Superiority or Indifference

Randall Jarrell: Well Water What a girl called “the dailiness of life” (Adding an errand to your errand.  Saying, “Since you’re up …” Making you a means to A means to a means to) is well water Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world. The pump you pump the water from is rusty And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny Inexorable hours.  And yet sometimes The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

Randall Jarrell

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Readers of this blog may remember a brief mention, some time ago, of “Against Abstract Expressionism”, an essay by the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell (1914-1965). I can’t recommend this take-down of received modernist wisdom highly enough, not least because it’s done with devastating, if not unsympathetic, precision.

While scouring the stacks of a second-hand book store recently, I came upon a 1953 paperback copy of Poetry and The Age, Jarrell’s first published volume of collected essays. I snapped it up–not because I’m a poetry buff, but because I enjoy nuanced insights, mellifluous writing and hard critical distinctions. Few critics inhabited their subject as fully, as responsibly and carefully, as did Jarrell. Barely fifty pages into the book, I find myself astonished by the man’s pointed, unsparing sensitivity.

This is from the kick-off essay, “The Obscurity of The Poet”:

“Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art alone–for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? and in what other way could they have made us see the truths which they themselves saw, those differing and contradictory truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth? And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can . . . Goethe said: The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love. But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing so, we help to destroy it and ourselves.”

Elsewhere, Jarrell speaks to the inherent fallibility of critics:

“One must remember (or remain a child where criticism is concerned) that a great deal of the best and most sensible criticism of any age is necessarily absurd . . . all our critics will have been wrong: it’s their métier, isn’t it?–it always has been. It is easy to nod to all this as a truism, but it is hard to tell it as a truth. To feel it is to be fortified in the independence and humility that we readers ought to have.”

Anyone with an interest in the craft of criticism can ill afford to ignore “The Age of Criticism”, the essay in which the above quote can be found. Some of Jarrell’s meditations are a mite dated, but most are not; to wit:

“There is a Critical Dilemma which might be put in this form:  To be able to tell which critics are reliable guides to literature, you must know enough about literature not to need guides.”

Or this:

“Taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself–and, sometimes, doing so–is the first demand that is made upon any real critic: he must stick his neck out just as the artist does, if he is to be of any real use to art.”

Several years back, I was up for the position of chief art critic at a major metropolitan newspaper. At the end of a hectic day of interviews, I sat down for a cup of coffee with the arts editor. “You know”, he said, politely brushing me off, “what the paper is really looking for is a critic who has no opinions.”

Wonder what Jarrell would have made of that avowal of keeping one’s neck firmly out of harm’s way.

Poetry And The Age can be found on Amazon starting at $18.96.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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