Mar 12, 2009

Poet of Tor House: Robinson Jeffers (1887 - 1962)

I'm not feeling very optimistic. The Israeli lobby has just muscled in on Obama's National Security Council, Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form a government which can only expand further the creeping injustice and oppression against the Palestinians, the conservative talking heads are screaming about an increase of taxes at the top margin to 39.6% (forgetting that for most of Reagan's eight years it was 50%, for Nixon, 70%, for Eisenhower 90%) and calling for Ayn Rand book clubs to rise up and rediscover John Galt.

Personally, I would like to see the moneyed elite of this country decide to go on strike, and set off to found their own gated community, preferably on one of those Pacific atolls that will be underwater in twenty years or so. The right wing screams of class warfare, forgetting once again, as Warren Buffet reminded us, that the class war has been going on for thirty years now and the moneyed class has already won. Obama has only reluctantly included single payer health insurance on the discussion table, but it is so obvious that his administration has been ensnared in the moneyed class's protectionist racket. The insurers and the pharmaceutical companies may be "fighting for their lives," as some optimistic proponent of single payer claimed, but they've got the high ground in the battle, the big guns, the money and the tanks and plenty of moxie.

It's a dark time. It's time for some dark poetry: "Shine, Perishing Republic":

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 deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thick-
ening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught--they say--
God, when he walked on earth.

The poem was probably written sometime between the first World War and the 1920's since it was first published in the 1925 edition of The Roan Stallion and other Poems. We know this because Jeffers refers to his "children," most likely his twin boys, born to him and his wife Una in 1916. I have an old yellowing copy of the Modern Library's edition (1935) of Jeffers' poems which I found for two dollars somewhere in Philadelphia during the sixties. The paper, nearly brown now on the margins, has held up surprisingly well for a seventy-three year old book. Almost as old as Jeffers when he died.

For those of you who have moments of dark doubt as to the world we seem to be leaving to our our daughters and sons, the poem speaks to that darkness, with its images of rot and decay merely being the American version--sort of a cynical and condemnatory tone as opposed to Whitman's optimism. The long lines have always made me think that Whitman was in Jeffers' mind when he wrote this. The mood is flinty, unrepentant--his version of the prophet's "all flesh is grass," except he applies it to his country, warning his boys to learn well that we are not forced to become corrupt, and in such a classic American way, holding out the purity of the wilderness as the alternative. Head for the mountains when the corruption gathers at the foot of the monster.

Jeffers is not democratic; he is not progressive or liberal, he is not libertarian or conservative, and in fact, he suggests that the love of man whether from loving the acquisitive self as the unbridled capitalists do, or your neighbor as yourself as the Christians profess, will only cause the trouble:
be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
It is such deep trouble it manages even to ensnare God, when "he walked the earth." Whether this is the image of Jesus or the image of God in the Garden of Eden, it's not a pleasant thought. As I say, this poem is for the dark moments like this, "heavily thickening toward empire."

You can imagine the poet, perhaps after a hard day constructing his stone house in Carmel, looking out at Point Lobos across Carmel Bay and sitting down to write. The house was begun by him and then finished over the years--along with a 40 foot stone tower--with the help of his twin sons, each stone fitted and cemented as Jeffers isolated himself on the West Coast in what is now, of course, the very symbolic town of wealth and privilege. From the house, called Tor House, he critically watched the country through the First World War, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Korean War, and finally died there in 1962 at the beginning of the country's Vietnam misadventure in paranoid defensive colonialism. He was 75. In 1963 a posthumous volume of poetry was published, called The Beginning and the End and Other Poems. I bought that one as well, thinking at one time that I would write about Jeffers some day. The two volumes sit in my library. The longer poems are difficult to struggle through. Some of the shorter ones, like this one, "Shine, Perishing Republic," can stay with you forever.

No comments: