Best known as a literary critic but also respected as a poet, Randall Jarrell was noted for his acerbic, witty, and erudite criticism. In a volume of essays about Jarrell titled Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, nearly all of the writers praised his critical faculties. They also noted, commented Stephen Spender in the New York Review of Books, "a cruel streak in Jarrell when he attacked poets he didn't like." John Berryman wrote that "Jarrell's reviews did go beyond the limit; they were unbelievably cruel, that's true.... He hated bad poetry with such vehemence and so vigorously that it didn't occur to him that in the course of taking apart—where he'd take a book of poems and squeeze, like that, twist—that in the course of doing that, there was a human being also being squeezed."
Jarrell could be harsh, critics agreed, but his vehemence was a barometer of his love for literature. Robert Lowell wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Jarrell was "almost brutally serious about literature." Lowell conceded that he was famed for his "murderous intuitive phrases," but defended Jarrell by asserting that he took "as much joy in rescuing the reputation of a sleeping good writer as in chloroforming a mediocre one." Helen Vendler also felt that Jarrell's commitment to promoting good writers was the source of his vitriolic reviews. She wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "nobody loved poets more or better than Randall Jarrell—and irony, indifference or superciliousness in the presence of the remarkable seemed to him capital sins." Michael Dirda of the Washington Post Book World agreed that Jarrell had the best interests of literature in mind when he used invective. According to Dirda, Jarrell defended his willingness to "bury" (Jarrell's word) a work that did not meet his standards by saying that "taste has to be maintained (or elevated if it's at too low a level to make maintenance bearable) and there is no other way of doing it." John K. Roth noted similarly in the Los Angeles Times that Jarrell believed "artistic worth is not a relative, let alone a financial matter. There are such traits as trained and scrupulous taste, [and] reasoned critical judgement."
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt attributed a gradual change in Jarrell's approach to his concern for writers. He wrote in the New York Times: "Randall Jarrell was in his early years a harsh and witty disparager.... Even [later in his career] when he has praise for a poet, he often begins by knocking a work down, and then floors the reader by pronouncing the poet worth reading. Yet somewhere along the way the zingers and twisteroos die out.... [Perhaps] part of the reason Jarrell eases up on his fellow poets is simply because he is worried about their extinction." And although he softened his blows, Jarrell maintained his traditionally-based standards. Suzanne Ferguson wrote in her Poetry of Randall Jarrell that his criticism, with standards based on "broad, deep reading in all kinds of writing," would "ask always, both explicitly and implicitly, whether the poem tells truth about the world; whether it helps the reader see a little farther, a little more clearly the dark and light of his situation."
Jarrell tried to guide the reader not just by the content but also the style of his writing. A straightforward approach was as important to Jarrell in his own writing as in that of the writers he reviewed, noted D. J. Enright in Listener: "Just as common feeling informs his best poetry, so what underlies Randall Jarrell's criticism is common sense—that quality derided by frothy phonies who have failed to notice how uncommon it is—strengthened and clarified by exactly remembered reading, considerable knowledge of what is essential to know, and his own experience in the art of writing." Jarrell's insistence on clarity and accessibility in writing alienated him from some academicians; his denouncement of the New Criticism set him even further afield. According to Hilton Kramer in New Leader, the advent of the New Criticism "induced a profound despair over the very nature of the critical vocation, and his response to that despair was to adopt a tone and a method markedly different from the despised weightiness and solemnity he saw overtaking the whole literary enterprise. This change in his critical outlook had the unfortunate effect of depriving Jarrell of a certain seriousness." Michael Dirda interpreted Jarrell's stance in a more positive way: "In a time when criticism was already turning professional and academic, Jarrell spoke as a reader, one who tried to convey his enthusiasm or his disappointment in a book as sharply as he could manage."
Jarrell's passion for clarity extended from his criticism to his poetry. Julian Moynahan asserted in the New York Times Book Review that "Jarrell was a master of the modern plain style, the style which in poets like Frost, Hardy and Philip Larkin (Jarrell's favorite younger English poet) is used to connect the vicissitudes of ordinary experience with modes of primary feeling which move deep down within, and between, all of us." A Time reviewer suggested that in forming his style, Jarrell "rejected what poet [Karl] Shapiro calls 'Eliot's High Church voice' in favor of 'plain American, which dogs and cats can read.' He demanded plain speech and uttered it." Other critics have commented on the "colloquial, intimate mode of speech" that James Atlas of the American Poetry Review identified with Jarrell; for Karl Shapiro, writing in Book World, it seemed that "what Jarrell did was to locate the tone of voice of his time and of his class (the voice of the poet-professor-critic who refuses to surrender his intelligence and his education to the undergraduate mentality)."
While Jarrell retained his colloquial voice with no "discernable 'development'" over the years, he did branch out thematically, according to Hugh B. Staples, who asserted in Contemporary Literature that his "diversity is reflected in the considerable canon of his work." Ferguson identified Jarrell's themes as "relatively few and closely related as they evolve through his thirty-year writing career: in the poems of the thirties, the 'great Necessity' of the natural world and the evils of power politics; in the poems of the early forties, the dehumanizing forces of war and ways to escape or recover from these through dreams, mythologizing, or Christian faith; in the poems of the fifties, and continuing into the sixties, loneliness and fear of aging and death, again opposed by the imagination in dreams and works of art; and in some of the last poems, the defeat of Necessity and time through imaginative recovery of one's own past."
One of Jarrell's favorite themes was war. Hayden Carruth wrote in Nation that out of "a considerable bulk of poetry ... the war poems make a distinct, superior unit." According to Carruth, World War II (in which Jarrell, too old to serve as a combat pilot, served as a pilot instructor) left a dark psychological imprint on his poetry. Carruth noted the stylistic progression: "His early poems are sometimes mannered or imitative, and often artificially opaque; but from the first, he wrote with ease, and suffered none of the verbal embarrassment customary among young poets. When the war came he already possessed a developed poetic vocabulary and a mastery of forms. Under the shock of war his mannerisms fell away. He began to write with stark, compressed lucidity."
Vendler also believed that the war inspired Jarrell to find a new focus for his writing. She wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "his first steady poems date from his experience in the Air Force, when the pity that was his tutelary emotion, the pity that was to link him so irrevocably to Rilke, found a universal scope." Although "ordinarily he resisted any obvious political rhetoric," according to M. L. Rosenthal in his Randall Jarrell, the subject of war elicited a fervent emotional response from Jarrell, and his impassioned treatment won him an appreciative audience. Robert Weisberg echoed many critics when he wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Jarrell's poems "entered the spirit of the American soldier with ... subtle empathy," noting that "perhaps his most famous piece of writing is a stark five-line lyric ['The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner '], the ultimate poem of war."
Vernon Scannell asserted that the war poem "Mail Call" was another example of a work in which Jarrell identified the military's "inescapable reduction of man to either animal or instrument by the calculated process of military training and by the uniformed civilian's enforced acceptance of the murderer's role, the cruel larceny of all sense of personal identity." To make his point on this subject about which he felt so strongly, Jarrell used powerful language. Jonathan Galassi noted in Poetry Nation that "the grisly irony reminds one of Auden, an inevitable influence on Jarrell's work of this period, but there is a horrible closeness to the event which Auden would not have ventured. Jarrell's best war poems ... are ... rich in dramatic tension, and grounded, as his best work always is, in vivid detail. His ubiquitous generalizations earn their significance from gorgeously terrible descriptions of carnage and fear."
Despite the impact of his images, some critics suggested that Jarrell lost force by making specific incidents serve a general rhetoric, in the kind of "ubiquitous generalizations" cited above. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer noted that in his war poetry Jarrell "seldom dealt with the carefully shaped, irreplaceable persons the world had lost. Instead, he wrote about the possible life the men had missed. This vanished futurity could hardly be concrete or particular, and the soldier therefore was too often a case rather than a person." J. C. Levenson agreed in the Virginia Quarterly Review that "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" "establishes the matter-of-factness of flak and fight more successfully than it establishes its big generalization about airmen—and boys—as creatures of the State." Vendler defended Jarrell, writing in the New York Times Book Review that "it has been charged that Jarrell's poetry of the war shows no friends, only, in James Dickey's words, 'killable puppets'—but, Jarrell's soldiers are of course not his friends because they are his babies, his lambs to the slaughter—he broods over them." Scannell concluded that "there are moments in [Jarrell's] war poetry when the force of his passion results in confusion and overstatement but far more frequently it is directed and controlled through a technical assurance that has produced some of the most relentless indictments of the evil of war since [Siegfried] Sassoon and [Wilfred] Owen."
Even when he was not writing on war themes, Jarrell often viewed his characters with pity. Jerome Mazzaro noted the insecurity of his characters, writing in Salmagundi that "Jarrell's personae are always involved with efforts to escape engulfment, implosion, and petrification, by demanding that they somehow be miraculously changed by life and art into people whose ontologies are psychically secure." The passivity Mazzaro alludes to was frequently cited by other critics, often in reference to Jarrell's portrayals of women. Some critics felt that Jarrell held a particular compassion for women because he viewed them as being trapped by society; the poem "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" represents one often-cited example of this view. Jonathan Galassi wrote in Poetry Nation that "Jarrell's women, though conscious there is something wrong in their lives, are unable to define precisely or to respond creatively to their predicaments; they are merely witnesses to their victimization." Some critics objected to Jarrell's tone when he wrote about women. Rosenthal asserted that "there is at times a false current of sentimental condescension toward his subjects, especially when they are female." But more often than not, critics valued Jarrell's perspective, appreciating it for its uncommon compassion. In 1961, Jarrel won the National Book Award in poetry for "The Woman at the Washington Zoo".
Jarrell's acute sense of involvement with other people permeated both his poetry and his criticism, according to Levenson. "Though his heart might go out to people as they are and things as they are, he had an ingrained drive to make them better. He could not help telling them to change a word, change a line, change their lives, but the demand he made came out of concern and not out of overbearing authority. No one doubted that. 'To Randall's friends,' writes Peter Taylor [in Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965], 'there was always the feeling that he was their teacher. To Randall's students, there was always the feeling that he was their friend.'"