Randall Jarrell: Poet and Critic

Randall Jarrell is well-known as a poet, but he had another career for which he was equally, if not more famous for. He wrote countless criticisms and reviews of poems. He was incredibly respected among the literary community as a critic due to his unparalleled knowledge of poetry. Jarrell had a history of being incredibly harsh on poets and poetry he did not like. He had a very high standard and did not like bad poetry. Stephen Spender of the New York Times writes that there was “’a cruel streak in Jarrell when he attacked poets he didn’t like’”. Jarrell was brutally honest and did not care about the poet, only the poetry. Many consider this to be one of the strongest aspects of his character as a critic, as he is always saying what he thinks and is not influenced by the poet in his reviews. While he could be harsh, Jarrell was also kind at times as a poet. He would often promote poets within his reviews. Also, he grew softer with age. His criticisms later in his career were less vitriol and featured more praise of a work. An interesting aspect of Jarrell’s criticisms is the fact that they are sometimes very hypocritical. He preached accessibility in poetry and criticizes poets for making poetry that is too weighty and solemn. This is interesting because most of Jarrell’s poetry could be described in that way. Although his poetry was sad, he did manage to stay on the right side with the accessibility of his poems. Most were written in colloquial speech, so they were easier to interpret the average person. The picture below is a sign near Randall Jarrell’s grave. In it, he is described as a “poet and literary critic of national acclaim”. This shows that his other career was not forgotten and he is well respected in both poetry and criticism.

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Sign in North Carolina guiding visitors to Jarrell’s grave.
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