Sunday, January 11, 2009

Robinson Jeffers: Antiwar Poems



Robinson Jeffers was the Walt Whitman of misanthropy (I am told the correct term is inhumanism. What then might be the correct tone?). When he embraced the void, it was no simile and there was no echo. For Jeffers, Swift's A Modest Proposal ... was, perhaps, too good, too late. If Beckett has him beat in the hopelessness department, it's only by a short, curly one.

But enough with hyperbole. Jeffers loved nature, rocks, cliffs, the sea, hawks; man he, perhaps, could take or leave (can someone be an occasional misanthropist?). He certainly wasn't much impressed with our achievements. And ultimately it cost him, losing his early hard earned fame in the politics of nationalism.

Because of all these things, he doesn't make your average poetry readers' top ten list (or top 190, for that matter). There doesn't seem to be any danger that The Library of America will be calling anytime soon. It just so happens, however, that Jeffers was one of the finest American poets of the 20th century and yesterday was the anniversary of his birth. Poets.org notes that "Jeffers verse, much of which was set in the Carmel/Big Sur region, celebrates the awesome beauty of coastal hills and ravines that plunged into the Pacific." The website features three of his poems: Carmel Point, Rock and Hawk, and Summer Holiday, which are representative of much of his shorter work.

I'd like, however, to take a different approach. I'd like to remember him for his anti-war stance that cost him his popularity and, perhaps, some of the depth of what might have been his posthumous reputation.




The Soul's Desert

They are warming up the old horrors, and all that they
-----say is echoes of echoes.
Beware of taking sides; only watch.
These are not criminals, nor hucksters and little jour-
-----nalists, but the governments
Of the great nations; men favorably
Representative of massed humanity. Observe them.
-----Wrath and laughter
Are quite irrelevant. Clearly it is time
To become disillusioned each person to enter his own
-----soul's desert
And look for Godhaving seen man.



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
Jeweled 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.




Their Beauty Has More Meaning

Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the
-----ocean,
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night herons flapping home wore dawn on their
-----wings. Today
Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,
And white seas leap. I honestly do not know which day
-----is more beautiful.
I know that tomorrow or next year or in twenty years
I shall not see these thingsand it does not matter, it
-----does not hurt.
They will be here. And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here:
-----storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and the birds. And I say this: their beauty
-----has more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.



And, finally, now, pilgrims, here's a little bit of parting advice:



Advice to Pilgrims

That our senses lie and our minds trick us is true, but in
-----general
They are honest rustics; trust them a little;
The senses more than the man, and your own mind more
-----than another man's.
As to the mind's pilot, intuition
Catch him clean and stark naked, he is the first of truth-
-----tellers; dream-clothed, or dirty
With fears and wishes, he is prince of liars.
The first fear is of death: trust no immortalist. The first
-----desire
Is to be loved: trust no mother's son.
Finally I say let demagogues and world redeemers bab-
-----ble their emptiness
To empty ears; twice duped is too much.
Walk on gaunt shores and avoid the people; rock and
-----wave are good prophets;
Wise are the wings of the gull, pleasant her song.

Robinson Jeffers



Twice duped, indeed.



best,
Don

7 comments:

Ed Baker said...

I have an huge book A Modest Proposal hand done AND illustrated by Leonard Baskin...
.. Grossman NYC 1969
and,

think that Swift in presenting this "solution" to that famine IS in the same "ballpark" as that Basho

happenstance/ploy!


and ,,, I got this copy (as I recall)from a Barnes & Noble $3 and under table in 1970 (or so)


maybe I should "google" this and see "whatz-it-wort-h"?

http://www.arcanabooks.com/bookimages/014029.jpg

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent. I have a bit of Jeffers in me, I think. The world of nature has steadily become more important to me as I've aged. The beauty of nature. And of humanity? No so much.

David J. Rothman said...

Nice post.

My name is David J. Rothman, and I'm the current President of the Robinson Jeffers Association, Our annual meeting this year is in Boulder, Feb. 13-15, with Reg Saner as keynote.

Those interested in Jeffers war poems might want to take a look at James Shebl's "In This Troubled Water: The Suppressed Poems of RJ" for a history of the controversy that dogged his publication of them.

As for RJ being a misanthropist -- it's an understandable accusation. But I'd say that, like Swift, he responded as he did to humanity not because he hated it, but because his love for it wounded him so deeply that he just couldn't stand it. Hi "Inhumanism" is a response to pain engendered by care, not to hatred. This is the context in which he warns his sons, at the end of "Shine, Perishing Republic," to beware of love of man, a trap that, as he sees it, caught Christ.

David J. Rothman said...

Nice post.

My name is David J. Rothman, and I'm the current President of the Robinson Jeffers Association, Our annual meeting this year is in Boulder, Feb. 13-15, with Reg Saner as keynote.

Those interested in Jeffers war poems might want to take a look at James Shebl's "In This Troubled Water: The Suppressed Poems of RJ" for a history of the controversy that dogged his publication of them.

As for RJ being a misanthropist -- it's an understandable accusation. But I'd say that, like Swift, he responded as he did to humanity not because he hated it, but because his love for it wounded him so deeply that he just couldn't stand it. Hi "Inhumanism" is a response to pain engendered by care, not to hatred. This is the context in which he warns his sons, at the end of "Shine, Perishing Republic," to beware of love of man, a trap that, as he sees it, caught Christ.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

David:

Thanks very much for the insightful comment and your mild corrective as to Jeffers being a misanthrope. Your point is very well taken, indeed; Jeffers, Swift, Twain, and Vonnegut could only have been motivated by love, no matter how deep and vituperous their anger may have occasionally run. The statement about misanthropy was the hyperbole to which I referred. If I was so self aware, perhaps it might have been best left out altogether.

Thanks also for mentioning the oft anthologized, stellar Shine, Pershing Republic." For those unfamiliar with it, it may be seen as a companion piece to the other poems in this post and as one of great pieces of the 20th century American canon.

best,
Don

Anonymous said...

"the senses more than the MIND" as I remember.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

And you remember correctly ...