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Despite being an English major and immersing myself in the canon-of-the-time circa 1992, there are still a few gaps in my knowledge of poetry.
Ha! I said “gap” when it’s more accurately the size of the Royal Gorge. But I’ve always had a feeling I’ve been missing someone. Someone big. So I consulted one of the smartest poets I know, David Rothman, who’s teaching a Reading as a Writer course on–pause here to create suspense–Robinson Jeffers! Am I the only one who said, quietly and under my breath, Who? (I’m sure I am.) Here’s what Rothman has to say on the subject:
Most people who care about American poetry still don’t realize the influence Robinson Jeffers has had on the culture, because he isn’t taught in the universities. This is a great loss and something we can rectify by studying him together at Lighthouse. How great was that influence? Well, consider: William Everson (Brother Antoninus) explicitly declared himself a follower of Jeffers and wrote two prose book-length studies about him; Czeslaw Milosz wrote an essay wrestling with his legacy; Ginsberg cites him in “Kaddish” as a model; Charles Bukowski wrote no fewer than three praising poems to him; Wendell Berry is an admirer as is Gary Snyder; Ed Abbey quotes or cites him (often without attribution) about 25 times in Desert Solitaire (the book is a dialogue with Jeffers as much as with Thoreau, Muir, Whitman and Kropotnick); the Beach Boys recorded one of his poems, “The Beaks of Eagles,” in 1972 on the Holland album; Mark Jarman has written an entire book-length poem, Iris, whose heroine is an admirer of Jeffers; Dana Gioia is a great admirer. Jeffers also attracted some of the most vicious attacks in the history of American poetry, including pieces hot as fire by Yvor Winters, Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Fitzgerald. Winters actually suggested that if Jeffers truly believed what he wrote, he should do the world a favor and commit suicide (which he did not do…though his wife tried to when he had an affair with another woman…steamy stuff).
Meanwhile, here is a poem of RJ”s from the 1930s. The last time I heard about this being read aloud in a public ceremony, a year ago, it was for the scattering of ashes of a good friend’s husband and she wept when discussing the event and the poem. Decide for yourself.
Inscription for a Gravestone
by Robinson Jeffers
I am not dead, I have only become inhuman:
That is to say,
Undressed myself of laughable prides and infirmities,
But not as a man
Undresses to creep into bed, but like an athlete
Stripping for the race.
The delicate ravel of nerves that made me a measurer
Of certain fictions
Called good and evil; that made me contract with pain
And expand with pleasure;
Fussily adjusted like a little electroscope:
That’s gone, it is true;
(I never miss it; if the universe does,
How easily replaced!)
But all the rest is heightened, widened, set free.
I admired the beauty
While I was human, now I am part of the beauty.
I wander in the air,
Being mostly gas and water, and flow in the ocean;
Touch you and Asia
At the same moment; have a hand in the sunrises
And the glow of this grass.
I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth
For a love-token.
If you’re interested in taking on this inspiring poet with another inspiring poet, check out Rothman’s 4-week course here.