. . . does it matter, Cassandra, whether the people believe your bitter fountain?
-Robinson Jeffers, “Cassandra”
Fame endures beyond Pleasure. Pain endures beyond Fame. Life endures beyond Pain. Death endures beyond Life. Art endures beyond Death. Earth endures beyond Art. Kosmos endures beyond Earth. God endures beyond Kosmos. Nothing endures beyond God. Nothing endures beyond Nothing. Nothing endures.
-Shi Fu Tzu
Is there something inherently paradoxical about a misanthropic poet? Orpheus, the archetype of the poet, shunned half of humanity (the female half) and chose to work his poetic magic on trees and stones, but we could attribute this disdain to the heartbreaking loss of his wife in Hades (perhaps illustrating Harold Bloom’s principle that “the poet-in-a-poet cannot marry, whatever the person-in-a-poet chooses to have done”), and anyway his destruction at the hands of the Maenads serves as an object lesson.
More typical by far is the poet found at the center of civilization, though at the periphery of that center, at Court or in Academe. For Robinson Jeffers’ kin we have to look at the Old Testament Prophets and perhaps at the odd philosopher such as Diogenes, who was said to have lived in a wine-barrel and mocked every civilized virtue. He was called a Cynic, a name deriving from the Greek word for dog. Aristotle thought that anybody that could live outside the civilized polis must be “either a beast or a god.” Interesting, then, that we find the two fused in one of Jeffers’ best poems, “Roan Stallion.”
Jeffers enjoyed a brief period of fame in the mid 1920’s and early 30’s, but eventually almost all major critics turned against him. Perhaps it was because of the strange sexuality and violence of his long poems, which I have not read, but which a contemporary defender Dana Gioia described in filmic terms as “Bergman’s Cries and Whispers reshot as a Peckinpah western or Kurosawa’s Rashomon reset as a California thriller by De Palma.” But I suspect it has more to do with his vocal isolationist politics, with which a surprising number of poems in this anthology is occupied, as against the overwhelming tide of intellectual opinion that America should enter the second World War. Recently, he has since fallen into near-total obscurity. “No major American poet,” Gioia writes, “has been treated worse by posterity than Robinson Jeffers.” This, I suspect, is about to change in a big way (or at least as big as it gets for poetry). Jeffers’ voice was not welcome during the push to war, and it was practically obliterated in the period of mandatory optimism that followed. But Jeffers sure as hell befits our current mood of Cosmic Pessimism, which has also elevated the reputation of H.P. Lovecraft, despite all of the latter’s “problematic” politics. I could easily imagine a book of Jeffers poems on the shelf of that avatar of contemporary pessimism, True Detective‘s Rustin Cohle, right next to Schopenhauer, Dawkins, and Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
Jeffers’ disdain for civilization, his attraction to the primitive and brutal, is at times reminiscent of DH Lawrence. Indeed, the one long narrative poem featured here, “Roan Stallion,” has a distinctly Lawrentian flavor. It’s a weird fauvist parable that I cannot pretend to have understood, in which an intense woman, symbolically named California, worships the titular horse as God, yet kills it after it kills her husband, a man toward whom she has a reasonable disdain. Christianity here mingled with Paganism (not just in the generic sense of the pre-Christian spirituality, but in the sort of natural mysticism attributed to people who live in the country, “pagan” having its root in the Latin “pagus” or country district), sex with spirituality (California’s interest in the stallion is partly erotic), man with beast with god.
From poets and primitivists such as Jeffers, we expect a disdain for reason, science, and technology. But it’s not that simple. On the one hand we have the poem “The Purse-Seine,” which would probably win the admiration of Ted Kaczynski, (and, I suppose, Diogenes the Cynic and John the Baptist). Gazing from a mountaintop at “the galaxies of light” in the city below reminds Jeffers of the nets used by fishermen to trap sardines:
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.
On the other hand, in the poem “Science,” Jeffers shows that he isn’t, like Rousseau and Lawrence in their worst moments, and enemy of scientific knowledge per se. The problem is not that humanity has learned too much, but that we are unable to handle what little knowledge we have.
A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this
infinitely little too much?
While much of Jeffers is in tune with the cosmic pessimism of Spengler, he does nevertheless buys into the notion, much bandied about these days, of “The West” as a single unified tradition, exemplified by the poems “The Torch-Bearers Race” and “Shine, Republic.” I myself find more plausible the radical epistemic and ontological break Spengler inserts between the classical world (which he calls “Apollinian”) and the medieval and modern world (the latter being different phases of what he calls the “Faustian” world). Arnold Toynbee, whose A Study of History I’ve just begun, has a completely different cyclical theory, but he too sees the medieval and modern West as one civilization, and the ancient Greco-Roman world as a different one entirely, though he argues that the relationship is that of parent and child, while for Spengler these worlds are unique and incommensurable. I suppose that’s all neither here nor there: the point is that for Jeffers as for Spengler, our society is bound for the scrap-heap, and the only live question is: bang or whimper?
Jeffers is at his best when his vision is cosmic. Otherwise he can be thematically repetitive, even in this slim volume, and stridently moralizing or didactic (surprisingly so for one who proclaims an “inhumanist” philosophy). Wit, irony, ambiguity, musicality, and the intricate pleasures of formal experiment are all virtues nearly absent from Jeffers’ poetry. This is certainly the reason for the lack of critical or academic interest in him over the decades. Poetry has become increasingly fond of small worlds incoherently rendered.
Ever since Joyce, in 1922, invited us to overhear old Poldy Bloom’s musings on the crapper, contemporary literature has tended toward a near-obsessive rendering of the particular, minute, and quotidian. I think of Nicholson Baker’s novels, such as The Mezzanine, which follows the thoughts of a man as he travels from one floor to the next on an escalator during his lunch break, thoughts which are sometimes occupied with traditional intellectual matters as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but more often of everyday objects such as straws, milk bottles, and shoelaces. This in turn makes me think of New York poet Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which detail the activities of his own lunch breaks. True, he was a freewheeling bohemian who worked at the Met in NYC, but the poems are filled with such mundane details as drinking milkshakes and deciding what books to buy. Or take Language Poet Ron Silliman’s “BART,” which attempts to record, with all its miscellany and no poetic ornament, an all-day ride on San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit.
By no means do I think any of this material unworthy of literature. In my Borgesian view, Literature is a mirror of the Universe. But Jeffers is odd company here, for unlike almost every contemporary poet he stands in the thrall and squall of Nature’s immensity, and takes a hawk’s-eye view of man’s place in it. Where the postmodern writers are zooming in to make a cosmos out of dust-motes, Jeffers widens his lens to the point where galaxies flicker momentarily in a vast black eternity. Not just this perspective but the wisdom he extracts from it, with statements such as “Remember that the life of mankind is like the life of a/ man, a flutter from darkness to darkness,” or “It is time for us to kiss the earth again,” makes him seem somewhat ridiculous in the current literary milieu, like Baudelaire’s albatross, “exiled on earth,” and whose “giant wings prevent him from walking”; or perhaps a time-traveler so removed the current era that he puts on clothes from the wrong century. I mean, imagine HP Lovecraft on Twitter, Louis-Ferdinand Celine on Facebook, or a Dante Aligheri Youtube channel. For all my sympathies, I have to laugh at a poem like “Summer Holiday,” in which the sight of so many people having a fun day at the beach makes Jeffers think of the day when “the tow-/-ered up cities/ will stains of rust on mounds of plaster.” You cannot read Jeffers if you are in a good mood! I laugh just like the boorish sailors at Baudelaire’s poetic bird, and only in part because I myself have almost written this poem.
But political and environmental changes may already be underway which will vindicate this albatross. Jeffers wrote again and again of America’s doom, and identified himself in one of his best and most uncanny poems, “Cassandra,” with the famous Trojan prophetess. She always spoke the truth about the future, yet was never believed. In myth, this is because this is her curse, but in Jeffers’ poem it is because “men hate the truth; they’d/ liefer/ Meet a tiger on the road.” Many of his overtly political poems speak of the inevitable slide of Republics into Empires, but I think his most ominous, if somewhat obscure, prediction, which ought to share company with Yeats’ Rough Beast, is in the poem “Diagram,” which describes two arcs, a smaller one of “the Christian culture-complex,” now already into its decline, and a much larger one of which he says only that it “began at Kittyhawk.” This probably refers to a small town in North Carolina that would remain totally obscure if it hadn’t been the sight of the first successful airplane flight by the Wright Brothers. I may be wrong, but I take Jeffers to mean here an age of weaponized technology. When the two arcs cross, he says, “you will see monsters.”
As a literal monster myself (I admire the exactness of this term, for the word originally referred to a mixed type of creature, here referring here I suppose to thing which is part Jesus and part 5-52 bomber), I could take offense to this line, or shrug it off. Why not an age of monstrosity? the beast in me asks. The world was not made for man alone. It was once the stalking-ground of immense predators, clever of claw but dumb of mind, and may yet be the sole habit of rats or robots, without human feeling nor even memory of it. Why do they not have equal right to this planet? But the man in me would regret the loss of the human difference, even with all its weakness and hypocrisy. What can I say? I eat men’s flesh and I read their words. Perhaps this makes me a Christian.
A less vague prediction of doom comes from the poem on the very next page, “We are Those People,” at once a rebuke to the believers in American Exceptionalism and to the Cult of the Other, which tends to view victims as inherently righteous. In fact, victims are the most likely perpetrators of atrocity, and history is a grand cycle of revenge, with no party above or below it by nature. The poem is worth quoting at length.
it becomes clear that we too
What others have, the brutal horror of defeat—
Or if not in the next, then in the next—therefore watch
And read the future. We wish, of course, that our women
Would die like biting rats in the cellars, our men like
wolves on the mountain:
It will not be so: Our men will curse, cringe, obey;
Our women uncover themselves to the grinning victors
for bits of chocolate.
You do not believe this. I can feel your incredulity in the labyrinthine dark. The human half of me doesn’t believe it either. The beast in me that is also the human in me knows it. Open the book of Genesis, with its God-ordered remorseless genocide: we are those people. Hear the brutal beauty of the Iliad as it celebrates the vain butcher, rapist and defiler of corpses, Achilles: we are those people. Not a discernible speck of moral progress has been made, though our weapons have been magnified to fathomless power. Western civilization, which murdered the ancient Mexican civilization in its prime, and which nearly tore its own self to bits in the 20th century, will fall. Its assassins will commit unspeakable atrocities and feel as spotless as Christ, perhaps evoking his name, or Mohammed’s, or Marx’s, or that of some now-obscure prophet. Like you, I don’t want to hear this. Then I think of Cassandra, and Robinson Jeffers.