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Remembering Robinson Jeffers:
January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962

Robinson Jeffers, January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962

274 words

Robinson Jeffers was born on January 10, 1887.

Once regarded as one of the greatest American poets, Jeffers is largely forgotten by the literary establishment today, no doubt because of his politically incorrect subjects and views. A Nietzschean who was accused of fascist sympathies (which he denied), he celebrated nature and the outdoors in his work, eschewing the abstruse modernist style that was fashionable in his day. He opposed the entry of the United States into the Second World War, and published a poem toward this end, “A Day is a Poem,” in 1941. His 1948 volume, The Double Axe and Other Poems, is filled with criticisms of the US and its actions and policies, and the publisher insisted on excising ten of the more controversial poems from the book, which were only published posthumously. Although the Second World War particularly inspired his ire, he had always been critical of America, which he had already accused of slipping “into the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire” in his 1923 poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic.” He continued to write after 1948, but as a result of the controversy surrounding his politics, his work declined into obscurity throughout the remaining years of his life, and remains so today.

Jonathan Bowden was particularly enamored of Jeffers, and in 2007 he gave a lecture entitled “Robinson Jeffers: Misanthrope Extraordinaire,” the text and audio of which is available on this site, here. Bowden also spoke about Jeffers during the last interview he gave before his untimely death, which was given to Counter-Currents Radio; the text and audio can be accessed here.

Counter-Currents has run the following excerpts from Jeffers’ work:

In spite of his obscurity, Jeffers does retain a following, and many of his works can be found for sale both new and used.

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  1. D.M.
    Posted January 10, 2020 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    A wonderful book about him is James Karman, _Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California_. Also, visiting Tor House, the stone house he built by hand in Carmel CA, is a great experience.

  2. Xenogears
    Posted January 10, 2020 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    Joseph Campbell was especially fond of this great poet.

  3. Orcish Scribe
    Posted January 10, 2020 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Hmm, I don’t quite get the War Guilt trials poem. What precisely is he saying about pound? It seems to me he says pound is ineffectual and deluded.

    • D.M.
      Posted January 10, 2020 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      I’ll take a shot at answering these. First, that poem does seem to express what you attribute to him about Pound. He was disdainful of the Modernist poets for their obscurantism. But the poem also asserts the smallness of the prize–“they’ve caught a poet”–as a way of accusing the Allies of pettiness. Second, as a man of the Right he would reject the jurisprudential sense of natural law, which the trials were based on, as a mask for the victors’ liberal morality: the very notion of international law and supra-national sovereignty is a sham. Further, by implication he accuses the Allied leaders of being guiltier of treason than Pound. In another suppressed (by the publisher) poem from The Double Axe (whose title escapes me) he tells Germany to “die like a wolf, war loser,” that is, scornfully, once again denying the victors their prize. In the Liveright Publishing edition (1965) the suppressed poems appear.

      • D.M.
        Posted January 10, 2020 at 6:16 am | Permalink

        I found it: “Tragedy Has Obligations,” a link for which appears above on this website.

      • Orcish Scribe
        Posted January 10, 2020 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Yeah the first part I get and take to mean that the allies are conducting war trials and acting under the flag of morality, when in reality they are merely exerting the ancient “right of the victor,” and are vindictive in nature. I’m sure cc readers are right on page with that.

        But the last lines I’m not sure. I thought of what you say. Does he mean that he understands America’s pathology as something deeper than pound does and that his own treason—truthful apathy—is in fact deeper than that of pound, who at least tried to rally his people?

        • D.M.
          Posted January 10, 2020 at 7:36 am | Permalink

          I think he’s accusing Roosevelt, especially. See, among others in the volume (e.g. “Fantasy, “Ink-Sack”), “Wilson in Hell,” which is the poem that precedes “Tragedy Has Obligations” in The Double Axe. In full:

          Wilson in Hell

          Roosevelt died and met Wilson; who said, “I
          blundered into it
          Through honest error, and conscience cut me so deep that
          I died
          In the vain effort to prevent future wars. But you blew on the coal-bed, and when it kindled you deliberately
          Sabotaged every fire-wall that even the men who denied
          My hope had built. You have too much murder on your
          hands. I will not
          Speak of the lies and connivings. I cannot understand the
          That permits us to meet in the same heaven. –Or is this
          my hell?”

          • Orcish Scribe
            Posted January 10, 2020 at 9:32 am | Permalink

            Here is something by the poet robert Francis which I may have posted before. See if yous guys can figure out each poet’s identity. It’s a bit of a fun riddle.

            In Memoriam: Four Poets

            Sea rock his tower above the sea,
            Sea rock he built, not ivory.
            Sea rock as well his haunted art
            Who gave to plunging hawks his heart.

            He lived to stand upon his head
            To demonstrate he was not dead,
            Ah, if his poems misbehave,
            ‘‘Tis only to defy the grave!

            This exquisite patrician bird
            Grooming a neatly folded wing
            Guarded for years the Sacred Word
            A while he sang then ceased to sing.

            His head carved out of granite O,
            His hair a wayward drift of snow
            He worshiped the great god of flow
            By holding on and letting go!

  4. D.M.
    Posted January 10, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    My guess on the Robert Francis poem posted by O. Scribe: 1. Jeffers, 2. Andrew Marvel, 3. Wallace Stevens, 4. Robert Frost.

    Czeslaw Milosz wrote a denunciatory poem about Jeffers, as did Kenneth Rexroth. Robert Hass’s poem is critical but not harsh. Major poets who wrote essays that celebrate and defend his work include James Dickey, Louise Gluck, and Sherod Santos.

    • Orcish Scribe
      Posted January 10, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      1) good, 4) v good!

      You add $10 to my gift to cc.

      This was written b4 the death of Stevens. All recently deceased.

      I think 2) pound, Refers to his wartime behavior 3) ts Eliot

    • Orcish Scribe
      Posted January 10, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Actually pound was alive when the poem was written, unless that’s the joke. Roethke I think it may be bc he died around that time. Roethke’s poetry has a strong theme of belief in an afterlife, “the lowly worm ascends a winding stair.” That ones obscure. Stevens died in 1950, much before.

      You have good knowledge of poetry and I commend you!

  5. A Picture of Distanc
    Posted January 12, 2020 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Jeffers is of course entitled to his opinions, and one has to admit that they were brave ones, given the general tenor and flow of his time. And he is –or was– really, a man of his time.

    But he’s a dreadful poet. A very good polemical writer, an occasional phrase maker, he used poetry as a vehicle for polemics, as most black American “poets” do. It’s a device to convey a point of view, occasionally forcefully, rarer still with something like wit. But one tires easily. Jeffers sounds like that 60s guy bellowing that ludicrous song “Eve of Destruction,” thinking vaingloriously to himself that he’s doing the exact same thing Bob Dylan does.

    From a technical standpoint regarding the writing of poetry, Jeffers is ludicrous. Mis enjambments are witless, arbitrary, and make no sense; he has zero sense of line or breath; his all iterations and sssonances have a kind of dim naïveté, like a clever high-school boy imitating Hopkins for the first time.

    His political views no doubt required courage to speak aloud in his time, and as a societal thinker he may well be some sort of healthful oppositional tonic. But as a poet, even a crank like Marianne Moore with only a few home runs on her scorecard makes him look like a piker.

    Here is a real poet, Wallace Stevens, doing the entire life and oeuvre of Jeffers in just a few lines…

    “A spirit storming in blank walls,
    A dirty house in a gutted world,
    A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
    Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.”

    • Orcish Scribe
      Posted January 12, 2020 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      This is an entirely wrong assessment of Jeffers’s technical quality as a poet. Well it seems Robert Francis gave him the name of poet. Takes one to know one!

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