Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One By Jeffers

I know two colleagues where I teach, neither of them professors of English, who enjoy the poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), known for--well, for many things. He anticipated so-called "eco-poetry" by many decades; he often expressed a kind of anti-humanist ("inhumanist") philosophy, arguably close to Stoicism but also involving anti-imperialist ideas and a sense in which one might benefit ethically from living close by and observing raw nature.

Jeffers built his own stone house near Carmel, by the sea, in California; he built his poems with deliberate rhetoric, long lines, an austere tone, and clarity. His work is often thought to occupy a place between that of Whitman and that of writers loosely associated with the Beat Movement--Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, and Gary Snyder, among others. In fact, Rexroth, Everson, and Snyder were pretty far removed from Beat poetry; mostly they were otherwise occupied, even though Snyder certainly knew the gang at City Lights Books and is allegedly the basis of a character in one of Kerouac's novels.

Jeffers, like Langston Hughes and William Blake, is one of those poets with great appeal outside colleges and universities. The Hughes conference I attended in 2002 (he was born in 1902) included both academics and "plain old citizens." The Blake Conference I attended in Santa Cruz in the 1980s drew academics, of course, but also ordinary folk interested in visual art and people who literally viewed Blake as a prophet. I'll never forget one fellow who casually suggested that everyone go out and do "some ecstatic dancing" in the forest after one of the sessions. I was tempted to join him and the group, but having grown up in the woods, I knew that the forest and ecstatic dancing didn't really mix. It's just too easy to fall over a log or off a rock.

Oddly enough, Jeffers and Hughes got to know each other in the 1930s, when Hughes was staying with a friend in Carmel, Noel Sullivan, and working on some stories that eventually showed up in The Ways of White Folks. Hughes attended at least one cocktail party hosted by Jeffers, whom one does not associate with such conviviality after having read his poems. Differences between the work of Hughes and Jeffers abound, and many are obvious; at the same time, both are plain-spoken poets who didn't much care whether English professors liked their work.

Here's one by Jeffers that's in the public domain. It's from his book Tamar, and unfortunately, the blog-machinery will make at least one of the long lines spill over:

To The Stone-Cutters

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

Sometimes Jeffers is so morose that he makes me smile, and although his phrasing is almost always clear, it is also often surprising. "[Y]ou foredefeated/Challengers of oblivion/Eat cynical earnings . . .". Reading the poem again, I found myself settling in with the first two phrases here and then being surprised (again) by "Eat cynical earnings." It's startling, and it also begs to be interpreted several ways, but the rhetoric is that of direct address: "You . . . eat . . . earnings."

Many undergraduates understandably do not take immediately to Jeffers' poetry. After all, most of them are enjoying life and rightly expressing optimism and hope. Suddenly there's this guy "looking forward" to when the earth will die and the sun flame out. Robinson "Happy Go Lucky" Jeffers, at your service. Anyone up for an Ingmar Bergman film?

An obvious question to ask readers of the poem is this: Do you find the "honey of peace" in Jeffers' newish old poem? Speaking only for myself, I don't necessarily find "honey" in the poem, but I find the peace of familiarity in "watching" Jeffers meditate on stone-cutters, poets, and a geologic scale of time.
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