READERS OF RANDALL JARRELL's three previous books of essays only need to know one thing about Kipling, Auden & Co.: it's here. No more scrounging through libraries for back issues of The Nation, no more shoving dimes into copy machines to preserve and carry home one more review by that unmistakable voice. Everything left uncollected is here in a volume that anyone with $17.95 and an interest in modern poetry will not for a moment hesitate to buy.
Perhaps no American literary figure of the past 40 years, with the possible exception of Delmore Schwartz, has been so loved and admired as Randall Jarrell. His friends included poet-critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, philosopher Hannah Arendt, storyteller Peter Taylor, poet Robert Lowell, translator Robert Fitzgerald, artist Maurice Sendak. In his heyday, the 1940 and '50s, Jarrell told the world exactly why Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams were great poets -- and the world listened; he helped discover such young unknowns as Lowell, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman; he reinterpreted the canon of modern poetry, uncovering the sexually knowing, dark side of Frost, brilliantly highlighting the best of Whitman, pointing up the odd attractiveness of Robert Graves. Besides poetry, he cherished short stories, especially those of Turgenev, Chekhov and Kipling, and he kept recommending Christina Stead's then-neglected masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, until it was finally reissued. Some of his own poems, especially those of the last two collections, The Women at the Washington Zoo (1960) and The Lost World (1965), will live as long as people read books. Without question, he was, until his death in 1965, the wittiest, cruelest, most caring and brilliant reviewer of poetry in the country.
What makes Jarrell so exciting to read, even now that the new books he chronicled have been forgotten or become classics, is his dramatic, almost histrionic, style. Once heard his voice is never forgotten. Its characteristic liveliness, his innocent malice, crackles in the first piece of Kipling, Auden & Co., a roundup of recent fiction of 1935, written when Jarrell was 21: "You know Lucy Gayheart only in the way you might know yourself, if you were badly forgetful, and not very introspective." In a time when criticism was already turning professional and academic, Jarrell spoke as a reader, one who tried to convey his enthusiasm or his disappointment in a book as sharply as he could manage. His essays channel Oscar Wilde's wit through the critical perceptiveness of a William Empson. Never does his writing sound like that academese he described in his celebrated diatribe, "The Age of Criticism" (in the recently reprinted Poetry and the Age, Ecco Press, $6.95): "A great deal of the criticism might just as well have been written by a syndicate of encyclopedias for an audience of International Business Machines. It is not only bad or mediocre; it is dull; it is, often, an astonishingly graceless, joyless, humorless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliche-ridden, prestige-obsessed, almost-autonomous criticism." Blessedly, Jarrel never lived to see the rise of deconstruction, though he did comment on its practitioners: "The really damned not only like Hell, they feel loyal to it."
In all of Jarrell's work -- and it includes, besides poems and essays, the wittiest American novel I know (Pictures from an Institution), children's books, translations, anthologies -- there is an abiding affection for and glorification of childhood, "the lost world." Jarrell revered those poets of childhood, Wordsworth, Rilke and Proust; his favorite prose form was the fairy tale or folktale; even his preferred drink was reportedly "milk and cookies." To his criticism the poet brought similar childlike qualities -- a serious attentiveness and startling freshness. If we could all respond to books with the passion, wonder and enthusiasm we felt when first hunched over The Jungle Books, or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or The Wind in the Willows, we would read as Randall Jarrell.
That is, of course, provided we could support our enthusiasm with an almost unerring taste and a wide learning -- like the devil, Jarrell can quote Scripture, or anything else, to his purpose. What's more important, he could pick out every nuance of a poem -- he was one of whom nothing was lost -- and state his final judgment unforgettably: "After reading 'Under Sirius,' another poet is likely to feel, 'Well, back to my greeting cards.'" Even better, at least for those like myself who relish the wicked, he could deliver a coup with a single phrase that killed: Pound "has taken all culture for his province, and is naturally a little provincial about it. . . . Nothing can make me believe that Mr. Berryman wrote this himself, and is not just shielding someone. . . . If poetry were nothing but texture, Dylan Thomas would be as good as any poet alive. . . . Oscar Williams' 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. . . . True poets, so to speak, turn down six things and take the seventh; [Rolfe] Humphries always takes the fifth or sixth." A certain poet, he says, used to "crowd so many effects into every line that reading a stanza was like having one's mouth stuffed with pennies." Edith Sitwell's verses "are meant to have an apocalyptic grandeur, but they sound as if Madame Blavatsky (just after reading Yeats and the Prophetic Books and an anthology of Christian mysticism) had written them for a Society of Latter-day Druids."
Once started, it is hard to stop quoting. Some people have described such remarks, usually found in the verse chronicles, as "symbolic murders." (Jarrell is especially cutting with poets who treat traditional forms as mausoleums, enclosing within them their own dead sonnets and pastorals.) But Jarrell felt it his duty to Poetry not only to praise the good, but to suppress the bad. "This essay," he once wrote of a dreadful play, "is not intended to be a sympathetic or comprehensive analysis of The Fall of the City; I came to bury it if I could manage to." Jarrell defends this practice in an appreciation of B. H. Haggin's music criticism: "Taste has to be maintained (or elevated if it's at too low a level to make maintenance bearable) and there is no other way of doing it."
Two long polemics in this volume. "The Taste of the Age" and "Poets, Readers and Critics" (both appeared originally in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket , now out of print), are especially impassioned, exaggerated and even shrill pleas for standards -- for more catholic reading, for a cultivated life amid the media debris, ultimately for an audience for literature in an age of the magazine article. "The trouble," as Jarrell's Bat-Poet sadly observes, "isn't making poems, the trouble's finding somebody that will listen to them." Jarrell's prose itself -- awhirl with quotation, witticism, comparison and anecdote -- requires a shared heritage to be fully appreciated, sometimes even to follow the jokes. "Much of the wit or charm or elevation of any writing or conversation with an atmosphere," Jarrell believes, "depends upon this presupposed, easily and affectionately remembered body of common knowledge; because of it we understand things, we feel about things as human beings and not as human animals."
Throughout his career, this reviewer, lecturer, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1956-58) and teacher called upon the faithful (and the apostate) to read widely, to read not merely what is intellectually or socially fashionable, but the great and good books, poems, stories of the past. "Read at whim!" he entreats -- which is what he himself did. (Only Jarrell could remark, casually, in passing, "after you have read Kipling's fifty or seventy-five best stories . . .") Hardly a Real Critic at all (he had no theories of literature except that modernism was a bastardized romanticism), Jarrell was just someone who loved to talk about books. Yet his conversation was such that it encouraged a complicity between himself and his readers, so that after finishing pieces on Kipling or Malraux's Voices of Silence , or on Houseman, Front and so many others, one wants to go directly to the library shelf and just read, read, read. All of Jarrell's criticism can be summarized as a description of the joy he had found in reading, followed by the command, "Go thou and do likewise."
Probably Jarrell's most characteristic phrase is "Anybody who cares about poetry will want to read" -- Paterson or Auden, this book or that writer. Elizabeth Bishop's Poems and Robert Graves' Collected Poems , he tells us excitedly, "are worth a long walk through sand, worth reading by the light of a bottle of lightning bugs, worth more than anybody is ever likely to pay for them." By the time Jarrell is through evoking the riches and wisdom in even a flawed work like Dylan Thomas' Adventures in the Skin Trade , we want to run to the bookstore anyway: "If you like Grimm or Hoffmann or Kafka, you will like some of these stories, I think; and people who can really write something, really imagine something, are not so common that we can let even their odd or slight works go unread." Occasionally, Jarrell will hook us with a bit of autobiography that makes a long, seemingly abstruse text sound positively charming: "I began reading A Study of History on a cold, snowy Ohio evening in the year 1937, and I've been reading it, off and on, ever since. If reading Proust is the best of vocations, reading Toynbee is the most delightful of avocations." A line of Rilke's -- from a poem that Jarrell translated -- best particularizes his quality as a critic: "Whenever I saw something that could ring, I rang."
In order to help people with their reding, Jarrell, the good teacher, likes to make up lists. But what lists! He is himself, as he says of Kipling and Gogol, "one of those writers who can make a list more interesting than any ordinary writer's murder." In Kipling, Auden & Co . the reader is treated to Jarrell's recommended summer reading for 1955 (Kant's Critique of Judgement is on it -- and he makes you want to take it along to the beach), a selection of Frost's best poems (in a review of Steeple Chase that is a kind of short version of the landmark "To the Laodiceans"), the best lines from otherwise forgettable poets, the chief characteristics of modernist poetry.
Most of Kipling, Auden & Co. is composed of reviews and verse chronicles, but there are also pieces on Jarrell's passion for sports cars, an attack on abstract art, essays on some favorite and flawed critics (Yvor Winters judges "not from his experience but from his standards"), and five selections reprinted from A Sad Heart at the Supermarket . In short, a treasure trove.
Through everything Randall Jarrell chose to talk about shines a sensitive, supple intelligence, an original wit, a learned sympathy for writing of any sort of excellence. These qualities once led Adrienne Rich to say, oh so rightly, "For many of us, it asked that old question, 'To what or whom do you address your poems?' the truthful answer would be: "To the mind of Randall Jarrell.'"