Julia Randall: Traditionalist and Rebel
s a devoted reader of Julia Randall's poetry for over twenty-five years, I often wonder why her work is so little known. Although the usual answers apply about the erasure of women from the canon (or their lack of inclusion in the first place), Randall's case offers additional insight into the problem.
Certainly, she did not bend to literary fashion. Her work is
experimental in ways that were not likely to be recognized as such during the decades that she published, for her poetry does not fit comfortably--or at all--among the "schools" that squared off against each other in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. Additionally, she styled herself as regional poet--a poet of Appalachia--and as a nature poet in an era when so many American poets focused on urban experience. Nor is her work Confessional; the personal details that appear in the poetry are not sensational, but reveal only details of domestic routine, classes taught, books read, and the local vistas of Maryland, Virginia, and Vermont. On the other hand, the poetry is ambitious and feminist in its literary goals, sometimes even achieving a visionary quality; the poetic voice is lyrically assured, even boastful at times, and yet often humble before the miraculous natural world it surveys. In particular, Randall succeeds in being both traditional and radically anti-traditional in her poetry, a combination that makes her work original and yet easily overlooked in an era when readers often equated literary tradition with constriction and originality with the bland varieties of free verse that dominated American poetry after the mid-1960s.
Randall succeeds in being both traditional and radically anti-traditional in her poetry, a combination that makes her work original and yet easily overlooked
Her play with rhyme and meter, while depending on literary conventions, is far from conventional. Although in each book she includes poems in traditional forms, such as pentameter or ballad stanzas, her own distinctive style consists of a fluid interplay between metrical lines of different lengths (sometimes heavy with substitutions) which follow one another in no predictable order; and lines which rhyme (internally and at line ends; perfect rhymes and off-rhymes) in no predetermined pattern, as in the first stanza of "Moving in Memory":
Moving within memory, I can count
Virginia, Maine, Vermont,
and to a wild extent
Wyoming. I am sick
of my blasted country: Albert Lacey's truck
ten times a day; beltway; industrial park; high density
housing; and Hartline's oak
sickened, that might have seen
Calvert's lieutenants dickering with red men.
This stanza begins and ends with pentameter lines; lines 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 are trimeter; line 5 is another pentameter, and line 6 is an alexandrine--and all of these lines are heavy with metrical substitutions, so much so that they could well be considered accentual meter. As for end rhymes, she matches "count," with "Vermont" and "extent"; "sick" with "truck" and "oak"; and "seen" with "men" (not to mention all the internal rhymes she sounds). Is this formal verse? Certainly not in a strict sense. Is this free verse? Well, not in a strict sense either, at least if one's models are the varieties of "free verse" that prevailed in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, when Randall published her major collections.
In the literary climate of the second half of the twentieth century, where poets have often divided themselves into
opposing camps over the question of form, and where "literariness" became associated with the dry rationalism
of the New Critics, a poet like Randall, who roots her work in tradition, yet takes radical liberties with that
tradition, would find no place. Her poetry would seem not "literary" enough for some traditionalists of her era;
nor would it have appealed to many of the "New Formalists" who in the 1980s and '90s, advocated a much more standard
approach to form than the flexible, and exquisitely musical, approach that Randall adopts. On the other hand,
due to its persistent allusions as well as to its play with rhyme and meter, Randall's work may seem obsolete to
other readers, especially those who associate "experimental poetry" only with free verse, or prose poetry, or the
disjunctions of Language Poetry. But even if we frame Randall within New Critical parameters, we can see that she was,
essentially, a generation too late, for while in the 1960s so many poets were incorporating raw personal experience into
their work Randall published her first two full-length collections, The Puritan Carpenter (1965) and Adam's Dream (1969),
in which she proudly, even defiantly, cites or engages in open colloquy with Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Donne, Landor,
Blake, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Yeats. And she continues that colloquy in The Farewells (1982), and Moving in Memory (1987).
These books are indeed "literary." But I think that, rather than so easily dismissing Randall's literariness, we need to look at it through a feminist lens. Randall herself was skeptical of much of the political poetry written in the 1960s and 70s, including feminist poetry. In a 1976 article from the Baltimore Sun, she complains:
I'm not against people writing poetry, but I'm against a lot of it being called poetry, especially when it's social science, which most women's lib stuff is. There's nothing wrong with having a cause, but there's something wrong about calling the statement of the cause art. . . . If people want to express themselves this way I'm not quibbling with their sentiments, and it can be taken seriously, but not as either philosophy or art. All of these let-it-all-hang out statements--that's not art. It could be art. Occasionally, rarely, it is art. But most of it's journalism.
Her objections to protest poetry, however, don't negate the feminist revisions
to literary tradition that she attempts in many of her poems. Moreover, the fact that Randall's work is original,
inspired, and virtuosic enough to be called "art" does not mean that it's not feminist, especially in a literary sense.
As a way of defining her aims, I would like to quote three of the critic Cynthia Griffin Wolff's core assumptions about
Emily Dickinson, for I think that Randall follows Dickinson's lead in being simultaneously "traditional" and "anti-traditional":
[1.] . . . (like the major male) poets of her day, [Dickinson] construed herself as working intimately and intrinsically within the context of a literary heritage: poem after poem is matched against the work of other poets-God (in the Bible), Emerson, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Poe, Milton, Pope, Dante, Shakespeare, to cite a few.
[2.] [Dickinson] could perceive with ruthless clarity that this literary heritage had no natural place in it for a woman poet of her power and ambition.
 Thus [Dickinson] used the art of poetry subversively: she created a distinctive female voice of great power, and one use to which she put it was the undermining of comfortable stereotypes and social pieties that falsified women's actual experiences. (126)
Rather than being merely derivative, Randall's work often probes the Tradition upon which it rests. Even in poems of homage, such as her elegies for Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke, she boldly asserts her own identity as a poet. Yet, by engaging the Tradition from a female point-of-view, Randall both creates a space for herself and also exposes the male poets' limitations, or blind sides. And, like Dickinson, she often adopts the voices of--and metaphors from the sphere of--ordinary women.
Randall's adaptations of the Tradition, in fact, often involve setting it in collision or in concert with the daily realities of women's lives. Thus, in "To William Wordsworth from Virginia," an Appalachian elementary school teacher chastises the "Great Excursioner":
I think, old bone, the world's not with us much.
As these lines suggest, many of Randall's nature poems struggle with the challenge not of "discussing" Nature, but of seeing it clearly, and accepting its influence on our lives--and with the modern poetic challenge of not romanticizing nature, whether by imagining it as female, or by applying to it Romantic, Wordsworthian style arguments about subjugating it, especially through writing. Thus, Randall's speaker concludes the poem by banishing myths about Nature, and even the "Great Excursioner" himself:
I think it is too difficult to see,
But easy to discuss. Behold the bush.
His seasons out-maneuver Proteus.
This year, because of the drought, the barberry
Is all goldflakes in August, but I'll still say
To the First Grade next month, "Now it is Fall.
You see the leaves go bright, and then go small.
You see October's greatcoat. It is gold.
It will lie on the earth to keep the seed's foot warm.
Then, Andrew Obenchain, what happens in June?"
And Andrew, being mountain-bred, will know
Catawba runs too deep for the bus to get
Across the ford-at least it did last May,
And school was out, and the laundry wouldn't dry,
And when the creek went down, the bluebells lay
In Hancock's pasture-border, thick as hay.
Witch, so might
It seems ironic that some of Randall's critics would dismiss her as "too literary," when in poems like this one she argues that too literary a perspective clouds our view not only of Nature itself but also of other human beings. So many of Randall's characteristic themes merge in this poem: her regionalism; the setting of the Appalachian landscapes she knew and loved against those made famous by the English poets whose work she knew so well and loved; her efforts to incorporate into her poetry, but not aggrandize, domestic routines and the perspectives of ordinary women; her wry sense of humor; and her revisionist approach to literary tradition.
I stand beside the barberry and dream
Wisdom to babes, and health to beggar men,
And help to David hunting in the hills
The Appalachian fox. By words, I might.
But, sir, I am tired of living in a lake
Among the watery weeds and weedy blue
Shadows of flowers that Hancock never grew.
I am tired of my wet wishes, of running away
Like all the nymphs, from the droughty eye of day.
Run, Daphne. Run, Europa, Io, run!
There is not a god left underneath the sun
To balk, to ride, to suffer, to obey.
Here is the unseasonable barberry.
Here is the black face of a child in need.
Here is the bloody figure of a man.
Run, Great Excursioner. Run if you can.
Setting herself against Wordsworth's "egotistical sublime," Randall strives to achieve humility before Nature, even while recognizing the difficulty of such a goal, especially for a poet. In "Miracles," also from The Puritan Carpenter, the speaker gains commanding power over Nature, but, like Midas, regretfully discovers how such power isolates one (not just from Nature, but also from other people):
On the one hand, "Miracles" is a virtuosic poetic performance, not just for its lyric grace, but for the way Randall implies that, through language and imagination, the speaker gains power over Nature. Yet, as the dark tower and distancing from Noah at the poem's conclusion suggest, that power is not regenerative, but destructive. To redeem her speaker, Randall cunningly plays off of Wordsworth's conclusion to the "Intimations Ode": "To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." In Randall's revision, the flowers (not thoughts) are "too deep," and the speaker's tears serve as a redemptive offering: a means to escape the isolation that results from setting oneself above Nature.
I said to the stream, Be still, and it was still.
I walked across the water like a fool.
Such ease--you'd think a man had never tried
The simple miracles, but lived and died
Sweating at wood and steel: chop, forge, bend, bind,
Get up the armory, don't trust humankind,
They were damned from the start.
I said to the mineral hill,
Lie down, and the hanging rocks and the canyons fell,
As soft as smoke. It was quiet. I called out
Some friends to look. For a while, they walked about
Uncomfortably, I thought, and one picked up
A fragment for the Museum. Envy? Fear?
I don't know what. I kept on all that year.
Wherever I went, the trees bowed down; the fruit
Rolled like obedient coins to my feet,
And so on. Late one night, I tried to command-
How shall I say?--my holy spell to end,
Break, blast, unmagic me here in the dark
Tower I'd built. I wanted a horn to knock
The cullis in, and the crazy ditch to rise.
Oh, God, for the need of nails, for the wild eyes
Of Noah, with creation in his hold
Stampeding. But I'd sold
My Ararat for meadows. Oh, the flowers!
Too deep, too deep.
I said, accept my tears.
In her first two books, The Puritan Carpenter and Adam's Dream, Randall takes on the classic Western argument, as articulated by Milton and the Romantics, that language and consciousness necessarily separate us from Nature. As its title suggests, in Adam's Dream, she continually evokes--and questions--the Genesis story, especially as retold in Paradise Lost. I don't have the space here to discuss the more ambitious poems in the book, but in the following pair of poems you can see how she distinguishes between a style of naming that interferes with the direct apprehension of Nature, and a "language of the body" that harmonizes with Nature. Given the book's revisions of Genesis, it's likely, though not necessary, that Eve speaks here:
All day on my hill the sun turns over,
the blackbird lifts his bill from the water,
the brown bird dozes in the vine,
the slow cows wander
for shade; petal and blade
deepen and shine, spray out and gather.
In his secret weather under the urn
the slug all flesh lifts up a delicate horn.
All day the quail cries falling
into the corn, and the corn greening.
Only my man,
lacking his body's language, calls a name.
In the night called morning, the body turning
with seas held steady in their beds
washes, like them, and tides,
quicksilver running, shattered and gathered, moon and
cooling and warming; breathes, is breathed
by airs not animal, by planets burning
down years of light.
Sleep, wake, sings the body, never lonely
nameless as leaves in their riding, falling,
moving as saps and stems move, crying
as birds cry, never dying.
In the "Nocturne" section of the poem, Randall questions the Romantic argument, as articulated by Keats in the "Ode to a Nightingale," that to be in harmony with Nature one would have to be dead. In contrast, she posits a living language of the body, associated with the rhythms of the tides, plants, seasons, planets, and gorgeously evoked by the poem's triple rhythms. And although this "language of the body" is implicitly feminine, it is not exclusively so: "the body" could be anyone's body, male or female; the man in "Dirune" "lacks . . . his body's language" and therefore resorts to naming the world, but Randall demonstrates in the second half of the poem that humanity and Nature don't have to be alienated from one another. This "nameless" body lives and breathes in concert with Nature, even as Randall herself, through the "Nocturne" section's stunning language, does succeed in evoking, and yes, in subtly naming, Nature.
Her achievement in "Diurne" and "Nocturne" fulfills the definition of "the poet's job" that she articulates in "Genius of the Shore: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov":
What [William of] Occam . . . pointed out was that what a thing is in itself in no way depends on how we think of it. But it is by thought embodied in language, and by language embodied in institution, that we construct the civilization in which we live, the human world which so often appears to be simply the Self writ large. The poet's job, strangely enough, is to 'unwrite' by going back to the beginning; to make such speech as we have faithful to 'things as they are' rather than to our arrangements of them; to make language live by confronting things with the 'innocent' mind of an Adam, by naming them to themselves afresh through the powers of that mind which is somehow continuous with them. (345)
The last sentence reveals a central, and revisionist, idea that Randall often strove to articulate in her poems: she conceived not of mind and body (or, as a consequence, mind and Nature) as separate, but of a mind--specifically, a poet's mind--as capable of being continuous with "'things as they are.'"
In her early books, Randall sets up a dialectic in which she warns of the dangers of seeing Nature as "other," or as "the Self writ large"; such thinking, she suggests, leads to a hierarchy in which human beings believe we are superior to the natural world and can control it. This perspective has led Randall from her challenges to the Romantics in her first two full length books, The Puritan Carpenter and Adam's Dream, to an openly environmentalist stance in her two later books, the elegiac The Farewells and Moving in Memory, and in the "New Poems" section of The Path to Fairview. In all of her major collections, in other words, Randall has worked both with and against the literary traditions she inherited, creating an original voice in the poems, as well as crafting intellectually and morally challenging meditations.
Randall, Julia. Adam's Dream. New York: Knopf, 1969.
-- The Farewells. Chicago: Elpenor Books, 1981.
-- "Genius of the Shore: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov." In The Sounder Few: Essays from the Hollins Critic. R.H.W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, eds. Athens,
GA: U of Georgia P, 1971. 345-356.
-- Moving in Memory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.
-- The Path to Fairview: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992.
-- The Puritan Carpenter. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1965.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Emily Dickinson." In The Columbia History of American Poetry. Jay
Parini and Brett C. Millier, eds. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 121-147.
Mezzo Cammin also recommends Marilyn Hacker's "The Trees Win Every
Time: Reading Julia Randall," originally published in Grand Street and