Remember when poets made the cover of Time magazine? For probably intersecting reasons, poetry and the public have both failed each other, so that the reputations of people like Robinson Jeffers have pretty much disappeared. But read any of the following poems aloud, and see if you don’t hear something brutal, beautiful, and essential.
Because he spent most of his life in Carmel, California (and built his home, Tor House, on the coast), Jeffers is usually called a “California poet” or an “environmental poet,” but both labels do his universal vision a grave injustice. More at home with Greek and Latin than many of his “Modernist” peers who tried the same pose, he showed it was possible to write seriously, and powerfully, about the difficulties of history and modern life without resorting to the impenetrable difficulty of other poets then and since (no matter how eloquently they defend themselves).
The weakest of his poems now seem to be the narrative pieces he wanted to stake his reputation on, and these what are mostly fill his Collected Poems. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find that his small, powerful lyrics are as good as any poetry ever written. I hope to publish a small collection of them someday.
INSCRIPTION FOR A GRAVESTONE
I am not dead, I have only become inhuman:
That is to say,
Undressed myself of laughable prides and infirmities,
But not as a man
Undresses to creep into bed, but like an athlete
Stripping for the race.
The delicate ravel of nerves that made me a measurer
Of certain fictions
Called good and evil; that made me contract with pain
And expand with pleasure;
Fussily adjusted like a little electroscope:
That’s gone, it is true;
(I never miss it; if the universe does,
How easily replaced!)
But all the rest is heightened, widened, set free.
I admired the beauty
While I was human, now I am part of the beauty.
I wander in the air,
Being mostly gas and water, and flow in the ocean;
Touch you and Asia
At the same moment; have a hand in the sunrises
And the glow of this grass.
I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth
For a love-token.
AGE IN PROSPECT
Praise youth’s hot blood if you will, I think that happiness
Rather consists in having lived clear through
Youth and hot blood, on to the wintrier hemisphere
Where one has time to wait and remember.
Youth and hot blood are beautiful, so is peacefulness.
Youth had some islands in it but age is indeed
An island and a peak; age has infirmities,
Not few, but youth is all one fever.
To look around and to love in his appearances,
Though a little calmly, the universal God’s
Beauty is better I think than to lip eagerly
The mother’s breast or another woman’s.
And there is no possession more sure than memory’s;
But if I reach that gray island, that peak,
My hope is still to possess with eyes that homeliness
Of ancient loves, ocean and mountains,
And meditate the sea-mouth of immortality
And the fountain six feet down with a quieter thirst
Than now I feel for old age; a creature progressively
Thirsty for life will be for death too.
Point Joe has teeth and has torn ships; it has fierce and solitary beauty;
Walk there all day you shall see nothing that will not make part of a poem.
I saw the spars and planks of shipwreck on the rocks, and beyond the desolate
Sea-meadows rose the warped wind-bitten van of the pines, a fog-bank vaulted
Forest and all, the flat sea-meadows at that time of year were plated
Golden with the low flower called footsteps of the spring, millions of flowerets,
Whose light suffused upward into the fog flooded its vault, we wandered
Through a weird country where the light beat up from earthward, and was golden.
One other moved there, an old Chinaman gathering seaweed from the sea-rocks,
He brought it in his basket and spread it flat to dry on the edge of the meadow.
Permanent things are what is needful in a poem, things temporally
Of great dimension, things continually renewed or always present.
Grass that is made each year equals the mountains in her past and future;
Fashionable and momentary things we need not see nor speak of.
Man gleaning food between the solemn presences of land and ocean,
On shores where better men have shipwrecked, under fog and among flowers,
Equals the mountains in his past and future; that glow from the earth was only
A trick of nature’s, one must forgive nature a thousand graceful subtleties.
If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.
FIRE ON THE HILLS
The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the black slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders.
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.
Civilized, crying how to be human again: this will tell you how.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold, look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
You will look back along the stars’ rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to become human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman.
THE BEAKS OF EAGLES
An eagle’s nest on the head of an old redwood on one of the precipice-footed ridges
Above Ventana Creek, that jagged country which nothing but a falling meteor will ever plow; no horseman
Will ever ride there, no hunter cross this ridge but the winged ones, no one will steal the eggs from this fortress.
The she-eagle is old, her mate was shot long ago, she is now mated with a son of hers.
When lightning blasted her nest she built it again on the same tree, in the splinters of the thunderbolt.
The she-eagle is older than I; she was here when the fires of ’eighty-five raged on these ridges,
She was lately fledged and dared not hunt ahead of them but ate scorched meat. The world has changed in her time;
Humanity has multiplied, but not here; men’s hopes and thoughts and customs have changed, their powers are enlarged,
Their powers and their follies have become fantastic,
The unstable animal never has been changed so rapidly. The motor and the plane and the great war have gone over him,
And Lenin has lived and Jehovah died: while the mother-eagle
Hunts her same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry and is never tired; dreams the same dreams,
And hears at night the rock-slides rattle and thunder in the throats of these living mountains.
It is good for man
To try all changes, progress and corruption, powers, peace and anguish, not to go down the dinosaur’s way
Until all his capacities have been explored: and it is good for him
To know that his needs and nature are no more changed in fact in ten thousand years than the beaks of eagles.
There is a hawk that is picking the birds out of our sky.
She killed the pigeons of peace and security,
She has taken honesty and confidence from nations and men,
She is hunting the lonely heron of liberty.
She loads the arts with nonsense, she is very cunning,
Science with dreams and the state with powers to catch them at last.
Nothing will escape her at last, flying nor running.
This is the hawk that picks out the stars’ eyes.
This is the only hunter that will ever catch the wild swan;
The prey she will take last is the wild white swan of’the beauty of things.
Then she will be alone, pure destruction, achieved and supreme,
Empty darkness under the death-tent wings.
She will build a nest of the swan’s bones and hatch a new brood,
Hang new heavens with new birds, all be renewed.
Una has died, and I
Am left waiting for death, like a leafless tree
Waiting for the roots to rot and the trunk to fall.
I never thought you would leave me, dear love.
I knew you would die sometime, I should die first—
But you have died. It is quite natural:
Because you loved life you must die first, and I
Who never cared much live on. Life is cheap, these days;
We have to compete with Asia, we are cheap as dust,
And death is cheap, but not hers. It is a common thing:
We die, we cease to exist, and our dear lovers
Fulfil themselves with sorrow and drunkenness, the quart at midnight
And the cups in the morning—or they go seeking
A second love: but you and I are at least
September again. The gray grass, the gray sea,
The ink-black trees with white-bellied night-herons in them,
Brawling on the boughs at dusk, barking like dogs—
And the awful loss. It is a year. She has died: and I
Have lived for a long year on soft rotten emotions,
Vain longing and drunken pity, grief and gray ashes—
Oh child of God!
It is not that I am lonely for you. I am lonely:
I am mutilated, for you were part of me:
But men endure that. I am growing old and my love is gone:
No doubt I can live without you, bitterly and well.
That’s not the cry. My torment is memory.
My grief to have seen the banner and beauty of your brave life
Dragged in the dust down the dim road to death. To have seen you defeated,
You who never despaired, passing through weakness
to nothing. It is usual I believe. I stood by; I believe
I never failed you. The contemptible thought,
Whether I failed or not! I am not the one.
I was not dying. Is death bitter my dearest? It is nothing.
It is a silence. But dying can be bitter.
In this black year
I have thought often of Hungerfield, the man at Horse Creek,
Who fought with Death—bodily, said the witnesses, throat for throat,
Fury against fury in the dark
And conquered him. If I had had the courage and the hope—
Or the pure rage
I should be now Death’s captive no doubt, not conqueror.
I should be with my dearest, in the hollow darkness
Where nothing hurts.
I should not remember
Your silver-backed hand-mirror you asked me for,
And sat up in bed to gaze in it, to see your face
A little changed. You were still beautiful,
But not—as you’d been—a falcon. You said nothing; you sighed and laid down the glass; and I
Made a dog smile over a tearing heart,
Saying that you looked well.
The lies—the faithless hopeless unbelieved lies
While you lay dying.
For these reasons
I wish to make verses again, to drug memory,
To make it sleep for a moment. Never fear: I shall not forget you—
Until I am with you. The dead indeed forget all things.
And when I speak to you it is only play-acting
And self-indulgence: you cannot hear me, you do not exist. Dearest …
I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing, I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Beak downward staring. I said “My dear bird we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you?” But how beautiful he’d looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes—
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.
“I AM SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS OLD AND SUDDENLY ALL MY STRENGTH”
I am seventy-four years old and suddenly all my strength
Has been shed on the wind. I cannot lift stones
Nor climb mountains nor make love: my dearest is dead: nor swim a shark’s mile
In the blue ocean. It is very unpleasant and humiliating, I believe that it comes to all men
Unless they die. But I am too tough to die
Though I thoroughly desire it.