A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Robinson Jeffers

Yesterday was Robinson Jeffers’ birthday. Born in 1887, Jeffers achieved what few poets do–recognition in his lifetime. He was on the cover of Time Magazine in April, 1932 and earned his own commemorative stamp in 1973, 11 years after his death. Still, he’s a tough poet to love; when he said in the poem, Hurt Hawks, that “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” it’s very likely he wasn’t exaggerating. Yes, he’s a tough poet to love, though I do, and I have from the start. Some poets I’ve learned to love–Keats, early Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Rae Armantrout–and some right from the start, like Jeffers, and later Yeats, Boris Pasternak, Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, and so many more I blush to write at all. Better to memorize Plath’s subtle repetitions than hitch my verb to another mediocre subject. Still, we do what we can.

I suspect what is difficult about Jeffers, at least for most, is his deep suspicion of progress. I know some of us pay lip service to this idea, that we were better off before the telegraph and the steam engine and the invisible nets webbing the world, but when it’s time to take those principles to the mat, very few of us suit up for the fight. Not Jeffers: he moved to the very rim of the Western world, out past Edison and Bell, and built a tower out of stone. And that’s not a metaphor: he literally built a tower out of stone that you can still visit. It stands a few yards from the house he also built from stone, hauled up out of the coastal skerries with leather straps and sweat.

There are, of course, other reasons why Jeffers has fallen out of favor, such as his distaste for modern poetic conventions, like irony and abstraction, but it is his rejection of progress, I think, that really knocks us off balance. Why? Because every culture lives in either the ruin or the erection of a single myth. And our myth is progress: up-up and away, to boldly go where no man has gone before. It’s what Adam Smith and Karl Marx have in common. The 60’s. The election of Barack Obama. We either believe in progress, or we wallow in its failure. But not Jeffers. Jeffers believed, following the German thinker Oswald Spengler, that cultures live and die, much like organisms, and that Western culture is at the tale end of a long dying. There will be no more Beethovens, no more Shakespeares, just a slow sinking into restless twilight. We are dying as other cultures have died before us: the Aegean, the Egyptian, the Leventine. For Jeffers, and Spengler, America is the last great gasp of a European worldview, which imagined the future as an angle without descent. What do I mean? I mean that for the Western mind, history is a progression from cave to cathedral, from mud hut to Manhattan, from fire to fusion. Jeffers, however, didn’t believe in that ever-ascending arc. He believed in cycles. Death comes around, tap-tap-tapping at the chamber door of nations and neurotics alike. It’s a hard idea. I don’t mean complicated; I mean hard, like the ground is hard after a long draft of gravity. I’m not sure he’s right, but once the idea moves into your imagination, it never really leaves.

The obvious objection is, of course, scientific progress. Social progress too, but there’re just a few too many people living in abject poverty to make that argument. Given the numbers, arguing against global social progress is like shooting fish in a barrel stuffed with 1.5 billion fish. But scientific progress, technological progress, that’s a tough one to argue against. Indeed, if we have a centralized belief system, it is a belief in technology–maybe not science, but certainly technology. 92% of the homes in America have a television set. 93% have cell phones. We may be a Christian nation, but does anyone think that 93% of the population attends a church for 900 anytime minutes and unlimited nights and weekends?

No, our myth, minus the stranger religious iterations, is the myth of technological progress. Our god has an internal combustion heart, fiber optic nails, and satellites in his hair. The future is nothing less than our god’s gradual emergence from a benighted womb. And if we appease him–for he is surely a he–then he will spare us from that bloody bitch, Nature, who murders our nobility with liver spots and baldness. This god tells us that death is some sort of accident, a failure of replication in the genes, an oxidated flaw in the million mitochondrial centers of our body. Dying is a secondary property, an evolutionary remainder. In fifty years we will live to be one-hundred-and-fifty, and beyond that, in some supremely advanced utopian future, death will be a tale told to ensorcel children, to remind them that once their ancestors played ball with the devil—and lost.

It’s a powerful myth, this faith in the future. Jeffers, however, didn’t need this myth, because he believed in beauty. Not in cover-girl beauty, but in the kind of beauty attached to pain. The kind of beauty that smashes an asteroid into a planet and pulverizes dinosaurs into bird songs. The kind that murders so many mesozoic kings that monkeys can crawl from the mud and write poetry. It’s a beauty that cries out for itself and wishes for no other world. It is sufficient unto itself, and most importantly, it doesn’t need us. We are not special. Not our poetry or our science. We will never build, write, or think anything that will add an ounce to creation’s scale. Beauty could dispose of us just as easily as it disposed of the mastodon, and it would just as soon transform our planetary system into a Cat’s Eye as allow us to continue finger banging its creations with transistors and calculus.

For Jeffers, who was no atheist, we are a part of god’s procession, not apart from it, and as our technology scrubs out suffering and installs wall-to-wall stain resistant carpeting all over creation, we surely succeed in reducing pain, but only at beauty’s price. Like I said, he’s a hard poet to love. Still, if he’s right, then we must remember to treat one another with care, for certainly our love is also a kind of beauty, and though our affection for the precarious things of this world might bring pain, it also brings such delights that we invented language to share them.

3 Responses to Robinson Jeffers

  1. AsiaBill says:

    In this post your writing allowed your knowledge and the effects of your extensive exposure to literature and it’s creators to flow forth announcing and sharing with all who read your blog your absolute love for the written word. Once again, I feel illiterate by comparison but hope never to grow too old to appreciate learning something from others’ experiences and passions.

  2. C.L. Quigley says:

    I know this is over a year old, but… Very well written, I enjoyed this ramble. “…the kind of beauty attached to pain.” yes, this line helps explain the beauty Jeffers speaks of.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Thank you, sincerely, for your comment. It was, in no small part, the impetus for me to begin writing here again. I’ll be making a point to poke around your neck of the woods too. Keep shooting.

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