Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Literary Life

I'm reading a wonderful biography of Randall Jarrell by William H. Prichard. Of course, I've always loved Jarrell's poems, especially "The Lost World," the ending of which--"...our good day"--does more to help me remember what childhood happiness was like than a stack of my old photos. And, more recently, I've found myself very much in awe (like everyone else) of his critical writing. How does one develop the kind of authority he had, and the ability to combine such wit and such insight? I suppose one has to be a little brilliant, as Jarrell was, to begin with. But, for me at least, despite the fairly thick stack of reviews I've written, it's no easy thing to say what a book is, where it succeeds and fails, and certainly not in any way that could make someone laugh out loud, as Jarrell often does to me. And whether or not Jarrell was always fair or even accurate, his criticism is always literature, always worth reading for its own sake, never an appendage or guide to the text he's looking at. It's a very formidable thing to aspire to.

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