July 18, 2006

A Talk on Robinson Jeffers by Allen C. Jones, University of New Mexico, USA

Robinson Jeffers

‘Poetry and the Impossibility of Action’, 14th July, Poetry and Politics, Stirling.

Jones suggests that there are two aspects to Jeffers’ ‘inhumanism’: a commitment to astonishing beauty and a belief that mankind is not central in the world. This is very interesting and I think that it teaches a lesson about putting the human subject at the heart of one’s poetics. Jones thinks that Jeffers constructs a sublime, but not like that of Wordsworth where the human mind dominates nature. The sublime is not egotistical in Jeffers. I wondered here about later Romantics where the sublime is also less egotistical – could comparisons be made here?

Jones points out that Jeffers has two audiences: an environmental audience and an audience of high modernists. He then presents a whole poem:

‘The Purse Seine’

Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon; daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the sea’s night-purple; he points and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in. I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the narrowing
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars. Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers—or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls—or anarchy, the mass-disasters. These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.

[Note: sadly the blog formatting is ignoring some of the spaces between words on the lines in this poem, but it gives an idea of what the poem is about.]

The apocalypse here is a beautiful scene and although it presents extinction, there is a feeling that man is not central. The fish are equivalent to humans. [Here I have written in my notes ‘Beauty>abyss’, but what did Jones mean here?]

Jones compares ‘The Purse-Seine’ to ‘Birds and Fishes’ in which the dying fish offer a world outside that of humanity. Jones is adamant that Jeffers purpose is to remake the sublime via the terrible beauty and purity in nature. Yet where does this leave the human subject who must extinguish the self for beauty?

In one poem, Jeffers desires to be a deer laid down as a carcass for death. Yet he cannot reach ‘that beautiful place’ and answering the question of whether humans can be actors, Jeffers peruses the bones of the deer and realises that ‘I must wear mine’. Can poetry here become poiesis?

A Short Biography of Robinson Jeffers
As a boy Jeffers tried to fly using homemade wings. As an adult he wrote many poems describing birds or referring to the myth of Icarus; his favourite symbol was the hawk. While a student at the University of Southern California, Jeffers met Una Call Kuster, who was three years his senior and married to a well-respected attorney. After an intense affair that led to public scandal and Kuster’s divorce, the couple married and raised two boys. The family lived in the famous Tor House in Carmel, California, built by Jeffers own handsafter he learned stone masonry. The unusual structure of this monument to Kuster was inspired by Jeffers’ fascination with medieval literature. The house has Gothic arched windows, a secret stairway and even a sunken dungeon. Because his wife was enchanted by the sea, Jeffers also constructed the forty-foot Hawk Tower by hauling huge stones from the beach, stacking and cementing them by hand. A hawk soared overhead as talisman every day-and then vanished on the tower’s completion.

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