NEA Big Read
The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

by Robinson Jeffers

Permanent things, or things forever renewed, like the grass and human passions, are the material for poetry...

Robinson Jeffers, 1948 (Photo by Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Robert Aubry Davis reads Robinson Jeffers's "Carmel Point"...

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Reed: That was radio and television host Robert Aubry Davis reading Robinson Jeffers's "Carmel Point". Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. I'm Josephine Reed. Today, poet and former Chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia, will discuss Robinson Jeffers as part of our American Literary Landmarks series, a celebration of the nation's great poets and the historic houses that informed their work. Here's Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: John Robinson Jeffers, the great poet of the American West, was born in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, William Hamilton Jeffers, was professor of Old Testament biblical theology and a Presbyterian minister. A strict disciplinarian and serious intellectual, the elder Jeffers was a middle-aged widower when he met and courted Annie Tuttle, twenty-two years his junior. Robinson was the first of their two sons. His father determined that his older son should be properly educated and gave him rigorous private lessons in Greek, Latin, and religion.

In 1898, the family journeyed overseas where the young Jeffers was enrolled first in a German school in Leipzig, then the following year in a French school in Switzerland. By the time he was twelve, Jeffers was fluent in French, German, Greek, Latin, and English, but awkward with other children. Not surprisingly, the boy developed complex feelings toward his deeply loving but authoritarian father, whose image haunts the many tragic patriarchs who figure in Jeffers's later narrative poems.

Jeffers entered the University of Pittsburgh at fifteen as a sophomore. When his father retired the next year and the family moved to Los Angeles, Jeffers transferred to Occidental College, where he graduated in 1905 at the age of seventeen. Entering graduate school at the University of Southern California, the precocious teenager eventually did graduate work at several universities in literature, medicine, and forestry, but gradually realized that poetry was his calling. At USC, Jeffers met Una Call Kuster, a beautiful woman who was not only three years his senior, but married to a wealthy local attorney.

Robinson and Una fell passionately in love. After seven years of guilt-ridden romance with many renunciations, separations, reconciliations, and eventually a public scandal reported in the Los Angeles Times, Una obtained a divorce on August 1, 1913. The next day she and Jeffers married. By now Jeffers had dedicated himself fully to poetry.

His first collection, Flagons and Apples, had appeared in 1912, but the restless young writer had already improved beyond this early volume of rhymed love lyrics. He and Una traveled north on a horse-drawn mail coach to the wild Big Sur region of coastal California where the road ended. They rented a small cabin in the village of Carmel, which they recognized as their "inevitable place." Jeffers later remembered, "For the first time in my life I could see people living-amid magnificent unspoiled scenery-as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas or in Homer's Ithaca .... Here was a contemporary life that was also permanent life."

The twenty-seven-year-old poet knew that he had not yet written anything of enduring value. The death of both his father and his own newborn daughter in 1914 heightened his sense of mortality. After issuing a second collection, Californians in 1916, Jeffers published nothing for eight years.

He divided his time between writing and building a stone house, eventually complete with a tower, for his family, which now included twin sons, on a promontory, or "tor," overlooking the Pacific. The building of the home became a lifelong pursuit.

In the following poem, "Tor House," Jeffers wrote about the home in which he would write all of his major poems.

Robert Aubry Davis reads Robinson Jeffers's "Tor House"...

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn't look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.

Gioia: During his retreat from publication after Californians, Jeffers carefully reconsidered his aims as a poet and underwent a slow but radical transformation. He rejected rhyme and traditional meter, which inhibited him from telling a story flexibly in verse. He also rejected the obscurity of Modernist poetry. "It became clear to me," he wrote, "that poetry-if it were to survive at all-must reclaim some of the power and reality that it has so hastily surrendered to prose." He determined to write a timeless and truthful poetry purged of ephemeral things.

In 1924, Jeffers published Tamar and Other Poems with a small vanity press in New York. This volume pronounced Jeffers mature in style, form, subject, and theme. The book even took the characteristic shape of most of his subsequent volumes-a long narrative poem followed by a group of shorter lyrics and meditative poems.

Tamar attracted no initial notice, but a year later it was suddenly taken up by several influential critics. Jeffers produced an expanded trade edition containing what would he his most famous narrative poem, "Roan Stallion." Both public and critical opinions were extraordinary and Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925) went into multiple reprintings.

From that collection, here is "Shine, Perishing Republic:"

Robert Aubry Davis reads Robinson Jeffers's 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.
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, 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.

Gioia: Praising his narrative energy, stylistic originality, and thematic profundity, critics compared him to Sophocles and Shakespeare, but Jeffers ignored his sudden celebrity and focused on his work. Over the next ten years he published eight collections containing the most remarkable, ambitious, and odd narrative poems in American literature. From 1927's The Women at Point Sur to Such Counsels You Give Me, published a decade later, nearly every volume centers on a long narrative, usually set in or around Big Sur. Violent, sexual, philosophical, and subversive, these are novels in verse. Their tragic stories of family rivalry and primal emotion usually move with determined pace to a bloody finale.

In sheer narrative energy and visual scope they resemble movies-not real ones but imaginary cinema where high and low art collide. The poems reveal Jeffers's obsessions such as the suffocating burden of the past—often in the form of religious dogmatism, patriotic hypocrisy, or social convention—bearing down to destroy human freedom. Alternately magnificent and hyperbolic, powerful and excessive, dramatic and overblown, they are unlike anything else in Modernist American poetry.

Almost immediately Jeffers's long narrative poems divided audiences. His explicit sexuality, violent plots, and overt anti-Christianity alienated conservative readers. Leftists were dismayed by his distrust of all political programs for human improvement. Meanwhile, the New Critics perceived Jeffers's commitment to poetry of direct statement, expansive treatment, and linear narrative as a rejection of the compressed, indirect, and lyric High Modernist mode they had all championed. He rarely found a place in academic anthologies, and his critical reception increasingly tended to be hostile.

The controversy over Jeffers's longer narratives unfortunately overshadowed his shorter works tucked in the back pages of each new book. These lyric meditations, generally written in long rhythmic free verse lines, marked a new kind of nature poem that tried to describe the physical world not from a human perspective but on its own terms. Humanity, he insisted, was an integral part of nature, not as its master.

"Not man apart," was his phrase, which became a famous rallying cry among environmentalists and conservationists, who consider him a seminal figure in the movement to protect natural habitat, wilderness, and coastal land. Jeffers's nature poetry is emotionally direct, magnificently musical, and philosophically profound. His language is strong, concise, and timeless. His ideas are boldly expressed in memorable images.

In poems such as "Evening Ebb," nature itself is the subject.

Robert Aubry Davis reads Robinson Jeffers's "Evening Ebb"...

The ocean has not been quiet for a long while; five night-herons
Fly shorelong voiceless in the hush of air
Over the calm of an ebb that almost mirrors their wings.
The sun has gone down, and the water has gone down
From the weed-clad rock, but the distant cloud-wall rises. The ebb whispers.
Great cloud-shadows float in the opal water.
Through rifts in the screen of the world pale gold gleams and the evening
Star suddenly glides like a flying torch.
As if we had not been meant to see her; rehearsing behind
The screen of the world for another audience.

Gioia: The poems unfold as clearly as prose without the indirection common in the work of more overtly Modernist poets like Pound, Eliot, and Moore, who were his contemporaries. But by World War II, Jeffers's critical reputation had collapsed and would not rise again until after his death. The Depression and war had made his cosmic fatalism and distrust of all political systems less palatable to intellectuals caught up in tragic international events. To the disgust of many Americans, he opposed America's entry into World War II, warning that the conflict would turn the United States into an imperial power. Jeffers still commanded a large group of serious readers, and his books sold very well, but the literary establishment, dominated by New Critics on the right and Marxists on the left, had rejected him.

The poet's complete rejection of public literary life exacerbated the situation. Hating big cities, Jeffers hardly stirred from Carmel. He would not teach or lecture. He scarcely answered his mail. Remote from the centers of literary power in London and New York, he seemed indifferent to his slowly declining reputation. In 1945, however, the noted actress, Judith Anderson, asked the poet to translate and adapt a classical tragedy by Euripides for the modern stage. When Jeffers's Medea opened on Broadway in 1947, it stunned audiences and critics with its power and intensity. New York Times critic Brook Atkinson called it "a landmark in the theater." Medea played to sold-out houses, a national touring company was soon formed, and productions were staged across Europe. As its frequent revivals have demonstrated, it is one of the finest adaptations of classical drama in English.

Medea's success relieved Jeffers's financial worries, but the happiest days of his life were now behind him. After Una's slow death from cancer in 1950, Jeffers sank into a prolonged depression aggravated by heavy drinking. His eyesight failed. He continued writing but with less energy and little savor. Jeffers published only one book during the last fourteen years of his life, Hungerfield and Other Poems in 1954. The title poem is a violent and nightmarish narrative that ends unexpectedly with an authorial interruption-Jeffers's heartbreaking invocation to his dead wife. A few days after his seventy-fifth birthday he died in his sleep at Tor House.

As Scottish poet George MacBeth observed, Jeffers "is one of the few American poets of the twentieth century who can be approached in terms of his ideas rather than technique." His poetic technique was both strong and original, but once he had developed his style in the mid-1920s, he never significantly altered it. Unlike his Modernist contemporaries, Jeffers was not interested in poetry as an exploration of language's ability to describe its own processes. "Language itself," as Robert Hass commented, "is simply not one of Jeffers's subjects."

Jeffers's philosophy has frequently been called pessimistic, but that term seems vague and misleading. Trained in the sciences, Jeffers took a coldly rational view of humanity's small place in the cosmos. He called his new philosophical stance "Inhumanism," a term that has been much misunderstood. It does not endorse cruelty or inhumanity in the common sense of the word. Jeffers's "Inhumanism" is a simple but radical realignment of moral values, which he described as "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man."

In "Vulture," the speaker considers the wider, greater perspective of nature.

Robert Aubry Davis reads Robinson Jeffers's "Vulture"...

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you." But how beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the
precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes-
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.

Gioia: Humanity was not, Jeffers felt, the measure of all things. It was merely one species-albeit the triumphantly dominant one-but it neither understood its place nor its responsibility to the world.

Overpopulation, urbanization, pollution, and industrialization would have dire consequences on the planet, Jeffers warned in his prophetic poems. What saves Jeffers's poetry from unrelieved bitterness and nihilism is its joyful awe and, indeed, religious devotion to the natural world. Living on the edge of the Pacific, he drew wisdom, strength, and perspective from observing the forces of nature around him.

In "Rock and Hawk" he offers yet another image of a bird—this time the image of a falcon perched on its tall coastal rock as a symbol of the proper human values:

Dana Gioia reads Robinson Jeffers's "Rock and Hawk"...

Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,

Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.

I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,

But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final

Life with calm death; the falcon's
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive

Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.

Gioia: That unusual combination of sensual delight and stoical resolve underlies much of Jeffers's best work. Magnificent, troubling, idiosyncratic, and uneven, Jeffers remains the great prophetic voice of American Modernism.

Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute for Museum and Library Services. The introduction to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers has been made possible, in part, with support from the Poetry Foundation.

It was written and narrated by Dana Gioia. Robert Aubry Davis read the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, which is used courtesy of Stanford University Press. Pepper Smith produced the show with assistants Adam Kampe and Liz Mehaffey.

Excerpts from Bach's "Cello Suite No. 4" performed by Alexander Rubin, used courtesy of Naxos of America Incorporated.

Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 28, Opus 101" performed by Seymour Lipkin, used courtesy of Newport Classics.

"Mandon Heartbreak Song" arranged by Jovina Santos Neto, "Warrior's Return" performed by Keith Bear, and "Traces of Hope" written and performed by Gary Stroutsos and Jovina Santos Neto. All from the CD People of the Willows, and used courtesy of Makoché Recording Company.

Thanks to Ted Libbey, Erika Koss, and Howard Bass.

I'm the executive producer Josephine Reed for the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks for listening.

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