Saturday, July 21, 2012

Life Explained, Part Twenty-Eight: "Pain Comes From The Darkness/And We Call It Wisdom. It Is Pain."

The middle of summer may seem like an odd time to offer up the following poem by Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), given its frigid setting.  However, it popped into my head for some reason, and it is, I think, a poem fit for any season.

Jarrell is now perhaps best known as a critic of poetry.  His criticism is free of the jargon, theory, and political agendas that taint most contemporary criticism.  He displays a deep knowledge of, and a devotion to, poetry. (There was a time, believe it or not, when criticism was written out of love.) He wrote perceptive essays on, among others, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, and Robert Graves.  His observations are still incisive and thought-provoking more than half-a-century later.

His poetry has suffered from some neglect in recent years (with the exception of "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," which has long been a standard anthology piece).  However, he wrote a number of fine poems that deserve greater attention.

I first encountered the following poem in my younger years, and I was quite taken with it at the time.  Reading it now, I find that, well, I am still quite taken with it, but perhaps for less romantic, more prosaic, reasons.  As I have noted before, rereading poems is always a good idea, since you are not the same person that you were when you last read them, whether the interval is months, years, or decades.

                              Richard Eurich, "The Frozen Tarn" (1940)

                              90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe's impossible sides
I sailed all night -- till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh:  the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end?  In the darkness I turned to my rest.

-- 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.
The world -- my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness:  all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless.  In the child's bed
After the night's voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain -- in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone --

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness -- that the darkness flung me --
Is worthless as ignorance:  nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness.  Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom.  It is pain.

Randall Jarrell, Blood for a Stranger (1942).

Well, what can I say?  Jarrell himself called it "a pessimistic poem."  But there you have it.  The Larkinite in me is drawn to the final two lines: "Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom.  It is pain."  If I came across those lines not knowing of "90 North," I would swear that Larkin had written them.  Jarrell wrote the poem in 1941, when Larkin was 19 years old, so Jarrell's harrowing expedition preceded Larkin's later exploration of the same territory.

                Douglas Percy Bliss, "Urban Garden Under Snow" (c. 1946)

6 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

The thought that Randall Jarrell is more recognized today for his criticism than his poetry is sad, true, and less defensible today than it was when he was making mince-meat out of his peers back in the day. This poem and many others like them (like, say, "The Snow Leopard") are icons of the 20th century to me, who suddenly feels very old.

I suppose we have chaps like Eric Ormsby and William Logan around to do Jarrell's critical work: identify heart and mind in poem (Ormsby) and brush a few witty barbs (Logan) in lieu of doing the impossible (writing about poetry). But there is nobody writing like this -- as sad as the state of poetry criticism is (the word "courtier" comes to mind), what does this say about the state of verse?

Thanks for posting, Stephen, always interesting your thoughts and suggestions.

George said...

He could end a poem, couldn't he? A professor of mine, an AAF veteran, quoted "Men wash their hands in blood as best they can;/I find no fault with this just man." from "Eighth Air Force".

I find his range as a critic of poetry rather limited; for better or worse, a whole range of American poetry seems not to exist--the Black Mountain poets, Zukofsky, Oppen. And I never, despite some effort, got what he saw in Auden and Lowell. But when he was good (on Stevens, Grave, Ransom, Whitman, Frost) he was very good.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

I agree with you: my comment that criticism was once written out of love was an attempt to get at your point. I suspect that you and I agree that nearly everything that passes for "criticism" nowadays is either academic posturing or log-rolling for those in a coterie. (This is why Logan is such a joy to read!)

Whether one agrees or disagrees with what Jarrell writes about poetry, one senses at all times his passion for, and love of, poetry. This is seldom the case today.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

I appreciate hearing your anecdote about "Eighth Air Force." I understand what you say about his "range": he did perhaps limit himself to more traditional forms. On the other hand, as I noted in my response above to Mr. Sigler, whether you agree or disagree with him, his love of, and enthusiasm for, poetry is always inspiring.

Thank you again.

Brian McMahon said...

Dear Mr. Pentz

Although I've mentioned it before, I thought I would take the opportunity of your lament for criticism written out of love to plug Terry Eagleton's 'How to Read a Poem' again.

Admittedly, Eagleton's Marxism sets off the warning lights for impenetrable drivel, but in fact he writes refreshingly clear criticism animated by a love of poetry.

Best Wishes

Brian McMahon

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. McMahon: thank you very much for visiting, and for your recommendation of Eagleton's book.

You're correct: I have avoided Eagleton for years, being aware of his political leanings (of which I am not fond). But, on your advice, I have taken a look at the excerpts that are available on Google Books, and it does look good. He immediately gained my good will when I saw that in the final section ("Four Nature Poems") he included a poem by Edward Thomas. I appreciate the heads-up.

Thank you again.