Poet, critic and teacher, Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was born in Nashville, Tennessee, to Anna (Campbell) and Owen Jarrell on May 6. He attended Vanderbilt University as a day student with a small National Youth Administration allowance. While there he edited the Masquerader, won a letter as captain of the tennis team, made Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated magna cum laude. At Vanderbilt, Jarrell studied under Robert Penn Warren, who first published his criticism; Allen Tate, who first published his poetry; and John Crowe Ransom, who gave him his first teaching job—Freshman Composition and Tennis Coach at Kenyon, during the year that he finished his master’s degree from Vanderbilt. Before leaving Kenyon, Jarrell became friends with the future fiction writer Peter Taylor and the future poet Robert Lowell who became his closest confidants and allies for the rest of his life.
Moving on to the University of Texas, Jarrell met and married Mackie Langham, a colleague. During World War II, he enlisted and served as a technical sergeant teaching celestial navigation until the war ended. Then he spent a year in New York as acting literary editor of The Nation and teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Returning to the south, Jarrell came to Woman’s College (later renamed UNC-Greensboro) and remained there, except for leaves of absence, for the rest of his life.
Jarrell’s leaves included the Harvard Seminar in American Civilization held in Salzburg; a teaching year at Princeton and also at the University of Illinois; a two-year appointment as Poetry Consultant (later designated Poet Laureate) at the Library of Congress; and numerous speaking engagements at colleges and universities, as well as his Phi Beta Kappa appointment as Visiting Scholar.
In the sixties, bearded Jarrell, in his Harris and herringbone tweeds, his bold plaid shirts, argyle socks, and his cable-knit sweaters, cut a dashing figure in the classroom and driving through the campus in his white Mercedes convertible 190SL, and later his “metallic” sand Jaguar coupe XK120, with his second wife, Mary von Schrader, at his side.
His devotion to his cats, cars, and tennis were campus gossip, and he had many enthusiasms, such as ballet, professional football, sports car races, dream analysis, science fiction, Germany, libraries, zoos, French Impressionists’ paintings, opera, childhood, and more, all of which are found in his poetry and prose.
In accepting the O. Max Gardner Award from the University of North Carolina, Jarrell coined his phrase, “If I were a rich man, I’d pay money to teach.” Among his other honors were Guggenheim and National Arts and Letters grants, Chancellor of the American Poetry Society, election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters Committee for the Bollingen Award, the American University Women Award for Juvenile Literature and the National Book Award for Poetry.
Jarrell left behind nine books of poetry, four books of literary criticism, four children’s books, five anthologies, a best selling academic novel, a translation of Goethe’s Faust, Part I, and a translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, produced on Broadway by The Actors’ Studio.
Peter Taylor said of Jarrell, “To Randall’s friends there was always the feeling that he was their teacher. To Randall’s students there was always the feeling that he was their friend. And with good reason for both.” Lowell said of Jarrell, “Now that he is gone, I see clearly that the spark of heaven really struck and irradiated the lines and being of my dear old friend—his noble, difficult and beautiful soul.”
Randall Jarrell: The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969):
Listen to Randall Jarrell read his poem, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:
(Courtesy of tasteless504)
Listen to Randall Jarrell read from his work, recorded live at 92Y on April 28, 1963:
(courtesy of 92nd St. Y)
Listen to Randall Jarrell’s poem, “A Sick Child,” read by Tom O’Bedlam:
(courtesy of SpokenVerse)