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The Woman at the Washington Zoo      

By Randall Jarrell

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Scott Challener writes:

The Other Jarrell: Randall Jarrell’s The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Children have fewer and fewer empty hours…

—Randall Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism”

It’s still an open question, though not too long ago it wasn’t: Will we keep reading Randall Jarrell as a critic or as a poet? The Poetry Foundation’s website’s entry about Jarrell begins, “Best known as a literary critic but also respected as a poet…” Or consider Jay Parini, in The Wilson Quarterly, in 1999: “Although he was by far a better critic than poet…” (109). Or William Logan, in the introduction to Poetry and the Age: “When we read the poems, we hear a man trying to be a poet, trying with great skill and intelligence; when we read the criticism, we hear a man born to the trade” (xix). How Jarrell finds himself in these dependent clauses! Respected? Is respectability the measure now? By far? How far is far? Trying? Oh, miserly verb!

Here’s the rest of Parini’s sentence: “…his criticism gained its uncanny power from the fact that he understood what was at stake in the writing of poems. He knew that poetry was, if properly conceived and executed, a central form of culture, and that if the standards for poetry deteriorated, a general deterioration of thought and feeling—of expression—would follow” (109). It’s true that Jarrell believed in the danger of such deterioration, worried a lot about it, and wrote and spoke publically and repeatedly against it. And reading “The Taste of the Age” or “The Obscurity of the Poet” you will find this sharp cultural critic. These are worth reading, but I find them among Jarrell’s least interesting essays. Pronouncements like Parini’s (and Jarrell was not opposed to them; his speech at the 1958 National Book Awards reportedly trundled on for forty minutes about the “mass culture” debate) about “knowing what poetry is,” about poetry as a “central form of culture”—are off-putting and beside the point. Jarrell could not have written great poems or great criticism if he knew what poetry Is; he could not have written the essays on Whitman or Frost or Marianne Moore, whose poetry he called a triumph of limitations—isn’t that an excellent way to imagine what a poem is?—or conjured the great late poems in The Lost World, a book Robert Lowell rightly called his “best,” if he conceived of them as ideological centerpieces meant to complete the furniture of Culture. “Anyone who has written much poetry,” Jarrell admits at the end of “Levels and Opposites,” “knows how pathetically inadequate our knowledge of structure is; how much more he does as a poet than he knows as a critic.”

This felt inadequacy becomes more important than anything we can know; for this reason the voices that sing in Jarrell’s poems are not of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Freud and Auden and Frost and Rilke, but of children—the children we imagine we once were, the children we become again, the children we have or want to have or have lost. (Except Jarrell knows, too, that in some sense we never “have” them at all.) “We are all children to the past,” he writes in “The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln.” Jarrell the critic—and this goes to the heart of his best poems—always returns to this common human denominator, the test of poetry and of life. “Criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness: a real critic has no one but himself to depend on,” he writes. It is this nakedness—what the woman who speaks in “Seele im Raum,” a German title of Rilke’s that means “The Sound of Space,” which Jarrell said sounded “too glib” for a title, calls “that raw thing, the being inside” the skin of being, “That has neither a wife, a husband, nor a child / But goes at last naked from this world / As it was born into it”—that animates Jarrell’s best work as a poet and critic. He examines each terrible, unthinkable thought lovingly and gently, for its own sake, as though they were his children, looking with eyes just like the eland’s (a large African antelope) in “Seele Im Raum,” tearless and melting, at their nakedness.

Listen to the middle of “Field and Forest”:

At night, from the airplane, all you see is lights,
A few lights, the lights of houses, headlights,
And darkness. Somewhere below, beside a light,
The farmer, naked, takes out his false teeth:
He doesn’t eat now. Takes off his spectacles:
He doesn’t see now. Shuts his eyes.
If he were able to he’d shut his ears,
And as it is, he doesn’t hear with them.
Plainly, he’s taken out his tongue: he doesn’t talk.
His arms and legs: at least, he doesn’t move them.
They are knotted together, curled up, like a child’s.
And after he has taken off the thoughts
It has taken him his life to learn,
He takes off, last of all, the world.

When you take off everything what’s left? A wish,
A blind wish; and yet the wish isn’t blind.
What the wish wants to see, it sees.

Jarrell believed from beginning to end that poems were “delicate and inexplicable,” that they could not be willed into being: they “came” or they didn’t. Poets were struck by lightning once or twice; poems were not written but granted like a blind wish or delivered almost by surprise, a little like the newspaper in “Nestus Gurley,” which arrives announced only by an almost inaudible whoosh. Ostensibly about a newspaper boy named Nestus Gurley, “Nestus Gurley,” like “Field and Forest,” is really about the access to experience (a phrase of Marianne Moore’s that Jarrell loved), about the feeling of deliverance, of hope: “the hope,” Jarrell clarifies toward the poem’s end, “That is not proofed against anything, but pure / And shining as the first, least star / That is lost in the east on the morning of Judgment…”

Jarrell once wrote that poetry is made out of decades, not craftsmanship—and that is what his poems feel like: out of air and time, they crystallize. They are large precise structures precisely made. The people who live in their capacious rooms—the gunner, the farmer, the sick child, women and men and children—continually remind us how truly strange it is that we were once children too, and make what Jarrell once called the empty hours of childhood a little richer, a little more appreciably empty. They are masses of air we can float in to experience this emptiness.

Frost famously suggested that poetry should not be “too precise,” but for Jarrell, being too precise was a way of being free. The principle Marianne Moore’s formulation suggests—“What’s more precise than precision? Illusion”—makes more sense: Jarrell’s illusions feel naked because they relentlessly strip away the shoddy protections adults plaster up between themselves. As Stephen Burt notes in his book on Jarrell, the disturbing likeness between adults and children is the point of this exposure. “The work of art demands of us,” Jarrell reflected, “that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake.” And for Jarrell, that is what children demanded and do, too. There is not much difference, then, between the critic who doesn’t confuse life with art, and the poet who aspires to create just such an illustrious confusion: both know the old paradox, that art feels so often truer than life. And when it does, as Jarrell says, “it is life.”

Part of their greatness of Jarrell’s best poems is their differentness and strangeness; like children, they are so much themselves, they cannot be anything else. Sometimes I think that they could be called The Collected Fairytales—several would share the title “The Door.” In “The House in the Wood,” Jarrell writes:

As far as I can walk, I come to my own door,
The door of the House in the Wood. It opens silently: 

On the bed is something covered, something humped
Asleep there, awake there—but what? I do not know.

Jarrell’s second wife remembered that as he approached his 50th birthday he took to calling his experience of aging torschlusspanik, German for “door-closing panic”; I imagine him coming across the word in the Grimm fairytales or Rilke he translated when he couldn’t write poems. If the style of his poems can be described as “plain,” then the meaning of plain has changed, or, like the blanket in “The House in the Wood,” the term covers up something more strange and unwieldy and shifting with aliveness than what it suggests. Some of Jarrell’s criticism may still belong to Jarrell. One may tire of its clever comparisons and nasty witticisms. But I don’t think we’ll ever tire of his poems. Perhaps one day someone will say of them what Jarrell said about Marianne Moore’s poems: they’re “too good…for that, [they] long ago became everybody’s.”

Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • W.H. Auden for Homage to Clio
  • J.V. Cunninghan for The Exclusions of Rhyme
  • Robert Duncan for The Opening of the Field
  • Richard Eberhart for Collected Poems
  • Donald Justice for The Summer Anniversaries
  • Howard Nemerov for New and Selected Poems
  • John Frederick Nims for Knowledge of the Evening
  • Anne Sexton for To Bedlam and Part Way Back
  • George Starbuck for Bone Thoughts
  • Eleanor Ross Taylor for Wilderness of Ladies
  • Theodore Weiss for Outlanders
  • Yvor Winters for Collected Poems 

Poetry Judges that Year: Dudley Fitts, Kimon Friar, W.D. Snodgrass

The Year in Literature:

  • Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades by Phyllis McGinley won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Louis Untermeyer was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was born in Nashville, TN.
  • At Jarrell’s memorial service, Robert Lowell was quoted as saying that Jarrell was “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.”

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Reader Comments (29)

Kudos for this insightful piece. Are you sure about the translation of "Seele Im Raum"? I haven't located a source translating "seele" as "sound"; rather, "soul" is more common.

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