Aga Popęda here with a bunch of virtual balloons for Robinson Jeffers, who — the immortal poet that he is — is having a birthday today.
Born 135 years ago on January 10, 1887 in Allegheny (now part of Pittsburgh, Pa), Jeffers quickly corrected his life course and moved west. He came to California to study at Occidental College in Los Angeles and immediately began exploring the outdoors of the state. He couldn’t get enough and devoted his entire life and all his worms to the brutal beauty of the local wilderness, courageous lonely rocks that to him were anything but passive, and hawks, especially those with broken wings, who nevertheless never give up to their glory. “You’ve probably noticed about my worms how many hawks go through them,” Jeffers joked while reading his poetry at the Library of Congress in 1941.
As a graduate student, Jeffers met a married woman, Una Call Kuster. And seven years later, after a divorce, she became his wife. The social scandal related to the case was one of the reasons Jeffers retreated deep into the nature of Big Sur and Carmel. It was there that he built a stone house, called Tor House – and later, with his own hands, spent four years building Hawk Tower – for Una, which was in secret rooms and hidden stairs. . They had three children; Una died of cancer in 1950 and Jeffers died 12 years later inside Tor House, his home since 1919.
Jeffers’ poems were as earthy as his house, filled with loneliness, fierce freedom, contempt for modern civilization and metric poetry. His heroes were the ancient Greeks and his poetry was Dionysian, not Apollonian–brutal, bloody, painful, even incestuous. He liked to call it “inhumanism” and this Nietzschean quality is one of the reasons he got into trouble in his day and with his peers. During his lifetime, Jeffers was ostracized when he criticized the United States’ involvement in World War II. He seems to have been critical and cynical of Hitler and President Roosevelt, calling the former a “genius” and “a sick child” who “cried and danced”. It was not patriotic enough during the time of the great war effort, and Jeffers’ inhumanism was perhaps interpreted as a form of pro-Nazi sympathy. He hardly bothered to correct this sight, content with the darkness, tired of the growing crowds of tourists to Carmel.
At the height of his fame, Jeffers made the cover of Time magazine and was posthumously affixed to a U.S. postage stamp. Later in life he – again in a nod to ancient Greece – rewrote Medea of Eurypides (1946), turning it into a Broadway sensation. The story of a mad witch who murders her children to betray her former lover sold well, but didn’t quite match the direction of the contemporary American psyche entering the 1950s. Nowadays, Jeffers is more and more additionally celebrated as an eco-poet, and I’m sure his work will be explored more and more in this way.
In the 1928 poem I listened to this morning– the one preceded by his comment on the number of falcons in his worms – Jeffers described how he found and cared for a wounded falcon for six weeks. But healing was not happening, and Jeffers decided there was nothing else to do but let the bird go. He came back to her at night, he writes, “asking for death.” Before obediently killing the bird, Jeffers comments on the bird’s request. I think the passage is an excellent illustration of his philosophy of “inhumanism”:
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still in the eyes of the old man
I gave him the main gift at dusk.
What fell was relaxed, downy owl, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: The fierce stampede: Night herons by the swollen river cried fear as it rose
Before it was quite unsheathed reality.