In the early part of the 20th century Robinson Jeffers built a forty foot tall tower out of stone. Alone. He and his wife lived in Carmel, on the central coast of California, raised their family there, and it was in the house he crafted himself that he wrote decades worth of poetry, first elevating him to critical and popular status (he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1932), then descending to the status of a poet to be feared, or at least not totally trusted in patriotic post war America (one collection carried with it a publisher’s warning that some of the poems could be considered unpatriotic), and finally lifting him back to some sort of respectability again as his poems (which had been constant in their praise of nature) were seen as prophetic and poignant examples of a new movement in poetry that valued the land and natural environment. Lots there.
As the world changed around him, as his reputation ebbed and flowed, Jeffers wrote in his tower overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Reading his poems now, particularly as so many of us are isolated at home because os COVID-19, is a walk on the more natural side of the mountain, a ramble through the landscape of a very particular mind to a place as rough hewn as the tower he built with the same hands that composed the wide range of verse in my battered copy of Selected Poems.
I picked up my copy of Selected Poems at a little bookshop in Pacific Grove, just a few miles from Jeffers’ Tor House and Hawk Tower. Over the years it has traveled in my back pocket on more than a few walks, and revisiting it for this Year of Poetry was a nice reminder of what I loved about Jeffers’ verse, an evocative and textured trail of words that seem to pace around the property on the bluff in Carmel and offer a glimpse of something greater than simple humans like us.
In “Their Beauty Has More Meaning” Jeffers allows himself to appreciate the world he sees independent of its connection to the human world. He finds nature transcendent, and us less so.
Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean,
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today
Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,
And white seas leap. I honestly do not know which day is more beautiful.
I know that tomorrow or next year or in twenty years
I shall not see these things—and it does not matter, it does not hurt;
They will be here. And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here: storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and the birds. And I say this: their beauty has more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.”
Some poems are timeless not because of a generality, but because of the habit history has of repeating itself. Written in the jazzy gluttonous nineteen twenties, “Shine, Perishing Republic” feels as apt in 2020 as when it was written nearly a hundred years ago.
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.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life
is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than
mountains; shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their
distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, and when the cities lie at the
monster’s feet there are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man,
a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught
—they say—God, when he walked on earth.”
This, and others like it, was the kind of verse that earned Jeffers a place in the pantheon of antihumanism, and to many critics anti-Americanism. But there is optimism in this poem, rising like fruit from Jeffers’ fading flower. In a time in the United States with some of the same challenges as the first two decades of the twentieth century (from pandemic to wealth inequality) Jeffers’ reassurance that “corruption / Never has been compulsory” is a reminder that we can do better. Maybe.
But not all Jeffers poems read like a Cormac McCarthy novel. Many do, but not all of them.
“The House Dog’s Grave” has a sweetness to it; Jeffers turning his pen to the feelings of a deceased pet. Maybe it’s because we just lost one of our own furry family members at my household (Chester, a loving nineteen year old tabby), but reading the poem felt comforting in a way that not many of Jeffers’ poems do.
I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.
So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking pan.
I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.
But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read–and I fear often grieving for me–
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.
You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying
Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.
And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.
You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.”
Mary Oliver would be proud.
Men have less warmth in Jeffers’ poetic universe than the house dog of that poem. In “Leave them Alone” he shouts from his tower to the world around:
If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead;
no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up
around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies, but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have
killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.”
Jeffers was on the cover of Time magazine in 1932, thirty years before this poem was published, but enough of that.
Selected Poems covers half a century of verse, and does a nice job capturing the stormy nature of a poet who lived on a bluff overlooking the sea. Reading a lot of poetry this year has reminded me of the importance poetry can play in the world we live in, as a Cassandra shouting out against the craziness of the world, a chronicler of the spirit of the times, and as a perspective that spans eras, drawing us closer together as people. Even if Jeffers might think us less significant than birds.
This year of poetry has also reinforced how right Jeffers is when he tells us that a poet is one who listens / To nature and his own heart.” Now, I think it’s time to go build a stone tower…
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward.