Robinson Jeffers: Essential American Poets
This is The Poetry Foundation’s Essential American Poets Podcast. Essential American Poets is an online audio poetry collection. The poets in the collection were selected in 2006 by Donald Hall when he was poet laureate. Recordings of the poets he selected are available online, at poetryfoundation.org and poetryarchive.org. In this edition of the podcast, we’ll hear poems by Robinson Jeffers. Robinson Jeffers’ life and poetry celebrated the brute beauty of nature. He was born in Pittsburg in 1887. His father, Dr. Jeffers, was a serious intellectual and strict disciplinarian who raised his son on the bible and the Greek and Roman classics. Jeffers studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he met Una Call Kuster. The attraction was irresistible, but Kuster was already married to a powerful Los Angeles lawyer. They had an on again off again affair for 7 years, until their story made page one of the Los Angeles Times. Humiliated, Kuster’s husband divorced her, and she married Jeffers the next day. The pair retreated north to a small cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, next to the wild steep rugged sea cliffs and back country canyons. Una became pregnant and gave birth to twin sons. Jeffers nursed a small inheritance and worked on his craft. His poems were heavily influenced by Greek poetry. They expressed his reverence for nature and his disgust with modern civilization. After six years in the cottage, Jeffers built his family a house on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, where the waves crashed on granite crags below. He built the house by rolling stones up a switchback path, chiseling them into shape and stacking them into place. He called it “tour house”. Beside it, he built “hawk tower”; a gothic spire with a hidden staircase and a secret room just for Una. During these quiet decades at tour house, Jeffers developed a roaring reputation in letters. In 1924, he published his breakthrough work, Tamar and Other Poems. He followed that with numerous books over the next decade. Jeffers poetry earned him a devoted following, and in 1932, he became the first American poet to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. He even met some of the luminaries of the period, including Ansel Adams. But for all of this national and international fame, Jeffers preferred to stay at his craggy home. Una helped him manage his public demands and preserve his time to write. She could not however insulate Jeffers from the world. More and more, crowds of tourists and beach goers intruded on their peace. Then came World War 2. Jeffers responded to the war through his poetry. It was strident in it’s isolationism and it’s acid criticism of world leaders. Jeffers was called a fascist sympathizer. His poems were labelled “treasonous” and his followers dwindled. Jeffers predicted this reaction and he retreated, perhaps with some contentment, into obscurity and his quiet life at home. In 1950, Una died. Jeffers was heartbroken, and after a long and shallow depression, he died in 1962. Tour house was turned over to a foundation and designated a historic site. To this day, Jeffers is a role model to eco-conscious poets. The following poems were recorded at the Library of Congress in 1941.
Robinson Jeffers: I suppose in my verses there are a great many … you’ll perhaps notice how many hawks fly through them. That is for real because there are as many hawks on the mountains at home, of all sorts; the redtail, and the marsh hawk, and the duck hawk, which is the American Peregrine Falcon, and the sparrow hawk, many more; I won’t count them all. Another thing that interested me in hawks was the hawk with a broken wing I had to nurse once. It was given to me and I had to take care of it. That suggested to me the two poems called ‘Hurt Hawks’. There’s many hurt hawks about, the first one is about a hurt hawk in it’s wilderness and the second one is about the one I took care of.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
Robinson Jeffers: To go back to the beginning of the war, perhaps you remember that Hitler made a speech to his people in Dansey, September 1939 which was broadcast to Americans elsewhere. The verses I shall read next are literal transcript of my experience that day, mixed with foreboding of things to come and shall I say a sickly attempt of humor at the end.
This morning Hitler spoke in Danzig, we hear his voice.
A man of genius: that is, of amazing
Ability, courage, devotion, cored on a sick child's soul,
Heard clearly through the dog wrath, a sick child
Wailing in Danzig; invoking destruction and wailing at it.
Here, the day was extremely hot; about noon
A south wind like a blast from hell's mouth spilled a slight rain
On the parched land, and at five a light earthquake
Danced the house, no harm done. Tonight I have been amusing myself
Watching the blood-red moon droop slowly
Into the black sea through bursts of dry lightning and distant thunder.
Well: the day is a poem: but too much
Like one of Jeffers's, crusted with blood and barbaric omens,
Painful to excess, inhuman as a hawk's cry.
Robinson Jeffers: The sick humor of these last lines refers of course to some long narrative poems I’ve written, which seem to have more than enough of blood and pain in them, because they are reflections of a period of decadence and reflection and revolution between two great wars. The war came, here is a poem that tried to meet it with a kind of desperate optimism. It was written in June 1940 after the great attacks and is called “The Bloody Sire”.
It is not bad. Let them play.
Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane
Speak his prodigious blasphemies.
It is not bad, it is high time,
Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.
What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.
Who would remember Helen’s face
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
Violence, the bloody sire of all the world’s values.
Never weep, let them play,
Old violence is not too old to beget new values.
Robinson Jeffers: I believe this deeply and faithfully. But it will be a long time before the new values can be realized.
Robinson Jeffers: Night Without Sleep
The world's as the world is; the nations rearm and prepare to
change; the age of tyrants returns;
The greatest civilization that has ever existed builds itself higher
towers on breaking foundations.
Recurrent episodes; they were determined when the ape's children
first ran in packs, chipped flint to an edge.
I lie and hear dark rain beat the roof, and the blind wind.
In the morning perhaps
I shall find strength again
To value the immense beauty of this time of the world, the flowers
of decay their pitiful loveliness, the fever-dream
Tapestries that back the drama and are called the future. This
ebb of vitality feels the ignoble and cruel
Incidents, not the vast abstract order.
I lie and hear dark rain beat
the roof, and the night-blind wind.
In the Ventana country darkness and rain and the roar of waters
fill the deep mountain-throats.
The creekside shelf of sand where we lay last August under a slip of stars,
And firelight played on the leaning gorge-walls, is drowned and
lost. The deer of the country huddle on a ridge
In a close herd under madrone-trees; they tremble when a rockslide
goes down, they open great darkness-
Drinking eyes and press closer.
Cataracts of rock
Rain down the mountain from cliff to cliff and torment the
stream-bed. The stream deals with them. The laurels are wounded,
Redwoods go down with their earth and lie thwart the gorge. I
hear the torrent boulders battering each other,
I feel the flesh of the mountain move on its bones in the wet
Is this more beautiful
Than man's disasters? These wounds will heal in their time; so
will humanity's. This is more beautiful ... at night . . .
Robinson Jeffers: This poem is called “Oh, Lovely Rock”.
We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork.
The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood,
Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts
Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices.
We lay on gravel and kept a little camp-fire for warmth.
Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay-leaves
On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay down again. The revived flame
Lighted my sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the vertical face of the great gorge-wall
Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s breath, tree-trunks were seen: it was the rock wall
That fascinated my eyes and mind. Nothing strange: light-gray diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,
Smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no fern nor lichen, pure naked rock…as if I were
Seeing rock for the first time. As if I were seeing through the flame-lit surface into the real and bodily
And living rock. Nothing strange…I cannot
Tell you how strange: the silent passion, the deep nobility and childlike loveliness: this fate going on
Outside our fates. It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling child. I shall die, and my boys
Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,
And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem: this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive: the energies
That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above: and I, many packed centuries ago,
Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.
Robinson Jeffers: And here are 11 lines called “Place for No Story” because the coast here, it’s pure and simple grandeur, seemed to me any beautiful to be the setting of any narrative poem of mine. And I’ve kept the promise I made to it.
The coast hills at Sovranes Creek:
No trees, but dark scant pasture drawn thin
Over rock shaped like flame;
The old ocean at the land's foot, the vast
Gray extension beyond the long white violence;
A herd of cows and the bull
Far distant, hardly apparent up the dark slope;
And the gray air haunted with hawks:
This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen.
Human presence here could do anything
But dilute the lonely self-watchful passion.
That was Robinson Jeffers recorded at the Library of Congress in 1941 and used by permission of Stanford University Press. You’ve been listening to the Essential American Poets Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation in collaboration with poetryarchive.org. To learn more about Robinson Jeffers and other essential American poets, and to hear more poetry, go to poetryfoundation.org.