Randall Jarrell


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

Author Quotes

If my tone is mocking, the tone of someone accustomed to helplessness, this is natural: the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast ? and as someone said, ?If you?re going to hang me, you mustn?t expect to be able to intimidate me into sparing your feelings during the execution.?

If poetry were nothing but texture, [Dylan] Thomas would be as good as any poet alive. The what of his poems is hardly essential to their success, and the best and most brilliantly written pieces usually say less than the worst.

If sometimes we are bogged down in lines full of ?corybulous?, ?hypogeum?, ?plangent?, ?irrefragably?, ?glozening?, ?tellurian?, ?conclamant?, sometimes we are caught up in the soaring rapture of something unprecedented, absolutely individual.

If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that G”del believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems ? people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets ? it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, "Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry."

If we judge by wealth and power, our times are the best of times; if the times have made us willing to judge by wealth and power, they are the worst of times.

If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help.

If wishes were stories, beggars would read.

If you look at the world with parted lips and a pure heart, and will the good, won't that make a true and beautiful poem? One's heart tells one that it will; and one's heart is wrong. There is no direct road to Parnassus.

If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries you will never look just right to posterity ? every writer has to try to be, to some extent, sometimes, a law unto himself.

I simply don?t want the poems mixed up with my life or opinions or picture or any other regrettable concomitants. I look like a bear and live in a cave; but you should worry.

Imagism was a reductio ad absurdum of one or two tendencies of romanticism, such a beautifully and finally absurd one that it is hard to believe it existed as anything but a logical construction; and what imagist found it possible to go on writing imagist poetry? A number of poets have stopped writing entirely; others, like recurring decimals, repeat the novelties they commenced with, each time less valuably than before. And there are surrealist poetry, and political poetry, and all the other refuges of the indigent.

I think Miss Moore was right to cut ?The Steeple-Jack? ? the poem seems plainer and clearer in its shortened state ? but she has cut too much... The reader may feel like saying, ?Let her do as she pleases with the poem; it?s hers, isn?t it?? No; it?s much too good a poem for that, it long ago became everybody?s, and we can protest just as we could if Donatello cut off David?s left leg.

He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter-unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly on to the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians?if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey?you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried?s compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bachhad a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfriend himself said about the first group: ?Vot a bunch!? When I asked him how he had thought of it he said placidly: ?De devil soldt me his soul.?

He thinks that Schiller and St Paul were just two Partisan Review editors.

Her point of view about student work was that of a social worker teaching finger-painting to children or the insane. I was impressed with how common such an attitude was at Benton: the faculty?insofar as they were real Benton faculty, and not just nomadic barbarians?reasoned with the students, ?appreciated their point of view?, used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made?that the students might be right about something, and they wrong. Education, to them, was a psychiatric process: the sign under which they conquered had embroidered at the bottom, in small letters, Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased??and half of them gave it its Babu paraphrase of Can you wait upon a lunatic? One expected them to refer to former students as psychonanalysts do: ?Oh, she?s an old analysand of mine.? They felt that the mind was a delicate plant which, carefully nurtured, judiciously left alone, must inevitably adopt for itself even the slightest of their own beliefs. One Benton student, a girl noted for her breadth of reading and absence of co”peration, described things in a queer, exaggerated, plausible way. According to her, a professor at an ordinary school tells you ?what?s so?, you admit that it is on examination, and what you really believe or come to believe has ?that obscurity which is the privilege of young things?. But at Benton, where education was as democratic as in ?that book about America by that French writer?de, de?you know the one I mean?; she meant de Tocqueville; there at Benton they wanted you really to believe everything they did, especially if they hadn?t told you what it was. You gave them the facts, the opinions of authorities, what you hoped was their own opinion; but they replied, ?That?s not the point. What do you yourself really believe?? If it wasn?t what your professors believed, you and they could go on searching for your real belief forever?unless you stumbled at last upon that primal scene which is, by definition, at the root of anything....

Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence of the unbroken ice. I stand here, the dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare at the North Pole. . . and now what? Why, go back. Turn as I please, my step is to the south.

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.

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.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

How can we expect novelists to be moral, when their trade forces them to treat every end they meet as no more than an imperfect means to a novel?

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.

How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a d‘mon, 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.

Gertrude Johnson could feel no real respect for, no real interest in, anybody who wasn't a writer. For her there were two species: writers and people; and the writers were really people, and the people weren't.

How poet and public stared at each other with righteous indignation, till the poet said, Since you won't read me, I'll make sure you can't ? is one of the most complicated and interesting of stories.

Gertrude knew better than this, of course, but we all know better than we know better, or act as if we did.

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