On This Page: Introduction - About the Author - The Essay, "Robinson Jeffers, Neil Young, and the Critic" - Jeffers Links
Robinson Jeffers was the son of a theology professor. He studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as a boy. He studied in Europe at the University of Zurich and attended the University of Western Pennsylvania, Occidental College, and the University of Southern California. Jeffers' literary career spanned fifty years, most all of which he spent on Carmel Point on the Monterey Penninsula. His first book, Flagons and Apples was published in 1912. Jeffers died in 1962 at the age of seventy-five..
Robinson Jeffers was a great poet of the central California Coast. Some critics declare him him to be one of the greatest poets of all time. I certainly agree. Jeffers had much to say to us about the nature of our Western view of self, much to say to us about human violence against humanity and against nature, much to say about the nature of belief, and much to say to us about the nature of our relationship with the immanent and transcendent reality of God.
Robinson Jeffers wrote epic poems about the coast of Central California, but he was a scholar of the classics. He reinvigorated Greek tragedy with his stories of the people of the Central California coast, and his marvelous descriptions of Big Sur. He coined the term "inhumanism," or at least he meant that term to be used in a new way. Jeffers referred frequently in his poetry to "The God", but saw humanity as incidental, and inherently unpleasing to God. In his poem, "The Inquisitors", the mountains of Big Sur's Santa Lucia Range rise up in judgment of humanity, splitting humans apart and prying off their heads to try to discern the source of human violence and cruelty. This is a rather frightening image of divine judgment to say the least.
Despite the universality of his themes, most critics of American literature dismissed Jeffers as a purveyor of regional poetry.
There was more to this dismissal than Jeffers's preoccupation with the coast of Central California. That "more" was the poet's adamant opposition to war. What really got Jeffers into trouble was his opposition to World War II. His play "Dear Judas" was literally banned in Boston. As a result of his anti-war stance, Jeffers fell from the position of grace to the obscurity of his fog shrouded hermitage on the cultural island of Carmel, California. He continued to write poetry actively until the death of his wife Una in 1950. The book, "Hungerfield and Other Poems", was publishd in 1955. Jeffer's continued to receive literary awards for his poetry in the later years of his life.
Although some of Jeffers' books are out of print, many of have been reissued and are currently available in quality bookstores and on-line. Please see the links section below
Copyright © Scott Galloway 2001
About The Author
Carl Jay Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Tennessee at Martin. His book of poems, RIPPER!, came out in 1999 from the University of South Carolina Press. Mr. Buchanan maintains a web site at http://www.geocities.com/cbuchanan98. The site contains excerpts from that book and lots of other material.
In his essay "Robinson Jeffers, Neil Young, and the Critic" Carl Jay Buchanan responds to the recent New York Times book review titled: "The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Staring Out to Sea", by Brad Leithauser.
Robinson Jeffers, Neil Young, and the Critic
by Carl Jay Buchanan
This sounds extreme even for present-day nature lovers. It is meant to shock.
In shocked pause the reader may be forced, if honest, to put two notions usually compartmented, side by side: the sanctity of human life, long embodied in our culture and laws, and what we may call reverence for nature, a deep-rooted love for the "environment" or Greenpeace or what will bear another name a decade from now.
The changes of fashion change names for the old stabilities. Jeffers' poems tend to hold firm to values that may never change.
"Except the penalties . . ." If not for the law, and the gun-slinging police of today in our country, it is likely that road rage, a new fashion, would end in even more deaths per year than highway accidents account for, about 50,000 people per annum. Trapped in our cars, chained by a ton of machined metal to an asphalt worm that has taken on the dimensions of a Midgard Serpent, we thrash and rage, perhaps feeling something in common with the hurt hawk, whose "bone [is] too shattered for mending." The great redtail "had nothing left but unable misery," like the communal people Jeffers despises. We come off second to the hawk throughout this poetic and political statement, a great California's poet's most powerful saying perhaps, along with others as often anthologized but rarely taken out of the classroom and taken with great seriousness.
"I'd sooner kill a man." I think he means it. Nature is purer in its desires than we are, and if we have voluntarily unmanned and shattered our selves into fragments, and given up the skies' wholeness, and traded stars for-
wait, some Neil Young is coming back:
…people planning trips to stars
Allow another boulevard to claim
A quiet country lane. It's insane.
We understand that part. And perhaps we're beginning to appreciate that quality of life is important, that hanging on to existence at ANY cost is perhaps not as noble or worthy or human as knowing when to let go, as the hawk does, like a Roman senator despised and abused by a corrupt emperor. The man of the people, VOX POPULI, takes to his bath and quietly lets the soul free.
Time itself is bought and sold.
The spreading fear of growing old
Contains-a thousand foolish games
That we play. That's Neil again. Here's Jeffers:
men that are dying, remember . . .
the wild God of the world . . .
As the "curs of the day come and torment him," the hawk remains strong, and "pain is worse to the strong." We have so much to learn from the other animals, most importantly, the lesson that we do not exist apart from them, and they are sometimes better than we are.
Here we are in the years
Where the showman shifts the gears,
Lives become careers,
Children cry in fear,
"Let us out of here."
(Neil Young, "Here We are in the Years")
Life on the "free way" is not.
* * *
A recent New York Times review (July 22, 2001) on the occasion of the publication of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers attacks Jeffers personally and professionally, unfairly using today's biased standards, as they are accepted by the much of the herd. Jeffers is called a preacher, although he was not. That his poems have strong admonitions for us is the mark of a poet with something to say: how long is that list, Shakespeare, Keats, Mathew Arnold, Wallace Stevens, Pound,--I find it harder to think of a poet who doesn't emphasize his hard-won philosophy than one who does. "As flies are we to the gods" is possibly Shakespeare's ultimate comment in his "ultimate" play, King Lear. "Now more than ever seems it rich to die," says Keats, valuing the quality of transcendent experience about mere living. In our darkling world, "ignorant armies clash by night," says Mathew Arnold, despising the modern pride in nations and numbers; I've long thought "Dover Beach" is probably the first modern poem. Are all poets, then sermonizers? In a way, in a way.
But they tend more to exemplify a stance than to advocate it, to exemplify in unforgettable imagery the truth -a changeable thing-of a particular localized philosophy. The NY critic disparages Jeffers for being Californian, for loving California, and this is pretty hard to take. Apparently Mr. Leithauser is unaware of the strong regional tradition in our literature: I refer him to the anthologies of American Literature for the lists of poets who were localized precisely, and who celebrated and examined and criticized their personal environment. It is true than many contemporary poets seem never to have stepped outside the mall-this accounts in part for the cultural famine we experience in the midst of abundance today, when more people are writing bad poetry than ever.
That sounds almost verboten, doesn't it? But it is true that not everyone can be a poet, or a nurse, or a physicist, or mechanic. Anyone, of course, can be a critic, and I'm including myself in that statement. Jeffers is easily defended when he is attacked for being too prolific-I remind Mr. Leithauser that an artist does what he's born to do, and does it as often as he can and as well as he can, but not all my efforts or Shakespeare's are equally satisfactory. Jeffers has given us a handful, a large handful at least, of sublime poems, whose philosophy, keep in mind, is not to be swallowed without seasoning in our own changing swirl of philosophies.
Jeffers is maligned for not being Waugh or Swift. But "comparisons are odious." Leithauser is not Bloom or Kenner, and neither am I; our aims, our selves, are different, and perhaps Jeffers' messages will, in the end, be taken more seriously than Swift's (a first rank writer without doubt) because they are not comedic, because he is more seriously misanthropic, and he tells us why he despises us.
Can you stand to be told you're not the best, the wisest, the most beautiful, and the richest? Jeffers is needed more than ever, for we like ourselves too much in these days when we act as lord of the other nations and continue to pave over the earth. We revel in televised and computerized chatter. We need more to go outside, free of the chattering voices (which all poets mentioned in this article, and a thousand other writers warned us about). A starling is dying in my yard; check yours, check it now.
I begin to sound like a preacher, like Walt Whitman, or Dickinson. And is this bad?
Poets are not born to tell us what we already know, or will accept lightly. The pabulum that passes for poetry today, the feel-good philosophy in general, needs a new selection of Robinson Jeffers, and James Dickey, and we should shove Robert Bly and most recent Poohlitzer Prize winners deep into a hollow tree, as Browning advised, and let them mold, and take on grubs, and improve.
Midway between New York and lovely California, I mentally stand. I am from the Great Plains, from Kansas. Many times people have said to me, "I've driven through Kansas. It was incredibly boring, awful." I've been too polite to tell them to stop the car (after getting off the Interstate Worm), and smell the land, and walk through it, and learn from it. Can we, quite simply, no longer do that?
Then we are hurt more than the hawk.
http://hyperrust.org/Lyrics/NY.html for the Neil Young lyrics from the song "Here We are in the Years"
For More Information on Robinson Jeffers:
For additional biographical information on Robinson Jeffers, see:
For a biological sketch of Robinson Jeffers by Arthur B. Coffin, see The Modern American Poetry page on Jerrffers
For a biological sketch of Robinson Jeffers by Robert Brophy, see the "Biography: section of The Robinson Jeffers Association web page
To view Robinson Jeffers related photographs, see the Modern American Poet - Robinson Jeffers Exhibit collection of photographs on-line
A copy of the poem, "Hurt Hawks", is available on a web page titled Hurt Hawks made available by the courtesy of 'The Beckoning' Poetry Page
For a list of the published works by Robinson Jeffers, see the "Bibliography" section on The Robinson Jeffers Association web page.
For a list of published books by and about Robinson Jeffers available through Amazon.com see the Amazon.com page devoted to work by and about Jeffers.
A collection of three poems by Robinson jeffers are published on-line by Modern American Poetry
For other essays on the work of Robinson jeffers, se The Modern American Poetry page on Jeffers.
For other essays on the poem "Hurt Hawks by Tim Hunt, Gilbert Allen, Robert Zaller, and William Pratt, see The Modern American Poetry page on that subject
Other Robinson Jeffers web pages:
All text and images in The Central California Poetry Journal are copyrighted. Copyright by © by Scott Galloway 1996. All rights are reserved. See main Journal page for copyright information.
Authors and poets submitting original materials to this journal retain all rights to their original work, except those rights specifically assigned in writing to Solo Publications including the right to publish the submitted work in The Central California Poetry Journal. The article on this page is copyrighted by the author. Copyright © Carl Jay Buchanan 2001.
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