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What Ever Happened to Robinson Jeffers?

THE COLLECTED POETRY OF ROBINSON JEFFERS, Volumes 1-4 Edited by Tim Hunt; Stanford University Press, 2,192 pp., $75 each

October 29, 2000|DAVID RAINS WALLACE | David Rains Wallace is the author, most recently, of "The Monkey's Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America." He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing

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Asked to name France's greatest poet, Baudelaire is said to have replied: "Victor Hugo, unfortunately." If this irony was apt to 19th-century France, it perhaps applies as well to 20th-century California, whose greatest poet, unfortunately, was Robinson Jeffers. Like Hugo, Jeffers has slipped into literary limbo. His reputation has fallen so far since his death in 1962 that when I recently asked about Jeffers in a Berkeley bookstore, the clerk had barely heard of him. This was not always the case.

Most early 20th century critics saw greatness in Jeffers. In 1928, the Herald Tribune said he was "writing the most powerful, the most challenging poetry in this generation." Dwight Macdonald agreed in the 1930 periodical Miscellany: "Alone among his contemporaries has Jeffers written poetry to which the adjective great can be applied. It is, indeed, my opinion that his poetry is the best which this country has so far produced. Not only is he the most brilliant master of verse among contemporary poets, but his is incomparably the broadest and most powerful personality." Time magazine put him on its cover in 1932. Even in mid-century, when Jeffers was politically controversial, his detractor, Kenneth Rexroth, said in the Saturday Review that he had only one serious rival (Yvor Winters) "for the title of 'California's leading poet.' "

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2000 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
In an Oct. 29 review of "The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," Baudelaire was mistakenly quoted as answering "Victor Hugo, unfortunately!' when asked to name the greatest French poet of the 19th century. It was Andre Gide who actually said "Victor Hugo, alas!" We are grateful to Richard Howard for bringing this to our attention.

Rexroth's backhanded endorsement recognized that Jeffers had drawn philosophical conclusions from narratives about contemporary life, but Rexroth thought the narratives "shoddy and pretentious" and the philosophy "nothing but posturing." It is easy enough to think so. Jeffers' stories can seem grotesquely melodramatic, and the life they describe can be so bizarre as to hardly seem contemporary at all. His first great narrative, about a Carmel ranch family's disintegration after the daughter, Tamar, commits incest with her brother, contains stirring evocations not only of the fundamental taboo but also of necromancy, necrophilia and telepathic visions. By the poem's end, beatings, murder and the family's fiery annihilation seem almost mundane. Yet Jeffers' dark dramas are not gratuitous horror a la Stephen King and don't end in the same staleness. They arise from a radical understanding of California history, and they retain a power to shock.

Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone can read Jeffers' best poetry and not perceive greatness. His narrative verse rivals Wordsworth's or Byron's. It is electrifying; the skin prickles. The publication by Stanford University Press of the fourth and final volume of Jeffers' collected poetry and prose is most welcome. Beautifully printed and bound, this edition is an occasion for celebration and a reconsideration of the work and the man.

Jeffers sought to express in his poetry the often-ignored continuity between modernity and the past. He wanted to defy the Whitman-esque denial of history's gifts and burdens, as though electricity and democracy could simply erase millenniums of starlight and tragedy. Thus he chose the apparently marginal subject of Big Sur ranch life. "[F]or the first time in my life," he wrote, "I could see people living--amid magnificent unspoiled scenery--essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer's Ithaca. Here was life purged of the ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they had done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life; and not shut from the modern world but conscious of it and related to it; capable of expressing its spirit but unencumbered by the mass of poetically irrelevant details and complexities that make a civilization."

Jeffers didn't really draw a philosophy from this, although his poorer work gets windy. At best, his thinking was a philosophical attitude--a poetic apprehension of the fact Darwin realized in the 1830s but which still fails to penetrate normal consciousness. Jeffers saw, as few artists have, that people are evolved beings, as much the stuff that apes and trees are made of as stars. He called this attitude "inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man," and he saw it as the basis of a new ethics--"the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence."

"It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person," Jeffers concluded. "This manner of thinking is neither misanthropic nor pessimist . . . . It involves no falsehood and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. If offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate, and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty."

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