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This review is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

THINGS LEFT UNSAID Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co. (Carcanet) £5.95 pb. Randall Jarrell's Letters, edited by Mary Jarrell (Faber and Faber) £25.00

Like the letters of so many good poets, those of Randall Jarrell are - though often interesting and occasionally impressive - ultimately disappointing. We have, of course, no right to feel disappointment when a man's private correspondence proves not to measure up to his published poetry; but the response is none the less real for that.

It is not simply, in such cases, a matter of the slackening of literary standards in a context which may well have seemed to the writer not to warrant their firm application: sometimes characteristics which, channelled and directed, fruitfully inform the poetry, may surface less engagingly in a poet's correspondence. In Jarrell's case one notes in particular how the child-like quality which he explicitly acknowledges in a letter to Sister Bernetta Quinn, and which contributes significantly to the effect of some of his finest poems, is here responsible for the naïvely self-congratulatory tone of certain passages and for an element of whimsy, most evident in those letters written to Mary von Schrader. The experience of encountering in degenerate form in the letters a quality admired in the poetry is doubtless salutary, but it is one I would gladly forgo.

The best of the letters in this collection are those written from the military bases to which Jarrell was posted during the war. Although he complained at intervals of the mindless routine of army life and of the boredom and fatigue he suffered at this period, his imagination was clearly ...


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