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Come to the Stone. . .

The child saw the bombers skate like stones across the fields
As he trudged down the ways the summer strewed 
With its reluctant foliage; how many giants
Rose and peered down and vanished, by the road
The ants had littered with their crumbs and dead.

“That man is white and red like my clown doll,”
He says to his mother, who has gone away.
“I didn’t cry, I didn’t cry.”
In the sky the planes are angry like the wind.
The people are punishing the people—why?

He answers easily, his foolish eyes
Brightening at that long simile, the world.
The angels sway about his story like balloons.
A child makes everything—except his death—a child’s.
Come to the stone and tell me why I died.

—Randall Jarrell

Laura Kasischke reads Randall Jarrell’s “Come to the Stone...”

Transcription of Commentary

I locate the intense experience this poem offers me in the plain speech of the lines. “The people are punishing the people, why?” It’s such plain speech. The line isn’t in quotation marks. It’s the poem’s speaker or the poet who asks why, not the child, isn’t it? Still, the line is phrased like a child’s observation and question. It is a puzzle, a riddle, and a stark fact, like man’s inhumanity to man, like violence—especially against the innocent, which is unthinkable suffering that’s imposed by choice. The statements in question are either desperate or offhanded or both. To encounter it at the center of this little song is like hearing a human voice in a room in which you thought you were alone.

Owen Barfield says in his book Poetic Diction that the appreciation of a poem involves a felt change of consciousness. This is such a moment for me. In this line my own mind merges with that of the poet and that of the child in a terrible triangle containing a oneness. This isn’t the commonplace strategy of showing adults how silly their behavior is by showing it to us through the eyes of a child. This is merging of consciousnesses: “The people are punishing the people—why?” Robert Lowell called Randall Jarrell the most heartbreaking poet of our time. I would say that this is his most heartbreaking poem, and the line I cite the most heartbreaking of lines.

“Come to the Stone . . . ” was first published in 1945 when no one would need to be told what was happening in the poem. That it could as easily be speaking to events in our decade is somehow more of a shock than it should be, given human history. Randall Jarrell despised power politics, the ants it makes of human beings. The death of this child, coming to him from the sky, is a horror of course. “’I didn’t cry, I didn’t cry.’”

But, does the poem exist because the poet can’t let the mechanical distance of the bombers dehumanize the child? Does Jarrell attempt to get back the child’s voice to let him show us himself the thing we’ve done? The child answers our question with “his foolish eyes,” which are of course infinitely more knowledgeable than our own. The poet grants the child the last word here on death. When it comes to death, this child, the “long simile” of the world has killed, this child is now more knowing than any living adult can be.

Jarrell, who was a pilot instructor during WWII, was implicated in the deaths of children from the sky. This poem pours out of that dark hole in his sky. In “Come to the Stone . . . ” the poet labors—vainly of course—to return the child’s voice to the world in the poem. He tries to show us that he himself is a human dealing in these deaths. It’s no good. No poem is ever worth a child. The poem means nothing to the child who has been killed, and in this line “The angels sway above his story like balloons” the poet acknowledges the useless and silly grandiose gift of a poem to a dead child.

Still, thinking of Jarrell’s encounter here with the child he perhaps himself, helped to kill, I think about the poem a drone could never write. The guilted drone would never suffer. Does that matter? “Come to the stone and tell me why I died.” The child doesn’t ask this favor of us because it matters any longer to him.

"Come to the Stone..." by Randall Jarrell from The Complete Poems.

Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1971. 

Used by permission of the publisher.

Laura Kasischke

Laura Kasischke

Read “Peace” by Laura Kasischke

Laura Kasischke (1961- ) was born in Michigan and educated at the University of Michigan. She is the author of eight collections of poetry and eight novels, and her honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for the poetry collection Space in Chains (2011) as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She is the Allan Seager Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. Photo credit: Patrice Normand/Opale.

Learn more about Laura Kasischke at The Poetry Foundation.

Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was born in Tennessee and educated at Vanderbilt University. His published works include poetry and prose, essays and reviews, as well as children’s literature and translations. His 1960 book of poetry The Woman at the Washington Zoo won the National Book Award. Jarrell served as the Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1956 to 1958.

Learn more about Randall Jarrell at The Poetry Foundation.