The Politics That Aren’t in the Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

[This paper was prepared for a panel on modern American political poetry at the 2004 AWP Conference, the national meeting for those engaged in creative writing.  I would like to thank Alan Soldofsky for inviting me to participate.]


Over the years I’ve logged a lot of time with Robinson Jeffers’ work. I’ve read and reread the poems in their published forms, and I’ve squinted at the manuscripts, cursing him for the dull pencils he used and the at times impenetrable scrawl of his handwriting. The occasion of this panel has forced me to face how much of his work is political, and it’s reminded me that, in general, these are not my favorite Jeffers’ poems. It isn’t simply that his politics aren’t always mine. More, it’s the often didactic tone of the pieces and their discursiveness. And it’s the way the all but obsessive focus on the political in certain periods of his writing, especially during the Second World War, seems at odds with his commitment to write about the natural world and the timelessness of its beauty. Jeffers’ himself seems both to recognize and acknowledge this in the introductory note he wrote for Be Angry at the Sun (1941), which reads in part,

I wish also to lament the obsession with contemporary history that pins many of these pieces to the calendar, like butterflies to cardboard. Poetry is not private monologue, but I think it is not public speech either; and in general it is the worse for being timely. That is why, for the next-to-latest-written poem of this book, I sought out a drunken fisherman, who lives solitary in his hut under a cliff, and has no radio, no newspaper, no intelligent friends, nothing but fish and whiskey; drugged hermit, his mind should have been as dateless as the ocean. But he too began to babble about public affairs, and I stopped him off.

Yet it is right that a man’s views be indicated, though the poetry suffer for it. If a considerable fraction of the mind were hidden, the poetry would become dishonest and vacuous. And it seemed to me that something remained to be said, and even with dignity, for these are tragic days. But at least with candor, and without fantasy. Therefore after playing with that drunken fisherman I wrote the final poem of the book [“That Noble Flower”]; not as poet but American; one who perhaps does not love his country extremely, except in comparison to others, but feels a duty towards it.

Here, Jeffers suggests that poetry “suffer[s]” when it becomes entangled with the events of the moment—no matter what the magnitude of the events, and he worries that his poetry has “suffer[ed]” and become lesser precisely because it is political. Yet he believes he has no choice but to write politically. One could, that is, easily conclude that Jeffers succumbs, as Al has put it in the program note for the session, to the “polemical,” but that isn’t quite or always the case, and the way Jeffers (especially in the poetry he wrote during the Second World War) writes poems that are explicitly political, yet in the best of this work, embeds a rejection of the political may offer some additional ways to think about the topic of the panel.

For Jeffers, as for many of his generation, World War I was a political and imaginative crisis that fundamentally shaped his poetry. The descent into a second world war (and Jeffers saw it coming as early as 1935) was deeply traumatic for him, both because of the violence and the way he found himself despairing at that violence. The impulse to despair was doubly problematic for him. It wasn’t just the emotion itself but also the way (and he realized this) that his anguish called into question—even denied—the aesthetic and the vision he shaped in the wake of World War I and which his work of the 1920s presents (some of us think) so powerfully. The depth of the despair is easy to document. Just read the horrific, gothic narrative “The Love and the Hate,” where the intensity of Jeffers’ dismay at the participation of the United States in the war is clearly visible, along with Isolationist critique of U.S. policy and rhetoric. I’ll skip the synopsis both for the sake of time and for those who would prefer to enjoy their dinners. Jeffers’ dismay is visible more subtly in the short poems, and I would like to touch briefly on two of them, “Calm and Full the Ocean” and “Invasion,” both from The Double Axe, which collects the work Jeffers wrote during the war and in the year or so after.

In the earliest table of contents for this collection, the short poems are organized chronologically and the section is titled “Mornings in Hell” (Jeffers did his writing in the mornings). The poems, that is, function as a kind of diary in poetry tracing his reactions to the war. In them we can see both his personal descent into despair and his indictment of policy. I would like to read you “Calm and Full the Ocean,” a poem from the middle of the war, as a case in point. The manuscript includes this brief note, an observation, an image from which Jeffers developed the poem: “famine dries up the children, high explosive fountains dirt, flesh and bone-splinters; pain/Grief and terror, month after month, year after year.” This is the moment of engagement, an oppressive one, to which the poem responds.

Calm and full the ocean under the cool dark sky; quiet rocks and the birds fishing; the night-herons
Have flown home to their wood…while east and west in Europe and Asia and the islands unimaginable agonies

Consume mankind. Not a few thousand but uncounted millions, not a day but years, pain, horror, sick hatred;
Famine that dries the children to little bones and huge eyes; high explosive that fountains dirt, flesh and bone-splinters.

Sane and intact the seasons pursue their course, autumn slopes to December, the rains will fall
And the grass flourish, with flowers in it: as if man’s world were perfectly separate from nature’s, private and mad.

But that’s not true; even the P-38s and the Flying Fortresses are as natural as horse-flies;
It is only that man, his griefs and rages, are not what they seem to man, not great and shattering, but really

Too small to produce any disturbance. This is good. This is the sanity, the mercy. It is true that the murdered
Cities leave marks in the earth for a certain time, like fossil rain-prints in shale, equally beautiful.

This is the poem as Jeffers eventually finished it. The penultimate version (published in an anthology in 1944) differs in mostly minor details, but one difference is, I think, both revealing and potentially crucial. As initially published the “Flying Fortresses” in line seven were instead the “so-called Liberators.” Let me reread the end of the poem with this minor difference and, if you would, listen for the difference this makes:

Sane and intact the seasons pursue their course, autumn slopes to December, the rains will fall
And the grass flourish, with flowers in it: as if man’s world were perfectly separate from nature’s, private and mad.

But that’s not true; even the P-38s and the so-called Liberators are as natural as horse-flies;
It is only that man, his griefs and rages, are not what they seem to man, not great and shattering, but really

Too small to produce any disturbance. This is good. This is the sanity, the mercy. [and so on]

The dismissive irony of “so-called Liberators” makes the politics of the poem more explicit; it underscores the polemic of the poem. Why change it? Jeffers, I’d suggest, changed this detail precisely because it underscored the polemical impulse of the poem and tended to pin it to the calendar. If we go back to the note that initiates the poem, we can realize that part of the impulse in this entry in “Mornings in Hell” was not to protest the war but to cope with the war, to acknowledge its violence and to continue, somehow, to believe in something—to believe that nature and its cycle of emergence, maturation, and decay is finally beautiful. It is, in this poem, finally more important (to Jeffers anyway) to be able to cast the war planes as horse flies, and the biting edge of “so-called Liberators” detracts from this.

This poem suggests, I believe, that for Jeffers political poems are, finally, not so much an attempt to have poetry function in support of political action or to advance a particular political position or vision but are instead attempts to acknowledge and engage the reality of the political in order to evade or subsume the impulse to political action and to move beyond the despair that that invites. In “Calm and Full the Ocean,” instead of the political being “embedded” within the poem, natural beauty, the larger reality of nature and thereby nature’s beauty contain the political. And as I’ve thought about the occasion of this panel, I’ve come to believe this is the strategy of Jeffers’ “political” poems (though one he isn’t always able to realize successfully).

The larger logic of what Jeffers is, I think, attempting is particularly clear in “Invasion,” another Double Axe poem. In this poem Jeffers engages the current moment (the war) with its potential to be read politically but instead displaces the current moment and reads it as an historical one. This, in turn, enables him to imagine and project history as a process, which in turn can be further displaced and read as an analogue to natural process—a frame in which aesthetic reverence and aesthetic distance become possible. Here, too, as in “Calm and Full the Ocean,” the poem is on the surface political and its occasion is political. But its process and language rely on a poetics of nature embedded within the seemingly political. The occasion is a morning in hell, but the experience of the poem functions redemptively:

Europe has run its course, and whether to fall by its own sickness or ours is not
Extremely important; it was a whittled forepeak and condensation of profuse Asia, which presently
Will absorb it again. (And if it had conquered eastward and owned the Urals, would yet be absorbing it.)
Freedom and the lamp have been handed west. Our business was to feed and defend them; it was not our business
To meddle in the feuds of ghosts and brigands in historical graveyards. We have blood enough, but not for this folly;
Let no one believe that children a hundred years from now in the future of America will not be sick
For what our fools and unconscious criminals are doing to-day.

                                                                                                                     But also it is ghastly beautiful. Look:
The enormous weight is poised, primed and will slide. Enormous and doomed weight will reply. It is possible
That here are the very focus and violent peak of all human effort. (No doubt, alas, that more wasting
Wars will bleed the long future: the sky more crammed with death, the victims worse crushed: but perhaps never
Again the like weights and prepared clash.) Admire it then; you cannot prevent it; give it for emotion
The aesthetic emotion.

                                            I know a narrow beach, a thin tide-line
Of fallen rocks under the foot of the coast-range; the mountain is always sliding; the mountain goes up
Steep as the face of a breaking wave, knuckles of rock, slide-scars, rock-ribs, brush-fur, blue height,
To the hood of cloud. You stand there at the base, perched like a gull on a tilted slab, and feel
The enormous opposed presences; the huge mass of the mountain high overhanging, and the immense
Mass of the deep and sombre Pacific.–That scene, stationary,
Is what our invasion will be in action. Then admire the vast battle. Observe and marvel. Give it the emotion
That you give to a landscape.

                                                      And this is bitter counsel, but required and convenient; for, beyond the horror,
When the imbecility, betrayals and disappointments become apparent,–what will you have, but to have
Admired the beauty? I believe that the beauty and nothing else is what things are formed for. Certainly the world
Was not constructed for happiness nor love nor wisdom. No, nor for pain, hatred and folly. All these
Have their seasons; and in the long year they balance each other, they cancel out. But the beauty stands.

Here, also, a detail from the manuscript is of some interest. The middle of this poem seems to derive from a note at the edge of the second page of the manuscript: “Take the horrors of the time…observe them carefully…but for emotion…the aesthetic emotion//You give to the landscape for beyond the horror.” A dismissive quip such as the pun on “so-called Liberators” detracts from the “aesthetic emotion.” It leaves us within the “horror” instead of pointing beyond the political, “beyond the horror.”