Thursday, January 14, 2010

Robinson Jeffers: Love the Wild Swan

To read the 4/4/1932 story, click the cover

This past Sunday was the birthday of the poet Robinson Jeffers, whose work I've been avidly re-reading over the last month or so in preparation for a forthcoming discussion with the group 3 Poems By. I'd been meaning to post this poem, which I think succinctly hits a number of Jeffers's major themes and still manages to be an excellent poem for all that.

Love the Wild Swan
“I hate my verses, every line, every word.
Oh pale and brittle pencils ever to try
One grass-blade’s curve, or the throat of one bird
That clings to twig, ruffled against white sky.
Oh cracked and twilight mirrors ever to catch
One color, one glinting flash, of the splendor of things.
Unlucky hunter, Oh bullets of wax,
The lion beauty, the wild-swan wings, the storm of the wings.”
—This wild swan of a world is no hunter’s game.
Better bullets than yours would miss the white breast,
Better mirrors than yours would crack in the flame.
Does it matter whether you hate your...self? At least
Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can
Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan.
Robinson Jeffers

In his general disdain for man and love of the natural world, Jeffers has been caught up in accusations of misanthropy. I see him almost as an instinctive Buddhist; it is the realization of our place in the world that is the essence of what he is after, not the wholesale writing off of mankind. In addition, like so many artists, he is pigeonholed and, like so many artists, he grew and changed in his vision and interpretation of what was around him.

What cannot be denied is his passion. He put it all on the line for his beliefs and he didn't back down. He went from being one of the most popular and esteemed poets in America to being much reviled, and, finally, into near obscurity. Of recent times, his environmental themes have been taken up by the movement but one can't help but think this would not afford him any real amount of pleasure. The process of selectivity required to produce such a legacy ignores a great deal of what he was about. Initially, he was known for his epic book-length works, as in the era of the above Time magazine article, but currently it is his short work that he is most remembered for.

Ultimately, his beliefs were broad enough to contain all the beauty and all the terror that is nature, that is our existence. Think stern but loving parent. Think tough love.

Think Bodhisattva.


The next broadside I'd like to feature from the Lilliput series is Spiral by the poet Christien Gholson. Since this short 4 part poem can't really be excerpted, here it is in its entirety (minus the tactile dimension, the colorful paper, and the nifty Bosch spot illustrations). If you'd like a copy to hold of your very own, it is available for a measly dollar or an even more thrifty SASE.


The missing will return.

The train horn scythes the sky in half,
leaves a door for them
to leap through.

They swing down the sickle moon,
ride the back of a grey and white humped-back mosquito
through a sickly sweet over-ripe
jasmine vine.

The dead will return.

They poke their heads up from the sea,
eyeing the shoreline,
moon burning their scales

From a train window
I saw the glistening roll of their backs
across the black surface
of the bay.

The frenzied legs of a mosquito-catcher
jangle across the lampshade,
across the center panel of a Bosch print,
settle at the foot of St. Anthony.

Every flame is searching for an altar.

At the furthest edge of the night
a wall of white noise hides the first word.
Bones in red dust on a mesa-flat
begin their journey back.

Where the bones used to be,
a solitary seed-husk blown in circles.
Christien Gholson

And the final word to Master Issa, reminding us why it is important not to do certain things we are supposed to do:

that grass over there
won't be cut...
translated by David G. Lanoue



Charles Gramlich said...

The opening poem certainly expresses something I often think of, the inadequacy of art to truly capture life.

Ed Baker said...

didn't RJ (and his wife) build a "far out" house on a hill over-looking the "left coast's" ocean


a tower into which he retreated?

I guess I could "google" this as

I am a "stickler" for correct facts and absolute "karma"

Jim H. said...

The closing poem captures well my attitude about shoveling snow from the driveway. In a month or so, the sun will do it for me.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, yes, as poets and writers sometimes it seems it is our own inadequacies and other times it is language and form that fails.

Ed, that's him - he built Tor House, and an accompanying tower, out of stone block, on continent's edge, side by side with some stonemasons.

Here it is.

Jim - damn, man, walking to work today after posting this I was thinking, hey, haven't heard from that Jim-guy in awhile. I do the same thing with the little patch of grass in our rowhouse backyard - each year, Laurie grabs another batch to expand her flower/veggie garden. Can't wait till the grass is all gone.

William A. Sigler said...

I love both your posts on Jeffers—any day of thinking about Jeffers is a happy day, as far as I’m concerned.

I too find myself returning to his poems often, each time watching him grow larger, into, as you so elegantly allude, a disembodied father voice—while so many others shrink, like children wanting attention, into their own meaning and context.

Like a Buddhist, or, say, William Bronk, Jeffers refuses to assign unknowable meanings to the way things are. If the Tao can’t be found in the skreek of a sea-bird, or the thoughts of a rock, it can’t be found anywhere. Similarly, quoting or paraphrasing Jeffers is like quoting or paraphrasing the sea—every line has its own unique force and cadence, it makes fools of critics.

I would argue Jeffers is not neglected so much for his political stance (Ezra Pound had a much more controversial and “anti-human” point-of-view), but because nobody much remembers any more what poetry is. It is not so much about what he is saying—many old men voice similar sentiments—it is the way the force of it is imbedded in the emotional music of his long, consonant and syncopated lines. It seeks to be worthy of the hawk’s cry, not the strange and small rhymings of lost humanity.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

William, many thanks for the very kind words and finely tuned insight. The Bronk connection I didn't think of but there it is, a perfect comparison.

"it is the way the force of it is imbedded in the emotional music of his long, consonant and syncopated lines" - spot on.

I guess the politics is what initially turned people off back in his day - perhaps you are right about the state of poetry among people today being currently more relevant than any political view or other. He said that the poet should write for posterity and not for the present and, once again, I believe he was prescient in that, at least as concerns himself.

L. Espenmiller said...

Thanks, Don, for this post. Not sure what I want to say about it except that much of it speaks to me. I'm not familiar with Jeffers poetry (although I did know about Tor House and his Tower - don't know how or when or why that info came to me, but there it is. I'm fairly certain it is open to the public.) I will add Jeffers to my list of poets to seek out. Thanks, again. peace.

JforJames said...

I'm a big fan of Jeffers' poetry. Thanks for the post. In return a quote from RJ that I favor:

" is not necessary, because an epoch is confused,
that its poet should share its confusions."

Robinson Jeffers , "Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years"
(from _The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers_ by Radcliffe Squires)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, J, that quote perfectly captures Jeffers sensibility -

staringatangels said...

Excellent post, Don. I'm about half way through the slim volume of Jeffers' Selected Poems that you recommended. It irks me that he has become so underappreciated and misunderstood. It's hard to believe that the Time writer said that the public saw him as the greatest poet the U.S. had produced! Aside from praising nature and disdaining man, he seems to describe an informal metaphysics, reminding me of both Eastern philosophy and Native American wisdom:

Fierce consciousness joined with final
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.
(Rock and Hawk)

He is quick becoming one of my favorite poets. Would you be interested in getting together to discuss Jeffers before the 3 Poems group? I'm curious as to which poems you're considering.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

A, thanks much ... Jeffers is like an ancient tree at continent's edge, taking all blows undiminished, standing tall -

Would be happy to get together ahead of time - I've been reading and re-reading about 30 of the poems - the difficulty is finding which ones to discuss - lots to talk about, but I'd like to represent him well, also.