Gioia on Robinson Jeffers

If you judge a critic by whether or not he interests you in his topic, I’d have to conclude that Gioia is a successful critic because he convinced me to finally pull out my ancient copy of Robinson Jeffers’ Selected Poetry and to order a copy of Weldon Kees’ Collected Poems. I suspect I might have been happier if I had actually purchased the copy of Jeffers’ poems that he was reviewing because it is a new collection by Robert Hass that tends to omit Jeffers’ longer poems, and it is precisely those long poems that kept me from finishing the book when I originally picked it up.

It’s the initial long poem “Tamar” which has kept me from getting farther along than I’ve managed so far. Still Gioia’s contention that Jeffer’s is “the unchallenged laureate of environmentalists” was enough to motivate me to attempt to read the Selected Poems again It is Gioia’s explanation of Jeffer’s appeal to environmentalists that most attracted me:

Perhaps what makes Jeffers's poetry so important to environmentalists is exactly what repels academics. More than any other American Modernist Jeffers wrote about ideas - not teasing epistemologies, learned allusions, or fictive paradoxes - but big, naked, howling ideas that no reader can miss. The directness and clarity of Jeffers's style reflects the priority he put on communicating his worldview. Many interesting studies have been written on the styles of Eliot and Stevens, for indeed one needs to understand how most Modernist poems mean (to use Ciardi's famous formulation) before one can understand what they mean. Jeffers's verse, however, presents no such barriers to an intelligent reader. It states its propositions so lucidly that the critic has no choice but to confront its content. The discussion can no longer be confined within the safe literary categories of formal analysis - internal structure, conslstency, thematics, tone, and symbolism - that still constitute the overwhelming majority of all academic studies. Instead, he or she must deal with the difficult and disagreeable primary issues of religious belief and morality.

Jeffers's worldview certainly never makes it easy for his critics. His self proclaimed philosophy of "inhumanism" contains something to offend everyone - Christian, Jew, Marxist, or humanist - who assumes man's central position in the cosmos. He resolutely refused to be bound by any of the usual allegiances of human society not merely those of race, class, religion, or nation. (Voltaire and Nietzsche had already questioned those pieties. ) Jeffers's originality came from going beyond social loyalties to the more fundamental ones of species, time, and even - no, I'm not kidding, planet. No poet ever wrote more consistently sub specie aeternitatis. For Jeffers, humanity was ultimately only one species, which happened to gain biological ascendancy (like the bison or the passenger pigeon) over a particular range in a certain epoch. Mankind may he more intelligent or adaptable than other species, but these gifts hardly compensate for its cruelty, greed, and arrogance. Before any other imaginative writer, Jeffers articulated the immense evil inherent in humanity's assumption that it stands above and apart from the world. He saw the pollution of the environment, the destruction of other species, the squandering of natural resources, the recurrent urge to war, the violent squalor of cities as the inevitable result of a race out of harmony with its own world.

Original insights have always seemed more important to me than style, though our greatest poets, like Whitman, combine a unique style with unique ideas, and a great thinker like Emerson may be nothing more than a minor poet because he is unable to translate his abstract ideas into concrete poems.

If Gioia is right that Jeffers

struggled to answer the questions science had been able only to ask: What are man's responsibilities in a world not made solely for him? How does humankind lead a good and meaningful life without God? Jeffers's great triumph is that now sixty years after he began his radical redefinition of human values his answers still seem disturbingly fresh and cogent, while the political and social theories of Pound, Yeats, Eliot, and others have become musty period pieces.

Then any effort I have to make to unravel those ideas should be worth the effort it takes.

I must admit that when I bought Jeffers’ Selected Poems many years ago I was surprised that he had not been covered in any detail in the many poetry classes I’d taken:

But Jeffers's poetic independence came at the price of being banished from the academic canon, where the merits of a Modernist are still mostly determined by distinctiveness of stylistic innovation and self referential consistency of vision. In this environment Robert Hass's Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robiinson Jeffers constitutes a major act of restitution. This medium sized anthology represents, difficult as it is to believe, the first representative selection from Jeffers's life work ever assembled. There are criticisms to be made of the collection, but one must first credit the seriousness and quality of effort displayed here. The book is well conceived, intelligently edited, suavely introduced, and beautifully designed. It also contains some of the best poetry ever written by an American.

I know that poems like “Shine, Perishing Republic” are unforgettable, but I’m still unsure that Jeffers’ poems are “some of the best poetry ever written by an American.” I guess I’m about to find out this week. If I weren’t so frugal, I’d probably ignore the Selected Poems sitting on my shelf and buy Hass’s new edition, but since Gioia is so insistent that Jeffers’ long poems are the best long poems ever written by an American I’d be cheating myself if I totally ignored them. They’d better be much better than “Tamar,” or I’m going to have to strongly disagree with Gioia.

Still, I’m looking forward to rediscovering Jeffers’ environmental ideas:

But Jeffers is a distractingly memorable writer. Rereading his poems in Rock and Hawk, I found an astonishing number of his lines tumbling around in my head. But hearing them there, I noticed it wasn't only their strong music I savored but the hard edge of their wisdom. They held their own against experience. It was good to live with these poems again. Jeffers has entered his second century quite splendidly.

As one who’s been accused of romanticizing nature, it will be interesting to see what Jeffers has to say about it, particularly if his view is as radical as Gioia suggests.

5 thoughts on “Gioia on Robinson Jeffers

  1. I have a spoken copy of Jeffer’s “Oh, Lovely Rock” on my iPod and listen to it often. It’s in the top 25 most played on my computer and iPod. I think Jeffers is a figure to contend with and it’s just sad that he has been so overlooked in academia. I wouldn’t call Jeffers an environmentalist (even though his work is important to environmentalists), as Jeffers cannot be exactly pinned down. There is something of a mystical quality in his work, especially in a poem like “Oh, Lovely Rock.”

    We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek,
    up in 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 slid-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 or 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 lovliness: 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 it’s 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 1962

  2. Jeffers was the first modern poet I read, at the age of 12. His rhythm and subject-matter had a huge impact on me, but I can’t say I ever thought much of his ideas. They didn’t hold a candle to the Daoism I discoverd a few years later. The Daodejing and Zhuangzi formed the real basis of my philosophy as an environmentalist. But I think Gioia is indulging in some hyperbole here. Is Williams’ great dictum, “no ideas but in things,” really so hard to grasp? What’s so difficult about Wallace Stevens, or Ezra Pound? The difference for me is that one can disagree with Jeffers and still really enjoy his images and language. I haven’t found that to be as true of the high modernists, whose work tended to be a lot less impassioned.

  3. I suspect that any critic who’s writing on the 100 year anniversary of a poet is probably going to resort to some hyperbole, Dave.

    My love of nature comes directly from my father who grew up on Puget Sound, largely by himself. His love of nature is somehow wrapped around his Christian Science upbringing, but I instantly recognized many of the same beliefs when I first read Emerson and Thoreau.

    While I do love the Taoists, I’d have to say that’s probably because their ideas remind me of Emerson and Thoreau.

  4. RETURN

    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 they cannot strike, hardly can fly.
    Things are the hawk’s food and noble is the mountain, Oh noble
    Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.

    Maybe it’s because I was born not all that far from Big Sur that Robinson Jeffers’ poetry is so vivid and true to my experiences in that region. My recollection is that his long poems are dark and brooding tales, not easy to stay with. They certainly influenced many of my more brooding drawings and paintings indirectly, if not directly. My introduction to Robinson Jeffers’ poetry was when I was 17 years old, during my first year of college. I have a copy of THE SELECTED POETRY OF ROBINSON JEFFERS which I bought secondhand when I was in my 30s, having returned to college to complete my degree in English Literature. If I didn’t have such severe book mold allergies, I would spend time reading that copy of the book again. I’m thinking about finding a copy of Gioia’s book. Thanks for these posts.

What do you think?