in the dictionary.” These writers, plainly, lived in different worlds.

„The author whom a lexicon can keep up with is worth nothing“

—  Randall Jarrell

“The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 17
Poetry and the Age (1953)
Context: Goethe said, “The author whom a lexicon can keep up with is worth nothing”; Somerset Maugham says that the finest compliment he ever received was a letter in which one of his readers said: “I read your novel without having to look up a single word in the dictionary.” These writers, plainly, lived in different worlds.

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„In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school —
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.“

—  Randall Jarrell

Losses (1948)
Context: We read our mail and counted up our missions —
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school —
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."
They said, "Here are the maps"; we burned the cities.

"Losses," lines 21-28

„When I was asked to talk about the Obscurity of the Modern Poet I was delighted, for I have suffered from this obscurity all my life. But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don’t read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn’t understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry.“

—  Randall Jarrell

“The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 3
Poetry and the Age (1953)
Context: When I was asked to talk about the Obscurity of the Modern Poet I was delighted, for I have suffered from this obscurity all my life. But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don’t read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn’t understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry. And yet it is not just modern poetry, but poetry, that is today obscure. Paradise Lost is what it was; but the ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it — instead he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders, and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with Moby-Dick, War and Peace, Faust, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice: it was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pail, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who a few weeks ago, to the Public’s sympathetic delight, put together this list of the world’s dullest books.
Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure—i. e., that he is difficult, i. e., that he is neglected — they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.

„This is the devil. Flesh to flesh, he bleats
The herd back to the pit of being.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"The Knight, Death and the Devil," lines 17-20
The Seven-League Crutches (1951)
Context: His eye a ring inside a ring inside a ring
That leers up, joyless, vile, in meek obscenity —
This is the devil. Flesh to flesh, he bleats
The herd back to the pit of being.

„Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle.“

—  Randall Jarrell

"Verse Chronicle," The Nation (23 February 1946); reprinted as "Bad Poets" in Poetry and the Age (1953)
General sources
Context: Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write — a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.

„A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.“

—  Randall Jarrell

“Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 134; conclusion
Poetry and the Age (1953)
Context: How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a dæmon, as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen — for otherwise we expect him to go on writing good poems, better poems, and this is the one thing you cannot expect even of good poets, much less of anybody else. Good painters in their sixties may produce good pictures as regularly as an orchard produces apples; but Planck is a great scientist because he made one discovery as a young man — and I can remember reading in a mathematician’s memoirs a sentence composedly recognizing the fact that, since the writer was now past forty, he was unlikely ever again to do any important creative work in mathematics. A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems, to be doing exercises in his own manner, or to have reverted to whatever commonplaces were popular when he was young. A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.

„It is rare for a novel to have an ending as good as its middle and beginning…“

—  Randall Jarrell

“An Unread Book”, p. 25
The Third Book of Criticism (1969)

„We never step twice into the same Auden.—HERACLITUS“

—  Randall Jarrell

“Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, p. 115; epigraph
The Third Book of Criticism (1969)

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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