Rolling Reference Frames

One of the great debates around Robinson Jeffers regards whether his verse was free or, uh, not completely free. Because Jeffers identified expressly as an anti-modernist, it would not do for him to admit to having followed Walt Whitman down the rabbit hole of free verse. To do so would be to confess to immitation, and also be tantamount to laziness and lack of poetic discipline, in the eyes of some (including Jeffers himself). To this day, Jeffers apologists in odd colleges here and there seem convinced that if patterns can be found in Jeffers’ work, he can then be redeemed as a serious poet. I would like to note here that some Jeffers enthusiasts feel no such need.

It’s quite clear that Jeffers, in his mature years (35+) paid little attention to line length, meter, or rhyme. But there are those that have observed that patterns can be detected by counting stresses in each line. Because these patterns are so variable, these anomaly hunters have pointed to variations as signs of inventiveness. Perhaps that is so, but I think it more likely these verse-scholars are simply detecting subconscious rhythms that have surfaced in Jeffers’ verse. The variability that they so admire is just a sign that Jeffers did not consciously lay the patterns out.

But given all that, one problem remains: what does the number of stresses in a line matter if the line is not recognizable to the ear?

When we count anything on a per-line basis, it might be instructive to determine whether Jeffers had much regard for line boundaries. This is easy to do by listening to Jeffers recite his own poetry. Fortunately we can do so, thanks to the Library of Congress. Following is a table that indicates how many times the poet either broke lines apart with pauses or ran them together.

Poem Title Lines Inline / End Stop-Commas Quick-Commas In-line Pauses Line-ends w/o Pause Unpunctuated Line-end Pauses Variance of flow from line boundaries
Oh Lovely Rock 20 6 / 2 5 25 9 1 1.65
Hurt Hawks 27 15 / 6 6 21 10 1 1.11
The Day is a Poem 14 3 / 0 3 8 8 1 1.07
Night Without Sleep 20 6 / 2 2 17 5 2 1.00
The Bloody Sire 17 1 / 3 3 1 3 0 0.24
The Place for No Story 11 0 / 0 3 1 3 2 0.18
TOTALS 109 31 / 13 22 73 38 7 0.95

By listening closely to Jeffers’ recitative patterns and heeding the implications, we can see that this poet was much more focused on ordinary punctuation than on verse-breaks. A mid-verse comma means a pause just as much as the end of a verse does. Commas, in fact, are often employed vocally as full-stops. A new verse, if not preceded immediately by punctuation, will likely not be preceded by any pause at all.

In reciting 109 lines of his own poems, Robinson Jeffers paused within lines 73 times and ran lines into each other 38 times. Most of these “violations” of line boundaries occurred because Jeffers was simply reading his poems as prose.

What is a verse to Jeffers? It’s almost always a grammatical phrase as delimited by punctuation such as a comma, an ellipsis, a colon, a semicolon, or a period. Linebreaks have little to do with the vocal structure of a Jeffers poem.

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