on Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet by James Karman (Stanford) & The Wild That Attracts Us, ed. ShaunAnne Tangney (New Mexico)
“Why does so much deep silence surround the name of Robinson Jeffers?” asked Horace Gregory in his 1953 review of Hungerfield, Jeffers’ sixteenth collection of poems. But Gregory knew the answer. Seven years earlier as the United States emerged victorious from World War II, the adamantly non-partisan Jeffers published The Double Axe, including the long narrative poem “The Love and the Hate,” brusquely dismissing the notion of patriotic vindication:
The decent and loyal people of America,
Caught by their own loyalty, fouled, gouged and bled
To feed the power-hunger of politicians and make trick fortunes
For swindlers and collaborators.
His cautionary poems had resonated with readers during two previous decades, especially among those who abhorred America’s costly entry to the First World War or felt oppressed by Wall Street’s manipulations and the resulting Depression. Jeffers’ work attracted an audience by the mid-1920s with Roan Stallion and Tamar and Other Poems, intoning lines of revulsion such as those in “Shine, Perishing Republic”:
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.
Time put Edward Weston’s photographic portrait of Jeffers on its cover in April, 1932. In the fall of 1947, Jeffers’ translation of and playscript for Medea (he was schooled in Latin and Greek) was a hit on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud. But when The Double Axe appeared in 1948 and referred to “the cripple’s power-need of Roosevelt,” publisher Bennett Cerf issued a disclaimer with the book: “Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume.” Cerf also mandated the excision of ten poems.
In his new biography of Jeffers, James Karman begins to indicate how far Jeffers’ reputation plummeted by quoting some of the objections to The Double Axe. There were many others. Stanley Kunitz warned Jeffers that if he did not “accept moral obligations and human values” he would “range himself on the side of the destroyers.” The New York Times Book Review described the book as “apoplectic shouting.” “The attitude is childish and childishly easy,” said The New Republic. William Everson, who named Jeffers as one of his major influences, got to the point: “The Double Axe was universally consigned to oblivion, effectively ending Jeffers’ role as a creditable poetic voice during his lifetime … A prophet may announce the end of the world from true housetops and the authorities will yawn. But let him announce the end of true status quo and his days are numbered.”
Today’s readers, often expecting and even demanding an ethical dimension in poetry, may want to consider Jeffers’ vatic vision. Karman spells out the themes: “the human psyche at its most transgressive … the sublime beauty and supreme indifference of nature; the specious wisdom of spiritual leaders … the unique place of California in American life … the dangers facing America … pretensions to empire … the horror of war … the need for satisfaction and revenge.” Ignorance and torment. The pitfalls of religious enthusiasms. In “The Inhumanist,” Jeffers says of men, “They’d shit on the morning star / If they could reach.” Envisioning environmental disasters, he writes in a late untitled poem, “The polar ice-caps are melting, the mountain glaciers / Drip into rivers; all feed the ocean; / Tides ebb and flow, but every year a little higher. / They will drown New York, they will drown London …” This, written around 1960.
So why is Jeffers still so marginalized? Why are his poems rarely taught or quoted? Perhaps his favorite forms — long narratives and verse dramas — may seem antiquated. As a profoundly philosophical poet, he produced characters who function as in Greek dramas, overwhelmed by uncontrollable forces. Unlike contemporary poets who call for social justice, Jeffers had no partisan grievances. In fact, he wasn’t aggrieved at all. His outrage was original, he had no built-in cheering section. And this may be why he is spurned — his posture suggests that the merely aggrieved are ignoring a more universal catastrophe. “Civilization is a transient sickness,” he said. Furthermore, he never asked for our empathy, love or admiration. He didn’t reflect credit on himself. He didn’t misuse the freedom to castigate by asking to be regarded as beautiful as well. He didn’t leverage his poetic mania into a university sinecure. His obsessions were extreme, intransigent, forbidding, anguished, and scornful. He didn’t write easy poems pretending to be difficult or innovative ones. And he didn’t write poems for an audience that agreed with him in advance of the work.
Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet gives us an occasion to get reacquainted with the poet’s work. Karman economically tracks the development of the poetry in parallel with the events and trends of the times. But Jeffers continues to be a cipher. “My nature is cold and undiscriminating,” he said. Taking a restrained approach to his elusive subject, Karman refuses to speculate, assessing the poet’s character more generally: “Jeffers, like planet Earth, had a molten interior around which a thick mantle of stone had formed. The surface of his psyche, exposed to all sensation, was subject to tectonic strain — as Una well knew.” Well, that doesn’t help much. Jeffers’ few statements included here cast only a dim light. (His correspondence runs to over 3,000 pages.) In a letter from 1926, he writes, “Someone said to me lately that it is not possible to be quite sane here, many others feels a hostility of the region to common human life … it seems really to have a mood that both excites and perverts its people.” Karman notes that some poems attempt “to place in the mind of a deranged person some of Jeffers’ own sincerely held convictions, and to recount the actual torments he perceived in people living on the coast.” The son of a Presbyterian minister, Jeffers examined faith, reason, and religion and found them all wanting. In “Theory of Truth,” Jeffers writes, “Only tormented persons want truth” — concepts of faith have “aching strands in them.” His responses comprise a sort of irate bio-/geo-science.
But Jeffers was one of the tormented. Writing to William van Wyck in 1938, he said, "I'd like to be buried for six years under a deep forest by a waterside, not think, not remember, know nothing, see nothing but darkness, hear nothing but the river running for six years and the long roots growing, and then be resurrected. How fresh things would look." Spurning weighty truths, he countered them with even heavier and harsh, transpersonal, classical, inevitable truths, and then was burdened with both sets. A human is a “civil war on two legs” and a “walking farce.” Because self-reflection is rarely voiced in his work, one may too quickly conclude that Jeffers perceived himself as living at a higher plane than the American masses. But a civil war was waging in him. Everson says, “His moral stance was positively forbidding, gaining its power from an almost primordial sense of Original Sin.” That is, original to all. The coastline was not the overriding cause of torment. Karman discusses but one lurid episode — Una Jeffers’ suicide attempt following Jeffers’ bed-hopping with a guest at their house — to indicate how events could turn savage. Even so, Jeffers remains a near impenetrable character.
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In The Wild That Attracts Us, editor ShaunAnne Tangney collects ten recent essays on Jeffers intended to underscore the links between his work and current ideas. Taken together, the essays seek to prove that Jeffers has not only outlasted a long list of cultural and political periods and trends but that his work anticipated and informs topical concerns. He was there before “the full advance of ecocriticism, the reimagining of regionalism as place studies, the cultural studies shift and reshift, a reemergence of formalist poetics and criticism, the reciprocal influence of science and the humanities, [and] a reconsideration of modernism and modernity …”
But again, to find the man, you will have to devise your own connections. One essay, J. Bradford Campbell’s “The Neurasthenic Logic of Robinson Jeffers’s Antiurbanism,” tries to name Jeffers’ condition. Contradicting the facile reading of Jeffers’ poems as prescriptions for revitalization via nature, Campbell argues, “Jeffers offers his readers no such thing. As Robert Zaller has keenly observed … there is no indication in Jeffers’s poetry that a simple ‘withdrawal to the scene of the natural sublime necessarily [confers] an escape from the anti-sublime of the city.’” However, Jeffers’ nauseated feelings about urban development offer a rather narrow view toward his “neurasthenia.”
Zaller’s fine essay “Jeffers, Pessimism, and Time” considers several poems by way of illuminating the poet’s view of consciousness. Zeller writes, “Man, in his view, is formed for tragedy, even though it is only the exemplary few who achieve it: Oedipus, Jesus, Lear. Those whom lightning strikes cannot avoid it, but no one willingly seeks it. Jeffers’ Inhumanism is a prescription for living as best we can with what he describes as the unrelenting discords of human nature. It does not despise happiness; it simply does not expect it sand therefore does not pursue it as an aim.” Jeffers strikes me as one hiking close enough to the cliff-edge of tragedy to look down, then stepping back just in time. Karman reports that Una, writing to a friend In 1938 after Jeffers and she bloodied each other during an argument “in a remote area,” said that he suddenly calmed and offered, “Shall we go home now, darling?”
More excerpts from Tangney’s collection:
From “‘The Mold To Break Away From’: An Ecofeminist Reading of ‘Roan Stallion’ by ShaunAnne Tangney: “While Jeffers would not have self-identified as an ecofeminist or even as a feminist (neither term was in use during his lifetime), it is arguable that inherent in both his poetry and his philosophy is an understanding that dualism as well as Western patriarchy are bad for both women and nature.”
From “Robinson Jeffers, Translation, and the Return of Narrative” by David J. Rothman: “Far from being a lonely, isolated, vatic poet of the West, he had a broader impact than even some of his contemporary supporters suggest. Jeffers is not a poet who can be easily appropriated by any school. His poetry grows out of the region where he lived but far transcends it. His complex influence on translation and narrative is but one example of how he was not only a poet of the West, but of the world.”
From “Praxis, Gnosis, Poiesis: Inhabitation as Performative Myth in Thoreau and Jeffers” by Byron Williams: “His afternoons, while laborious, are not as ambulatory as are Thoreau’s, as Jeffers instead tends to the stones or trees that root him to his coastal bluff. While Una does make mention of brisk walks ‘along the shore just before sunset,’ the Jefferses’ exploratory ventures occur less frequently than do Thoreau’s but take a similar form of the daylong excursion rather than the extended overnight journey.”
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Jeffers’ life was remarkable for its solitariness in Carmel, though Karman shows that he was no recluse. National and world events provoked him to comment. He socialized with the increasing number of artists and professionals drawn to the area. Born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, Jeffers had pursued and abandoned training in both medical and forestry schools, ultimately building stony Tor House with his own hands and living there with his wife Una and two children. A modest inheritance allowed him to focus on writing. He traveled abroad a few times, but Una noted that he was often a disagreeable traveler. He died in 1962. I came to appreciate Karman’s measured approach to a life more committed to utterance than glamorizing the self.
Summing up why Dante’s Commedia was neglected between the Renaissance and the Romantics, Robert Lowell said that changes in literary styles had eclipsed Dante’s status as a forerunner. “Something too in his character must have awed and scared men off by its arrogance,” he wrote. “He was too mystical for other men of letters, too worldly for other mystics, too embroiled in the ephemera of his times, too Italian, too much the eternal judge.” Jeffers’ status is similarly neglected.
In his take-down of Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth called his work “ridiculous” and “pretentious,” then added, “Few young poets of my acquaintance … have ever opened one of his books.” But young poets, willing to allow their spines to stiffen, should take a serious look. Jeffers had no fear of ideas; his poems, as Everson noted, often are more like “a series of meditations on incidents that reflect the ordeal of worldly involvement.” This should resonate with young poets today.
Not that Jeffers would care if young poets flock to his books. His ethics are not the pre-approved ones of identity politics. If you won’t look at his poems, then deal with this statement from his essay “Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years,” published in The New York Times in 1948:
“I have no sympathy with the notion that the world owes a duty to poetry, or any other art. Poetry is not a civilizer, rather the reverse, for great poetry appeals to the most primitive instincts. It is not necessarily a moralizer; it does not necessarily improve one’s character; it does not even teach good manners. It is a beautiful work of nature, like an eagle or a high sunrise. You owe it no duty. If you like it, listen to it; if not, let it alone.”
[Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet, published August 5, 2015. 228 pages, $19.95 paperback.
The Wild That Attracts Us, published June 15, 2015. 344 pages, $55.00 hardcover.]