Remembering Randall Jarrell

Teddy K. Makarow

© Copyright 2020 by Teddy K. Makarow

Photo of Randall Jarrell.            

Randall Jarrell I knew only as a student knows a good teacher. But as I look back to 1960, over more than 50 years ago, to those few short months that I sat with others around his conference table in Writing Workshop I, I can still feel myself there and I know now what I knew then—Mr. Jarrell’s Writing Workshop was the most deeply significant class I have ever taken.

Randall Jarrell, one of America's most noted critics, poets, translators, thinkers and academics, I found to be a lovely, gentle and encouraging soul, who by his very nature shone light and perspective on two deeply important personal issues for me-- first, my potential ability as a wordsmith and second, my picture of a real teacher or mentor: authentic, inspiring, caring and supportive.

Today I have no doubt that Mr. Jarrell’s light was instrumental in helping me map my pathway to the future. My gratitude for his influence remains full so that as I write now and he once again comes to mind, so comes, too, that smiling warm feeling that I had then and I have still. At the end of those few short months in Randall Jarrell's Writing Workshop I, I chose never again to lose faith from others’ criticism-- whatever my word skill might be-- but to continue honing my craft. And, too, I chose to solidify my internal picture of that educator he mirrored; that educator I aspired to be and did become.

As most English majors in 1960 at Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (WC), now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), I was keenly aware of Randall Jarrell’s presence on campus, our Poet in Residence. We were delighted to have this talented and well known critic and writer choose our campus as his base and were delighted even more to catch a glimpse of him playing tennis on our tennis courts, walking across campus hand in hand with his wife, Mary, or driving here and there in his little black sports car.

Wannabe writers would fight to get into his class before he might leave campus for a semester or two on a special assignment because in that case we might miss him altogether before graduation. We also knew that he could leave us permanently at any moment, thereby affording us no opportunity to become one of his students. At long last a junior into my major, thus eligible to register for his class, I was determined to be one of those lucky few who reached this goal. Mr. Jarrell was on the schedule the upcoming semester to teach Writing Workshop I.

In 1960 there was no MFA degree at WC. However, even had there been, there’s a good chance I may have felt too intimidated, too afraid to pit whatever skill I thought I had against those talented and skilled student writers already well on their ways to writing careers. You may recognize several of those notable American women writers today: Sylvia Wilkerson and Heather Ross Miller.

Second in importance to me was becoming the kind of teacher every student deserved: caring and supportive. I became focused on this path choosing a degree in English Literature with a teaching certificate; then I took all the available writing courses I was allowed in my English Lit major. However, I continued to write as I had from the time I had learned to write.

Some background in that. I was one of those children who read and wrote with a flashlight under my covers not to alert my parents that I was staying up. And I was kind of known in my elementary years as “a good writer” with some small successes along the way; however, it was in my senior year in high school that my English teacher took notice and gave real encouragement for what she saw as potential talent. Towards the end of senior year she found an opportunity tor me to enter a regional writing contest, which I won on the eve of graduation. This win helped to established my desire to continue developing my skill.

So armed with my high school support and my lofty ambitions, I wasn't prepared when my sophomore English Lit teacher at WC, who loved what I considered flowery words and phrases, didn't think much of my writing in my Hemingway phase and discouraged me with her remarks of red ink on every page of my essays. Emma, which I silently named her, for I think, obvious reasons, and I had several discussions in her office about, in her opinion, the inadequacy of my essays and what I could do to make them better. I have to admit the discussions were not unfriendly and I did, after those office conferences, try to please, finally finishing her class with a B. However, even though relieved that my grade wasn't worse, I was deeply discouraged and confused about my writing ability.

At any rate, licking my wounds of discouragement from my jousts with Emma and picking myself up to go another round at another event, I was at last, so I determined, ready to take on Randall Jarrell's creative writing class. On registration day, a prize fighter down but not out, I got down to the gym early, knowing that every eligible Blue Stocking who had not taken one of his writing classes would be in line. A conference, round-table, Mr. Jarrell's class accommodated only 12-15 students at most.

Through the ever moving jostling throng, I finally spotted the right line. I was exuberant to be person number four when the line opened; however, my happy anticipation soon vanished and turned to dread when I realized that it was not Randell Jarrell standing at his table but Emma holding his sign-up sheet: my golden key. I could hardly breathe but I knew if I were going to succeed I must stay calm...I had to stand my ground-- politely.

Sure enough when I stood before her, Emma gave me that look that I hated—discouraging and patronizing. But even after my previous rounds with her, I was slapped with disbelief when, as well as I can remember, the searing words she bluntly offered were something akin to-- Miss Knight, I don't think you should attempt Mr. Jarrell’s class. I don't think your writing is good enough.

Screwing my courage to the sticking place while I felt a hot surge of adrenalin shoot to my head, I pushed down the tears and somehow froze my stay in line to return with something like-- Thank you, but I am eligible to take Mr. Jarrell’s class and I am signing up.

Surprisingly, she just looked at me disparagingly for a minute, sighed again and then without another word, signed me up and pushed the card at me. Card in hand, I didn’t tarry.

Thank goodness, I did not encounter Emma for the next two years. I tried to get the bruising experience with her out of my mind. Reflecting now, though, I realize that however pounded my ego, I still came out of her class more persistent and determined to make my writing better and I did come out with a promise to myself that when I became a teacher, I would never discourage a student in any way. 

Enough about Emma...I'm remembering Randall Jarrell, one of America's foremost poets: the gentle giver of precious gifts.

The first day of Randall Jarrell's class, I was nervous because, as I said, there were excellent, serious student writers much better than I, I knew, sitting with me at our round table; however, I was comfortable that my decision to stand my ground to register for Writing Workshop I was the right one and that I could somehow muster the courage to endure whatever criticism was forthcoming.

But as I experienced Mr. Jarrell’s demeanor and behavior that first day, I was struck by a remembrance of an old picture of Santa Claus in an armchair holding a coke. Mr. Jarrell was not fat; he was thin. He didn't have a white beard; he had a very dark beard. And when he laughed, as he did so often, he didn’t sound like Santa because Santa's laugh was a deep ho, ho, ho. Mr. Jarrell ‘s laugh was a notable, high-pitched, funny little laugh. Looking back today, I think that his resemblance to Santa in my mind must have been his gentle, good nature and his dark, kind eyes, which emitted good cheer and deep care and thought.

After that first day, we of the round table were unafraid to express and share our deep thoughts and to experiment to find and to strengthen our individual voices because Mr. Jarrell did not approach our writing as an erudite authority; he handled our poems, essays and short stories with parental love, as though they were precious children, as every writer feels they are. Gently and encouragingly, he helped us make them better.

That semester, too, Randall Jarrell's book of poems and translations, The Woman at the Washington Zoo, was published and we sat entranced listening to him read his poems and his translations of poems by other poets: Rilke, Eduard Morike, Henrikas Radauskas and the Archangel’s Song from Goethe’s Faust. Of course, we each bought a copy, which we asked him to autograph. Mr. Jarrell wrote something different in each student's copy of The Woman at the Washington Zoo. In my copy on the first white blank page, he wrote the usual author’s inscription: For Teddy Knight with all best wishes, Randall Jarrell. However, when I turned to the second white blank page, I was awe struck. He had written from memory his whole translation of The Winter’s Tale by Radauskas. Not surprisingly, he had written similarly in all our books other poems from memory.

Near the end of that semester, unknown to me, Mr. Jarrell had picked out some poems, essays and short stories from our class for the upcoming issue of the Coraddi, our college literary magazine. He handed out the copies to discuss some of our work. We turned to the contents; I could not believe my eyes; there was the name of my poem, The Children's Hour. We turned the page again to discuss my work. There for only the second time coming back at me was my writing in print. The selection covered two full pages: One page held my poem while the second page held a beautiful illustration of my poem by another student.

From the first day to the last day in Randall Jarrell's Writing Workshop I, I felt only support and joy, and at semester's end, I earned an A on my semester's writing. Needless-to-say-- that A was the most meaningful grade I received in my undergraduate English degree.

That semester in 1960 was the only opportunity I ever got to take another of Randall Jarrell’s writing classes. He left our WC campus in Greensboro, North Carolina, shortly thereafter to go to UNC at Chapel Hill. Three years after my graduation from WC in 1962, so sadly, in 1965, he was walking down a road in Chapel Hill...he was struck by a car and killed.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo is a treasure in my bookcase, which I take out from time to time to read again. The jacket cover is torn but Randall Jarrell's picture on the jacket flap is still intact: He is sitting in an armchair, his head bowed, reading a book. As I look at his picture, over 50 years after the book was published and after I was a writing student in his class, I feel the same deep gratitude and warmth for my teacher as I did then. And, yes, he still reminds me of Santa Claus: this gentle giver of precious gifts.

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