Thursday, March 11, 2010

Robinson Jeffers & Tor House

Tor House

Hawk Tower

I was in Carmel-By-the-Sea in California in mid-February 2010 to give a presentation at the annual conference of the Robinson Jeffers Association, of which I am a member. (Giving this paper at this conference was my only fixed agenda on this recent roadtrip out to California and back; the rest of my time was devoted to being on vacation, making photographs, and visiting friends and family.) The theme of the conference was "Robinson Jeffers and the Poetry of the West." I was part of a Sunday morning panel that discussed ecopoetics, fire- and water-ecosystem management and its poetics, and related matters. I gave a talk as an artist, then showed an original video. I thought my presentation went very well; and it was well-received, and received some very good comments. (I'll post a version of it here, when I get a chance.)

I approached my topic as an artist, rather than as a scholar, academic professor, critic, or literary analyst. There were at the conference the usual number of papers that looked into the details of poetic content, form, and analysis; but I'm proud to say that I quoted no poems in my paper, and did no analysis. This set me quite outside the norm, where I am usually more comfortable. I've been an academic scholar; I've presented lots of papers at academic conferences, although it's been at least 15 years since I did anything like this; and I decided to do something completely different. I even went so far as to read my paper from my laptop, rather than print it out beforehand. I actually read from notes rather than a finished paper; I'm not that fond of just reading a pre-written text out loud at these sorts of conferences; it can get a bit deadening to do only that.

The first evening of this annual conference, there was an informal social gathering and poetry reading at Tor House, overlooking the ocean at the edge of Carmel, the home that Jeffers built out of the local stone for himself, his wife Una, and their children. During this social get-together, we were allowed to wander the grounds, explore the house, climb Hawk Tower to look out over the ocean and the surrounding lands, and take as many photos for ourselves as we wished. All of which I avidly partook. It was a real challenge climbing up to the top of Hawk Tower—steep, steep risers, narrow, rain-wet stairs with no real handholds except the stones themselves—but I'm glad I did. Not only for the view, but to have stood where Jeffers stood, and seen the view of Point Lobos and the other spurs of land extending out into the Pacific Ocean.

the oceanside gate, and Hawk Tower

garden bench at the foot of Hawk Tower

Tor House is maintained and operated now by the private Tor House Foundation, which offers tours and sponsors events, including an annual poetry contest. This year they also provided a lot of the logistical support for the annual conference; wonderful people doing wonderful work, to preserve the house that Jeffers built, and to preserve and extend his legacy.

lilies, by the gate

After the conference, as we were all breaking up to go home, one of my co-panelists told me that he had very much appreciated that I had approached Jeffers as an artist, not just as a writer. I thanked him for understanding my message, if you will, on that very point.

Robinson Jeffers was an artist: in addition to being a poet, he was a stonemason, a designer, a builder, a carpenter, a garden designer, and more. He was visually aware: I argue that his poetry is almost cinematic at times, giving us a sequence of images that create a narrative, almost non-verbally, although made of words, because presented without interpretation or commentary. Although he is well-known for his long narrative poems, his essays giving us his still-controversial views on poetics and politics and social reality, in fact in many of his shorter lyrics the world is just presented as it is: Jeffers was a keen visual observer. His observations led him towards an understanding of coastal fire ecology decades before such was formulated; he was keenly aware of the life and death of the natural world around him, the rhythms of the ocean and climate, the meanings given by us to the stars overhead. He knew his place very well indeed.

Tor House, from the top of Hawk Tower

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

What a wonderful experience, this journey on and through the life of Jeffers and Tor House. Good on you for avoiding the rigidly scholastic in your presentation.

As you say it's boring, it might be safe for the presenter but the audience has to suffer, not always, but often.

So there was even more to your journey than geography and wonderful photos and thoughts. There was poetic companionship and history, architecture and more besides. a bit like Jeffers himself.


4:23 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Elizabeth, and thanks. It was fun to be able to attend and present at this conference, in the middle of my vacation/roadtrip. I built the rest of the trip around needing to be at Carmel on conference dates. That made it even more fun.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Pat said...

Seeing your photos, I want to see Tor House even more now than I did. And I am so glad you found callas blooming along the such beautiful photos of them. They are just beginning to bloom on the north coast now. I am sure your conference audience, weary of yet another academic/poetic take on it, was thankful to hear an artist's view of Jeffers' other passions.


2:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Pat. I know you'd really love Tor House. It's a really wonderful place.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Alec said...

It really amazed me to see the actual size of Tor House...just based on his poetry i never expected such a massive...almost complex-esque set up. It really reminded me of his poem "ghost," and i feel like Jeffers is almost hypocritical to have built such a series of buildings, after his seemingly detesting view of all things modern or urban. But regardless, i loved the photos, and i would really like to visit the place if i ever got the chance.

just as a end note, i really loved your self-given credentials. i got a good laugh.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Nothing hypocritical at all about it. When he built Tor House it was the only structure on the headland: completely rural, very isolated. Carmel has been built up around it, filling in the peninsula, and in many cases cutting down the trees that Jeffers planted, to be able to build. As for what's modern, Jeffers didn't hate the modern, he just saw it as dangerously unbalanced. Doom-saying isn't necessarily hatred.

9:41 PM  

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