The Dailiness of Life

lowell

“We poets in our youth begin in sadness; / thereof come in the end despondency and madness…

William Wordsworth

Well Water

by Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)

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’s and Robert Lowell’s friendship, I believe, as much influenced Robert’s Lowell’s success as a writer as any other individual.   Jarrell was finishing his undergraduate at Vanderbilt when Lowell arrived to live at Benfolly with the Tates.  That summer, John Crowe Ransom was being wooed by Kenyon College in Ohio to come turn their English program into a powerhouse and Ransom realized it would take more than him to turn Kenyon into an A league hub of literary activity, he would need bench strength.  So he recruited both Jarrell and Lowell to follow him, going so far as to let the  two of them live in the second floor of his house temporarily and then arranging for them to have comfortable student housing thereafter.

Jarrell and Lowell both spent several years at Kenyon, honing their literary talents, along with their room mate Peter Taylor.  Jarrell’s unique gift to Lowell was his ability to encourage and enjoy the poetry of his friend.   He was Lowell’s fan, biggest encourager, the person who reassured him he was going to be a legend, before he was. So confident was Jarrell in Lowell, that it shored up Lowell’s own anxiety and kept the wolves at bay in Lowell’s mind during key periods in his ascension.  When Lowell shared the early drafts of Lord Weary’s Castle with Jarrell, he was so effusive in his praise that it was like an oracle predicting Lowell’s future Pulitzer.

Jarrell and Lowell remained friends right up until Jarrell’s death.  Jarrell had fallen into a deep depression following President Kennedy’s assassination. He suffered from maniac depressive episodes and his overall health deteriorated.  While seeking medical treatment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina he was hit by a car while walking along the side of the road and died.  Though his death was ruled an accident, it always had the stain of the rumor of a possible suicide.

Jarrell was just one in a generation of poets, all acquaintances if not outright good friends, born between 1899 and 1917, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and died prematurely: Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell.  A legacy that continued with  Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Berryman remarked on the tendency for the gods of literature to eat their own:

  I’m cross with God who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now
Delmore….In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.

Does it take madness to be a great poet?  Two of the great master’s of American literature who attempted to evolve the sonnet form into the 20th Century, Lowell and Berryman, eventually succumbed to the weight of their own expectations.  Is that why sonnets have largely been left in the dust bin of history,  too mingled with Lowell’s and Berryman’s blood to be an ongoing literary legacy.


Helen

by Robert Lowell

I am the blue!  I come from the lower world
to hear the serene erosion of the surf;
once more I see the galleys bleed with dawn,
and shark with muffled rowlocks into Troy,
My solitary hands recall the kings;
I used to run my fingers  through their beards;
I wept.  They sang about their shady wars,
the great gulfs boiling sternward from their keels.
I hear military trumpets, all that brass,
blasting commands to the frantic oars;
the rowers’ metronome enchains the sea,
and high on beaked and dragon prows, the gods-
their fixed, archaic smiles stung by the salt –
reach out their carved, indulgent arms to me!