A Conversation on Robinson Jeffers

Interview by C. Derick Varn with Ramon Elani

jeffers coverC. Derick Varn: Why do you think Robinson Jeffers is a crucially neglected modernist poet? Why do you think the scholarship on him is so slight?

Ramon Elani: When I first discovered Robinson Jeffers my initial reaction was “This is amazing, how come I have never heard of him before?” The fact that most people are not familiar with his name is probably less surprising than it was for me, a PhD in English literature. In fact, I had even taught a course on American modernist poetry and never once seen reference to his name. As it turns out, this was not a coincidence.

Despite the fact that Jeffers was on the cover of Time magazine in 1932 and was put on a stamp in 1973, ten years after his death, a comprehensive scholarly edition of his work was not available until 2001 and nobody even attempted to publish his collected works before 1980. Even today the lack of scholarly academic engagement with Jeffers work is absolutely shocking. Thanks to the efforts of the Stanford University Press, readers now have access to a superb scholarly edition of Jeffers’ selected works and academic attention has been growing, though it is still slight relative to Jeffers’ talent, his impact on American poetry, and the size and depth of his corpus.

During the first half of his career Jeffers was a giant. He was friends with D.H. Lawrence and Jiddu Krishnamurti and the stone tower that he built for himself and his family in Carmel, California became a mecca for Jeffers’ admirers. Perhaps his greatest popular achievement was the enormous success of his adaptation of Euripedes’ Medea on Broadway.

In the 20s and 30s Jeffers received a tremendous amount of popular and critical attention. With the publication of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems in 1925, he immediately cemented for himself the role of California’s premier naturalist poet.

Jeffers was a monumental source of inspiration to generations of American artists and poets who sought to articulate a vision of the world that was untethered from the limits of human consciousness. Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski, Ansel Adams, and Morley Baer have all acknowledged their debts to Jeffers.

To me, Jeffers is the most important American poet, on par and surpassing Robert Frost as defining a quintessentially American voice in poetry. Jeffers possessed an intuitive but rare understanding about the nature of humanity in the world as a desperate, existential quest that can be seen as a leitmotif in much of America’s finest literature from Thoreau to Kerouac. Tied to this was Jeffers insistence on grounding his work firmly within the landscape of the Californian coastline. From Carmel, Jeffers looked East, to where he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and further to Europe and beyond.

As a conflicted modernist who utterly refused to be associated with that movement as such, Jeffers nevertheless was committed as a poet to experiment with putting traditional forms of verse into a new context. His bold use of blank verse and staunch rejection of the necessity of meter, mixed with contemporary images and concerns creates a dynamic effect, which evokes the Greek epics but undeniably builds something new and strange. While he remained apart from politics in his personal life, Jeffers also consistently engaged with events in the world around him and often wrote about America and its role vis-a-vis global conflicts.

Finally, to me, Jeffers ultimate contribution and importance lies in his concept of inhumanism, perhaps the most articulate version of a sophisticated philosophical position that uniquely situates humanity within the cosmos in a way that is simultaneously bleak and nihilistic but full of spiritual power and proudly asserting the glory of the world. Jeffers was absolutely unequivocal in his rejection of a human-centered world view. To Jeffers, the life of a human being was worth no more than the life of a fly or a patch of fungus or even a pebble on the beach. Nevertheless he insisted that we too were made from the same primordial materials and thus were imbued with a portion of the same cosmic spirit. Even if we hardly ever act like it as a species.

So given all of this and the extreme force and beauty that one can immediately perceive upon reading any of his poems, why has nobody heard of him? I think in the most immediate sense, Jeffers poetry is not particularly accessible. Lengthy, epic-style poems written in blank verse, often employing deliberate, if clumsy, archaisms just turns off a lot of readers, I think. Jeffers worked in poetic forms that were stubbornly outdated and did not find it worthwhile to try to make the structure of his poems more amenable to contemporary audiences. It’s absolutely true that his poems speak to both timeless and contemporary concerns but the poetic style is very clearly from another time. Furthermore the effect of juxtaposing these outdated poetic structures with occasionally shocking violence and illicit, graphic sexuality can be off putting. Similarly, while Jeffers’ nihilistic and somewhat callous views of humanity are likely to discomfort and disturb readers, his faith in the redemptive powers of the natural world may be read as naive and uncritical. Thus Jeffers may always be read as both too bleak and hopeless and too spiritually affirmative and childishly joyful. In short, I think many readers don’t know what to do with Jeffers’ poetry and don’t know how to think about it.

Another reason for Jeffers’ relative anonymity could be that he presented a view of humanity that is nuanced and thoughtful but comes across as overwhelmingly bleak, at a time when the United States and the Western world at large was experiencing massive social trauma. In the midst of the Great Depression and the Second World War, readers and critics had a hard time with a poet who stated in no uncertain terms that human misery meant nothing in the grand scheme of things and that the life of a hawk was more valuable to him than that of a human. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Jeffers was adamantly opposed to American intervention in the Second World War. This, I believe, more than anything else has worked against Jeffers in the eyes of posterity. When The Double Axe and Other Poems, a collection that contains poems explicitly critical of American foreign policy, was published in 1948, Random House included a note stipulating that Jeffers’ views contained therein were not consistent with those of the publishers. America’s victory over Germany and Japan was supposed to represent a triumph of humanity over barbarism. To this day Americans from all over the political spectrum celebrate their involvement in the Second World War. No matter what criticisms people have of any of America’s wars that followed, that war is always held up as the moment when we did something right. The idea that the United States should not have intervened in Europe is extremely controversial to this day and I believe Jeffers will always be thought of with suspicion by most readers and critics because of it.

Of course, for me, as one who shares Jeffers’ fatalistic view of humanity, the conviction of absolute isolation from global political events follows necessarily from a belief in the philosophy of inhumanism. Human life and suffering just isn’t that important in the first place and the idea of compounding it by spreading more suffering in response to the initial suffering is hellishly absurd.

Finally, I think that Jeffers’ conspicuous absence from academia can be in part understood by the position he consciously took during his career against the poetic norms of his time. Jeffers was utterly hostile to the New Critics and their approach to poetry and in turn they left him out of the academic canon. While the canon has, of course, undergone significant revision and critique in recent years, I think it’s influence remain strong and there are still unfortunately too many academics who just don’t take Jeffers seriously.

Having said all this, I believe that at this particular moment in human history, a moment defined by a type of existential catastrophe that has never before been experienced, Robinson Jeffers’ words are of the utmost importance. A prophet of doom, who nevertheless bravely asserted the beauty of existence, speaks to our present historical age like no other poet can. Whether humanity can succeed in decentering itself from the suffocating, toxic myopia that has governed it for thousands of years or whether we simply find solace in the knowledge that the beauty of the world will be undeterred by our passage into extinction, Jeffers points the way.

If you were introducing a new reader to Jeffers where do you suggest they start?

Jeffers2“To the Stone Cutters”

“Salmon Fishing”

“Shine, Perishing Republic”

“Continent’s End”

Tamar

“Apology for Bad Dreams”

“Credo”

“Hurt Hawks”

“Rearmament”

“Contemplation of the Sword”

“The Bloody Sire”

“Original Sin”

“Carmel Point”

preface to The Double Axe (original version 1947)

Why do you thinks those are the best places to start?

I think those poems represent a good range of Jeffers’ works. It includes some of his earliest, most popular works, some from the middle of his career, and some of his last poems. Tamar is one of Jeffers’ greatest and most well received longer, epic-style poems. And I’ve also chosen the preface to The Double Axe as an example of his prose and one of his most articulate analyses of his own work.

Do you think that Jeffers politics, or lack of it, still plagues his general reception as a poet?

I think that many contemporary readers (as well as readers in his own time) don’t quite know how to situate Jeffers. To be sure, the core of his philosophy is about as radical as it gets but there is also a powerfully conservative bent to Jeffers as well. That combined with his clear debt to archaic poetic styles and content largely drawn from classical literature may very well contribute to a sense of Jeffers being stuffy and reactionary. I think its also important to recognize that for all Jeffers’ insistence that he rejected modernism both as a philosophy and as an approach to poetry, he most definitely belongs to a literary and cultural moment in american history that was extremely dynamic and pushed a lot of boundaries. his association with the Taos artists’ collective, for example, demonstrates that even if Jeffers was critical of much of contemporary poetry and philosophy, he was deeply engaged with the most cutting edge artistic communities and was very much tuned in to what intellectuals and artists were talking about and thinking about during the 1930s. just as Jeffers’ mid-period work was directly responding to the second world war, at the end of his life he was very obviously thinking about the cold war and what it meant for humanity and the earth. In this sense, Jeffers is highly political. not in terms of mainstream political parties, of course, but part of Jeffers’ genius lies in speaking to global political and ecological concerns, even while he is grounded in the most tangible aspects of the lived world, that is to say, the very rocks and dirt beneath his feet. Jeffers is certainly one of the most profound ‘poets of place’ but he is also a poet of global and cosmic scope.

What writers do you see as carrying on Jeffers’ legacy?

well, me, of course! Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey are both said to have been inspired by Jeffers, which I think makes a lot of sense. In the case of the former, Daoism and Zen philosophy are both quite compatible with Jeffers’ inhumanism in terms of decentering the human perspective from our understanding of the universe and I think much of the ‘darker’ strands of ecologically oriented contemporary literature echo Jeffers, Jeff Vandermeer comes to mind, for instance. Clearly, the writers of the dark mountain collective are explicitly engaging in a similar literary project as Jeffers or at least one that is deeply indebted to him. I also think the philosopher David Abram has done an amazing job theorizing a version of Jeffers’ philosophy, though in a decidedly more hopeful and benevolent vein. I do think that Jeffers is so unique because he lacks the naïveté of a lot of primitivists in terms of romanticizing ancient human societies but his vision of the world is also unabashedly and profoundly spiritual, which i think alienates marxist ecologists, atheists, etc. for that reason among others, I think Jeffers is kind of inimitable.   

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