I Know I Prefer Short Poems

If “Tamar,” “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” or “Roan Stallion” are the best long poems written by an American poet as Gioia argued, I feel justified in my general distaste for long poetry. I suspect if these were movies, not poems, they would be universally panned by critics. In them Jeffers seems obsessed with sex in general, and incest in particular.

As a former caseworker, and the husband of a child protection worker, all the molesters I learned about were sad, sorry, weak people who could only satisfy themselves by preying on those weaker than themselves. Not one was larger than life, or admirable in any way I could ever imagine. Mostly they were in love with themselves and thought that somehow justified whatever they wanted to do.

I’ll have to admit that I nearly broke out laughing when I read this passage from “Roan Stallion”

… Desire had died in her
At the first rush, the falling like death, but now it revived,
She feeling between her thighs the labor of the great engine, the running muscles, the hard swiftness,
She riding the savage and exultant strength of the world.

It was hard to push the line “ Worshipping the performance of the phallus” from Bruce Cockburn’s “Put Our Hearts Together” out of my mind while reading the poem. Nor does it get any more believable at the end of the poem when California shoots the roan stallionand then “turned on her little daughter the mask of a woman/Who has killed God.”

In fact, in the first one hundred and fifty pages of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, I’ve only found one poem I felt deserved a second or third reading:

TO THE STONECUTTERS

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly:
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey peace in old poems.

Although this idea has been handled better in Shelley’ famous “Ozymandias,” Jeffers does manage to bring his own unique perspective to the idea, if mockingly. Do you suppose Jeffers envisions his own poems helping readers overcome their pained thoughts through their “honey peace?”

Still, the poem manage to put man on a slightly different footing than most poetry does. If not been entirely knocked off its pedestal, mankind has at least lost a nose or an arm or two. That’s not to say, though, that the artist’s work will not last considerably longer than most of mankind’s works.

Luckily, “Shine, Perishing Republic” is coming up in a couple of pages.

8 thoughts on “I Know I Prefer Short Poems

  1. The Jeffers’ poems that mean the most to me are the short ones that speak of his love for his wife and the place he lived. Not sure if the ones to his wife are in THE SELECTED POETRY OF ROBINSON JEFFERS. I found the long poems difficult, distressing and depressing as a 17 year old, as a 30 year old, and again when I tried to read them for the poetry-reading group I attended a few years ago.

  2. PS: I asked if you would be more specific because I had to read your entry several times to figure out if you were saying Jeffers was guilty of incest. His preoccupation with incest is derived from the Bible and from myth. I’ve dealt with such themes myself in my own writing. In fact many creation myths are myths of incest. I just thought you might clarify your position of Jeffers and incest.

  3. No I’m certainly not saying Jeffers was guilty of incest, just that the first long poem, Tamar, is about a family who is brought down by incest, both by the mad father’s earlier incest with his sister, and Tamar’s incest with her brother.”

    After Tamar and her brother have sex the first time, she says “You knew already, a girl has got to learn. I love you, I chose my teacher./ Mine, it was my doing. She flung herself upon him, cold white and smooth, with sobbing kisses. “

    Jeffers also adds a twist to Electra and Orestes that I hadn’t encoutered before, though apparently theres a modern playwright that suggests incest was involved. Orestes says, “If I had Agamemnon’s /We’d live happily sister and lord in Mycenae – be it king like the others – royalty and incest/ Run both in the stream of the blood.”

    It’s certainly not that I’m prudish and think the theme is untouchable, it isn’t and shouldn’t be. I just wasn’t fond of what seems to me Jeffers melodramatic approach to the subject.

  4. Ah, thanks much for the clarification! 🙂

    I guess for myself, I would rather see a poet take chances, and I’d like to see him or her risk overwriting or sentimentality because at least in such a situation I know the poet’s heart; I know the subject was important enough for him or her to take the risk. (D.H. Lawrence is one such poet for me; when one of his poems is bad, it’s really bad, but I still respect the effort. And when one of his poems is good: ahhhhhhh.) Even an overwritten, sentimental poem beats a lot of the sterile poetry out there (I think).

    Seeing the stallion poem through your eyes, I can see the problem with it. But speaking from my writer’s and not my critic’s heart, I know it is easier to know why something someone else has written is bad than to know how to write something good. I think for this reason I would never make a good or even an adequate critic. I will always be rooting for the writer! 🙂

    As always, Loren, I love your astute and honest judgment of the poems and poets you write about.

  5. Loren, FYI, I know you are not wild about games of tag. I think I saw that you participated in a tag once. I tagged you at my blog. I’m sorry: I couldn’t help it. The Meme was to list the 5 blogs that really make me think! I just had to list yours! 🙂

  6. Firstly, this is a beautiful site, though not one easy to navigate.

    Secondly, I, too, prefer Jeffers’ short poems to his long..he packs much into a few verses. I enjoy his longer works, though….they just require me to work more to get through them.

    Thirdly, I must disagree with you, Loren, when you say that Ozymandias handles the subject better than Stonecutters. Note, I have adored both these poems for decades. Shelly, though, is speaking more particularly to pride and power, I feel. Jeffers is casting his searchlight on himself, as he often did, and is reminding himself and other artists that nothing human is permanent (shades of a laurel held over a victor’s head: “This, too, shall pass.”).

    Lastly, if Shelley has the superior treatment we will have lost this: “…and pained thoughts found the honey of peace in old poems.” !!!

  7. The reason it’s hard to navigate is because it was never organized as a site, David; instead, it evolved one blog entry at a time. It’s written more like a diary than a book.

    I really don’t like the long list of titles in the side column, but it seems to me that that’s the only way to give people a chance to find anything directly from the site.

What do you think?