Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)
I write this post while listening to the intense voice of the famous American poet and critic, Randall Jarrell. Jarrell’s reading voice is intense, moving, passionate, staccato, ponderous, profound, both painful and paining, discomfiting and moving. Listen to any recording of this poet and critic and you will be transfixed and moved – even if you don’t understand too much. Indeed, understanding is not the point of good poetry. Experiencing, feeling and living the poem is more important – and this you will certainly do with Jarrell. I have been enamoured and haunted by Jarrell’s voice, and consequently his poems, since I was at college in the late 1970s. A lecturer we had back then, John Devitt, played us a recording of Jarrell reading his war poems. Boy, was I moved. I even asked him for a loan of the tape to make a copy of it – a copy I still have to this day. If you listen to Randall just let the words pour out over you like a sort of “disturbing” balm. I was almost going to say “healing”, but this would be grossly inaccurate because Jarrell was a deeply existential figure, too aware and maybe too moved by the evil human beings do to each other to be in any sense a “comfortable” poet. Don’t listen to Randall unless you like being somewhat disturbed and unsettled. Jarrell explores the shadowy, muddy, bloody, smelly and brutal side of humanity oftentimes. Nonetheless he has much to teach those who peddle war as an answer to humankind’s problems, and much to teach us about sensitivity to others. I will quote here Jarrell’s most famous poem – a poem of his which has been anthologised more than any other. It is, of course, the famous Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
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.
I include above a picture of a young Randall Jarrell during his active service days in The American Army.