Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Complete Poems The Complete Poems by Randall Jarrell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"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."

'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner' World War II poem by Randall Jarrell

This week, a prolonged comment exchange with Josh Lanyon, brought me back to my 'home base' - i.e. 20th century poets, especially 20th century American poets. I've decided to babble about them for a few months, choosing one poet each week. I'm posting these psuedo 'reviews' on my blog as well.

I chose Randall Jarrell as my first poet, because he was a reknowned critic as well. I consider him the bar to which all critics and reviewers of literature should aspire. Firstly because poetry is extremely difficult to critique. Usually, the critic is reduced to some sort of opinionated diatribe. "I liked this poem because" sounding like a fifteen year old essayist. Or "so-and-so's lyrical blah blah , masking confusion in a litany of terms that really say nothing.

Jarrell seemed able to understand what the poet was trying to accomplish and to point out where he/she had both failed and succeeded in this attempt. Awesome, useful amazing critiques.He was also an outspoken pacifist and a friend of most of the contemporary American poets of note. (a small circle of alternately supportive and critical literary giants. a very very very small circle. You and I would never be invited to their parties.) Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, to name a few.

Jarrell's note to the poem above

A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24,
and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small
man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his
bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his
little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which
attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a
steam hose.
I also chose Jarrell because he didn't survive the depression, alcoholism and despair that seems to have been the fate of so many poets in the past. His death, hit by a car while out walking, was officially ruled an accident but was generally felt, by those that knew him, to be a suicide.

It is my belief that 20th century poets began to 'get a grip' and more and more of them fought hard to survive with their sensibilities intact.

Jarrell was, obviously, a pacifist. He spent time in prison as a concientous objector and wrote two books of poems based on his stay there. All of his poems and quite a few of his best critiques are in this 'complete works'. He wrote poems that stuck in the head of anyone and the poem above has been used and quoted in many anti war and pacifist books and pamphlets.

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