Randall Jarrell, Poetry & The Age

Jarrell, Randall. Poetry & The Age. Ecco P, 1980.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Randall Jarrell discusses the age of Modernism in poetry as well as the criticism surrounding that poetry. He states that while there is much lament over the current state of poetry readership, or rather the lack of readership, that there is nothing that poets can do about it except for to continue writing and attracting their current readers, because the world will only get noisier as new technologies take hold of people who once would have been readers. He also insists that poets need to make sure that their work is quality and that references and obscurity serve a purpose rather than simply being there in order for the work to be called poetry.

Jarrell takes a look at Robert Frost’s work, and he states that despite Frost’s later work, which is often filled with a conservative and overimportant and self-indulgent attitude, he is one of the best poets of the age. He specifically cites “Frost’s obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man” as reasoning for his high designation of Frost and his work, despite the poems that he finds less quality. The main argument for his awarding Frost the rank of great poet is the nonchalant and matter-of-fact way in which Frost puts forth the previously mentioned themes in his work.

Looking at the age he lives in, Jarrell states that criticism has caused less and less literature to be written, and just as importantly, less and less literature to be read. In an age that thrives on critics’ readings of supposedly great literature, both the average reader and the scholar spend more time reading criticism than actually reading literature, and therefore, when asked about important works of literature, they cannot answer that they’ve read them, because they have been too focused on criticism, most of which is dull and useless to the larger populace. Jarrell believes that criticism and theory evolved in English departments much as statistics and raw data and studies evolved in psychology and sociology: scholars in those fields did not want to be looked down upon by the hard sciences, so they found a way to make their field look like scientific fields. The problem with this for English is that it’s made people come to rely on critics’ readings of literature instead of coming to an understanding of the literature themselves. It’s also caused the USA to largely disregard poetry, since so few critics write about it and deal with it in comparison to fiction works.

Of John Ransom, Jarrell states that he is writing in the time of Modernism and is yet not a Modernist; Ransom’s poems are far too structured and perfect in their form to be Modernist (which one doesn’t find surprising when knowing that Ransom is the founder of New Criticism). His poetry ranks among the great poetry because of the way the form helps to make matters of morality and living ambiguous: people are unsure whether they should be looking at light and dark as good and bad, or if they should at once be rooting for both and neither.

Of Walt Whitman, Jarrell states that while many critics have lamented his work and are not ashamed of saying they have never read it, Whitman’s work is in fact great poetry. He states that certainly, there are many mistakes and failings of the work, which any critic can tell you. However, many critics fail to understand that the sentimentality of the work combined with the bombastic and often ridiculous use of language and the disorganized forms of many of his poems are what make the work great. Rather than stick to forms as Tennyson did, Whitman chooses not to limit his subject matter with form, and instead experiment with language and organization to capture what is the heart of America.

Wallace Stevens, he states, has much of a tourist feel to his work, which many readers resent. His poems that fail are the ones that strive to be philosophy, and poetry is a bad format for philosophical musings in Jarrell’s opinion. Yet Stevens shines when writing about the similarities between America and Europe, and creates forms that eloquently speak clear messages to his readers. He goes on to give more, similar readings of other American poets’ work, such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, he finds that Stevens and Moore and Williams have much in common, but that it is far harder to anthologize Williams in any adequate way.

Discussion of Work
To start with my criticism of this work, it would largely be how vague that Jarrell is in his analysis of the poets whose work he chooses to look at. He outright admits in the beginning of his work that he finds Frost to be one of the best poets of his generation, which may be why he has a hard time doing anything but broadly stating that Frost has his small failing points while overwhelmingly focusing on what he likes most about Frost’s work. He does a much better job of critiquing poets like Whitman, when even when striving to defend his work, he can admit the many shortcomings of the poetry.

However, his discussion of the problem of the age of criticism is worth keeping in mind when looking at the current state of scholarship. A scholar in today’s world can hardly expect to be taken seriously if they don’t know the major names in criticism and theory; the literature often seems secondary in scholarship to the response academics have to other critics. I’ve heard many of my colleagues (and even myself) say that it is fine to have not read a work of literature if they have read the scholarship on it, because the scholarship will tell them all they need to know anyway. Often in graduate courses, we are told to start reading the scholarship about a work during, or even before, we read the work of literature itself. This scholarship can come in the form of introductory materials at the beginning of a new edition of the work, critical reviews, or scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals. While I am certainly not a New Critic, I do believe that it is important to spend time with literature first and foremost, as that is the field we are in, the field of literature. Scholarship is secondary material, especially given that its subject matter should be literature (in my opinion).

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