“Mere Troubadour Amusement”: Jeffers and the Erasure of Modernism

[This piece, which complements “Under Wordsworthian Auspices,” was presented as part of the American Literature Association Symposium on American Poetry in November 1992.]


Jeffers’ rejection of Modernism is well known, and various features of his work (such as his emphasis on narrative) confirm that he chose not to be a “modern”—at least in the sense of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, or even T.S. Eliot. As such there seems little reason to question the usual conclusion: that modernist poetry is irrelevant to understanding Jeffers and that his work is even less relevant to understanding the modernists and modernism. That is, however, precisely what I want to question. In particular I want to suggest that his rejection of modernism and his formulation of it should be seen as part of his strategy (or at least a reflection of his desire) to mythologize himself as a transparent and natural figure, while yet being no such thing. I want to argue, that is, that his seemingly offhanded dismissal of the modernist episode and his modernist peers signals his concern with their work and perhaps even a sense of anxiety (for all that such a term threatens to make my title a mixed metaphor). Perhaps, paradoxically, I want most simply to suggest that we will only fully understand what is unique and significant—even central—in Jeffers if we factor in his engagement of other writers and that doing so may in turn contribute to our understanding of (to borrow from the titles of two relatively recent books) the genealogy and matrix of modernism.

Various factors have obscured the terms of Jeffers’ opposition, yet relationship, to his modernist contemporaries. For one thing, he was largely invisible until 1924 when Tamar and Other Poems suddenly became a hot topic. This was well after Imagism’s first flush and the initial forays of Pound and Eliot into fragmentation, impersonality, and collage. The way “Tamar’s” startling plot appeared to act out a blend of Freud and Frazier with a dash of Nietzsche gave his book a “modern” cast, even as his use of narrative and the sense of voice (not only aloof and austere but a clear, persistent presence) pegged it as either independent from the preceding years of modernist experiment or a rejection of it by a newer figure. Contemporary readers didn’t likely consider (and it seems to occur to us only intermittently) that Jeffers, Pound, and Eliot were born within a few years of each other—that they are the same generation—and that this means that Jeffers evolved his aesthetic and practice simultaneously to, and while aware of, modernist experiments.

The relative invisibilty of Jeffers’ apprentice work has also played a role in this sense of Jeffers’ as belated to and disconnected from. His two earliest collections, Flagons and Apples (1912) and Californians (1916), were undistinguished and had virtually no circulation; Jeffers himself later declared them irrelevant—perhaps because they show him imitating the same 19th century models as his modernist peers in their apprentice years and failing in some of the same ways. Had this aspect of Jeffers troubled those who initially set the agenda for how and why he should be read, it might have highlighted the dialectic between his project and the projects of his actual contemporaries. Also important was his isolation from the period’s various poetic communities. Jeffers published Tamar privately, and its unlikely discovery and critical success gave him immediate access to a major commercial publisher, Liveright, which quickly issued an expanded collection, Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925). It’s commercial success meant that Jeffers largely bypassed the poetry journals and small presses that helped integrate many of his contemporaries into overlapping poetic communities and coteries—a factor that made it relatively easy for those who participated in these coteries or were influenced by them to exclude him from the academic canon of modern American poetry as they, flying the flag of “New Criticism” (think Wimsatt and Beardsley and the thou-shalt-nots of the intentional and affective fallacies) laid down the law for studying modern American poetry as it became an area of academic study and then enforced that law through such teaching anthologies as Brooks’ and Warren’s Understanding Poetry (its first edition published in 1938 and its last, the fourth, published in 1976), which ruled the curriculum and classrooms of American colleges and universities through the 1940s and 1950s and continued as a significant influence on into the 1960s. (Not only has this isolation been a factor in marginalizing Jeffers’ and his work, it has also complicated efforts to recover his project as part of the field of American poetry. Those studying Pound, for instance, must necessarily engage Eliot, H.D., Williams and others. Those studying Williams must also consider Stevens and Moore. Those studying Jeffers must, seemingly, contend only with Jeffers.)

Most simply, though, Jeffers’ own comments have obscured matters. He wove his critique of modernism into two of his most important prose pieces: the Introduction to the 1935 Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems and the Foreword to the Random House volume, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938). He apparently wrote these, his first published attempts to characterize his career, at the urging of Random House, which probably hoped to consolidate his reputation, and thus their market, by adding his most famous volume to its mass market line and by publishing a hefty, deluxe retrospective. Oddly enough these projects came when Jeffers’ writing was at a lull. The momentum of Tamar, which had carried him through the early 1930s, had played out, and the manuscripts from these years show a poet struggling to maintain his confidence and rediscover his direction. The Introduction and Foreword can, thus, be read in part as Jeffers’ attempt to clarify to himself where he’d come from and what he’d done and to define his work’s significance.

Whatever his doubts in the mid-1930s, Jeffers projects himself as a confident poet in these two pieces. He muses, somewhat wryly, about his apprentice failings and then asserts (without explaining how it happened) that his poetic independence eventually freed him from such trivial concerns as whether or not he might be original—even whether he might be read. He implies, that is, that his complete disregard of audience, tradition, and fashion coupled with his complete attention to his own process of vision testify to his poetic integrity—even as he implicitly argues that his work should matter for the reader, that it is central to the tradition, and that it is a fit model for other poets. Within this complex act of rhetorical positioning, modernist experiment is cast as a kind of cautionary tale—an example of an illusory originality, a form of anxiety—that a poet must reject if the work is to be properly original, properly integral to the tradition, and properly generative for poets to come. And as such Jeffers would have us believe that he was aware of modernism from its beginnings, shrewd enough to critique its assumptions, and strong enough (even in the years before Tamar while still floundering without a direction of his own and in spite of the acclaim and controversy already attached to Pound and the others) to reject its direction.

These are claims that we should, I’d suggest, view skeptically, but the details of the Introduction and Foreword do indicate that Jeffers, in spite of his geographic isolation, had a relatively detailed sense of Imagism and The Waste Land and probably “Mauberly” as well in spite of his relative geographic isolation on the central California coast. Jeffers, it seems, had tracked these projects (probably through some of the important small poetry magazines) as they emerged in the years shortly before and after World War I and continued to track them until shortly after writing the poems he collected in Tamar. (My reasons for stressing why Jeffers knew this work when will become clearer in a bit. For now I want simply to sketch the terms of his critique.)

From the perspective of 1935 and 1938, Jeffers praises the modernists (read Imagists and Pound and Eliot with their experiments in collage) for having been “advanced.” But even as he acknowledges the “originality” of these poets, he condemns their work as a move toward making poetry, in his terms, increasingly “slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.” To Jeffers, Pound and Eliot were following a course that amounted to “originality by amputation.” They were, he thought, sacrificing “reason and ideas,” even “intelligibility,” to bring poetry “nearer to music,” a move that he saw as threatening to “divorc[e]” poetry from “reality.” They were, in Jeffers’ view, chasing “Mallarmè‚’s aging dream”—a dream Jeffers had rejected when he chose instead “to write narrative poetry, and to draw subjects from contemporary life; to present aspects of life that modern poetry had generally avoided; and to attempt the expression of philosophic and scientific ideas in verse.” Perhaps most simply for Jeffers the various modernist attempts to reclaim poetry’s cultural centrality from prose amounted to evasions of the problem, while his maneuver was an attempt to confront the problem and engage it.

It’s understandable that these comments have often been seen as proving Jeffers’ all but complete lack of interest in modernism. They show him assessing it, labeling it a dead end, and going about the business of his own genius with what he wants us to believe is admirable confidence and integrity. Even in his foolish apprentice anxiety about how to become “original,” Jeffers was, he’d have us believe, neither tempted nor threatened by the early modernist agenda even though Pound et al were producing better work than he could then manage. Jeffers passes off their relative success in their own apprentice phase by suggesting that he recognized that their “originality” stemmed from their success in “imitating each other” while he was still stuck “imitating Shelley and Milton.” This claim to a sort of rugged aesthetic independence from contemporary literary fashion matches the persona of some of Jeffers’ shorter poems and is one many students of his work have wanted to believe. However, several details call it into question. Not only do the poems of the later 1930s show Jeffers struggling for his poetic equilibrium, but the manuscripts from the 1910s, the period when he imagines himself as having serenely surveyed and dismissed early modernism, show that his decision to bet his career on transforming narrative into a modern poetic form was difficult and uncertain and that it came only after a prolonged flirtation with symbolist tendencies.

One doesn’t, though, have to appeal to manuscripts twenty years prior to the Roan Stallion Introduction to demonstrate that it’s not completely transparent. In particular Jeffers’ suggestion that the modernists were initially trying to be original by busily “imitating each other” while he, instead, was still “imitating Shelley and Milton” requires scrutiny. The ploy is typical for Jeffers in his critical comments (few as they are). He shifts from being deprecatingly disarming to an all but aggressive assurance. He confesses to his own imitative stage, but uses the form of it to set himself apart (and implicitly above) his peers, and he manages the shift in such a way that he gives himself priority even as he suggests he’s musing out loud and simply unfolding the matter as he recalls it. We can also question the transparency of this move on another basis. This summer I spent time squinting at the original penciled draft of this passage. It turns out Jeffers actually first confessed to “imitating Wordsworth,” then crossed this out (heavily) to insert Shelley and Milton. It is, of course, possible that the change reflects the truth of the matter and that Jeffers was simply correcting himself; his early apprentice work does show him wrestling with Shelley and Milton among others, and touches of the two can be found in his mature work. But it’s more likely, I think, that he deleted Wordsworth because he didn’t want to call attention to the ways his career—its form, his poetic, and his ambition—could be read as a recasting of Wordsworth’s own (shades of Bloom reading Wordsworth reading Milton).

Investigating what it would mean to approach Jeffers as a modern transformation (rather than an imitative continuation) of Wordsworth’s project would, I’d suggest, be worthwhile, but I still haven’t gotten to my tease about “mere troubador amusement.” This phrase, clearly a dig at the early Pound, comes from an unpublished August 1923 attempt by Jeffers to justify his allegiance to narrative. In this discarded Preface to Tamar, Jeffers casts his disagreement with the Modernists even more polemically than in the 1935 Foreword to Roan Stallion and the 1938 Foreword to The Selected Poetry. And in doing so, he reveals more clearly the actual extent of his struggle to reject modernism and to commit himself to narrative. In 1935 Jeffers may have feared he was losing his creative edge, but he was by then an established, if controversial, figure who had demonstrated the viability of poetic narrative in the modern period. In 1923 he had yet to establish either himself or narrative—either to himself or to an audience. And the poets (he specifically invokes Pound in the piece) that he saw as his most “advanced” contemporaries (and who were already becoming the poetic establishment) were declaring narrative an anachronism, rejecting it as a viable option for a modern poetry. In 1935 Jeffers could turn his rhetoric toward solidifying his position, but in 1923 he had to try to elbow enough room to have a position. He needed to establish how his poems should be read, why (in fact) they were even poetry, and the only way to do this was to affirm his aesthetic choices at the expense of the choices of others—i.e. the modernists, the Imagists, the Poundians, The Waste Landers. And to compound the risks, the difficulty, he was staking his ambition as a modern and major poet not only on narrative but on the incestuous conflagration of “Tamar.” (Jeffers, it seems, may have initially been unsure of what to make of “Tamar.” Surviving tables of contents show alternate sets of poems and alternate organizations for what became Tamar and Other Poems, and these reflect quite different conceptions of the title poem and how it should be contextualized. That Jeffers hesitated for a year after completing “Tamar” before deciding to publish it and then didn’t submit it to a publisher but instead brought it out at his own expense in a edition of 500 copies is also, I’d suggest, noteworthy.)

The Tamar collection (both as published and in the somewhat different form it had in August 1923) mixes work from several different periods, and it thus reflects several different, even contradictory, stages of Jeffers’ emerging aesthetic. In the Preface, though, Jeffers claims a unity for these phases and asserts that his commitment to “reality” is what distinguishes (in both sense of the word) his work from those satisfied with “mere troubador amusement” and who treat poetry “as a refuge from life, where dreams may heal the wounds of reality.” Poetry, Jeffers claims should be (and he implies his is), not a refuge but an intensification, not an ornament but essential, not an escape into “dreams” but an incitement to “reality.” By presenting the universal beauty, genuine and significant poetry is an incitement to life; an incitement to action, because our actions are a part of that beauty; and an incitement to contemplation, which opens our intelligence and senses to that beauty. Moreover, he adds that the purpose of his “longer poems,” the narratives, is “to make apparent the essential beauty in conditions and events of life that from the ordinary point of view appear merely painful, or wicked, or comical.”

Although Jeffers was still evolving his practice and the terms to justify it when he wrote the August 1923 Preface, he seems already to view poetry as a mode or process of knowing and the poems themselves as attempts to break through the false or alienated consciousness of the ordinary social world and its habitual categories. The purpose of poetry was to discover something more fundamental than either society or art—that is, nature—and by doing so achieve whatever transcendence the actual terms of being might allow. For Jeffers such an approach was actually a break with his own early work (including his earlier attempts at poetic narrative). His first collection, the privately printed Flagons and Apples (1912), shows him attempting to affirm the imagination’s power to transform an otherwise meaningless world into a kind of timeless beauty. As such the poems are not only open to the charge he makes against Pound but are stilted and mawkish to boot. They represent the kind of poetry Jeffers thought he was supposed to write—an extension of the same fin de siecle aestheticism that was the matrix for his contemporaries’ earliest steps toward what became modernism. But unlike Pound, Jeffers, quite clearly, failed dismally at such imitations. I’ve argued elsewhere that this may in part stem from the dissonance between his allegiance in these apprentice years to the aestheticism of his immediate predecessors and peers and his allegiance to science, to the material world of force and forces, Darwin and astronomy—the world of modern science which stood for an order and conflict beyond human desire and will. While the one affirmed the centrality of imagination and human making, the other denied that centrality.

Read against his earlier work (including some pieces actually included in Tamar), the 1923 Preface suggests that for Jeffers the problem with early modernist experiment was that it wasn’t radical enough. The emphasis in early modernism on art as a process of making (more, perhaps the having-been-made quality of the finished work) could serve as a rationale for stylistic experiment but left unchallenged the late 19th century premise that Jeffers found most problematic (and that had contributed to the failure of his earlier work)—that imagination and technical skill could combine to create works of art that would transcend and stand against the flux of the material and social world. To Jeffers poetry could be neither vital nor modern if it continued to affirm the reality of the ideal at the expense of recognizing and engaging the reality—and power—of the material world.

Having put the matter this way, I’m ready for the finishing flourish where I proclaim “Jeffers is Jeffers, the modernists the modernists, and never the twain shall meet.” But that would be to accept the dichotomy Jeffers was constructing in his 1935 Introduction and 1938 Foreward (and the slightly later dichotomy of the more orthodox and less imaginative New Critics). To do so, I’d suggest, is neither justified nor productive. For one thing, Jeffers’ own allegiance to “reality” in the 1923 Preface (and in his practice) is complicated considerably by his claim that his goal was to use “actions” to incite “contemplation” of something called “universal beauty.” His allegiance, that is, to the material at the expense of the ideal and to consciousness at the expense of the imagination is neither as consistent nor simple as he implies—either in 1923 or the mid 1930s. For another, the allegiance of the various modernists to the reverse of this position is by no means consistent either, and in most cases their work shows an increasing engagement with what Jeffers would term “reality” as they continued to write in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, the rhetorical flourish I’d want would have something more to do with the way we can see various poetic projects in this period as dialectically intertwined, even mirror reversals of each other, but not independent or isolated from each other. The modernists (and here in contrast to Jeffers I’d stress the variety of their approaches) and Jeffers can usefully be viewed as part of a larger transformational and subversive poetic project.

Jeffers did not develop his practice in isolation either from the literary past nor the initiatives of his contemporaries. Even his attempt to claim such isolation, such independence (and his decision to discard the 1923 Preface can be read as part of his strategy to make such a claim), shows his acute awareness of what Eliot termed “Tradition” and his awareness of the aesthetic currents and issues of his era. Jeffers is as different from, yet as linked to, his modernist contemporaries (and vice versa) as Wordsworth is to Coleridge—and I hope it’s clear that I choose that pairing quite deliberately.


A Note on Sources:
Edited texts of the 1923 Preface to Tamar and Other Poems, the Foreword to the 1935 Modern Library Modern Library edition of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, and the 1938 Foreword to The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers are included in Part II of Volume Four of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 2000). Jeffer’s poems (both those he published and those that survive in manuscript) from the 1910s can be found in Part I of that volume.

A Concluding Gloss:
In the 1935 Introduction Jeffers dates his reflections about his modernist contemporaries as 1914, which would indicate that his primary sense of modernism was the early work of Pound (who he names specifically) and Imagism. Other comments in the piece, though, suggest that he is merging thoughts about modernist projects from the early 1920s, in particular The Waste Land, with his real or imagined earlier thoughts.


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