Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Visionary Poetry 11: An exemplary poet

Robinson Jeffers.

I am always looking for the transhuman in nature. I sense a vast indifference, in the cosmos, to what we so egotistically call things that matter—things that matter to us, perhaps, but not necessarily to Nature. I have often found a kindred spirit, albeit an occasionally extremist one, in the early founders and writers of the Sierra Club, David Brower, Ansel Adams, even Edward Abbey. (Although I have written before, in a review of Desert Solitaire, that Abbey is at his best when he just describes nature, and at his worst when he shares his opinions about anything with the reader.) Since I arrived in California, haunting the various Goodwill stores around the East Bay, I have found numerous volumes from the 1960s and 70s published by the Sierra Club, mostly edited by David Brower. A lot of these are coffee-table trade paperbacks, richly illustrated with photos of nature, and some are well-known now, others less so. I have several books now that are quotes from various sources accompanying the photographs of Elliot Porter, who has been rapidly becoming a favorite photo-mentor of mine, as I artistically follow in his footsteps.

Now, I find and read a book based on the writings of Robinson Jeffers, Not Man Apart, which is all his poems and photos by various artists of the Big Sur countryside, and I find a kindred spirit in there. Jeffers once wrote about his philosophy:

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty. —from the Preface to The Double Axe (1948)

More on Jeffers' viewpoint, by William Everson:

And like an intrepid desert prophet he set about the correction, writing poems which were massive acts of confrontation, exhortation, and persuasion. He confronted human pride with the facts of human abjectness, he exhorted human complacency with acts of religious arousal, and he persuaded of human folly by appeal to transhuman relevance. Thus he sought to wrench man's attention from his own self-deceptions, and fasten his soul upon the naked divinity manifest in the cosmos. This is a familiar enough religious tactic, but Jeffers' employment of it is extraordinary. Nineteenth-century science had presented Nietzsche with a universe in which there was no place left for God. Twentieth-century science presented Jeffers with a universe in which there is no place left for man.

For unquestionably it was science that provided him with the objectivity, and hence the authority, to effect the religious mission he claimed for his own-particularly the sciences of astronomy and physics. Between those two millstones, the galaxy and the molecule, he pulverized human complacency to reveal man's insignificance to man. Whereas religious humanists like T. S. Eliot resisted the tendency of science to displace humanity from the center of things, Jeffers welcomed it and, moreover, celebrated it. He turned the employ of science back from the proliferation of creature comforts to religious contemplation; and what it contemplated was virtually ungraspable, a vision "measureless to man."

I find this an increasingly congenial viewpoint, and I think Jeffers' attitude towards the larger world, whatever we might make, nowadays, of his poetry itself, is worth re-visiting. It contains a visionary spirit of looking beyond the everyday pettiness of human concerns and self-conscious self-awareness, to something larger, more potent, more eternal. It is, in some ways, an almost religious impulse.

But even as it is transhuman, it must also include the human. Jeffers writes:

. . . the greatest beauty is organic wholeness,
the wholeness of life and thigns,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that. . .

He is saying: We are not separate from That, we are not apart from it. In loving the world, we must also love ourselves—but as part of the world, not above it or in dominion over it (as some would have us be), but as an element of the whole, to be equally loved as part and parcel of the whole itself.

Like Loren Eiseley, who also wrote an Introduction to Not Man Apart, Jeffers writes about science, and stars, stones, evolution, and so forth. But also like Eiseley, he en-spirits what he writes about, he gives us the myths and the magic, and makes us understand why we should care about the souls of stars and deer alike. It's a way of looking at the world still too rare among Western poets, a way still mocked by the urban literati who have never slept out under the stars, cold by a dying campfire, coyotes howling in the distance. I find it conrinuously amazing how unfashionable this particular brand of nature-based visionary poetry remains, even now, among poets—even now among American haiku poets, who should be invested in this worldview like no others have been before them—unfashionable because it's subject is not the self, not personal drama, not confessionalism. It's a poetry not emotive in stereotypical manner, not personal or human enough to be sentimental. It is indeed transpersonal, archetypal, and mythic in scale, always remembering the humans went before us (Gary Snyder writes about his poetic roots being in the Paleolithic, not the Modern), and those who will come after us—a viewpoint of geologic and astrometric time, rather than political or social time. Perhaps it will always be unfashionable; but it is profound, and necessary, and essential for our survival as individuals and as a species.

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Blogger dave_lull said...

What do you think of this essay by Justin Raimondo?:

Robinson Jeffers: Peace Poet

7:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Dave, and thanks for the article.

The only point I really disagree with is this author's attempt to enfold Jeffers into conservatism, which I don't think Jeffers would have agreed to. He was too independent, really, as many poets are, and the Calvinism of his childhood led him to view everyone as equally fallen, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. This article quotes one of the problematic lines from The Double Axe, after all, which applies to across the political spectrum:

We know that all governments
Are thugs and liars, let them fight their own battles....

The key word there is "all." I wish I could disagree.

9:42 AM  

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