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Occidental Salutes Noted Alumnus Robinson Jeffers

January 22, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Poet Robinson Jeffers, who wrote about the tragic fate of man and the savage grandeur of nature, is arguably the most famous alumnus of Occidental College.

Not surprisingly, Occidental College has long proclaimed its pride in Jeffers, who was graduated in 1905 and whom some scholars call one of the top 10 American poets of the 20th Century.

The school has amassed one of the country's top three collections of Jeffers' poetry, manuscripts, love letters and photographs. Jeffers scholar Robert J. Brophy publishes the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter there, which circulates among scholars and libraries nationwide.

And this year, on the centennial of both Jeffers' birth and Occidental's founding, the school has unveiled a previously unknown collection of the poet's early work.

Jeffers had a precocious beginning to his long literary career.

At 5, he read Greek. As a teen-ager, he devoured the classics, the great writers of English prose and poetry and the Bible. As a college student, he edited Occidental's literary magazine, "Aurora," and began evolving the philosophy that would manifest itself in his epic, narrative poems.

Moved to Carmel

In 1914, at 27, he left Los Angeles forever to live with his wife Una at Tor House, a granite home and tower he built with his own hands above the gray waters of Carmel.

"If ever a man and the spirit of a place had conspired for a mystical union, it is here," the late American poet and essayist Benjamin de Casseres said of Jeffers' relationship with the Northern California coast.

In 1925, Jeffers described the coast as "crying out for tragedy," whose "granite cliff the gaunt cypresses crown." In later works, he fused the poetic imagery of these writings with his belief that man was doomed to his fate and that passivism was the answer.

In 1947, Jeffers wrote in "Their Beauty Has More Meaning":

... And when the whole human race

Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here:

storms, moon and ocean,

Dawn and the birds. And I say this: Their beauty has

more meaning

Than the whole human race and the race of birds.

The 75 poems and numerous love letters and manuscripts were willed to Occidental years ago by Jeffers' biographer Melba Berry Bennett on the quirky condition that they remain unexhibited until the 100th anniversary of his birth. Jeffers was born Jan. 10, 1887. He died in 1962, at age 75.

No Towering Works

While the collection reveals no towering literary works, it contains "important poems that help illustrate Jeffers' thinking in the period between 1914 and 1924, a period that not a lot is known about," said Tyrus G. Harmsen, a former curator of Occidental's Jeffers collection and director of the Book Arts program at Occidental.

Four of those poems are included in a Jeffers book of love letters written to his wife, which expected to be published this spring. Much of the Bennett collection--along with first editions, manuscripts, letters and photographs--are now on display at Occidental's Mary Norton Clapp Library.

Ironically, it was not until last year that Occidental used all these materials to honor one of its most famous graduates by offering a poetry class on Jeffers' work. As part of the centennial celebration, Brophy, who for 15 years taught a similar class at California State University, Long Beach, was drafted and 10 students signed up to study Jeffers' deeply philosophical works. A field trip to Carmel and Tor House, and poetry readings on the beach capped off the class, Brophy said.

"Jeffers is a very religious writer. He's intensely mystical and honest," said Brophy, who added that most of his Occidental students underwent "a very soul-searching semester."

3-Day Seminar

Earlier this month, Occidental also hosted a three-day Jeffers seminar that drew poetry scholars from around the country as well as Occidental students and the merely curious.

Eagle Rock resident Helen Relin, for example, said she was drawn to the seminar by memories of reading Jeffers' poem "Give Your Heart to the Hawks" in her youth.

"After all these years, I'm still moved by it," said Relin, who called the seminar "enlightening."

The Jeffers centennial events, which run through next month, hit a high point Jan. 10, with a reading of Jeffers' poetry at Occidental's Herrick Chapel that featured 1980 Nobel laureate in literature Czeslaw Milosz, beat poet Gary Snyder and Jeffers scholar William Everson.

Lithuanian-born poet Milosz said he admires Jeffers' intellect and depth.

Jeffers "presented in his poetry his vision of the world and his philosophical views, which is very rare. Most modern poets are extremely convoluted and afraid of speaking straight," Milosz said.

Milosz, who wrote a poem called "To Robinson Jeffers" and was one of the first to translate him into Polish, said Jeffers is popular in Eastern Europe--perhaps better known than in his native America.

Intriguing to Jeffers

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