William Everson

1912–1994
Though William Everson had established himself as a respected regional poet many years before the Beat movement of the 1950s came into being, he first came to national attention when he was identified as a member of that group. A deeply serious and religious writer, Everson spent eighteen years as a Dominican monk and published many of his works under his name in religion, Brother Antoninus. He was variously classified as a nature poet, an erotic poet, and a religious poet, but, contended Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James A. Powell, "above all else, Everson is an autobiographical, even a confessional poet. Throughout his career . . . he has made his personal life the predominant subject of his poetry."

Everson credited his first exposure to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers as revealing to him his own poetic vocation. "It was an intellectual awakening and a religious conversion in one. . . . Jeffers showed me God," Powell quoted him as saying. So powerful was the experience that Everson was inspired to immediately drop his university studies, plant a vineyard, and begin writing his own verse. His early work focused on farming, the change of seasons, and a theme that would endure throughout his entire writing career, his love of the California landscape. His first collections, These Are the Ravens, San Joaquin, and The Masculine Dead brought him enthusiastic—though not widespread—acclaim, along with the classification of nature poet. Donna Nance pointed out in her Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that in retrospect it is obvious that this is "too narrow a characterization of Everson's early work. For the poems are neither pastoral nor idyllic in the general manner of nature poetry, but rather infused with a somber awareness of the violence inherent in the natural world—and by extension, in man's collective nature." Nance suggested that the predominant theme of Everson's early poetry is actually "the problem of violence and man's susceptibility to it."

Man's struggle with violence suddenly became a very timely theme as the United States entered World War II. Everson chose conscientious objector status and was sent to work at lumber camps in the Northwest. The poetry he wrote while stationed there reflected the dilemmas he faced as a pacifist in a society at war. Much of the verse Everson wrote at this time would later be collected in The Residual Years, including his long poem "Chronicle of Division." This multi-part poem details the disintegration of the author's first marriage due to the long separation required by his wartime service. Nance called "Chronicle of Division" "a stylistic victory for Everson as he recreates, in language forceful yet graceful, the frustration, loneliness, and betrayal of faith that he experienced" during this break-up. These poems were enthusiastically received among pacifists and those already familiar with Everson, but did little to advance his reputation further.

When released from Civilian Public Service in June, 1946, Everson moved to Sebastapol, California, where he met poet and artist Mary Fabilli. Their love provided the inspiration for Everson's next work, The Blowing of the Seed. In November the couple moved to Berkeley, where they were quickly accepted into the circle of poets surrounding Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco; they married the following year. It was also in 1947 that Everson first received widespread critical attention, spurred by New Direction's reprinting of The Residual Years, complete with these controversial dust jacket notes by Kenneth Rexroth: "This kind of poetry may outrage academic circles where an emasculated and hallucinated imitation of John Donne is still considered chic; but others, who have been waiting for modern poetry to stop clearing its throat and stammering, should be delighted." In Nance's estimation, "the statement amounted to a literary throwing down of the gauntlet. At once defensive and aggressive, it challenged contemporary academic critics to accept Everson on his own terms—terms that in their insistence on the primacy of personal statement, Rexroth was later to argue, represented 'a different definition of poetic integrity'" than that generally agreed upon by the academic critics of the 1950s.

Nance reports that many critics did respond favorably to "the obvious sincerity of Everson's quest for value and certainty in an uncertain and frequently violent world." Although some reviewers voiced complaints about Everson's excessive personalism and his sometimes obscure syntax, most awarded him "praise for his forceful language and for the rhythm . . . of his verse." From 1947 onwards, Everson could be considered a poet of national standing.

Everson's life and work underwent radical changes in the next few years as a result of a profound religious experience. Mary Fabilli was a lapsed Catholic in the process of returning to the church. Everson—who had been raised a Christian Scientist but by his teen years had declared himself an agnostic—sometimes accompanied his wife to Mass. On Christmas Eve, 1948, he had an intense religious experience while in church; by July of the following year, Everson had completed his course of religious instruction and been baptized. Ironically, however, because he and Fabilli had both been previously married and divorced, the Roman Catholic church did not recognize their union as valid. Accordingly, they separated. After working for a year at the Catholic Worker House in the slums of Oakland, California, Everson entered the Dominican order as a monk, taking the name Brother Antoninus.

James A. Powell believed that "the poetry Everson composed during the first five years following his conversion . . . represents very possibly his best work." Most of this verse was later collected in The Crooked Lines of God and The Veritable Years. Turning to the narrative style favored by Robinson Jeffers, Everson rewrote many famous Bible stories and Christian legends. Remaining true to one of his most constant themes—his love of the California landscape—he set these stories not in Palestine, but in California. In using Jeffers's techniques, Powell assessed, Everson not only lived up to the standard set by the older poet, he actually "bests his master." Besides being "consistently powerful in its utterance," this poetry is "striking both for its departures from and for its continuities with his previous practice . . . The intense demands on his poetic craft [Everson] must have felt as he returned to confront Jeffers on the master's own ground, the necessary encounter with the simple concision good narrative requires, the inspiration he drew from the stories themselves, the personal (and revelatory) significance they had taken on for him, and the respect for their simplicities his reverence for them exacted—all coincided to produce verse of a graceful tension, a fervent constraint, an earnest, highly-wrought yet subdued music. These are poems of quite remarkable force," concluded Powell.

Such enthusiasm was not universal, however. While acknowledging that "Everson . . . wrote some of the first poetry I ever truthfully liked," James Dickey recalled in his book Babel to Byzantium that on reading The Veritable Years he was unfavorably "struck . . . by the author's humorless, even owlish striving after self-knowledge and certainty, his intense and bitter inadequacy and frustration." Dickey went on to characterize The Crooked Lines of God as "page after page of not-very-good, learned dry sermonizing which in several places leans toward an attitude which I cannot help believing is somewhat self-righteous and even self-congratulatory. . . . What Brother Antoninus offers, instead of the 'vision' he speaks of, is a sober, unimaginative forthrightness and a nagging insistence that he is right and you are, no matter what else you may believe, wrong. What I find peculiarly disagreeable in Brother Antoninus's work is his basic dislike of people and of sex, and this seems to me to be based at least as much on secular reason as on religious."

Kenneth Rexroth's appraisal of The Crooked Lines of God differed sharply from Dickey's. Always a staunch supporter of Everson, he called it in his book Assays "a collection of poems of stunning impact, utterly unlike anything else being written nowadays." Like Powell, he judged Everson superior even to Jeffers, writing, "As far as his verse is concerned, Brother Antoninus is more or less a disciple of Robinson Jeffers, but I think he has made a harder and more honest instrument of it than his master."

During the mid-1950, Everson's literary output dropped considerably. The demands of monastic life were partly responsible, but a fuller explanation for this dry period lies in the conflict Everson was then experiencing between his poetic and religious vocations. He finally broke through his writer's block in 1957 with "River-Root," a thirty-page poem which, due to its explicit eroticism, was not published until 1976. Powell described the poem: "Bathing all nature in an aura of universal phallicism, 'River-Root' not only presents in close, loving and extensive physical detail the lengthy and inventive coupling of its properly married, Catholic, and procreatively minded central characters but also attempts to link their love-making on the one hand to a universal natural eroticism and, on the other, through the poem's depiction of sexual intercourse as a mode of contemplation, to God. . . . The poem . . . bespeaks the psychic trouble the requirement of celibacy would arouse in Everson throughout his monastic career."

It was also in 1957 that Kenneth Rexroth's now-famous "San Francisco Letter" appeared in the Evergreen Review. In it, Rexroth announced the importance of the San Francisco Renaissance poets (who would come to be known as "the Beats") to the literary world, including Everson among them. Following the publication of the letter, Everson received substantial attention nationwide, not only from those in the literary world, but from the popular press as well. The apparent incongruity of a Catholic monk being identified with the supposedly hedonistic, amoral, Beat movement delighted reporters, who promptly tagged Everson "the Beat friar." Suddenly he was in great demand for poetry readings across the country and in Europe; he continued to devote considerable time to these until the late 1960s.

Throughout the late fifties and the sixties, Everson's poetry continued to suggest a difficult struggle taking place within him. Most of the works collected in The Hazards of Holiness "seem to represent moments of crisis in Everson's spiritual autobiography," noted Powell. While many of them are quite explicitly erotic, others tell of a vehement quest for "an untormented celibacy." The Rose of Solitude, published in 1960, depicts Everson's long, platonic—but sometimes tortured with passion—relationship with a woman named Rose Tunnland.

The poet's language had always been notably rich, but became even more so at this point in his career. This development displeased critic William Dickey, who complained in the Hudson Review: "The language of this book [ The Rose of Solitude ] is, like its substance, overblown. Antoninus makes a simple equation between suffering and unintelligibility: the greater the pain, the more tortured the syntax. In pursuit of this relationship he arrives at distortions which can best be called grotesque." Yet Samuel Charters wrote in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry since 1945: "Antoninus, in a period when the poetic idiom has become dry and understated, has an almost seventeenth century richness of language and expression. . . . Antoninus's language is so intense, so vivid, that the poems can almost be read in clusters of words and phrases."

William Everson took the first vows of priesthood in 1964; in 1965, he met Susanna Rickson and began to compose a long poem to her. On December 7, 1969, he gave the first public reading of this poem, entitled "Tendril in the Mesh." As he concluded the reading, he threw off his monk's habit and left the stage, announcing his intention to return to secular life. One week later, he and Susanna Rickson were married. "Tendril in the Mesh" and other poems written in 1970 and 1971 were printed in what Powell deemed one of Everson's "best volumes, as well as one of his richest," Man-Fate: The Swan-Song of Brother Antoninus. Most of the book explains the poet's passion for his new wife and how it led him to renounce his vows; the remaining verse expresses the difficulties encountered in his adjustment to a secular way of living.

After leaving the monastery, Everson turned his energies toward critical writing, printing, teaching, and editing the works of Robinson Jeffers. While the body of his work expressed a sharp conflict between body and spirit, many of his later writings, collected in The Masks of Drought, bespeak a "reconciliation with the world of nature and his own place in it," noted Powell. As always, the poems are autobiographical, concerning the poet's relations with his wife, his advancing age, and his continuing love of the land. Remarking on Everson's dedication to intensely personal themes, Kenneth Rexroth wrote in his introduction to The Residual Years: "Everson has been accused of self-dramatization. Justly. All of his poetry, that under the name of Brother Antoninus, too, is concerned with the drama of his own self, rising and falling along the sine curve of life, from comedy to tragedy and back again, never quite going under, never quite escaping for good into transcendence. . . . Everything is larger than life with a terrible beauty and pain. Life isn't like that to some people and to them these poems will seem too strong a wine. But of course life is like that."

Career

Roman Catholic monk in Dominican order, 1951-69, name in religion, Brother Antoninus; poet. Cannery worker and laborer for Civilian Conservation Corps, 1932-33; worked as a farmer in the mid-1930s; co-founder, Untide Press, Waldport, OR, c. 1944; after war joined anarcho-pacifist group of poets surrounding Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco; active in Catholic Worker Movement in the slums of Oakland, CA, 1950-51; gave numerous poetry readings across the United States and Europe, 1957-94; master printer, Lime Kiln Press, 1971-81; poet-in-residence, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1971-81. Wartime service: Conscientious objector working in forestry service at Camp Angel and Cascade Locks, Oregon, 1943-46.

Bibliography

  • These Are the Ravens, Greater West, 1935.
  • San Joaquin, Ward Ritchie, 1939.
  • The Masculine Dead: Poems 1938-1940, J. A. Decker, 1942.
  • X War Elegies, 3rd edition, Untide, 1943, new edition published as War Elegies, 1944.
  • The Waldport Poems, Untide, 1944.
  • The Residual Years: Poems, 1940-41, Untide, 1944, published with additional poems as The Residual Years, New Directions, 1948, enlarged edition, with an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth, published as The Residual Years: Poems, 1934-48—The Pre-Catholic Poetry of Brother Antoninus, New Directions, 1968, reprinted with uncollected and previously unpublished poems, Black Sparrow (Santa Rosa, CA), 1997.
  • Poems MCMXLII, Untide, 1945.
  • A Privacy of Speech: Ten Poems in Sequence, Equinox, 1949.
  • Triptych for the Living (with prints by Mary Fabilli), Seraphim, 1951.
  • There Will Be Harvest, Albion Press, 1960.
  • The Year's Declension, Albion Press, 1961.
  • Single Source: The Early Poems of William Everson, 1934-1940 (introduction by Robert Duncan), Oyez, 1966.
  • The Blowing of the Seed, Henry W. Wenning, 1966.
  • In the Fictive Wish, Oyez, 1967.
  • Poems of Nineteen Forty Seven, Black Rock Press, 1968.
  • Tendril in the Mesh, Cayucos Books, 1973.
  • Black Hills, Didymus Press, 1973.
  • Man-Fate: The Swan-Song of Brother Antoninus, New Directions, 1974.
  • River-Root: A Syzygy for the Bicentennial of These States, Oyez, 1976.
  • Missa Defunctorum, Lime Kiln Press, 1976.
  • The Mate-Flight of Eagles, Blue Oak Press, 1977.
  • Blackbird Sundown, Lord John Press, 1978.
  • Rattlesnake August, Santa Susana Press, 1978.
  • The Veritable Years: Poems 1949-1966, Black Sparrow Press, 1978, reprinted with uncollected and previously unpublished poems, 1998.
  • Cutting the Firebreak, Kingfisher Press, 1978.
  • Blame It on the Jet Stream!, Lime Kiln Press, 1978.
  • The Masks of Drought, Black Sparrow Press, 1979.
  • The Engendering Flood: Book One of Dust Shall Be the Serpent's Food (Cantos I-IV), Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa), 1990.
  • The Blood of the Poet: Selected Poems, edited and with an afterword by Alfred Gelpi, Broken Moon Press (Seattle), 1994.
  • (With Lawrence Clark Powell) Take Hold Upon the Future: Letters on Writers and Writing, 1938-1946, edited by William R. Eshelman, Scarecrow (Metuchen, NJ), 1994.
  • Prodigious Thrust, Black Sparrow (Santa Rosa, CA), 1996.
  • Ravaged with Joy: A Record of the Poetry Reading at the University of California, Davis, May 16, 1975, woodcuts by Keiji Shinohara, Robin Price (Middletown, CT), 1998.
  • The Integral Years: Poems, 1966-1994: Including a Selection of Uncollected and Previously Unpublished Poems, Black Sparrow (Santa Rosa, CA), 2000.
  • Dark God of Eros: A William Everson Reader, edited, introduction by Albert Gelpi, Heyday (Berkeley, CA), 2003.
  • At the Edge, Albertus Magnus, 1958.
  • A Fragment for the Birth of God, Albertus Magnus, 1958.
  • An Age Insurgent, Blackfriars, 1959.
  • The Crooked Lines of God: Poems, 1949-1954, University of Detroit Press, 1959, 2nd edition, 1960, 3rd edition, 1962.
  • The Hazards of Holiness: Poems, 1957-1960, Doubleday, 1962.
  • The Poet Is Dead: A Memorial for Robinson Jeffers, Auerhahn, 1964.
  • The Rose of Solitude, Oyez, 1964, published with additional poems, Doubleday, 1967.
  • The Vision of Felicity, Lowell House, 1967.
  • The Achievement of Brother Antoninus (selection of poems, with an introduction by William E. Stafford), Scott, Foresman, 1967.
  • A Canticle to the Waterbirds, Eizo, 1968.
  • The Springing of the Blade, Black Rock Press, 1968.
  • The City Does Not Die, Oyez, 1969.
  • The Last Crusade, Oyez, 1969.
  • Who Is She That Looketh Forth as the Morning?, Capricorn Press, 1972.
  • (Under name Brother Antoninus) Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury , Oyez, 1968.
  • Robinson Jeffers, Cawdor and Medea, New Directions, 1970.
  • Jeffers, Californians, Cayucos, 1971.
  • Jeffers, The Alpine Christ, Cayucos, 1973.
  • Jeffers, Tragedy Has Obligations, Lime Kiln Press, 1973.
  • Jeffers, Brides of the South Wind, Cayucos, 1974.
  • Jeffers, Granite and Cypress, Lime Kiln Press, 1975.
  • Jeffers, The Double Axe and Other Poems, Liveright, 1977.
  • (Under name Brother Antoninus) " The Savagery of Love: Brother Antoninus Reads His Poetry," Caedmon, 1968.
  • " Poetry of Earth" (selections from Everson's and Robinson Jeffers's poetry), Big Sur Recordings, 1970.
  • " Robinson Jeffers" (lecture; cassette tape), Everett/Edwards, 1972.
  • (Under name Brother Antoninus) Novum Psalterium Pii xii (liturgy and ritual; unfinished folio edition), [Los Angeles], 1955.
  • (With Brother Kurt) Friar among Savages: Father Luis Cancer, Benzinger, 1958.
  • (Author of text) The Dominican Brother, Province of the West, Dominican Vocation Office, 1965.
  • (With J. Burns) If I Speak Truth: An Inter View-ing with Brother Antoninus, Goliards Press, 1968.
  • Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region (criticism), Oyez, 1976.
  • Lee Bartlett, editor, Earth Poetry: Selected Essays and Interviews, 1950-1977, Oyez, 1980.
  • The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure with a foreword by Albert Gelpi, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1988.
  • Naked Heart: Talking on Poetry, Mysticism, and the Erotic, interview at the University of New Mexico, College of Arts and Sciences (Albuquerque), 1992.
  • Peter Rutledge, editor, On Printing, Book Club of California (San Francisco, CA), 1992.
  • William Everson: The Light the Shadow Casts, Five Interviews with William Everson Plus Corresponding Poems, New Earth Publications (Berkeley, CA), 1996.
Contributor, sometimes under name Brother Antoninus, to periodicals, including Ramparts and Evergreen Review.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Bartlett, Lee, editor, Benchmark and Blaze: The Emergence of William Everson, Scarecrow, 1979.
  • Bartlett, Lee, and Allan Campo, William Everson: A Descriptive Bibliography , Scarecrow, 1977.
  • Bartlett, Lee, and others, William Everson: Poet from the San Joaquin, Blue Oak Press, 1978.
  • Bartlett, Lee, William Everson: The Life of Brother Antoninus, New Directions (New York City), 1988.
  • Charters, Samuel, Some Poems/ Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry since 1945, Oyez, 1971.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume I, 1973, Volume V, 1976, Volume XIV, 1980.
  • Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus, 1956.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume V: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume XVI: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, 1983.
  • Everson, William, The Residual Years: Poems, 1934-38—The Pre-Catholic Poetry of Brother Antoninus, New Directions, 1968.
  • Everson, William, and J. Burns, If I Speak Truth: An Inter View-ing with Brother Antoninus, Goliards Press, 1968.
  • Everson, William, Prodigious Thrust with an afterword by Allan Campo, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa), 1996.
  • Kherdian, David, Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists, Giliga, 1967.
  • Meltzer, David, editor, The San Francisco Poets, Ballantine, 1971, published as Golden Gate: Interviews with Five San Francisco Poets, Wingbow Press, 1976.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth, Assays, New Directions, 1961.
PERIODICALS
  • Atlantic, December, 1963.
  • Choice, June, 1969, September, 1977.
  • Commonweal, October 19, 1962, December 20, 1968, May 9, 1975.
  • Hudson Review, winter, 1967-68, spring, 1979.
  • Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1980.
  • Minnesota Review, spring, 1979.
  • National Observer, July 10, 1967.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1962, October 8, 1967.
  • Poetry, April, 1963, autumn, 1968, December, 1969.
  • Prairie Schooner, spring, 1970.
  • Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1991, p. 14; November 15, 1993, p. 75.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1968.
  • Western American Literature, May, 1977.
  • Wilson Library Bulletin, May, 1995, p. 81.
OBITUARIES: PERIODICALS
  • Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1994, p. A16.
  • New York Times, June 6, 1994, p. B10.
  • Washington Post, June 6, 1994, p. B4.

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Poet Categorization

SCHOOL / PERIOD Beat

LIFE SPAN 1912–1994

Biography

Though William Everson had established himself as a respected regional poet many years before the Beat movement of the 1950s came into being, he first came to national attention when he was identified as a member of that group. A deeply serious and religious writer, Everson spent eighteen years as a Dominican monk and published many of his works under his name in religion, Brother Antoninus. He was variously classified as a . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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