Randall Jarrell

By: Mark Kingwell
May 6, 2014

jarrell hammock

American novelist, critic, and poet RANDALL JARRELL (1914–65) feared that his much anthologized five-line war poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” would be the work for which he was most remembered. It is indeed an unforgettable lyric of misery, derived from Jarrell’s own service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
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 capital ‘S’ on ‘State’ is the poem’s linchpin, its bleak heart. Jarrell’s instinctively liberal politics everywhere suffuse his writing, as does his belief in the necessity of healthy arts and letters for a democracy. He taught widely, served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (what is now Poet Laureate of the United States), and earned comparisons to Rilke, Pope, and Wordsworth. Like Robert Frost, whose work he praised, Jarrell’s plain poetic voice offers an embarrassment of sorrows. His 1954 novel, Pictures from an Institution, holds up as a satire of academic life, the necessary companion to Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1951); together they render David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury superfluous. Jarrell descended into depression in his early fifties, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy affected him deeply. In October of 1965, walking along a North Carolina road, he was struck by a car. “There’s a small chance it was an accident,” good friend Robert Lowell wrote soon after to Elizabeth Bishop. “I think it was suicide, and so does everyone else, who knew him well.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Gaston Leroux.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Partisan (1904-13) and New God (1914-23) Generations.

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