The ways we miss our lives are life.
—Randall Jarrell, “A Girl in a Library”

Who was Randall Jarrell? Doubtless his poetry has misled more than a few casual readers into thinking that it holds easy answers to this question. For if the elegant, well-bred manner of his most familiar poems seems closer to that of Elizabeth Bishop than to the emotional turbulence of so-called confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, the subject matter of much of Jarrell’s verse seems, on first blush, to be frankly autobiographical. The first-person singular pronoun crops up frequently. A typical early poem, “A Camp in the Prussian Forest” (1946), begins: “I walk beside the prisoners to the road.” The opening lines of a typical later poem, “The Player Piano” (1965), read: “I ate pancakes one night in a Pancake House / run by a lady my age.” But the relation between...


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