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Randall Jarrell Biography

(1914–65), Poetry and the Age, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, The Third Book of Criticism

lost criticism friend little

American poet and critic, born in Nashville, Tennessee, educated at Vanderbilt University. He also wrote essays, a novel, children's stories, and translated Chekhov, Goethe, and Rilke. His academic career began in 1937 at Kenyon College, where he was a close friend of Robert Lowell and became influenced by J. C. Ransom and the New Criticism; from 1947 until his death in a road accident, he taught at the Women's College at the University of North Carolina. Jarrell was one of the last Americans for whom literature, as distinct from some particular branch of literature, was a passion and a vocation. His prose is witty, shrewd, unassuming, serious, perhaps at its best in his book Poetry and the Age (1953); other notable prose collections are A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962) and The Third Book of Criticism (1969). He was a gifted and agile reviewer, able to turn apparently casual remarks into major insights. ‘He has taken all culture for his province,’ Jarrell said of Ezra Pound, ‘and is naturally a little provincial about it.’ Jarrell felt he lived in a time of criticism rather than creation, but was energetic rather than despairing about this plight. Critics, he argued, are ‘the bane of our age’ not because they are not useful or (sometimes) talented but ‘because our age so fantastically over-estimates their importance and so willingly forsakes the works they are writing about for them’. Readers, he added, ‘real readers are almost as wild a species as writers …’ Jarrell's poetry is fluent, idiomatic, experimental, and wide-ranging, much of it regularly anthologized. He wrote about childhood, war, illness, animals, books, time, loneliness, and above all loss: lost children, lost love, lost lives, a lost world. There are echoes of Frost and Auden in his writing, but a certain mixture of jauntiness and pathos is all his own. He liked to experiment with verse forms, but was always faithful to a certain traditional lilt and music. Among his collections are Blood for a Stranger (1942), Little Friend, Little Friend (1945), The Seven-League Crutches (1951), The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), perhaps his best-known volume, and Complete Poems (1969). His comic novel Pictures from an Institution (1954) is a glancing satirical portrait of American academic life which caused reviewers to think not only of Oscar Wilde but also of the Marx Brothers.

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