Robinson Jeffers' Last Poems
I recently discovered a first edition copy of the last published book of Robinson Jeffers' poems, The Beginning & the End, and other poems. This was a posthumous collection, although some of the poems had been organized and collected by Jeffers over the decade preceding his death.
It's a philosophical poetry collection, the last thoughts written of a thoughtful poet who had lived a dramatic life and written dramatically about life. These are final statements, some very powerful, some more general summations of life. I want to focus on some of the latter summations, as they appear in short poems that are more statements than images.
The conventional wisdom is that poetry should show, not tell: that is, describe and evoke, rather than tell us what to think or feel. Generally, I feel strongly that a poem needs to evoke an experience, or draw you into itself and recreate an experience in you: to make you feel something, rather than just tell you what you're supposed to be feeling. Generally, the "show, don't tell" rule is a good one to follow.
Yet there is also room, at times, for more philosophical poetry, which examines ideas, which examines life from a thoughtful and interpretative mode, rather than a purely descriptive, narrative, or evocative mode. Jeffers is in many ways best known for these other modes; many consider his greatest poems to be his long narratives, such as Cawdor, or The Double Axe. Some of his other, nature-inspired shorter poems, lyric in tone if original in structure, evoke the descriptive or imagistic mode. These are the types of poetry Jeffers is best known for, so I think his shorter philosophical poems often get overlooked.
I want to respond to some of these late, shorter, philosophical poems. My best response to Jeffers' poetry is artistic: his poems often evoke an image for me, or inspire a poem of my own, or words and image combined. I reproduce here one or two short excerpts, to respond to; and also as photos, to also show the beautiful design and typography of this last collection of poems.
It is only a little planet / But how beautiful it is. That sums up so much of Jeffers' poetic viewpoint, and his mark upon my own. The double vision of immensity combined with love for what little we can know of that immensity. We are so small, in that vastness of the Universe; and important perhaps only to ourselves, in our own minds; yet our little, fragile planet is so incredibly beautiful. Even in its most harsh and terrible aspects, it is astoundingly lovely. There is so much wonder that we can never exhaust it, with our short lives. It would take forever to run out of beauty. And even though we ourselves will run out, and fail, the beauty will still go on, still be there for those who come after us.
A late, final ars poetica, those poems poets write about their art, about themselves. There are lines that serve as ars poetica, throughout Jeffers' long writing career; phrases from the longer narratives, and entire shorter poems, that tell us what he thought of his own art, and how to accomplish it. But this to me seems to be the kernel of it: A poet is one who listens / To nature and his own heart; and to nature and our hearts we must always listen, is the implication. Which I respond to with wholehearted agreement. Many of the poets who have most strongly influenced me, as someone who occasionally makes poems, are poets such as Jeffers who listen to nature: Whitman, Dickinson, Gary Snyder, Basho, among others. Not all poetry, and not even the best poetry, is always human-centered. Sometimes great poems have no humanity in them. Of course, being made by humans, there is always a relationships involved, between poet and subject: a connection woven from word and image between what is human and what is nameless; so that all poems in one way human-centered, in that they are made by humans.
But human-centered is not necessarily human-centric. Jeffers was often at pains to state that poetry does not always have to be about humans and their desires and concerns; that poetry does not have to be focused upon human need, human action, and human idea. This was one of the ways in which he strongly influenced many poets who came after him (including Snyder). In some ways, when Jeffers says to leave the poet alone, I think he means that human action can be distracting rather than supportive, to the poet, to the artistic process.
My own experience has often been that I feel clearest of artistic purpose when away from people, when far out in the wilderness, when on a roadtrip or camping at an isolated state park where few are gathered. My mind is clearer for not being entangled with worries and drama brought on by other people. I need this, I realize: I need it, at least to some deep extent, I need it enough that I must make time for it, and thus make time for trips away from the routines, from the daily circuit of self-involvement that is people worrying about their own lives. I return recharged, even refreshed. And when out away from the whirl, I often am given good poems, and good photographs.
This is another short ars poetica, but more than that it's a summation of what Jeffers built there on the Carmel shore: his home, the tower next to the house, and the several hundred trees he planted. This late poem is prophetic: many of those trees are gone, and the desirable real estate of the peninsula has crowded around his once-isolated house with new house after house built close together and congested. It is still a beautiful place, for all the houses crowded in. One can still walk along the shoreline and look out at the limitless ocean. One can still stand at the foot of the tower and see nothing but sky, rock, and waves. And now Tor House and Hawk Tower are landmarks to be preserved, because of the granitic strength of the poet's words. So even though development of the peninsula and neighbors' houses have eaten up many of his trees, I believe the stones of his house will endure. I love the idea that "flower-soft verse" is sometimes harder than stone: that Jeffers' home is being preserved proves him to be again prophetic.
The other mode of poetry, not yet mentioned here, is the prophetic mode, or vatic mode: the sometimes didactic but necessary mode in which the poet speaks to the people as a prophet, speaks to future generations, promises to speak only truth no matter how painful truth is to hear, and risks rejection on the basis of that truthful speech. Many unpopular poets are truthful speakers; many poets famed and lauded during their own lifetimes are liars, in that they give us not truth, but what we want to hear. These are the famous and popular and best-selling poets, often enough, who play to the crowd, who pander and diminish their own visions as a means of becoming popular. A kind of prostitution, if you will. Jeffers was frequently harsh about this type of poet: harsh and uncompromising. He could afford to be. It is a prophet's necessity.
I find myself sometimes sharing that harsh, uncompromising viewpoint about the poems I write. But then, I'm not trying to make a living from poetry; nor am I trying to make a worldly reputation. I don't need to prostitute my poems because I have no ambition for them except for them to truthful speaking. I respond so strongly to the vatic mode in Jeffers' poems because it serves as a model for the necessity I feel to be truthful in my own. If only accidentally prophetic, if not deliberately vatic. I do write shamanic poetry, just as I make shamanic art, and music. But that's another mode of truthful speaking, not necessarily intended to be either prophetic or didactic. I don't like to lecture: to tell, rather than show.
Nonetheless, I think this vatic mode in Jeffers' poetry is both essential and necessary. So much of what he wrote was essentially prophetic, and much of that was deeply rooted in the ancient Greek classics. The epic mode can be found in his longer narrative poems, and his verse dramas such as Medea. But the epic mode, in Jeffers, often shares mental space with the prophetic mode. His narratives show us the violence of what will happen, as consequence, to the larger-than-life human failings and jealousies that set great dramas into motion. Each of the narrative poems contain passages of rhapsodic description, of beautiful fragments of nature-writing, buried in and around the human dramas. It is a mistake to believe that these are digressions. Rather, they're reflections and commentary on the human action of the narrative: such passages provide setting, but they are also mirror-reflections in nature's eye of where the people go wrong.
This brings us back around to Jeffers' sense of our proper place in nature: not at its center, but as small animals on a small planet in a very ordinary spiral galaxy. What a small planet it is, yet it is so very beautiful. If we remember nothing else from these last poems, we do well to remember this. So very small in the grand scheme of things, we are nonetheless enacted by and enact with that terrible beauty that is life in nature on our planet. And we are part of nature, not separate from it, and not lords over it. We are one with our small planet, and its beauty is our beauty.