To Date or Not to Date: Jeffers’ “Pearl Harbor”

[This brief note appeared originally in Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, 76 (1989).  For a fuller discussion of Jeffers’ recasting of The Double Axe as a collection, see
“Double the Axe, Double the Fun: Is There a Final Version of Jeffers’ The Double Axe
“‘Mornings in Hell’: Jeffers’ Struggle with Politics in The Double Axe”
For a discussion of the textual evidence for “Pearl Harbor,” see The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Volume 5, p. 697.  For the text of poem, as published in The Double Axe, see The Collected Poetry, Volume 3, p. 115.]

It ought not to matter when a particular poem of Robinson Jeffers was written.  Time and again he stressed (perhaps most explicitly in the Introduction to the 1938 Selected Poetry, that poetry should address the reader of the future and deal with relatively permanent or recurrent things: thus, the (albeit intensely local and personal) landscape of rock, ocean, hawk, grass.  Yet throughout his career Jeffers wrote poems that dealt with the specifics, both the incidents and personalities, of world affairs.  His work, especially from the mid 1930s to the later 1940s, reflects an intense scrutiny of the immediate and transitory and teems with specific references that even now, much less a thousand years from now, can easily be missed.

Jeffers was certainly aware of this problem and the inconsistency.  On the one hand, he stressed that his attention to the details of his contemporary world was an attempt to show that such intensely troubling phenomenon as world war were simply part of the larger rhythms of a history which was itself, in turn, a phenomenon of nature.  Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler were not creating history but were acting out the history that nature—manifested as the human species and human societies—compelled them to act out.  As such, the contemplative person should be as free to stand aside and contemplate the awe-ful (in all the senses of the word) grandeur and beauty of these political storms as a winter storm on Jeffers’ Sur coast.

Yet Jeffers also seems to have felt that his compulsion to write about leaders and battles was a sign of his own weakness, a failure to hold to his vision of nature as a vast and beautiful organism in which man was a minor element.  Be Angry at the Sun (1941) testifies to this.  In the opening note Jeffers apologizes for the topical nature of many of the poems, and a preliminary sketch for the collection’s table of contents (with the Jeffers papers at the University of Texas) suggests that this was more than a rhetorical ploy.  The sheet omits virtually all of the shorter poems eventually included in the collection that trace Jeffers’ response to the widening conflict in Europe, even though some of them, “The Day Is a Poem” for instance, had already been published in periodicals.  Also, the various manuscript sheets show that many of these political poems had originally been part of a single ongoing sequence, a kind of political journal-in-verse, to be titled “On the Calendar” or “Memoranda,” further suggesting that Jeffers wasn’t sure how he wanted to view this work.  (Perhaps significantly, an early table of contents for Jeffers’ next collection, The Double Axe, indicates the short poems in that volume were also at one point to have been grouped as a section titled “Mornings in Hell.”)

In any case, then, through this period Jeffers seems to have wanted both to specify much of his work (that is, to place it “on the calendar” as an act of witness—a record of his struggle to face the disaster of the contemporary world) and to generalize it (that is, to prove that his sense of history and society as forms of nature would allow one to transcend the immediate flux and violence by transforming it into a kind of stylized description).  The poems themselves testify to this ambivalence.  But one can also argue, I think, that Jeffers, at least for the period covered by The Double Axe (spring 1941 though 1947), tended to draft individual poems in response to the former impulse (i.e. documenting the struggle) while he considered how he might select and arrange the body of his work into a collection increasingly in terms of the latter (i.e. demonstrating transcendence).  This, at least, would offer one way to analyze the several different designs Jeffers considered for what became The Double Axe before he originally submitted it to Random House in 1947, and it would perhaps help clarify why he chose to withdraw ten poems—partly in response to the dismay Random House expressed at some of the political references in the collection—after having delivered it for publication.  (The deleted poems appear as an appendix to the 1977 reissue of The Double Axe prepared by William Everson and Bill Hotchkiss.)

Here, though, I would like to focus more simply on one aspect of Jeffers’ shifting treatment of this material: his use of dating.  The manuscripts for a number of The Double Axe poems that deal with the war have dates as title, subtitle, or postscript.  However, in The Double Axe as published only four of the twenty-seven poems still show dates in the title or subtitle (it should perhaps be noted that five of the ten poems withdrawn from the collection have dates as subtitles).  The effect, whether Jeffers intended it, is in part to generalize the texts (or at least to encourage us as readers to think more in terms of thematic contours, perhaps at the expense of the specifics of his observations).

The poem “Pearl Harbor” is a case in point.  Although the title specifies the poem to a large degree, the specification is actually somewhat misleading. The manuscripts and typescripts at the University of Texas show that the poem was originally drafted as two separate pieces written some six months apart.  The division corresponds to sections I and II of the poem as it appears in The Double Axe.  Jeffers apparently wrote part II December 10, 1941, and at one point (among others) considered the titles “News-Item” and “First Thoughts,” before settling on “West Coast Black-Out (December 1941).”  (Jeffers first published” West Coast Black-Out” in Oscar Williams’ anthology New Poems: 1944).  Jeffers likely wrote part I sometime after June 12, 1942.  What appears to be the poem’s first draft is on the verso of a letter with that date.  This manuscript does suggest that Jeffers may already have been thinking about linking the two pieces, but they weren’t actually combined until late 1947 or early 1948—after Jeffers had originally submitted The Double Axe to Random House.  The table of contents originally submitted to Random House shows the two sections as two poems, and “West Coast Black-Out” was one of the pieces that particularly concerned Saxe Commins, the Random House editor.

The typescript of “West Coast Black-Out” originally submitted to Random House (and Commins’ memo to Bennett Cerf in the Random House papers at Columbia University) shows that Commins’ quarrel was with the opening line: “The war that we have carefully for years provoked.”  The typescript shows that Jeffers, presumably responding to Commins’ query in the margin, penciled in “considered” to replace “provoked,” but then chose to let the original reading stand.  He did not, though, leave the poem untouched.  Rather than mute the opening line, he revised the description of the beach at night in lines 13-15, deleted the title “West Coast Black-Out (December, 1941),” and combined it with what is now part I to make the version of “Pearl Harbor” actually published.  Although the revisions to lines 13-15 tighten and strengthen the description, they likely did little to make the piece more palatable to Commins.  The changes do, however, alter the poem’s politics, or perhaps more accurately, the changes alter the speakers’ dramatic relation to his politics and thereby alter their implications.

Read as a separate piece, “West Coast Black-Out (December, 1941)” shows a Jeffers able to indict his country for what he sees as its decision to “provoke” a conflict that (as he claims elsewhere) could have been avoided, but then able to transform his dismay, his sarcasm, into a celebration of “the prehuman dignity of night.”  Six months later in what became part I, the tone is more bitter, the poem more a lament for history, and its conclusion—”Look no further ahead”—a kind of call for stoic resignation.  (In this sense it is perhaps ironic that part II written several days after the Peart Harbor attack ends in affirmation, while part I, likely a response to the Battle of Midway and including an allusion to the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo, ends in a kind of despair.)  Combined, the two sections still move from the speaker’s despair to his transcendence, but separately (and in their original sequence) they tell a different story.  In the poem as published the speaker stands, momentarily, aloof from the history he describes, descends into it, proceeds to indictment and satire, and then rises above to affirmation.  In the poems as originally composed, the affirmation of “West Coast Black-Out” is the middle of the story, not the conclusion.  As two units, in their original order of composition, we see more clearly why Jeffers might have considered grouping these poems as “Mornings in Hell.”

We cannot, of course, determine precisely why Jeffers reworked these pieces into what became “Pearl Harbor” (certainly the changes do not reflect an attempt to placate Commins and Random House—even if their response did initiate the reworking) or why he stripped the date from the subtitle of “West Coast Black-Out” (the evidence does not indicate whether the typescript for what became part I originally submitted to Random House had a date for subtitle).  We can, though, determine that these changes alter both the actual form and implications of the original pieces by muting (though perhaps only slightly) their original specificity.  (Here it is perhaps worth noting Jeffers’ comment at the bottom of a sheet of the manuscript, at Texas, for “The Inhumanist” where he considers grouping the short poems, presumably with their dates, as a section to be called “Dates to Remember.”)  We can also determine, I think, that these changes indicate that Jeffers’ sense of himself, his work, his audience, and the political world around him was much more volatile and intricate than at times we credit, and if so, even so small a piece as “Pearl Harbor” suggests how much remains to be done if we are to have a reasonable account of Jeffers’ career—both its drama and its serenity.