War Essays

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Randall Jarrell's War Poetry


Randall Jarrell was born on May 6, 1914 in Nashville, Tennessee (Lowell 97). He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Vanderbilt University. (“Randall Jarrell”). From 1937 to 1939 he taught at Kenyon College, where he met John Crowe Ransom and Robert Lowell, and then at the University of Texas (Pritchard). His first book of poems, Blood for a Stranger, was published in 1942 (Aubrey 174). By 1942 he had published two collections of poetry. The preface to the first (1940) confessed his wish and failure to replace Modernism with something else (Aubrey 175). At the air base he listened to the stories of the pilots and read newspaper war reports and out of these materials he composed, in Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), what remain for many readers the finest "war" poems of our time (Pritchard). They are vivid and moving incidents of combat, told with an exceptionally sensitive psychological insight and moral perplexity. And the emotions of Jarrell’s pilots were in some ways unfamiliar in the literature of modern war (Roesenthal 367).

Author's War Experience
In the first months of the war, Jarrell became a pilot. In 1942, after the United State had entered World War II, Jarrell enlisted in the U.S Army Air Forces and and took training at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas. Later he trained in Illinois as a flight instructor. Jarrell taught flight navigation in a celestial navigation tower which is a kind of dome at Davis Monthan Field near Tuscon ( Pritchard). Nine-tenths of his war poems are air-force poems, and are about planes and their personnel, the flyers, crews, and mechanics who attended them. More important still, the soldiers he wrote about were men much like his own pilot-students. (“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”). During his four years of serving in war he wrote many poems about the army and the war, which resulted in the his next two books, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). In 1945, he wrote a number of letters to Lowell about the manuscript of Lowell's soon-to-be-published book of poems, Lord Weary's Castle (“Losses”) The letters were filled with valuable suggestions for improving what Jarrell thought would be the most important poetry collection since Auden's Poems (Pritchard 145). After the war, Jarrell spent a year as literary editor of the Nation, which he filled the back pages with poems and reviews from many of the best writers in America and England (“Randall Jarrell”). He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, which he would later make use of as a model for the mythical Benton College in his satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954) (“Losses”).

Scholarly Opinions
Robert Lowell's thought for Jarrell as a critic appeared in a eulogy published shortly after Jarrell's death in 1965. “Jarrell could be harsh, critics agreed, but his vehemence was a barometer of his love for literature” (Lowell). Jarrell's reputation as a poet has generally suffered in comparison with his extraordinary career as a scholar and literary critic. Many commentators on his verse have blamed him of having the feeling of a self-indulgence or feeling contempt of his writing, whereas others see Jarrell's imaginative ability to sympathize with female personas to be one of his strengths. (Rosenthal) Jarrell's war-inspired poems are among his best, and that his experience and understanding of World War II contributed to a great amount of his writing, and also clarified his writings. “When the war came he already possessed a developed poetic vocabulary and a mastery of forms” (Carruth). In the peom “In 'Blood for a Stranger” there is not only sensitivity and talent but there is the power of working at his art which is one of the