"He always seemed more alive than other people," Elizabeth Bishop once said of Randall Jarrell, "as if constantly tuned up to the concert pitch that most people, including poets, can maintain only for short and fortunate stretches." And in no area of his diverse writing career was Jarrell more full of life--more "tuned up"--than in his brilliant essays.
As a critic, Jarrell was chiefly interested in poetry, but his wide and avid circle of readers extended well beyond poets and students of verse. He attracted fans who wanted to hear what he had to say about anything--which was precisely what he offered them: he wrote about music criticism and abstract painting, about the appeal of sports cars and the role of the intellectual in modern American life, about forgotten novels and contemporary trends in education. His essays, too, seemed more alive than other people's: brighter and funnier, more energetic and unpredictable, wiser and more penetrating.
Jarrell was only fifty-one at the time of his death, in 1965, yet he created a body of work that secured his position as one of the century's leading American men of letters. He saw himself chiefly as a poet, but in addition to a number of books of poetry he left behind a sparkling comic novel (Pictures from an Institution), four children's books, numerous translations, haunting letters. And he left four collections of essays, from each of which the present volume draws. No Other Book is a reminder that Jarrell the poet was also, in the words of Robert Lowell, "a critic of genius." And that he was--as few Americans have ever been--a truly two-handed writer: a master of both poetry and prose.
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"Most critics," Randall Jarrell wrote in a 1952 essay, "are so domesticated as to seem institutions--as they stand there between reader and writer, so different from either, they remind one of the Wall standing between Pyramus and Thisbe." His complaint was as accurate then as it is now. Yet Jarrell himself had nothing of the literary obstructionist to him. The essays he wrote over the course of three decades--in which he mingled his assessments of poetry and prose with the occasional cri de coeur over the state of American civilization--always escort the reader directly into the inner sanctum of the work at hand. And they do so with such scintillating, comical brilliance that most other criticism seems to pale into testy insignificance. We should be grateful, then, that Brad Leithauser has assembled No Other Book, which returns to print many of Jarrell's imperishable picks and pans.
Jarrell's slash-and-burn style caused a certain discomfort among his fellow poets, particularly those who fell short of his sky-high standards. And indeed, his inspired jabs have lost little of their pungency or amusement: Oscar Williams's poetry, for example, "gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." Even Walt Whitman, whose reputation Jarrell single-handedly repaired, gets the occasional spanking.
Only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman's worst messes. For instance: what other man in all the history of this planet would have said, "I am a habitant of Vienna"? (One has an immediate vision of him as a sort of French Canadian halfbreed to whom the Viennese are offering, with trepidation, through the bars of a zoological garden, little mounds of whipped cream.)A master of the sublime putdown, Jarrell was even more masterful when it came to praise: his essays on Whitman, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens permanently changed the way we read these poets. He also functioned as a early-warning system for his own generation and the one to follow--who else was sufficiently prescient to pick out Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich as front-runners? And unlike his New Critical contemporaries, Jarrell never made the mistake of divorcing life from art. His comment on Frost's poetry applies equally to his own productions: "How little they seem performances, no matter how brilliant or magical, how little things made primarily of words (or of ink and paper, either), and how much things made out of lives and the world that lives inhabit." No other poet has ever written about his art with such electricity and intelligence--which makes No Other Book one of the true treasures of this or any other year. --James Marcus About the Author:
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) received the National Book Award for his book of poems The Woman at the Washington Zoo. His children's book The Animal Family was named a Newbery Honor Book, and his translation of The Three Sisters was produced by The Actors Studio Theatre.
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