Poetry has been obscure as long as Vikings have worn helmets and emperors have worn nothing. This is not terribly surprising. Poetry is language refracted, metaphor tuned to an inner music. And ever since the nineteenth century, when the novel brought reading to the masses, most of us have preferred to read prose. Still, every few generations, a shiver of anxiety ripples through the literate world that poetry has become too obscure—that it has retreated to its palace yard, content to be fanned by courtesans and eunuchs. In rush the diplomats, armed with arguments and lances, determined to coax poetry back into the public sphereto redefine its role, so it can speak to us all, or at least a greater few.
We are living at the apex of one of these moments. Every few months, the National Endowment for the Something or Other ferries more bad news about reading to our doorsteps. Forget about poetry—Americans have enough trouble reading the backs of cereal boxes. Thanks to a large bequest by pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, the vastly endowed and well-meaning Poetry Foundation—which publishes the magazine Poetry—recently mounted a full-fledged campaign to beam poetry out to the widest possible audience. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's column was made available, free of charge, to whoever wanted to print it. The foundation has also created a poetry wire, which syndicates poetry reviews around the country's newspapers. Meanwhile, previous laureates—from Robert Pinsky to Robert Hass—have logged many miles, like Auden on the circuit, stumping on the form's behalf. If Americans are only reminded often enough, and persuasively enough, that poetry exists—perhaps then they will read it.
It was therefore with a funny sense of déjà vu that when the National Book Critics Circle began calling on its members to recommend five books of criticism to the readers of its Critical Mass blog (www.bookcritics circle.blogspot.com), one that popped up time and again—amid thickets of collections by George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Virginia Woolf—was a title intimately acquainted with such issues of readership: Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age. Published in 1953, during what many consider to have been the golden age of criticism, a time when statistics also said reading was on the wane, Poetry and the Age is a complicated hybrid: It is a strong and sensible argument against the primary role that criticism had begun to play in literary quarterlies. It is also a shining example of how engaged and freshly written criticism can shape what we read. Jarrell's essays on Robert Frost, for one, were enormously helpful in refocusing our attention on his poetry rather than his persona.
The age in which Jarrell published this book was tipped against him. As A. Alvarez has pointed out, "modern criticism was made necessary by modern poetry," since modernist poetics needed criticism to explain it. But T. S. Eliot had gone a step further in directing this new critical apparatus. As he argues in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," criticism has to be impersonal and based on objective standards: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion," he writes, "but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." Whatever one thinks of Eliot's notion of Tradition and whom it did and did not include his is not an entirely unreasonable approach to reading. The problem is, it paved the way for an almost social-scientific approach, one that in fact used words like scientific without irony. It was the sort of understanding that would one day put Robin Williams on a desk in Dead Poets Society, ripping graphs out of his students' textbooks.
With a few exceptions, criticism in Jarrell's age was rigorous, if not much fun, and he himself enjoyed pointing out this obvious fact. "Many of the critics one reads or meets make an odd impression about reading," Jarrell writes in "The Age of Criticism," "one that might be given this exaggerated emblematic form: 'Good Lord, you don't think I like to read, do you? Reading is serious business, not something you fool around with in your spare time.'" It is this contempt for the reader that Jarrell most frequently attacked when attacking poetry—"page after page," he writes about an Auden poem, "the poem keeps saying: The real subject of poetry is words"—but he was equally ruthless about it in writing on criticism.
There is an urgency to Jarrell's arguments that rings true today. There had been a seismic shift in the poetry world in 1953. Modernism had cut poetry off more than ever from its audience. And while Jarrell wasn't about to discount that fact, he also wondered whether any sort of poetry could reconnect with some Americans:
One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader—non-reader, rather; one man out of every two—and I reflect, with shame: "Our poems are too hard for him." But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels—any book whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have in 77 million out of 160 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, "Why don't you read books?"—and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time: "Huh?"
Jarrell wasn't about to start tailoring what he thought was good so as better to suit this fellow, but to read Poetry and the Age is to watch a man trying to talk to him anyway. Jarrell's intervention—and looking back fifty-odd years, it can only be described as such—was personal and relentless. While other critics affected authority, he embraced subjectivity; while others embraced a vocabulary accessible only to themselves, Jarrell could be lyrically colloquial. In Randall Jarrell and His Age, Stephen Burt describes Jarrell's distinction as a poet: "He made the process . . . of being personally affected by what one reads, continually manifest in his prose style." Jarrell's style is humorous, anecdotal, occasionally mean, full of elaborate metaphors and long, shambolic sentences that employ the comma and semicolon like a man raising his finger to pause the audience as their hands go up with questions. "You can't put the sea into a bottle," he writes of Marianne Moore, "unless you leave it open at the end, and sometimes hers is closed at both ends, closed into one of those crystal spheres inside which snowflakes are falling on to a tiny house, the house where the poet lives—or says that she lives."
This is not just impressionistic reviewing; it is imaginative reviewing, which seeks through a few key (but strangely controversial assumptions—that poetry refers to a world outside itself and that readers live in that world—to draw readers to the work itself. Though he was fearsome (the poet and critic William Logan has described Jarrell's style as "genially murderous"), he was also an enthusiast, and in his essays on Frost, he is forever asking—no, begging—the reader to stop reading him to go read more Frost than he can fit into his already enormous bank of quotations. "This is the best place to say once more that such an article as this is not relatively but absolutely inadequate to a body of poetry as great as Frost's," he writes at one point.
So there is a paradox at the heart of Jarrell the critic. By rejecting Eliot's call for impersonal criticism, he harnesses the power of American speech—of speaking person to person. But he then he steps away and reminds the critic, and the reader, that the critic's role is secondary. "Admit what you can't conceal," Jarrell concludes in "The Age of Criticism," "that criticism is no more than (and no less than) the helpful remarks and the thoughtful and disinterested judgment of a reader, a loving and experienced and able reader, but only a reader. . . . Remember that you can never be more than the staircase to the monument, the guide to the gallery, the telescope through which the children see the stars. At your best you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see."
There is something ever so slightly sad about the way Jarrell fell on his sword as a critic for the sake of poetry, an art he practiced more frequently but to less success. In spite of his admonitions, though, Poetry and the Age has transcended its age. In 2007's Cultural Amnesia, Clive James says, "Poetry and the Age should be on the reading list of any student anywhere, and not just in his native America." In his native land, Jarrell's critical posture, his Pauline Kael–like mindfulness of his reader, has had a huge influence on poetry criticism. You can hear it channeled in Logan's metaphoric gusto, in Marjorie Perloff's brilliant clarity, in David Orr's wisecracking seriousness. And against all odds, you can still hear it in Jarrell's own book, which remains in print in spite of the fact that poetry—or is it we?—is on the ropes.
John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner. He is the outgoing president of the National Book Critics Circle.