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Fierce words

One California poet proved bird-watching ain't wimpy.

October 07, 2003|Lawrence Christon | Special to The Times

It wouldn't take much to bloody your hand on the rock that stands waist-high, like some giant primeval tooth, on the seaward side of Tor House, the stone cottage poet Robinson Jeffers began building in 1919 for himself and his family on a Carmel bluff.

The man who would fuse images of fierce-eyed raptors, wildfires, wild women, wild men and a wild God into some of California's strongest poetry worked first as a $4-a-day stonemason's apprentice, then alone, hauling 300- and 400-pound Santa Lucia granite boulders up from the sea. By the time he finished the cottage and the 40-foot Hawk Tower in 1930, he could write:

The flesh of the house is heavy sea-orphaned stone,

the imagination of the house

is in those little clay kits of swallows

Hung in the eaves, bright wings flash and return, the heavy

rock walls commencing

With harbors of the far hills and the high

Rills of water, the river-meadow and the sea-cloud ...

In his biography of Jeffers, "Poet of California," James Karman notes that "Robin's" love of the outdoors blossomed in early boyhood, as he bounced through private schools in the U.S. and Europe, filling his pockets with snails and comparing himself, at times, to Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 09, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Robinson Jeffers -- An article in the Outdoors section Tuesday about Robinson Jeffers incorrectly stated that the poet entered Occidental College in Eagle Rock. At the time, in the early 1900s, the college was located in Highland Park.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 14, 2003 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Robinson Jeffers -- A story in the Outdoors section last Tuesday about Robinson Jeffers incorrectly stated that the poet entered Occidental College in Eagle Rock. At the time, in the early 1900s, the college was located in Highland Park.

The family eventually moved to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, and Robinson entered Occidental College in Eagle Rock at age 16.

Karman notes a classmate's description of the lanky young man on a hike up Mt. San Gorgonio: " ... swinging over the mountain trails with a stride that made it difficult for the rest of us to stretch our legs to equal, a pack on his back and on this pack a gunny-sack with two or three frying-pans and a coffee-pot that banged and clattered with every step he took, hatless, and bursting every now and then into a long quotation of poetry from Tennyson or Homer or some other of the great poets."

Renaissance man

In part because of his father, a professor, Jeffers knew the Bible, Latin, Greek, French and German. He knew classical literature, philosophy, astronomy and botany, and after graduating from Occidental he studied medicine at USC, and later, with a mind to a career in forestry, silviculture at the University of Washington. And through all these phases, he wrote poetry.

In 1914, a stagecoach ride with his young wife, Una, into Big Sur connected him to the place that would become his raging, soothing inspiration. With its long fingers of fog reaching through steep gorges and hawks and falcons screeching overhead, he observed and marveled:

"For the first time in my life I could see people living -- amid magnificent unspoiled scenery -- essentially as they did in the Idylls 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 seagulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was 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."

World War I had just begun. The death of Western civilization was on everyone's mind. It was the year his father and infant daughter died. To grief-stricken Jeffers, the Monterey peninsula's plunging coastline appeared not only a perfect expression of Jeffersonian America's westward drift, plummeting into the sea, but also of what had come before, from prehistory to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment -- all following the sun to the shining republic, and all, it seemed, collapsing into the boiling Pacific edge.

Wild underpinnings

Philosophical, political, sexual and religious themes swirl through Jeffers' poems. But nature, as a motif or metaphor, is never far away as reflected in such titles as "Salmon Fishing," "Natural Music," "Orca," "The Deer Lay Down Their Bones," "Boats in Fog," November Surf," "Fire on the Hills" and a flock of poems featuring birds -- "Hurt Hawks," "Vulture," "Pelicans," "The Cruel Falcon" and "The Beaks of Eagles."

In 1925, a New York Herald Tribune review said of Jeffers: "California has another great writer to place beside John Muir. America has a new poet of genius." In 1932, Time magazine put Jeffers on its cover, ranking him with contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

Decades later, in an introduction to "Not Man Apart" a book of nature photography celebrating Jeffers' poems, literary naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote: "Jeffers' peculiarly distinctive style ... has the roll of surf and the jaggedness of rocks about it. Something utterly wild had crept into his mind and marked his features.... The sea-beaten coast, the fierce freedom of its hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him.

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