The Jacobs Ladder Denise Lever

Flow State Training Program

Meditation Mastery Secrets

Get Instant Access

TOV (1961) Within a year of seeing herself grouped by Donald Allen among the black mountain poets of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (see poetry anthologies), Denise levertov began, with the publication of her fourth volume of poetry, to dislodge herself from such affiliations. The poems of The Jacob's Ladder are not projective (kinetic and defined by breath), ideogrammatic (registering an idea through an accumulation of its isolated attributes), or austere. They constitute not an "open field" of verse, as Charles olson advocated in his essay "Projective Verse" (see ars poéticas), but, as in the title of one of the poems, "a common ground." Upon this ground friends meet, beneath it kin are buried, from it words sprout into sustenance, "to be eaten / in common, by laborer / and hungry wanderer." Though the influence of William Carlos Williams's vernacular idiom and Robert creeley's scrupulously inward attention persist, Levertov is here more concerned with sketching an eastern European Jewish genealogy. The poem ascends the Jacobs Ladder in the volume's title poem. Boris Pasternak, osip Mandelstam, the rabbi Judah Loew, and Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim are reverently evoked and quoted. The invisible yet tangible presence of a fostering heritage, part Jerusalem, part crimea, sustains the poet in "song for a Dark Voice": "Your arms / hold me from falling." In "come into the Animal Presence" and "The Presence," the presence switches from animal to spiritual. in "A Solitude," the transition is from human to angelic, enacted while leading a blind man out of the subway; the tunnel too can serve as a Jacob's Ladder.

An anxiety courses through the book: Will the poet overlook what, in "From the Roof," she calls "the Hidden Ones"? In "The Presence" she worries, "Will you know who it is?" In "From the Roof" the Logos orders both the urban landscape and the poet's move to a new apartment within it. "Design" is a word used without a hint of Robert frost's quandary (see "design"). "The Thread" turns out not to be bridle or noose but spring of spiritual action. Beyond the poet's powers of reason, but tangibly within her being, this fine elastic "net of threads" is ancestral legacy at its most durable and like the mythical Ariadne's clue, a reliable means of deliverance. Its tugs inspire not fear "but a stirring / of wonder."

one tug presumably allows her to commune with the Russian poet in "In Memory of Boris Pasternak," where the natural and contrived world conspires to communicate intimations of immortality. A butterfly becomes a word emanating from the recently deceased poet.

The book provides many mutations of thing into word and word into thing. Their proximity is another ancestral legacy. "The Necessity" suggests that in words force inheres: every element of "speech a spark / awaiting redemption." The world is legible. The prefatory poem, addressed "To the Reader," assures us that "as you read / the sea is turning its dark pages." Nature "poises itself to speak."

With its personal meditations on childhood in England, on the Judaism of her paternal forefathers (one, Schneour Zaimon, was a Russian rabbi), and on mystic premonition (the Welsh mystic Angel Jones of Mold was a maternal forefather), The Jacob's Ladder situates Levertov well outside the range of the Black Mountain poets with whom she had been linked. Like Paul Celan, whose poetry her own work would increasingly resemble, Levertov would invoke, and be guided by, the precedent of Mandelstam (the subject of the first part of "Deaths") over the voices of her adopted homeland.


Colclough Little, Anne, and Susie Paul, eds. Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000.

Gelpi, Albert, ed. Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Andre Furlani

JARMAN, MARK (1952- ) An important figure in the New Narrative branch of the group identified as the new formalists, Mark Jarman consistently produces both lyric and narrative poetry in traditional and open forms. In the 1980s, Jarman (along with Robert mcdowell) provided narrative poets with a place to publish via the controversial literary magazine, the Reaper (see poetry journals). Jarman and McDowell not only published poets as varied as Dana gioia and Jorie graham but also spearheaded a revival in narrative poetry; the magazine was "devoted specifically to reviving narrative" (Walzer 5). Jarman also has published a landmark anthology of New Formalist poets, Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (1996).

Jarman was born in Mount Serling, Kentucky. His father, an Episcopalian minister, relocated the family to Kircaldy, Fife, Scotland, and finally settled in California. Jarman received a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied with Raymond Carver, then received an M.FA. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Jarman's The Black Riviera (1990) won the 1991 Poet's Prize, and his Questions for Ecclesiastes won the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Since 1983 he has been a professor of English at vanderbilt University.

Jarman's early work in the collection North Sea (1978) is clearly lyric; however, by the time he published Far and Away (1985), Jarman's poems had begun to take on a more lengthy, open narrative form (Walzer 87). The major theme in Jarman's work is Christian faith despite the silence of God. His poems, Richard Flynn writes, speak of a "rejection of rote faith in order to find poetic faith, more sacred because it is more hard won" (158). His poems reject traditional faith and challenge orthodox Christianity's idea of an unchanged, fixed deity.

In "Unholy Sonnet 9" (2000), Jarman twists the conventional as he describes the first moments of an airline crash: "Someone is always praying as the plane / Breaks up." As the people aboard fall from the craft, "Out of their names," Jarman makes God's absent presence known in his description of "the living sky." The God in this poem may exist, but his silence is keenly felt, as it is in "Questions for Ecclesiastes" (1997), when an aging preacher must comfort parents whose daughter has committed suicide: God might "have shared what he knew with people who needed / urgently to hear it" but instead "kept a secret."

Jarman's other poetry titles include The Rote Walker (1981), Iris (1992), and Unholy Sonnets (2000). In 2001 he published a book of essays, The Secret of Poetry. As a poet and critic, Jarman continues to be an important figure in the revival of narrative poetry in American verse.


Flynn, Richard. "Mark Jarman." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 120, American Poets since World War II, edited by

R.S. Gwynn. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992, pp. 156-161.

"Jarman, Mark," Academy of American Poets. Available online. URL: //

Downloaded April 2002. Walzer, Kevin. The Ghost of Tradition. Ashland, Oreg.: Story

Line, 1998.

Jeff Newberry

JARRELL, RANDALL (1914-1965) Randall Jarrell—a poet of war, childhood, dream, and fantasy—evokes a fluidity of experience and a sense of the self as changeable reminiscent of Marcel Proust. Although Jarrell was influenced by poets W. H. auden, Robert frost, and especially Rainer Maria Rilke, Jar-rell's own distinct voice becomes increasingly apparent with each succeeding volume he published. Besides being a significant poetic voice of the mid-20th century, he was a beloved teacher (primarily at the Woman's College at the University of North Carolina), a feared but admired poetry critic, a social critic, and an author of children's stories and an academic novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, he lived through the depression and spent his early adulthood during World War II, briefly as a pilot, but mainly as a trainer of pilots. Despite his education at Vanderbilt University and his respect for the southern Agrarians (see fugitive/agrarian school), Jarrell expressed his urban egalitarian sensibility. Among the many awards and honors he received were the Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry (1946) and the National Book Award for The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1961).

"With the self-consciousness of the artist, Jarrell approaches [the] problem of identity, subjects it to poetic examination" (152), writes critic Sister M. Ber-netta Quinn. The progression of Jarrell's books of poetry reflects not only his growing artistic maturity, but also his deepening concern with this problem. Despite echoes of other poets evident in Blood for a Stranger (1942), this first volume reveals feelings of alienation from the self and others so evocative of the years preceding World War II. Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) deals with the depersonalization of war and an indomitable human spirit that sometimes survives despite seemingly insurmountable odds. In Losses (1948), Jarrell considers how the metamorphosis in fantasy offers escape from a merciless external world and an irrational internal self.

Jarrell's immersion in fantasy, psychology, and philosophy becomes evident in The Seven League Crutches (1951), as the poet explores the self-transformation that is at the heart of fairytale, folktale, and psychoanalysis. In The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), Jarrell looks further inward through personae (invented voices serving as masks for the author). Jar-rell continues this inward turning in The Lost World (1965), as the child inside the man—often Jarrell's own troubled past—is resurrected to retrieve lost vitality and faith, to reform his life by repossessing his early years. The terza rima structure and tripartite form of "The Lost World" (1965) echoes Dante's Divine Comedy, for Jarrell's protagonist, like Dante's, is undergoing a spiritual journey that takes him to a kind of nether world, where the significant former beings he encounters are his earlier selves reflecting his youthful experiences and fantasies.

Throughout his work, Jarrell explores dualisms. His concerns include the urge for mother as protector ("Bats" [1965]), the maternal home ("Windows" [1960]), and the womb ("A Little Poem" [1942]), as well as his antipathy for the sinister female principle (as in "Cinderella" [1960], "The House in the Wood" [1965], and "In Nature There Is Neither Right nor Left nor Wrong" [1965]). As Jarrell turns to examine that "small, helpless, human center" ("The old and the New Masters" [1965]), the child remains the uniting, vulnerable "center" of value in opposition to a mechanical and rationalistic vision. In the overtly lighthearted "Deutsch Durch Freud" (1960), Jarrell compares intuition, reverence for language, and the restorative power of art ("Trust, and Love, and reading Rilke") to "hard-eyed Industry / and all the schools dark Learning." The protagonist in "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" (1960), trapped within a self-perpetuated "cage" that she has created out of her dull official life, seeks to liberate herself by affirming her connection with the animal world. "Change me, change me!" is her plea for a fairytale-like metamorphosis achieved by a magical intimacy between the male principle, given concrete form in the vulture, and the woman repressed inside her. Jarrell's five-line tour de force, "the death of the ball tur ret gunner" (1945), reveals the conflict between the dehumanization of technologically sophisticated warfare and the precarious human center embodied in the gunner of the aircraft. The final delivery of this figure— after two symbolic births in which he remains a fetus, a mere potentiality—grotesquely merges with the sexual consummation that resulted in his conception: "They washed me out of the turret with a hose."

Filled with sudden shifts from the comically prosaic to the romantic, "A Girl in a Library" (1951) pits the literary, reflective, Prufrockian speaker against the girl he is tenderly observing (see "the love song of j. ALFRED prufrock"). Although she is distracted by her mundane school assignments and her own mediocrity, she retains, unbeknownst to herself, an enchanted and archetypal identity. Reminiscent of Jarrell's transformations of artworks into poetry—such as Durer's engraving in "The Knight, Death and the Devil" (1951) and Breughel's painting in "The Old and the New Masters" (1965)—in "The Bronze David of Donatello" (1960) Jarrell uses the statue as a metaphor for death, not as a negation of individual identity, but as a resolution of struggle, an achievement of tranquility, an ennobling deference to the great universal design.

While Jarrell's technical virtuosity is unmistakable, his syntax is most frequently straightforward and his diction simple, suggesting the rhythms and idioms of speech. Jarrell avoided catering to fads of the day, emphasizing instead continuing standards of excellence. Despite what critic M. L. Rosenthal calls the poet's "depressive transcendence" (25), Jarrell's work, balanced with wit and humor, provides an unflinching evocation of the reality of human suffering and the concomitant urge—often thwarted—to redeem that suffering.


Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and his Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Pritchard, William H. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New

York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. Rosenthal, M. L. Randall Jarrell. Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press, 1972. Quinn, Sister M. Bernetta. "Metamorphosis in Randall Jarrell." In Randall Jarrell 1914-1965, edited by Robert Lowell et al. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967, pp. 139-154.

Doris Zames Fleischer

JEFFERS, ROBINSON (1887-1962) Robinson Jeffers was of the same generation as Ezra pound and T. S. eliot, but he abjured the modernist poetics of symbolism and imagism (see imagist school and modernism). He would not operate "in fear of abstraction," as Pound had dictated; accordingly his poetry does not shy away from general statement and political opinion, in concert with intense, often violent descriptions of the natural world. In his introduction to Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1935), Jeffers labeled his contemporaries "followers of [Stéphane] Mallarmé," bent on "renouncing intelligibility to concentrate on the music of poetry. . . . [I]deas had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; then recognizable emotions would have to go; perhaps at last even words might have to go" (ix). Removed from east-coast poetic milieux, Jeffers lived as a rugged outdoorsman in California, where he built himself and his family a stone tower, featured often in his work.

Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh. His father, a professor of theology, gave him a rigorous and varied education. He learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew while still a child and went to boarding schools in Germany and Switzerland. He attended the University of Western Pennsylvania, Occidental College, the University of Zurich, and the University of Southern California, studying, in addition to classical and literary subjects, philosophy, medicine, and eventually forestry. He became a popular poet during the 1920s, and his translation of Medea was a success on Broadway in 1948, but his isolationist position during World War II earned him disparagement, and New Critical reading practices served his work poorly, lacking as it does verbal ambiguity and irony. Nevertheless he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for Hungerfield and Other Poems. Some readers see his poetry as a valuable alternative to high modernism, some read him as an important religious poet, and others find in his work a prescient unease about environmental degradation. Jeffers is also valued as a California poet, whose perspective from the Pacific allowed him, in the words of Robert hass, to "tell his culture bitter truths" it often did not wish to hear (xxxi).

Jeffers wrote long poems (based on Greek tragedies) and short lyrics; the lyric poetry is generally considered his better contribution. His lyric speaker is characteris tically solitary, meditating outdoors on the contrast between the calmness, indifference, beauty, power, and longevity of natural phenomenon and human vulgarity, turmoil, ugliness, self-indulgence, triviality, and pain. These poems illustrate a philosophical and ethical attitude Jeffers dubbed "Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man" (Preface xxi). The poems' titles are likely to name animals (most particularly birds of prey) or places: "Pelicans," "Hurt Hawks," "Love the Wild Swan," "The Cruel Falcon," "The Beaks of Eagles," "vulture," "Skunks," "Birds and Fishes," "Roan Stallion," "Point Joe," Continent's End," "Tor House," "Cawdor," "New Mexico Mountain," "Carmel Point," "Red Mountain." The former concentrate on the fate of animals, appreciative of their physical particularity, their elegance, ferocity, and dignity. The latter spread out a wilderness landscape panoram-ically, linking land and ocean to the entire cosmos, trying to portray human presence as a minor folly. The ocean fills the poetry as an emblem of the incontrovert-ibly real, ultimately (and, to Jeffers, fortuitously) impregnable to the most subtle and persistent imagination. Similarly, everywhere in Jeffers's work, the hard and lovely fact of rock serves as a trusted reminder of the endurance of physical reality.

Indeed he held an unapologetic notion of the real as a vital element of poetry. In "Birds" (1925), for instance, he calls all raucous birds to surround his composing self because a poem "needs . . . multitudes of thoughts, all fierce, all flesh-eaters, musically clamorous." This verse is built of hard alliteration and harsh assonance, propelled by deliberately awkward phrasing and lineation. Well schooled in the merciless beauties of nature, Jeffers turns his unflinching gaze and vivid, abrasive language toward the realities of world war: "Not a few thousand but uncounted millions, not a day but years, pain, horror, sick hatred; / Famine that dries the children to little bones and huge eyes; high explosive that fountains dirt, flesh and bone-splinters" ("Calm and Full the Ocean" [1948]). Such atrocities earn his sorrowful anger, but not his surprise—he bluntly and frequently asserts disbelief in human integrity or wisdom. His consolation is almost invariably that humanity will amount to no more than a brief virulent cancer that will consume itself, giving way to more dignified biological and geological phenomena. The earth will ultimately be cleansed of the ugly menace that human beings are to themselves and to nature. Indeed, in "Vulture" (1962), Jeffers anticipates his own death as a delivery to animality and to "enskyment" from troublesome humanity.

To Kenneth rexroth in 1957, this attitude amounted mostly to "childish laboring of the pathetic fallacy . . . high-flown statements indulged in for their melodrama alone" (205). In 1982 the Polish poet Czes-law Milosz, exiled to California, confessed, "I fumed at [Jefferss] naïveté and his errors, I saw him as an example of all the faults peculiar to prisoners, exiles, and hermits." But Milosz continues, "his spirit, perhaps reincarnated in the gulls . . . flying over the beach in majestic formation, challenged me to wrestle, and through its courage, gave me courage" (273).


Hass, Robert. Introduction to Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems, by Robinson Jeffers. New York: Random House, 1987, pp. xv-xliii. Jarman, Mark. "Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers and the New Narrative Poetry." In Expansive Poetry: Essay on the New Narrative and the New Formalism, edited by Frederick Feirstein. Santa Cruz, Calif. Story Line, 1989. Jeffers, Robinson. Introduction to Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, by Jeffers. New York: Modern Library, 1935, pp. vii-x.

--. Preface to The Double Axe and Other Poems, by Jeffers. New York: Liverright, 1977, pp. i-xxii. Milosz, Czeslaw. "Robinson Jeffers." In Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, edited by Robert Zaller. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991, pp. 268-273. Rexroth, Kenneth. "In Defense of Jeffers." In Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, edited by James Karman. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990, pp. 205-206.

Sara Lundquist

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Newbies Guide To Meditation

The Newbies Guide To Meditation

Perhaps you have heard all about the healthy benefits of meditation and you have been anxious to give it a try. Let this guide teach you everything you are needing to know. Download today for yourself.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment