Randall Jarrell


American Poet, Novelist, Critic, Children's Author, Essayist

Author Quotes

The Author to the Reader I?ve read that Luther said (it?s come to me so often that I?ve made it into meter): and even if the world should end tomorrow I still would plant my little apple-tree. Here, reader, is my little apple-tree.

The best of cause ruins as quickly as the worst; and the road to Limbo is paved with writers who have done everything?I am being sympathetic, not satiric?for the very best reasons.

The cat's asleep; I whisper kitten till he stirs a little and begins to purr-- he doesn't wake. Today out on the limb (The limb he thinks he can't climb down from). He mewed until I heard him in the house. I climbed up to get him down: he mewed. What he says and what he sees are limited. My own response is even more constricted. I think, It's lucky; what you have is too. What do you have except--well, me? I joke about it but it's not a joke; the house and I are all he remembers. Next month how will he guess that it is winter and not just entropy, the universe plunging at last into its cold decline? I cannot think of him without a pang. Poor rumpled thing, why don't you see that you have no more, really, than a man? Men aren't happy; why are you?

The characteristic poetic strategy of our time?refine your singularities?is something Auden has not learned; so his best poems are very peculiarly good, nearly the most interesting poems of our time. When he writes badly, we can afford to be angry at him, and he can afford to laugh at us.

Oscar Williams?s new book is pleasanter and a little quieter than his old, which gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter.

She said to Constance, parodying a line of poetry that attracted her, In the United States, there one feels free. But she spoiled it by continuing, Except from the Americans?but every pearl has its oyster.

Our quarrels with the world are like our quarrels with God: no matter how right we are, we are wrong.

Our society, it turns out, can use modern art. A restaurant, today, will order a mural by M¡ro in as easy and matter-of-fact a spirit as, twenty-five years ago, it would have ordered one by Maxfield Parrish. The president of a paint factory goes home, sits down by his fireplace?it looks like a chromium aquarium set into the wall by a wall-safe company that has branched out into interior decorating, but there is a log burning in it, he calls it a fireplace, let?s call it a fireplace too?the president sits down, folds his hands on his stomach, and stares at two paintings by Jackson Pollock that he has hung on the wall opposite him. He feels at home with them; in fact, as he looks at them he not only feels at home, he feels as if he were back at the paint factory. And his children?if he has any?his children cry for Calder. He uses thoroughly advanced, wholly non-representational artists to design murals, posters, institutional advertisements: if we have the patience (or are given the opportunity) to wait until the West has declined a little longer, we shall all see the advertisements of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith illustrated by Jean Dubuffet. This president?s minor executives may not be willing to hang a Kandinsky in the house, but they will wear one, if you make it into a sport shirt or a pair of swimming-trunks; and if you make it into a sofa, they will lie on it. They and their wives and children will sit on a porcupine, if you first exhibit it at the Museum of Modern Art and say that it is a chair. In fact, there is nothing, nothing in the whole world that someone won?t buy and sit in if you tell him it is a chair: the great new art form of our age, the one that will take anything we put in it, is the chair. If Hieronymus Bosch, if Christian Morgenstern, if the Marquis de Sade were living at this hour, what chairs they would be designing!

Our universities should produce good criticism; they do not?or, at best, they do so only as federal prisons produce counterfeit money: a few hardened prisoners are more or less surreptitiously continuing their real vocations.

People always ask: For whom does the poet write? He needs only to answer, For whom do you do good? Are you kind to your daughter because in the end someone will pay you for being?... The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.

People had always seemed to Gertrude rather like the beasts in Animal Farm: all equally detestable, but some more equally detestable than others.

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.

President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.

Progress, in poetry at least, comes not so much from digesting the last age as from rejecting it altogether (or, rather, from eating a little and leaving a lot), and... the world?s dialectic is a sort of neo-Hegelian one in which one progresses not by resolving contradictions but by ignoring them.

Read at whim! read at whim!

Reality is what we want it to be or what we do not want it to be, but it is not our wanting or our not wanting that makes it so.

Robert Frost says in a piece of homely doggerel that he has hoped wisdom could be not only Attic but Laconic, Boeotian even??at least not systematic?; but how systematically Frostian the worst of his later poems are! His good poems are the best refutation of, the most damning comment on, his bad: his Complete Poems have the air of being able to educate any faithful reader into tearing out a third of the pages, reading a third, and practically wearing out the rest.

Robert Lowell is a poet of both Will and Imagination, but his Will is always seizing his Imagination by the shoulders and saying to it in a grating voice: ?Don?t sit there fooling around; get to work!? ? and his poor Imagination gets tense all over and begins to revolve determinedly and familiarly, like a squirrel in a squirrel-cage. Goethe talked about the half-somnambulistic state of the poet; but Mr. Lowell too often is either having a nightmare or else is wide awake gritting his teeth and working away at All The Things He Does Best. Cocteau said to poets: Learn what you can do and then don?t do it; and this is so?we do it enough without trying. As a poet Mr. Lowell sometimes doesn?t have enough trust in God and tries to do everything himself: he proposes and disposes ? and this helps to give a certain monotony to his work.

Ruskin says that anyone who expects perfection from a work of art knows nothing of works of art. This is an appealing sentence that, so far as I can see, is not true about a few pictures and statues and pieces of music, short stories and short poems. Whether or not you expect perfection from them, you get it; at least, there is nothing in them that you would want changed. But what Ruskin says is true about novels: anyone who expects perfection from even the greatest novel knows nothing of novels.

Sam is a repetitive, comic process that merely marks time: he gets nowhere, but then he doesn?t want to get anywhere. Although there is no possibility of any real change in Sam, he never stops changing: Sam stays there inside Sam, getting less and less like the rest of mankind and more and more like Sam, Sam squared, Sam cubed, Sam to the nth.

Originality is everyone?s aim, and novel techniques are as much prized as new scientific discoveries. [T.S.] Eliot states it with surprising na‹vet‚: ?It is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel?s discoveries.?

She helped the hunter with the cooking as a husband helps his wife: when he had gone out to hunt and left something to stew, she would take the pot off the fire. But she never knew when to take it off; sometimes it was cooked to pieces, and she never got it right except by accident. But when the accident happened the hunter would laugh and say, You're as good a cook as my mother! After all, why should he want her to keep house? If you have a seal that could talk, would you want it to sweep the floor?

Once man was tossed about helplessly and incessantly by the wind that blew through him?now the toughest of all plants is more sensitive, more easily moved than he. In other words, death is better than life, nothing is better than anything. Nor is this a silly adolescent pessimism peculiar to Housman, as so many critics assure you. It is better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born?said a poet approvingly advertised as seeing life steadily and seeing it whole; and if I began an anthology of such quotations there it would take me a long time to finish. The attitude is obviously inadequate and just as obviously important.

Once, along with The Transfigured Night, he played a class Rachmaninoff?s Isle of the Dead. Most of the class had not seen the painting, so he went to the library and returned with a reproduction of it. Then he pointed, with a sober smile, to a painting which hung on the wall of the classroom (A Representation of Several Areas, Some of Them Grey, one might have called it; yet this would have been unjust to it?it was non-representational) and played for the class, on the piano, a composition which he said was an interpretation of the painting: he played very slowly and very calmly, with his elbows, so that it sounded like blocks falling downstairs, but in slow motion. But half his class took this as seriously as they took everything else, and asked him for weeks afterward about prepared pianos, tone-clusters, and the compositions of John Cage and Henry Cowell; one girl finally brought him a lovely silk-screen reproduction of a painting by Jackson Pollock, and was just opening her mouth to ? He interrupted, bewilderingly, by asking the Lord what land He had brought him into. The girl stared at him open-mouthed, and he at once said apologetically that he was only quoting Mahler, who had also diedt from America; then he gave her such a winning smile that she said to her roommate that night, forgivingly: ?He really is a nice old guy. You never would know he?s famous.? ?Is he really famous?? her roommate asked. ?I never heard of him before I got here.?

One is forced to remember how far from "self-expression" great poems are ? what a strange compromise between the demands of the self, the world, and Poetry they actually represent.

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American Poet, Novelist, Critic, Children's Author, Essayist