Life is a failed blind date

UNDERRATED The case for Randall Jarrell When other poets read the work of Randall Jarrell, WH Auden said, they would moan, "Well, back to my greeting cards". One of the post-war American poets afflicted by madness, Jarrell (1914-1965) wrote with a child's freshness of observation and a child's terror and vulnerability.

"Living is more dangerous than anything," he wrote, and, as the only one of his generation of American poets to serve in the Second World War, Jarrell knew that better than most. His best-known poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner", ends: "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." The quieter horrors of the unlived life are evoked by the cry of "The Woman at the Washington Zoo ": "Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!"

But Jarrell's work also hymned the beauties of the natural world and the pleasures of domesticity ("ways that habit itself makes holy"). He himself visited the zoo, to feed liver to the lynx. His empathy with animals shines through such enchanting children's books as The Gingerbread Rabbit and The Bat-Poet. The hero of the latter is a little bat who flies by day and makes up poems about the forest creatures: "The owl goes back and forth inside the night, / And the night holds its breath". His fell ow bats respond the way society does to the revelations of the artist: "When you wake up in the daytime the light hurts your eyes - the thing to do is to close them and go right back to sleep."

Jarrell turned his style, diamond sharp and bright, to prose as well as poems. Marianne Moore's poems, he wrote, are like fairy-tale animals, "which can save only the heroes, because they are too small not to have been disregarded by everyone else". But his most dazzling performance was the satirical novel (he called it "a digression with narrative") Pictures from an Institution, set in a progressive university. "Most of the people at Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art; they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren't prejudiced towards moon men." One professor has a smile, "like a skull, like a stone-marten scarf, like catatonia, like the smile of the damned at Bamberg; the slogan of the company that manufactured it was `As False as Cressida'; torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile."

Jarrell's ridicule, however, is warmed by his love for the beautiful and good, for his rueful acknowledgement of the distance between desire and act. He described the average girl in the colleges where he taught as "an imbecile with ambitions to be an idiot", but memorialised her in a poem with, "see / The blind date that has stood you up: your life".

Rhoda Koenig

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