December 14, 2007
It must have been via one of Charles Bukowski’s many interviews that I got a lead to Robinson Jeffers of Carmel-Big Sur, California. Jeffers was not a figure I had encountered at prep school or at college. I am delighted to bring him up now, prompted by Justin Raimondo’s informative article in the December 17th print edition of The American Conservative, entitled “Robinson Jeffers: Peace Poet”. It has been awhile since I have read anything about Jeffers, and I had almost come to the conclusion that this great man was lost and forgotten.
You will not find Robinson Jeffers in the poetry section of your local book store. Trust me. Call one up and see. There are plenty of other poets, but not Jeffers. He’s got to be special-ordered. This for a man who was on the cover of Time in the 1920’s and who had a U.S. postage stamp issued with his portrait on it in 1973. Of course, Amazon has him. To be recommended is the slim Vintage paperback, a collection which evidently has not changed in format one iota since being published in 1965.
Stanford University Press came out with a new, outsized 776-page selection of poems in 2001. The three online reviews of this latest volume are most worthwhile as a primer to the man and his poetry. I could also recommend Professor Helen Vendler’s “Huge Pits of Darkness, High Peaks of Light” in The New Yorker of December 26th, 1988, but it’s not online. Professor Vendler begins, “The poet Robinson Jeffers is periodically resurrected.” It looks like Justin Raimondo’s piece is the latest resurrection. Wonderful.
Justin naturally focuses upon the Old Right, anti-war aspects of Jeffers, which may very well be the most approachable aspects. I do not think Jeffers could be termed a pacifist, but he definitely was against the U.S. interventions in World Wars I and II. Take a look at his “Wilson in Hell” written in 1942, one of the ten poems suppressed by Bennett Cerf at Random House in the 1946 publication of The Double Axe…
Roosevelt died and met Wilson; who said “I
blundered into it
Through honest error, and conscience cut me so deep that
In the vain effort to prevent future wars. But you
Blew on the coal-bed, and when it kindled you deliberately
Sabotaged every fire-wall that even the men who denied
My hope had built. You have too much murder on your
hands. I will not
Speak of the lies and connivings. I cannot understand the
That permits us to meet in the same heaven.—Or is this
Then there is “So Many Blood-Lakes” written on May 12, 1944 during the closing hours of World War II:
We have now won two world-wars, neither of
which concerned us, we were slipped in.
We have leveled the powers
Of Europe, that were the powers of the world, into rubble
and dependence. We have won two wars and a
third is coming…
—As for me: laugh at me. I agree with you. it is a foolish
business to see the future and screech at it.
One should watch and not speak. And patriotism has run
the world through so many blood-lakes: and we
always fall in.
Exactly a decade earlier, Jeffers had written in “Shine, Republic”…
There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to
Concord, its dangerous beauty binding three ages
Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization
have eclipsed but have never quenched it.
For the Greeks the love of beauty, for Rome of ruling;
for the present age the passionate love of discovery;
But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington,
Luther, Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind of man…
Jeffers was an American patriot as well as an Old Right “isolationist”. This is looking narrowly, of course, at what we call “politics”. But Jeffers poetry transcends all politics. How so? You have to read it. Here’s what William Everson thoughtfully had to say in the the foreword to The Double Axe in trying to explain Jeffers’ outlook, “The breed [mankind] has something botched about it, and whoever would follow its tendencies walks with devils…. Nineteenth-century science had presented Nietzsche with a universe in which there was no place left for God. Twentieth-century science presented Jeffers with a universe in which there is no place left for man.”
There is a Jeffers-Bukowski connection. In Septuagenarian Stew (1990) Bukowski has a poem entitled simply “Jeffers”, which is a tribute. “His voice was dark, a rock-slab pronouncement, a voice not distracted by the ordinary forces of greed, cunning and need.” Then there is the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter # 90, in the Spring of 1994:
“On 9 March 1994, Los Angeles poet laureate, prolific writer, rough-hewn autobiographical poet, short story writer, novelist, center figure of the feature film, “Barfly”, died of leukemia at San Pedro Peninsula Hospital…. It would be difficult to find two poets more separated in subject matter, technique and world-view than Charles Bukowski and Robinison Jeffers. Yet he was a man dedicated to, indeed almost obsessed by Jeffers…. In a 1970 interview…Bukowski identifies Jeffers as a poet who generally influenced him, who ‘turned him on’…. Bukowski: he was not a Jeffers disciple, we must say, but an admirer. Despairing of the Carmel poet’s divine macrocosm, which evidently said nothing to him, he [Bukowski] spoke for those caught in the blind, meaningless, desolate, violent, isolated process which to him was life.”
May I add, getting back to “politics”, that Bukowski completely shared Jeffers’ “anti-war” views with respect to American involvement in foreign wars. In my correspondence with Bukowski (some of which is contained in
” title=“Reach for the Sun, Selected Letters of Charles Bukowski, Volume 3, 1978-1994”>Reach for the Sun, Selected Letters of Charles Bukowski, Volume 3, 1978-1994) I wrote him a note on January 11th, 1991 during the run-up to Gulf War I. My note concerned a particularly insufferable and hypocritical column by N.Y. Times writer A. M. Rosenthal in the International Herald Tribune entitled “Mideastern Fairy Tales”. True to form, Abe was braying for “regime change” in Iraq back then.
I had written a letter to the editor, pointing out what nonsense it all was, and sent Bukowski a copy. He had already responded enthusiastically to my essay “The Second World War and its Aftermath”. Bukowski shot back a comment by return mail: “Fine reply to the Rosenthal bullshit. If there is a good fight you are fighting it. Yes, it looks like this country is in for another one. The idiot concepts of our leaders are endless. It all makes me sick straight on through. Nothing has been learned from the past. Just new bodies, new waste, new hell. Always a new excuse for more war…yes, I am sick with it all. It sits in my gut churning and they go on ahead. Plenty best, Buk”.
For the record, here’s the text of my unpublished letter to the International Herald Tribune, dated October 28th, 1990 on the subject of the first Gulf War, to be code-named Operation Desert Storm:
“Is A.M. Rosenthal confused or just trying to confuse the rest of us? (‘Mideastern Fairy Tales’, IHT, October 27th). One wonders where he acquired such contempt, nay hatred, for all things Arab. If the Saudis, the Kuwaitis et al. are so contemptible, then why should American lives be put on the line to protect them from their fellow Arabs in Iraq?
“Simply put, Mr. Rosenthal wants the United States to take out Saddam Hussein. ‘As long as he rules, he will be a threat to his Arab neighbors, and us.’ Come again? After heaping considerable scorn upon the Arabs, is the reader suppose to believe that Rosenthal gives a damn when one Arab state threatens another? Of course not. And who are the “and us” Rosenthal refers to? Is he thinking about his fellow Americans, or about his compatriots in Israel? Despite the current hysteria and hoopla, Iraq poses no threat whatever to America or to the West, and only a potential threat to Israel down the road, should Israel attack Iraq, or cause Iraq to be attacked, or continue indefinitely to deny the Palestinians a homeland in Palestine alongside the Jews of the world.
“Pundits like Abe Rosenthal and Bill Safire have let their uncritical infatuation with Israel and their irrational hatred of the Arabs destroy their common sense. Beating the drums of war in service to their own private agenda is unseemly. As for the larger prospects of the U.S. injecting itself militarily into an intra-Arab border dispute, that policy would be so shot through with hypocrisy that it can only end in tragedy or a fiasco.”
Well, we have had a belly-full of tragedy and fiascos in and around Iraq since 1991, as well as in New York and Washington, D.C. Nowadays, Operation Desert Storm is looked upon, in some circles, as the smart or reasonable war, when compared to the present nightmare, code-named Operation Iraqi Freedom, concocted by Dick Cheney, Bush Jr. and their “neocon” brain-trust. But both Gulf wars are the same war, just like World War I and World War II were the same European war. The idea for America should have been to avoid all of them, right from the start, while endeavoring to mediate honestly and even-handedly. Just the opposite took place. Yes, there are so many blood-lakes, and we always jump in. With regard to history and “politics”, Jeffers and Bukowski understood what was happening to America as it happened, not in retrospect. This is important.