Randall Jarrell, “To the Laodiceans”

To have the distance from the most awful and most nearly unbearable parts of the poems, to the most tender, subtle, and loving parts, a distance so great; to have this whole range of being treated with so much humor and sadness and composure, with such plain truth; to see that a man can still include, connect, and make humanly understandable or humanly ununderstandable so much

this is one of the freshest and oldest of joys, a joy strong enough to make us forget the limitations and excesses and baseness that these days seem unforgettable, a joy strong enough to make us say, with the Greek poet, that many things in this world are wonderful, but of all the most wonderful is man.

This wonderful sentence, itself near to a definition of what great poetry can do, or what any great art can do, is from the end of Jarrell’s famous essay on Robert Frost. Let’s excuse Jarrell his apparent sexism (it was 1952) and assume that “man” includes all of us. I love the hope of this sentence; it buoys me. I love the semicolons, the punctuation mark most often maligned, for the way they link all these thoughts together.

There is certainly no shortage of terribleness that we can drop at the doorstep of the human race. Frost himself lived a much-documented life filled with terrible things, some of them his fault and others things that happened to him and his loved ones. And yet what hope for all of us when one of us can write poems that move so many people over such a length of time. And some poems are so strong, so arresting, that they can actually change people’s lives. They can change the way people see the world and each other. I find that amazing and hopeful, and this sentence captures that.

I remember one night as an undergrad, before I knew I could or would ever want to write my own poems, when, as I walked under a clear, starry sky in Worcester, Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” came into my mind. Who knows when I’d last read it–years before, I think, probably in some middle or high school English class. I have no memory of that class, but somehow Frost’s words imprinted themselves on me and came back to me. Those words seemed at the time to fall down on me from the very stars. And they spoke to me of the pull of the vast, attractive dark and the push of the here and now, the friends to see, the work to be done. After that, I often recited Frost’s poem on my way home, as a kind of a chant, a mantra, a prayer. To write something like that, something that can imprint itself onto another human’s body and thus change it, for me that is the highest goal of great writing; a goal after which I am always reaching. Thanks to Randall Jarrell for reminding me of that. The sharpest critical eyes are those that parse the minutiae of an artist’s work and deliver us back to the big picture, the life-changing realization.

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