Unreal Nature

January 23, 2015

To Compass the Madness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

… about what man is that he has done to himself all the terrible things that he has in this century, comes to us mostly as dark and private musings.

This is from the essay ‘The Fury of Robinson Jeffers‘ (1987) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… As he said in the preface to Be Angry with the Sun in 1941:

I wish to lament the obsession with contemporary history that pins many of these pieces to the calendar, like butterflies to cardboard. Poetry is not private monologue, but I think it is not public speech either, and in general it is the worse for being timely … Yet it is right that a man’s views be expressed, though the poetry suffer for it. Poetry should represent the whole mind; if part of the mind is occupied unhappily, so much the worse. And no use postponing the poetry to a time when the storms may have passed, for I think we have but seen a beginning of them; the calm to look for is the calm at the whirlwind’s heart.

… As a poet he kept trying to make images from the movements, serene and terrible, of the life around him, for what he had discovered or intuited — for the power at the center of life that reconciled him to its cruelty. One feels him straining toward it, toward what is not human in the cold salt of the Pacific and the great sunsets and the rocks and the hawk’s curved, efficient beak. It is in the farthest reaches of his intuitive straining that one feels most in Jeffers the presence of a great poet.

… The experiments in narrative, mythic and realistic, continue to be relevant, but Jeffers is strongest, seems most apt to survive in his descriptive and meditative lyrics. There his directness gave him the old power of poetry — not to say what no one else had ever thought, but to say what everyone has thought and felt. It is surprising in a writer who wished to be so contrary, but reading him again, reading “The Purse Seine,” for example, I was struck by how much it seemed to say what anyone has thought who has every stood on a height and contemplated a modern city. We have lived in a catastrophic time. The redundancy of violence and suffering, the sheer immensity of the danger, always threatens to wither the imagination, to make us turn back to the purely personal, as if it were somehow more real because the mind can, at least, compass it, whereas the effort to think about the fate of the planet, about what man is that he has done to himself all the terrible things that he has in this century, comes to us mostly as dark and private musings. And it is just this that Jeffers sought in the verse of his short poems, an art to speak those musings largely, to claim for poetry the clarity and largeness of mind needed to compass the madness.

Though I have chosen not to feature them above, Hass does not ignore or overlook the weaknesses of Jeffers. For example:

… There is much to be said against his work, and most of it has been said. The younger generation of California poets, Yvor Winters in the thirties and Kenneth Rexroth in the forties, anxious to dispose of the overwhelming figure down the coast, wrote scathing and not inaccurate criticism of his work. Jeffers, they said, was pretentious, repetitious, bombastic, humorless, fuzzy.

I think those criticisms are warranted, but I think they are outweighed by Jeffers‘s strengths.

-Julie

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