Julia Hutton Randall

A Personal View: My Aunt and Her Poetry

lthough it was not the start of things, Yeats' full-page obituary in The New York Times Book Review prompted a powerful intuitive response in Julie, then age fifteen. She cut it out and kept it. "I knew it was important," Julie always said. Later framed by a shop in Roanoke, the 1939 newsprint deepened to yellow as it traveled from house to house with her and eventually kept company with a print of Virginia Woolf and what I always thought of as "the little heads," a row of writers' portraits, including Dickinson and Keats.

     Julie, my father's only sibling and my favorite aunt, was deeply involved in our family life, first in hometown Baltimore after she quit teaching at Hollins College and moved back to Maryland, and then all through her years in Bennington, Vermont.
She herself left me a clue worthy of many a detective novel.
My father, Richard Randall, an accomplished art historian and museum administrator, used to describe Julie as the intellectual leader of the family. As a child, she had declared her interest in Mozart and gotten my indulgent grandparents to listen to it. They liked it. It was similar with ballet: she conceived a passion for it, and they followed along--my grandmother discovering a new delight, my grandfather napping in the theater. My grandparents, who were much more "society" (bridge parties, boating and bourbon), used to say, "I don't know where these two children came from." But through Julie, they learned to love classical music, saw dozens of performances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and supported Julie's own ballet lessons with Estelle Dennis. According to my father's sketch, she made their lives more interesting.

     A long stretch of childhood was spent just outside Baltimore at Longquarter Farm, a stone Maryland farmhouse in what was then the countryside. Julie used to say that there was only one house between hers and Towson, the nearest town. My father's stories from that time feature snapping turtles, open fields, ticks, Mr. Dentry's horse farm next door, and Julie's early interest in bird books and binoculars. My aunt was the first person I knew who kept a shelf of field guides and communicated the pleasure and importance of being precise, whether in identifying creatures, plants, or words. Both she and my father were instinctively attuned to authentic, primary sources--he as an art historian, she as a writer. To her, being well-read came naturally, and she wanted to tangle with the original whenever possible. In one instance, she took up studying Greek for a year because she'd decided to read Plato. Apparently, other people's translations just wouldn't do. She had a hunger for knowing what one might call truth and a need to form her own impressions and opinions.

     Her high standards--a form of idealism, really--could come off as snobbish, but she was also extremely generous to friends, students, family. A few years ago, I came across long, chatty letters from her former Hollins student Annie Dillard, who as a young writer was seeking my aunt's advice and thanking her for help with trying to get published. And Julie could also be very funny. Ten years ago, when her washing machine broke down, the repair guy who showed up turned out to be a born-again Christian. So when he asked Julie what was wrong with her machine, she replied, "It toils not, neither will it spin."

     Many of Julie's poems contain biographical details and constitute an informal family record, as evident in "Album Leaves" (from The Farewells, 1982), dedicated to my father. Touchstones there include Mary Brown, the Irish nurse; my grandfather's photo at age two, "in skirts, with a hobbyhorse"; Nancy, Julie's horse at Longquarter Farm; L.L. Bean; and Brownie, the adopted stray retriever who one summer tried to follow the family car as it left for Maine. Brownie kept going till he was "found" in Western Maryland by a kind man whose curt recovery note Julie cites. Verse two of "Album Leaves" makes reference to the seaside house where Julie and my father passed their happiest childhood summers: Eagle's Nest in Biddeford Pool, Maine, overlooking a cove from which rises massive Elephant Rock. Julie told me that she and Aunt Louisa Buzby, her mother's sister-in-law and a whiz at the stock market, were the only two members of the household brave enough to bodysurf the waves at Biddeford.
            . . . From one blue glass
on Aunt Louisa's table, I can get
completely around her house. I still end up
at the Harvard Classics--brave new names they were,
then: Aristotle, Schopenhauer.

     The blue glass was real, part of Aunt Louisa's child-friendly, "let your hair down" approach to furnishing her stately summer place with Depression Ware from Woolworth's and casual wicker furniture. Kids could be kids there, and the intentional informality made a deep impression on the little Randalls. I suspect that the poem's tour of memory around the room is accurate and documentary, as well symbolic. So much of Julie's poetry anchors the universal in the mundane and releases the universal from tiny fixities. To me, some of her work brings a pang because I understand the references so clearly, some because I don't, and others because we never talked about what she was going through--as I would have liked to do. For example, it would have been comforting to my siblings and me had we known how much she grieved for our adored grandmother; I had to find that in the poems, one after another.

     Some quick specifics that I can pass on: The path to Fairview, Julie told me when I asked, led to the music building on the Bennington College campus. The poignant "Tripping" spins out from a pebble on an Orkney Island beach that Julie visited with geologist friend Betty Gushey. The Herschfields, who appear in "The Trackers" and other poems from The Farewells, were well-liked neighbors in Glen Arm, Maryland; "Matchman" makes Prometheus out of another neighbor's son, Danny Brown, burning trash. The beagle in "Thunder" is Sadie, the mixed poodle Molly, and the "old deaf terrier" Mac. (Julie also had a long-lived Dandy Dinmont terrier that she rather brilliantly named The Venerable Bede.) "For the Keeper of MSS" pays tribute to my mother Lilian Randall, an art historian specializing in illuminated manuscripts and formerly the Curator of an outstanding collection at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

     In "A Dream of Reunion," from Moving in Memory, "Ex Solo ad Solem" is also Baltimorean -- the motto of the Bryn Mawr School, attended by at least seven Randall girls over three generations. Julie started there in seventh grade, "And loathed it," she would be quick to say. At fifteen, she tromped home and declared she was quitting school: the place had nothing more to teach her. My distraught grandparents took the drastic step of sending Julie to a psychiatrist, who advised the teen to wait out two more years, even if a little bored, and then do as she liked. Graduating first in her class, Julie took action by turning down the school prize, which was a partial scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, and raised eyebrows by choosing the more bohemian, less chaperoned Bennington.

     Though my aunt never liked having her photo taken, surely one shot showing her in true misery has to be the studio portrait of Julie in her debutante gown. Pearls fixed, hair permed, she soldiered through the whole ordeal for her mother, who loved Society and was probably trying her best to secure a good life for Julie via Baltimore bluebloods, preferably ones with a handy family bank or stockbrokerage. It was not to be: Julie fled to Paris in the 1950's with an interesting but penniless husband, Kenneth Sawyer, a writer whom she had met in her Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins. There, the small group of doctoral candidates, mentored by poet Elliot Coleman, included William Styron and Russell Baker. In general, Julie did not fit the well-upholstered ideal of her generation. She was gamine, with such straight hair that her schoolmates teased her about it in the high school yearbook. Slenderness and straight hair have become prized traits in fashion since, say, 1964. Had Julie come of age in a later era, she would have been more widely admired and might also have swapped her dreaded glasses for granny glasses or contacts. In a number of poems, she mentions glasses with regret, and snapshots show that for at least some time in Paris, she left off wearing them.

     "'Blooms All Summer'" reflects Julie's devotion to gardening and her winter dreaming over plant catalogues from White Flower Farm and Wayside--followed by the inevitable let-down when the coddled shrub or perennial failed to deliver the promised "months of color." She adored blue flowers, raged against magenta and planted skillful groupings of blue, yellow and white. Plants, their names and histories provided another great repertoire. In one of my last conversations with her, we tried unsuccessfully to call up the name of a buttercup-relative just about to blossom in her back yard, but later, I remembered: Trollius "Lemon Queen."

     "Mysteries" captures Julie's love of detective fiction, especially the classics by Sayers, Marsh and Tey and, more recently, Rex Stout and Margery Allingham. I believe that she wrote this poem in connection with her friend Howard Nemerov. Either he invited her to tackle the theme, or she wrote it in response to a group of mystery-related poems he and others worked up and published in a small volume, Reading Ourselves to Sleep from The Pterodactyl Press:
Means, motive, opportunity; the grisly form
Repeats itself in endless variation,
Solved once, and ever to be solved again…
     She herself left me a clue worthy of many a detective novel. I found it by accident, rereading her poetry after she was gone. In a poem titled "A Book," I found a literal directive to locate and keep an old edition of Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Julie had never mentioned the poem - or the book -- to me. She was not inclined to bring up personal matters. But she spelled out exactly where to find the Spenser, on a top shelf of the living room bookcase, near Mallory's Morte D'Arthur. As the poem makes plain, the edition is neither fancy nor valuable, and "Why/ I've kept it, I don't know." But the book's brief inscriptions track the intellectual line of the Randall women, some of them formally educated. On the flyleaf, there's the name of Julie's Proper Bostonian grandmother Elizabeth, cultivated and austere; later pages contain a margin note from aunt Rosamund, who loved the novels of Virginia Woolf and gave Julie quite a few in early college years; then scribblings (unrelated to Spenser) from cousin Clare and from Julie in eighth grade. My aunt concludes the poem with instructions to my sister and me:
To K. and J.
Randall, I (Fidelia?) might say:
"Arthur is coming. Pass it on."
A nod to many kinds of legacy, and we will.


Julia Hutton Randall is a journalist and award-winning public radio producer who has worked for many years on the air and in administration for National Public Radio stations and Pacifica stations in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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Therese Chabot creates delicate, ephemeral installations – carpets, dresses and crowns – using flower petals and natural materials to speak of the stages of life and the paths we are given to choose from.
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