Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Randall Jarrell

American Poet, Novelist, Critic, Children's Author, Essayist

"An intelligent man said that the world felt Napoleon as a weight, and that when he died it would give a great oof of relief. This is just as true of Byron, or of such Byrons of their days as Kipling and Hemingway: after a generation or two the world is tired of being their pedestal, shakes them of with an oof, and then?hoisting onto its back a new world-figure?feels the penetrating satisfaction of having made a mistake all its own."

"And the world said, Child, you will not be missed. You are cheaper than a wrench, your back is a road; your death is a table in a book. You had our wit, our heart was sealed to you: man is the judgment of the world."

"And then President Robbins began to speak. After two sentences one realized once more that President Robbins was an extraordinary speaker, a speaker of a?one says an almost extinct school, but how does one say the opposite? a not-yet-evolved school? He did something so logical that it is impossibe that no one else should have thought of it, yet no one has. President Robbins crooned his speeches. His voice not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable. It was a Compromising voice."

"And yet somewhere there must be something that's different from everything."

"Animals, these beings trapped as I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap, aging, but without knowledge of their age, kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death ? Oh, bars of my own body, open, open! The world goes by my cage and never sees me."

"Anyone who has read Yeats?s wonderful Autobiography will remember his Sligo?shabby, shadowed, half country and half sea, full of confused romance, superstition, poverty, eccentricity, unrecognized anachronism, passion and ignorance and the little boy?s misery. Yeats was treated well but was bitterly unhappy; he prayed that he would die, and used often to say to himself: ?When you are grown up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood.?"

"An object among dreams, you sit here with your shoes off and curl your legs up under you."

"Auden has gone in the right direction, and a great deal too far."

"Auden is able to set up a We (whom he identifies himself with?rejection loves company) in opposition to the enemy They."

"Bars of that strange speech in which each sound sets out to seek each other, murders its own father, marries its own mother, and ends as one grand transcendental vowel."

"Be, as you have been, my happiness; let me sleep beside you, each night, like a spoon."

"Before the bat could answer, the mockingbird exclaimed angrily: You sound as if there were something wrong with imitating things! Oh no, the bat said. Well then, you sound as if there something wrong with driving them off. It's my territory, isn't it? If you can't drive things off your own territory what can you do? The bat didn't know what to say; after a minute the chipmunk said uneasily, He just meant it's odd to drive them all off and then imitate them so well too. Odd! cried the mockingbird. Odd! If I didn't it really would be odd. Did you ever hear of a mockingbird that didn't? The bat said politely, No indeed. No, it's just what mockingbirds do. That's really why I made up the poem about it--I admire mockingbirds so much, you know. The chipmunk said, He talks about them all the time. A mockingbird's sensitive, said the mockingbird; when he said sensitive his voice went way up and way back down. They get on my nerves. You just don't understand how much they get on my nerves. Sometimes I think if I can't get rid of them I'll go crazy. If they didn't get on your nerves so, maybe you wouldn't be able to imitate them so well, the chipmunk said in a helpful, hopeful voice."

"Both in verse and in prose [Karl] Shapiro loves, partly out of indignation and partly out of sheer mischievousness, to tell the naked truths or half-truths or quarter-truths that will make anybody?s hair stand on end; he is always crying: ?But he hasn?t any clothes on!? about an emperor who is half the time surprisingly well-dressed."

"At night there are no more farmers, no more farms. At night the fields dream, the fields are the forest. The boy stands looking at the fox as if, if he looked long enough ? he looks at it. Or is it the fox is looking at the boy? The trees can't tell the two of them apart."

"As Blake said, there is no competition between true poets."

"Art is long, and critics are the insects of a day."

"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."

"Bunched upside down, they sleep in air. Their sharp ears, their sharp teeth, their quick sharp faces are dull and slow and mild. All the bright day, as the mother sleeps, she folds her wings about her sleeping child."

"But there is a Pope in the breast of each of us whom is hard to silence. Long ago a lady said to me, when I asked her the composers she liked: ?Dvorak.? I said before I could stop myself: ?Dvorak!? How many times, and with what shame, I?ve remembered it. And now I like Dvorak."

"Carl Becker has defined a professor as a man who thinks otherwise; a scholar is a man who otherwise thinks."

"Critics disagree about almost every quality of a writer?s work; and when some agree about a quality, they disagree about whether it is to be praised or blamed, nurtured or rooted out. After enough criticism the writer is covered with lipstick and bruises, and the two are surprisingly evenly distributed."

"But be, as you have been, my happiness."

"Butter not only wouldn?t melt in this mouth, it wouldn?t go in; one runs away, an urchin in the gutter and glad to be, murmuring: ?The Queen of Spain hasno legs.? ... One?s eyes widen; one sits the poet down in the porch swing, starts to go off to get her a glass of lemonade, and sees her metamorphosed before one?s eyes into a new Critique of Practical Reason.., feminine gender."

"But really no one is exceptional, no one has anything, I'm anybody, I stand beside my grave confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary."

"Christina Stead has a Chinese say, ?Our old age is perhaps life?s decision about us??or, worse, the decision we have made about ourselves without ever realizing we were making it."

"Consider some of the qualities of typical modernistic poetry: very interesting language, a great emphasis on connotation, "texture"; extreme intensity, forced emotion ? violence; a good deal of obscurity; emphasis on sensation, perceptual nuances; emphasis on details, on the part rather than on the whole; experimental or novel qualities of some sort; a tendency toward external formlessness and internal disorganization ? these are justified, generally, as the disorganization required to express a disorganized age, or, alternatively, as newly discovered and more complex types of organization; an extremely personal style ? refine your singularities; lack of restraint ? all tendencies are forced to their limits; there is a good deal of emphasis on the unconscious, dream structure, the thoroughly subjective; the poet's attitudes are usually anti-scientific, anti-common-sense, anti-public ? he is, essentially, removed; poetry is primarily lyric, intensive ? the few long poems are aggregations of lyric details; poems usually have, not a logical, but the more or less associational style of dramatic monologue; and so on and so on. This complex of qualities is essentially romantic; and the poetry that exhibits it represents the culminating point of romanticism."

"Compare the saint who, asked what he would do if he had only an hour to live, replied that he would go on with his game of chess, since it was as much worship as anything else he had ever done."

"Everybody must have wished at some time that poetry were written by nice ordinary people instead of poets?and, in a better world, it may be; but in this world writers like Constance Carrier are the well oysters that don't have the pearls."

"Ezra Pound - idiosyncrasy on a monument."

"Few poets have made a more interesting rhetoric out of just fooling around: turning things upside down, looking at them from under the sofa, considering them (and their observer) curiously enough to make the reader protest, That were to consider it too curiously."

"Delmore carries such a petty, personally involved, New Yorkish atmosphere around with him it's almost unpleasant for me to see him. He thinks that Schiller and St Paul were just two Partisan Review editors."

"Early in his life Mr. [Ezra] Pound met with strong, continued, and unintelligent opposition. If people keep opposing you when you are right, you think them fools; and after a time, right or wrong, you think them fools simply because they oppose you. Similarly, you write true things or good things, and end by thinking things true or good simply because you write them"

"Death and the devil, what are these to him? His being accuses him ? and yet his face is firm in resolution, in absolute persistence; the folds of smiling do for steadiness; the face is its own fate ? a man does what he must ? and the body underneath it says: I am."

"For this last savior, man, I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying? Men wash their hands in blood, as best they can: I find no fault in this just man."

"First one gets works of art, then criticism of them, then criticism of the criticism, and, finally, a book on The Literary Situation, a book which tells you all about writers, critics, publishing, paperbacked books, the tendencies of the (literary) time, what sells and how much, what writers wear and drink and want, what their wives wear and drink and want, and so on."

"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."

"Frost says in a piece of homely doggerel that he has hoped wisdom could be not only Attic but Laconic, Boeotian even ? ?at least not systematic?; but how systematically Frostian the worst of his later poems are! His good poems are the best refutation of, the most damning comment on, his bad: his Complete Poems have the air of being able to educate any faithful reader into tearing out a third of the pages, reading a third, and practically wearing out the rest."

"Goethe said that the worst thing in art is technical facility accompanied by triteness. Many an artist, like God, has never needed to think twice about anything. His works are the mad scene from Giselle, on ice skates: he weeps, pulls out his hair?holding his wrists like Lifar?and tells you what Life is, all at a gliding forty miles an hour."

"Good American poets are surprisingly individual and independent; they have little of the member-of-the-Academy, official man-of-letters feel that English or continental poets often have. When American poets join literary political parties, doctrinaire groups with immutable principles, whose poems themselves are manifestoes, the poets are ruined by it. We see this in the beatniks, with their official theory that you write a poem by putting down anything that happens to come into your head; this iron spontaneity of theirs makes it impossible for even a talented beatnik to write a good poem except by accident, since it eliminates the selection, exclusion, and concentration that are an essential part of writing a poem. Besides, their poems are as direct as true works of art are indirect: ironically, these conscious social manifestoes of theirs, these bohemian public speeches, make it impossible for the artist?s unconscious to operate as it normally does in the process of producing a work of art."

"Gertrude knew better than this, of course, but we all know better than we know better, or act as if we did."

"Goethe said, ?The author whom a lexicon can keep up with is worth nothing?; Somerset Maugham says that the finest compliment he ever received was a letter in which one of his readers said: ?I read your novel without having to look up a single word in the dictionary.? These writers, plainly, lived in different worlds."

"Girls who had read Wittgenstein as high school baby-sitters were rejected because the school's quota of abnormally intelligent students had already been filled that year."

"Gertrude Johnson could feel no real respect for, no real interest in, anybody who wasn't a writer. For her there were two species: writers and people; and the writers were really people, and the people weren't."

"He thinks that Schiller and St Paul were just two Partisan Review editors."

"Her point of view about student work was that of a social worker teaching finger-painting to children or the insane. I was impressed with how common such an attitude was at Benton: the faculty?insofar as they were real Benton faculty, and not just nomadic barbarians?reasoned with the students, ?appreciated their point of view?, used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made?that the students might be right about something, and they wrong. Education, to them, was a psychiatric process: the sign under which they conquered had embroidered at the bottom, in small letters, Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased??and half of them gave it its Babu paraphrase of Can you wait upon a lunatic? One expected them to refer to former students as psychonanalysts do: ?Oh, she?s an old analysand of mine.? They felt that the mind was a delicate plant which, carefully nurtured, judiciously left alone, must inevitably adopt for itself even the slightest of their own beliefs. One Benton student, a girl noted for her breadth of reading and absence of co‚ÄĚperation, described things in a queer, exaggerated, plausible way. According to her, a professor at an ordinary school tells you ?what?s so?, you admit that it is on examination, and what you really believe or come to believe has ?that obscurity which is the privilege of young things?. But at Benton, where education was as democratic as in ?that book about America by that French writer?de, de?you know the one I mean?; she meant de Tocqueville; there at Benton they wanted you really to believe everything they did, especially if they hadn?t told you what it was. You gave them the facts, the opinions of authorities, what you hoped was their own opinion; but they replied, ?That?s not the point. What do you yourself really believe?? If it wasn?t what your professors believed, you and they could go on searching for your real belief forever?unless you stumbled at last upon that primal scene which is, by definition, at the root of anything...."

"Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence of the unbroken ice. I stand here, the dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare at the North Pole. . . and now what? Why, go back. Turn as I please, my step is to the south."

"Habits are happiness of a sort."

"He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter-unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly on to the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians?if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey?you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried?s compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bachhad a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfriend himself said about the first group: ?Vot a bunch!? When I asked him how he had thought of it he said placidly: ?De devil soldt me his soul.?"

"Has a real, but disorganized, self-indulgent, but rather commonplace talent."

"Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Benton had been endowed with one to begin with, and had smiled and sweated and spoken for the other. A visitor looked under black beams, through leaded casements (past apple boughs, past box, past chairs like bath-tubs on broomsticks) to a lawn ornamented with one of the statues of David Smith; in the months since the figure had been put in its place a shrike had deserted for it a neighboring thorn tree, and an archer had skinned her leg against its farthest spike. On the table in the President?s waiting-room there were copies of Town and Country, the Journal of the History of Ideas, and a small magazine?a little magazine?that had no name. One walked by a mahogany hat-rack, glanced at the coat of arms on an umbrella-stand, and brushed with one?s sleeve something that gave a ghostly tinkle?four or five black and orange ellipsoids, set on grey wires, trembled in the faint breeze of the air-conditioning unit: a mobile. A cloud passed over the sun, and there came trailing from the gymnasium, in maillots and blue jeans, a melancholy procession, four dancers helping to the infirmary a friend who had dislocated her shoulder in the final variation of The Eye of Anguish."