Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. … I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! — Father Mapple , Moby-Dick
Back in college, I experienced a surge of interest in poetry after having lost my faith in God, etc. Like many others, I’d been raised in a context wherein particular words were believed to have meditative, restorative, and spiritual power. In addition, I was raised in an Iranian religion wherein prayer and scripture were infused with the poetic heritage of Sufi mysticism. Having removed myself from that context, I felt a an understandable need for a secular substitute.
Before I’d lost faith in the particular doctrines of my upbringing, they had led me to a deep sense of connection with nature with declarations such as “nature is God’s will.” My religion had also followed in the footsteps of Buddhism with various appeals to selflessness and detachment. My religion claimed to put science on an equal footing with the word of God. My religion also encouraged “independent investigation of truth.” Much of it still resonates with me, but my religion had fallen short at last, and I searched for something less dogmatic and more open-ended.
It hadn’t been long since I spent some time in Palestine, working as a guard at my religion’s holy sites. If you’ve seen Mount Carmel, you couldn’t have missed the copper-domed Bahá’í shrine, the gardens, the fountains, and the arc of Greek buildings clothed in Italian marble. It all imparts a sense that Mount Carmel is the Bahá’í mountain.
I remember with warm sentimentality the nightshifts on the mountain and outside our shrine up near the Lebanese border, tracking Halley’s comet and watching the constellations roll through the night.
I may have seemed a bit nutty. Following the scriptures, I nurtured a sense that we humans can communicate in some subconscious sense with our habitat; that, in more sober terms, the place we live in impacts our psychology. I was entertained by the nocturnal activities of birds, chameleons, and hedgehogs, and I happily terrorized badgers as a favor to our gardeners. I’d been outdoors before, having encountered rattlesnakes and campground bears while backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, and I was — as they say — young and dumb. This reminds me of the time, when I was 13, my younger brother and I unwittingly cut through an Israeli army camp while attempting a shortcut back to our hotel on the mountain. How does one unwittingly cut through an army camp? I guess it didn’t occur to us that barbed wire has military applications.
It wasn’t easy to break from my upbringing and many of those whom I’d known, as much as I respected so much of it all; but I had to be myself at last. I had simply felt dishonest trying to do otherwise. So there I was, raised on Sufi mysticism, Islamic and Neo-Platonic theology, the Sierra Nevada, and nightshifts in Palestine, reading poetry to recapture that sense of intimacy and entanglement with nature, with a hunger for “the rude truth.” I’d been primed well for Robinson Jeffers. Here was a poet who stressed a number of ideas that I was amenable to:
- Inhumanism: A regard for the inhuman (“natural”) world as divine.
- An attempt to transcend humanism; to transcend human and selfish concerns.
- A passionate engagement with the inhuman.
- The poet as an example of interaction, perhaps even communication, with the most inanimate of stuff (stone), whose career was born of stone.
- An insistence on the hard truth.
- A language of strict monotheism (Calvinism, Islam), which doubles as a theological basis for iconoclasm and nonconformism.
Though I could enjoy meter and rhyme, I wasn’t seeking them out. Such gimmicks, it seemed to me, could only serve to distract a solemn prayer. Having recited prayers since early childhood, having studied Arabic, having delighted in the power of words, phrasing, and vocalization, poetry was to me a music that arises out of elegant prose, which has rhythms and harmonics of its own. Poetry, in my personal opinion, is at its most sublime when not encumbered by overt and repetitive constructs. One of the appeals of Jeffers was that he made poetry of prose (nothing new there), and at the same time, disguised the prose as poetry. It wasn’t that he wasn’t skilled at rhyme and meter, but rather that age 35 he determined that he needed a less playful, more solemn literary medium.
Robinson Jeffers began as a craftsman with a deep appreciation for and understanding of classical poetry, with knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, and German. He was not a casual poet, but try as he might to make himself into a poet in the classical tradition, he found himself composing only imitation; mere variations on what he had read.
When Jeffers discovered stonemasonry at age 32, he continued to regard himself as a poet, but he began to put more and more of his time into stone work, and he ceased trying to publish. After working as a stonemason’s apprentice on his house, then striking out on his own to build a garage and a tower, Jeffers began to produce a different kind of poetry: the transcendent kind.
Whether what he was writing was literally poetry has been subject to debate ever since. What is certain is that he was going to call it poetry, because (1) he identified as a poet and (2) his wife proudly identified as the wife of a poet, and (3) the stuff that poets write is called poetry. This may seem irregular, but it is not: “poetry” is a label for a subjective artifice, not a scientific term for an objective phenomenon.
Jeffers’s abandonment of formal structures in poetry has earned him reputations as a free-verser and a versifier. Jeffers rejected such characterizations but offered no rebuttal.
A handful of obscure Jeffers apologists, taking their cue from Jeffers himself, have striven to demonstrate that Jeffers’s work is “poetry” in an objective sense by attempting to identify stress patterns therein. It’s primarily based upon the unpublished master’s thesis of Herbert Arthur Klein, a student at Jeffers’s alma mater, and made popular in a book that one of Jeffers’s admirers, critic and UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell (another Occidental grad), wrote about Jeffers. What Klein and Powell failed to recognize, to my reckoning, is that Jeffers’s verses follow punctuation more than linefeeds; so counting stresses per line is, to the ear, irrelevant. Of course there’s a distinct possibility that they never heard Jeffers recite his own poetry. Jeffers was famously averse to reciting poetry, whether his or anybody else’s.
I understand that Jeffers wanted to be regarded as a poet in a classical sense, that he expressed a high regard for the oscillations—if not rhythms—of poetry, and that he detested the novelties of modern poetry. I get it, but a poet’s ambitions and dislikes alone are not sufficient to establish the actual character of his work.
Any article that claims that its thesis is important in redeeming Jeffers’s academic reputation must be put under suspician. The purpose of anaylsis ought not be promotion of the artist’s name but rather illumination of the artist’s work. Attempts to prove Jeffers to be a legitimate, academically accreditable craft-poet too often come off as anomaly hunting, reminiscent of the stale old proofs for an objective, ontological existence of Allah that I sloughed off as a young mystic.