Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems
by Robinson Jeffers
A Life-Changing Discovery: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers
A review by Chris Faatz
In May of 1989 I worked at the late, lamented Olsson's Books and Records in Washington, DC. Being a bona fide poetry lover, I leapt at the opportunity of engaging with a poet I'd never read before. In fact, I'd never heard of the guy. How was I to know that it would end up being a life-changing experience?
The poet was Robinson Jeffers, and the book was Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, a small volume published by Vintage. I was swept off my feet. Jeffers was a voice I'd never imagined: powerful, visionary, rhythmic, singing of eternal verities, and turning a merciless eye to the comings and goings and self-important bombast of humankind.
Jeffers, himself, lived the high and tragic life of a great poet. Born in 1887, he lived until 1962, the greater part of that with his beloved wife, Una, on the Pacific Coast in Carmel, California. Heralded in his early years as an heir to Whitman, his craggy visage even graced the cover of the April 2, 1932, issue of Time. All was not well, though, in Jeffers's world. He was an unflagging critic of the United States' involvement in World War II, relentless and even violent in his criticism of the conflict and its objectives, and a huge portion of his readership soon slipped away. Needless to say, in the atmosphere of the "good war," he quickly lost favor with the literary powers that be. In fact, a book that came out of that period, The Double Axe, included a disclaimer by its publisher.
Jeffers's twilight years were spent in increasingly bitter isolation. His poems found fewer and fewer readers; his beloved wife died; and he was left barren and alone in the tower he had built with his own hands on the Carmel coast.
Jeffers's poems are nothing short of amazing. He wrote both short lyrics and longer, often book-length, poems that are nearly epic in their thrust. His longer poems include explicitly violent and sexual imagery, which alienated some of his readers. More to the point, though, is the reality that his work was deeply inspired by his vision of God in nature, of a world where God lay behind everything, every stone, every blade of grass, every act, and every cruelty, and where the human race was but a blip on the great scale of time. His poems resonate with images of nature. And, they are indeed prophetic. One can hardly read Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems today without being struck again and again with the trueness of the poet's vision of the route that America, and the world, would follow. Take, as an example, these lines from "The Purse-Seine":
Today Jeffers is perhaps best known as a prophet of the environmental movement. His poems, redolent of the sea and the hills and hawks of his beloved Carmel, are a tribute to the "massive// Mysticism of stone,/ Which failure cannot cast down/ Nor success make proud." In a letter/statement to the American Humanist Association dated March 25, 1951, Jeffers describes his philosophy of Inhumanism:
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all
together into interdependence; we have built the
great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations
incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless,
on all dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing,
yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children's, but we
and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all
powers -- or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls -- or
anarchy, the mass disasters.
Man is a part of nature, but a nearly infinitesimal part; the human race will cease after a while and leave no trace, but the great splendors of nature will go on. Meanwhile most of our time and energy are necessarily spent on human affairs; that can't be prevented, though I think it should be minimized; but for philosophy, which is an endless research of truth, and for contemplation, which can be a sort of worship, I would suggest that the immense beauty of the earth and the outer universe, the divine "nature of things," is a more rewarding object. Certainly it is more enobling. It is a source of strength; the other of distraction.
Today, Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems remains the most easily accessible (and least expensive!) introduction to his work. Also available are The Wild God of This World, a much larger collection of selected poems, published by Stanford University Press; The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, weighing in at 758 pages and also published by Stanford; and the definitive five-volume Collected Works.
I still have that book from 1989, and I still cherish it and return to it with some frequency. Jeffers was a major influence on me, and I love his work with a passion that I feel for very few poets. (There are a few, but they are indeed very few.) Let's end this review with one of my favorite poems of all time. It's called "Return," written in 1935.
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go down to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly,
Things are the hawk's food and noble is the mountain,
Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble