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.