In writing a review recently of William H. Pritchard's latest essay collection On Poets & Poetry, I got a chance to reread Randall Jarrell's sweeping-gorgeous-funny-breathtaking poem "The Player Piano." I just can't believe the way this poem sounds, the way it moves! It has a totally original music that, in all its wandering colloquialisms, touches down into strong feeling and odd mystery. As Karl Shapiro wrote (and Pritchard reminds us), "Jarrell was the only poet of his generation 'who made an art out of American speech as it is, who advanced beyond Frost in using not only contemporary idiom . . . but the actual rhythm of our speech.' " That's huge! Who wouldn't kill to do that?!
The poem was published after Jarrell's death and is spoken by an elderly woman, a grandmother:
The Player Piano
I ate pancakes one night in a Pancake House
Run by a lady my age. She was gay.
When I told her that I came from Pasadena
She laughed and said, "I lived in Pasadena
When Fatty Arbuckle drove the El Molino bus."
I felt that I had met someone from home.
No, not Pasadena, Fatty Arbuckle.
Who's that? Oh, something that we had in common
Like -- like -- the false armistice. Piano rolls.
She told me her house was the first Pancake House
East of the Mississippi, and I showed her
A picture of my grandson. Going home --
Home to the hotel -- I began to hum,
"Smile a while, I bid you sad adieu,
When the clouds roll back I'll come to you."
Let's brush our hair before we go to bed,
I say to the old friend who lives in my mirror.
I remember how I'd brush my mother's hair
Before she bobbed it. How long has it been
Since I hit my funnybone? had a scab on my knee?
Here are Mother and Father in a photograph,
Father's holding me. . . . They both look so young.
I'm so much older than they are. Look at them,
Two babies with their baby. I don't blame you,
You weren't old enough to know any better;
If I could I'd go back, sit down by you both,
And sign our true armistice: you weren't to blame.
I shut my eyes and there's our living room.
The piano's playing something by Chopin,
And Mother and Father and their little girl
Listen. Look, the keys go down by themselves!
I go over, hold my hands out, play I play --
If only, somehow, I had learned to live!
The three of us sit watching, as my waltz
Plays itself out a half-inch from my fingers.