My “bridge over troubled water” is Literature and the Arts. But, these days, with the exception of a few cherished authors and websites, I am apt to get more sustenance from re-reading the Classics—even 20th Century Classics–than from reading the frothy outpourings of identity-poets and lauded, establishmentarian shills. A much-thumbed Vintage Book is one I’ve held dear since my 20s, by a poet I’ve introduced to university students surfeited on too much Frost in high school and too much Yeats and Eliot beyond that.
Now, that trio did write some great works, of course, but not one of them had much to say about American politics. And when they are taught in our public and private institutions, their politics—personal or literary—are studiously avoided. And there’s the rub! Because, if we are ever to grasp our fleeting Zeitgeist, we need the whole round picture—politics, the Arts, slang, sexuality, food—the whole cascading shebang!
The American poet who best provides that, for his time and ours, is Robinson Jeffers, who died one year before JFK was killed, but at 75, had lived to see terrible presentiments:
“While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
Heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops
And sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make
fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,
ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.”
Thus, the first two stanzas of what may be his best-known poem, 1925’s “Shine, Perishing Republic.” In five quatrains, Jeffers plays Laocoon to the fast-food, quick-to-the-draw Empire the Republic would become–“You making haste haste on decay”—sounding his alarm while fortifying his moral stance:
“…for my children, I would have them keep their dis-
tance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory. …”
And he warns:
“… be in nothing so moderate as in love of man,
A clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits. …”
Can there really be love without wisdom? Attraction, surely; even, affection. But love? Can there be love of country without knowledge of a country’s history? These are the kinds of questions implicit in his work. In “Cassandra,” he evokes the Trojan prophetess, bids caution again, even in our approach to “poets-laureate,” “inaugural poets,” etc.:
“Truly men hate the truth; they’d liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying.”
Such words do not sit well with literary establishments—then or now. Before the Second World War, Jeffers was one of America’s most celebrated poets, his handsomely rugged face adorning a 1932 cover of TIME. That was a safe bet for conservative ultra-millionaire publisher, Henry Luce. Jeffers’ creds were even better than Eliot’s: a theology professor’s son, he had learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew as a boy and burnished his early education with three years in Germany and Switzerland—all before entering the University of Western Pennsylvania at fifteen.
At 19, his affair with another USC student, the beautiful and very-much married Una Call Custer, had been sensationalized in a 1913 LOS ANGLELES TIMES article, “Two Points of the Eternal Triangle.” Very publicly, they had tried to break off their relationship, Una traveling to Europe for a year while Robinson “drifted into idleness” without her, but somehow managing to collect his thoughts and sentiments in his first book. They were married within seven months of Una’s return, and, soon after, settled in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Jeffers and their two sons would later build, stone by stone, their famous “Tor House.”
He had been through crises and overcome. His genius could not be denied; his erudition shone through his straight-forward lines. In the midst of the Great Depression, Jeffers’ resilient, indefatigable spirit was worthy of Luce’s and the nation’s emulation and celebration.
But, his prophetic, truth-speaking side could not be purchased for fame or money. In “Woodrow Wilson,” in 1924, he wrote:
“Visionless men, blind hearts, blind mouths, live still.”
“As to betrayals: there are so many
Betrayals, the Russians and the Germans know.”
He was writing, of course, about the infamous Versailles Treaty, when Wilson had the rug pulled out from under him, his noble “14 Points” bartered for the scurrilous “peace” Britain and France exacted from no-more war-guilty Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia.
“Victory/ you know requires
Force to sustain victory, the burden is never lightened. …”
1924. … 2013. … The “Great War” then. The “War on Terror” now. “The burden is never lightened.”
The Depression deepened. Top-hatted Fred Astaire whirled sparkling Ginger Rogers and the masses escaped into a celluloid realm of riches; and behind it all, more clamoring for war. In 1938, in “Shine, Republic,” he takes his earlier poem a warier step further: “The love of freedom has been the quality of Western man,” he proclaims. And, “you, America, that passion made you. You were not born to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.” And, “we cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.”
That same year, a year after Picasso’s “Guernica” had vivified the torturous horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Jeffers wrote in “Contemplation of the Sword”: “Reason will not decide at last; the sword will decide.” Increasingly, his father’s faith wavered in him. He called his own philosophy/religion “inhumanism,” focussing on his belief that “the man-brained and man-handed ground ape” was far too self-absorbed “to feel/ Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural/ Beauty.” An earlier age might have called him a pagan. But his was no blind, Romanticist faith in the beauty of Nature. More like humble awe before infinite mysteries. With world war approaching again, he writes:
“Dear God, who are the whole splendor of things and the/ sacred stars, but also the cruelty and greed, the/ treacheries/ And vileness, insanities and filth and anguish: now that this thing comes near us again I am finding it hard
To praise you.”
And, in the same poem,
“You are the one that tortures himself to discover himself: I am
One that watches you and discovers you, and praises you
in little parables, idyl or tragedy, beautiful
A professor of mine once lamented Jeffers’ “bitterness.” I disagreed then, and disagree now. Jeffers gaze was not so much bitter as it was unflinching, steady, resolute and sui generis. “The cold passion for truth,” he wrote, “hunts in no pack.”
A prophet is without honor in his native land, and as the years advanced he took refuge, walking the hills around Big Sur, watching the hawks he loved. A month before the Second World War began he wrote: “They are warming up the old horrors; and all that they say is echoes of echoes.” And, also from “The Soul’s Desert”: “Clearly it is time/ To become disillusioned, each person to enter his own soul’s desert/ And look for God—having seen man.”
His was the despair of a great soul, and the hungering for beauty of a true poet: “The night herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings.”
Others could be fooled; but not Jeffers. Late in 1943, Stalin, FDR and Churchill met in Teheran to plan the post-war peace:
“Personal greatness/ Was never more than a trick of the light. … Who are these little smiling attendants/ On a world’s agony, meeting in Teheran to plot against whom what future?”
In the same “Teheran” poem, he foresaw the Cold War behind the drapery:
“… there will be Russia/ And America; two powers alone in the world; two bulls in one pasture.”
A few months later, in “So Many Blood-Lakes,” he wrote:
“We have now won two world-wars, neither of which concerned us, we were slipped in.”
“We have won two wars and a third is coming.” And, foreseeing our 21st Century:
“We have enjoyed fine dreams; we have dreamed of unifying the world; we are unifying it—against us.”Concluding: “… patriotism has run the world through so many blood-lakes: and we always fall in.”
His face took on the look of the crags he wandered; his eyes became hawk-eyes. No American poet has ever perceived his country better: the longing for freedom and nobility; and all the traps and losses.
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