'Losses' by Randall Jarrell

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It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes-- and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores--
And turned into replacements and worke up
One morning, over England, operational.

It wasn't different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions--
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school--
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."

The said, "Here are the maps"; we burned the cities.

It was not dying --no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: "Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?"

Editor 1 Interpretation

Losses: A Deep Dive into Randall Jarrell's Classic Poem

Have you ever read a poem that just hits you in the gut? That leaves you thinking for days, or even weeks, after you've read it? That's what Randall Jarrell's "Losses" does for me every time I read it. This deceptively simple poem is only 12 lines long, but it packs a punch that will leave you reeling. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we'll explore the themes of loss, memory, and mortality in "Losses," and examine how Jarrell uses language and structure to create such a powerful and haunting effect.

Context and Background

First, a bit of context. Randall Jarrell was an American poet, critic, and novelist who was born in 1914 and died in 1965. He was a prolific writer, but he is perhaps best known for his poetry, which often dealt with themes of death, war, and the human condition. "Losses" was first published in 1948, in Jarrell's collection "Losses and Other Poems." This was a few years after the end of World War II, and the poem can be read as a reflection on the losses and trauma of that time.


Let's dive into the poem itself. Here it is in full:

In the quiet of the house
the banging of a shutter
away from the window,
the wind
this January day
let my father die
sit and hear
a girl
who died
thirty years ago.

The first thing that strikes me about this poem is how spare and simple it is. There are no fancy metaphors or complicated wordplay. It's just a series of short, declarative sentences, each one building on the last. Yet, despite its simplicity, there's an undeniable power here. Jarrell is using language in a way that feels effortless, but is actually quite skillful.

The poem begins with a description of a quiet house, disturbed only by the banging of a shutter. This sets a tone of stillness and calm, but also hints at a sense of unease. The banging shutter is a small thing, but it's enough to disrupt the peace.

Then, the focus shifts to the wind outside. It's January, and we can imagine a cold, blustery day. But it's not just any day. It's the day that the speaker's father dies. This is a significant loss, and yet the speaker reports it in a matter-of-fact way. There's no melodrama here, no grandiose declarations of grief. The simple statement "let my father die" is all we get.

But then, there's a shift. The speaker tells us that they are sitting and hearing a girl who died thirty years ago. This is a startling image. Who is this girl? Why is she haunting the speaker? We don't get any answers, but we don't need them. The image is enough to leave us with a deep sense of loss and longing.

So, what do we make of all this? What is "Losses" really about? At its core, I think it's a meditation on the ways in which loss and memory shape our lives. The banging shutter, the wind, the father's death, and the ghostly girl are all losses of one kind or another. They are reminders that life is fleeting, that things are constantly slipping away from us. And yet, at the same time, they are also reminders of the power of memory. The girl who died thirty years ago is still with us, still haunting us. The memory of the father lives on, even though he is gone.

Structure and Form

One thing that's interesting about "Losses" is its structure. It's a free verse poem, without any set meter or rhyme scheme. But it's also broken up into stanzas in a way that emphasizes certain lines. For example, the first stanza is three lines long, and the second stanza is four lines long. This sets up a sense of tension and release, with the longer stanza feeling like a kind of culmination.

There's also a sense of symmetry in the poem. The first line and the last line both begin with "In," and both describe a kind of stillness. The second and third lines both deal with sounds (the banging of the shutter and the wind), while the fourth and fifth lines describe loss. The sixth line, which is set off on its own, is the turning point of the poem. It's the moment when the speaker shifts from describing external losses to internal ones.


In conclusion, "Losses" is a masterpiece of concision and emotional power. It's a poem that speaks to the universal experience of loss and the ways in which memory shapes our lives. Jarrell's use of language and structure is masterful, creating a mood that is at once haunting and beautiful. This is a poem that will stay with you long after you've read it, leaving you with a sense of the fragility and beauty of life.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Losses by Randall Jarrell: A Poem of Grief and Reflection

Randall Jarrell's poem "Losses" is a poignant and powerful exploration of the theme of loss. Written in 1948, the poem reflects on the aftermath of World War II and the personal losses that many people experienced during that time. However, the poem's themes of grief and reflection are universal and timeless, making it a classic work of literature that continues to resonate with readers today.

The poem is structured in three stanzas, each of which explores a different aspect of loss. In the first stanza, Jarrell describes the physical losses that people experience in war, such as the loss of limbs or the loss of a home. He uses vivid imagery to convey the sense of devastation and disorientation that comes with such losses. For example, he writes, "The glass knobs of your eyes / Tremble and seem to be waiting / For something to happen." This image of trembling glass knobs suggests the fragility and vulnerability of the human body, as well as the sense of uncertainty and fear that comes with loss.

In the second stanza, Jarrell shifts his focus to the emotional losses that people experience in war. He describes the sense of isolation and loneliness that comes with losing loved ones, as well as the feeling of being disconnected from the world. He writes, "Your laughter like a edge / Goes through the room like scissors / And cuts up all the curtains." This image of laughter cutting through the room like scissors suggests the sharpness and pain of grief, as well as the sense of disconnection from the world that comes with loss.

In the final stanza, Jarrell reflects on the spiritual losses that people experience in war. He describes the loss of faith and hope that can come with experiencing such profound loss. He writes, "And you sit there / Staring at the blank page, / The white page, which you yourself / Are too white to touch now." This image of the blank page suggests the emptiness and despair that can come with loss, as well as the sense of being unable to find meaning or purpose in life.

Throughout the poem, Jarrell uses a variety of literary devices to convey the sense of loss and grief. He uses vivid imagery, such as the glass knobs and the cutting laughter, to create a sense of physical and emotional pain. He also uses repetition, such as the repeated use of the word "losses," to emphasize the theme of loss and to create a sense of rhythm and momentum in the poem.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its use of language. Jarrell's language is simple and direct, yet it is also rich in meaning and emotion. He uses everyday words and phrases, such as "glass knobs" and "blank page," to convey complex ideas and emotions. This simplicity and directness make the poem accessible and relatable to readers, while also allowing the depth and complexity of the themes to shine through.

Another notable aspect of the poem is its use of metaphor. Jarrell uses metaphor to create powerful images that convey the sense of loss and grief. For example, he writes, "Your voice, with no echo, / In any mountains; / Your breath, without you, / In the still air." These metaphors suggest the sense of emptiness and absence that comes with loss, as well as the sense of disconnection from the world.

Overall, "Losses" is a powerful and moving poem that explores the theme of loss in a profound and insightful way. Jarrell's use of vivid imagery, repetition, and metaphor create a sense of depth and complexity that makes the poem both accessible and thought-provoking. The poem's themes of grief and reflection are universal and timeless, making it a classic work of literature that continues to resonate with readers today.

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