Remembering Randall Jarrell
Teddy K. Makarow
Copyright 2020 by Teddy K. Makarow
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.
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.
have no doubt that Mr. Jarrell’s light was
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.
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.
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.
writers would fight to get into his class before he might
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
there was no MFA degree at WC. However,
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.
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,
continued to write as I had from
the time I had learned to write.
that. I was one of those children
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
“a good writer” with some small successes along the way;
it was in
my senior year in high school
English teacher took notice and gave real
saw as potential
the end of
senior year she
an opportunity tor me to enter a
regional writing contest, which I won on the eve of graduation. This
my desire to continue developing my skill.
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
several discussions in
her opinion, the
inadequacy of my essays and
what I could do to make them better.
I have to
discussions were not unfriendly and I
did, after those office conferences, try to
class with a
However, even though relieved that my grade wasn't worse, I was
deeply discouraged and confused about my writing ability.
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
would be in line. A conference, round-table, Mr. Jarrell's class
accommodated only 12-15 students at most.
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.
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
don't think your writing is good enough.
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,
am eligible to take Mr. Jarrell’s
class and I am
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
about Emma...I'm remembering Randall Jarrell, one of
foremost poets: the gentle giver of precious gifts.
The first day of Randall Jarrell's class, I
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
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.
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.
semester, too, Randall Jarrell's book of poems and translations, The
Woman at the Washington Zoo, was published and we sat
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.
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
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
Not surprisingly, he had written similarly in all our books other
poems from memory.
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
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.
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
most meaningful grade I received in my undergraduate English degree.
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.
Woman at the Washington Zoo is a treasure in my bookcase,
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.
Teddy K. Makarow is a retired educator, who lives in Concord, North
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Another story by Teddy
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