Thursday, February 23, 2006

Robinson Jeffers: Poet for Now

I'm reading the current issue of the New Yorker the article "Watermark: Can Southern Louisiana be Saved" that discusses how much of Southern Louisiana is sinking into the sea--an appaling thought. At the same time I'm reading Robbinson Jeffers' nature poet, and thinking that Jeffers is the only environmentalist poet who got it right for 2006. He captures the ferocity of nature better than any other poet I know.

In poems like "November Surf" and "Hands" Jeffers speaks of how nature wipes out human habitation just like the hurricanes wiped out acres of land in Southern Louisiana. Jeffers' "November Surf" speaks of the "great waves awake ... come and cover the cliffs with a violent cleaness ...." he could be easily speaking of Hurricane Katrina but, of course, he isn't since he wrote these poems over 60 years ago. He describes all the summer trash--"orange peel, eggshells, paper, pieces of clothing"--on on these cliffs that the great waves wipes clean off, but the waves in "November Surf" do more than just clean off junk in the poem--they also wipe out cities.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we respect more Jeffer's description of the waves ability to take out a city and have less pride in our ability to control the waves. Jeffers in these poems tries to teach us that humility toward nature. Also, the poet teaches us to accept what hapens when "the river mouth to source pure." He calls us "the two-footed mammal" who, after the waves cleansing of the land, have "The dignity of room, the value of rareness." He believes that less people might even have some parts of the land.

In the poem "Hands" he speaks of hands on a cave in a canyon near Tassajara. "A brown shy quiet people" made these many hands and then vanished, but the poet says the people speak through their hands, warning those who now inhabit the land: "enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down/And be supplanted; for you are also human." Again, Jeffers tells us that we may not be able to remain on the land, to save all that we want. Years after Jeffers wrote these poems we most likely have to accept losing part of Southern Louisiana to the sea. Jeffers is asking us to accept something very difficult.

In "Rock and Hawk" Jeffers tells us to learn from these most inhuman elements--stones and predatory birds--for values to help us humans live. In the poem he rejects the cross and the hive--Christiantiy and the cities--instead giving us a "new emblem." He first looks at the rock which has withstood earthquakes and sea storms. No trees grow there but a falcon sits there. The new emblem is this falcon/stone: "Fierce consciousness joined with final/Disinterestedness."
He admires both the falcon's "realist eye" and massive "mysticism of stone." He wants us to live well but also accept death. Yes, Jeffers nature poetry has much to teach us. After decades of thinking we can dominate nature, ignoring global warming, ignoring warrnings about dangers to the Gulf Coast--rejecting Jeffers--perhaps we're now ready to listen to the Big Sur's poet's hard lessons.


Droog said...

I enjoyed your insights on Robinson Jeffers and I'll be back for more of your posts in the future.

SAM said...

I'm reading Robinson Jeffers for an American Poetry class right now and really enjoyed your post. I'm doing a close reading of one of his poems for an assignment and love his writing. He was such an interesting man.