Life is a failed blind date
"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".
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 3 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 4 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
- 5 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
Gaza Banksy mural sold to 'conman' for just $175
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans