Posts Tagged ‘Terry Hummer’

Robinson Jeffers gets his due.

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

My friend and sometime-editor Terry Hummer triumphantly posted on Facebook that he had managed to buy four Robinson Jeffers stamps on ebay, after the first sale was cancelled because the seller was “out of stock.”

Perhaps it’s a good sign that there’s a demand for Jeffers – even if only in stamp form. Few American poets have undergone quite so much disparagement and neglect (I wrote about that here).  Like Walt Whitman, however, Jeffers always had his fans.  As I wrote a few years ago:

“Unlike most contemporary American poetry, his legacy has been kept alive by individuals who love his work, not by academia’s class-assignment sales. Such luminaries as Stanford’s late Yvor Winters, who in 1947 declared Jeffers’s work ‘unmastered and self-inflicted hysteria,’ effectively banned him from the curriculum.”

Thoughts of Jeffers and the U.S. postal service turned me weighty tome that arrived in my mailbox a few days ago – the 1,100 page second volume of Jeffers’ letters (covering 1931 to 1939), and newly published by Stanford University Press.

I wrote about the earlier volume of letters here, which included the years of his courtship and marriage to Una Kuster.

“I’ll say he’s the most important poet of the 20th century, but nobody’s buying that yet,” said James Karman, editor of the projected 3-volume series. “No one in the 20th century came near to what he was trying to do. The sheer scope of his endeavor is unrivaled. There’s nothing like it in American literature in the 20th century.”

According to Tim Hunt, editor of Stanford University Press’ five-volume Collected Poetry, Jeffers is “the least understood of the major American poets from the first half of the 20th century.”

The volumes include a substantial number of letters from Una Jeffers, as well as her husband. You can get a good feel for both the Jeffers in even their most casual notes.  Here’s her Christmas thank-you to Bennett Cerf in January 1938:

Now thanks very much for the two Christmas {books} I’ve just finished the Iceland book [that is, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice‘s Letters from Iceland] tonight & O but its clever! & its packed full of information too   I never expected to like Auden as well as I do this very moment!  As for the New Yorker – I must confess I stand alone almost in not being its enthusiastic reader. It is funny – but so all alike & always taking people down is so easy & in the end so humiliating to every human. & bathtubs & fat ladies bulging out of their lacey lingerie, & over-fed dogs & betrayed & betraying businessmen husbands are tiring to keep one’s mind on.

But I suspect that I make myself disliked by carping at the New Yorker.

Here’s his 1933 letter to a Mr. Pumphrey from the Jeffers’ legendary home, Tor House in Carmel (definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been there):

Thank you sincerely for your letter; but I have not time to copy the verses. You lose nothing by that, for my handwriting – you see – is neither beautiful nor easy to read.

And I am sorry not to be able to answer your question. One can say that Mount Everest is higher than Mont Blanc, but there is no way to measure poetry. I cannot even tell whom I prefer to read – sometimes Yeats, sometimes some other.

The publisher’s website promises “a full account of the 1938 crisis at Mabel Dodge Luhan‘s home in Taos, New Mexico that nearly destroyed their marriage.”  A crisis that has not disturbed my sleep to date.  Can’t wait.

Postscript:  I  had thought the Jeffers stamp was a new issue.  Silly me.  Terry corrected me quickly.  It came out in the 1970s.  The new ones for 2012 are described here.

Postscript on 12/9:  I got a note from David Rothman, president of the Robinson Jeffers Association: “I don’t know if you’ve seen our website, at – it’s quite thorough and you might enjoy it. Also, I wrote a review of the first volume of the Letters that you can see here, if you’re curious:”

By the by, if you live in the area and haven’t been to see Jeffers’s Tor House in Carmel … well, you must.  You really must.  The poet learned stonecutting so he could build it himself.  It is a peculiar kind of Pacific perfection.


Haikumania. It’s everywhere.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Carter: It's not as easy as it looks. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Haiku has been ubiquitous as an art form for just about as long as I remember.  Partly, that’s because it’s generally supposed to be easy.  Pull together three lines in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, then – bingo!

All you need to do is count and lineate.

There is, of course, more to it than that.  That’s why I found my conversation with Japanese scholar Steve Carter so refreshing. Haiku, as developed in the 12th century, was a communal art form, as rule-bound as chess.  The seasonal words and motifs, the grammatical turns, the topics for each verse in a long string of verses were carefully governed.  Moreover, the educated person was more or less expected to trippingly invent these on the spot, for the admiration (and evaluation) of the others.

Of course, the West had its own ideas – Carter said the form was adopted by the Beats, who saw it as a zen-like attempt to abandon the rules.

Want to get a feel for the olden days?  You might try next month’s “Head-to-Head Haiku Slam” at the National Poetry Slam in Boston, Aug. 9-13.  Here’s the description:  “Do you think you’ve mastered the art of concise poetry? This three-day event will determine who has the best seventeen syllable poetry in Cambridge. Whether you call it haiku or senryu, this slam has its own special rules and unique judging system. If you plan on competing, you’re going to need dozens and dozens of haiku ready, as this is one of the most popular events at nationals.”

Well, so much for on-the-spot invention.

A poem a day keeps the engineer at play

I’m told (though Steve couldn’t confirm) that the first newspapers in 19th century Japan even told the news using haiku, which the first verse, hokku, in a long string of verses called renga.  This didn’t show up in my research, either – but this did.  I learned the remarkable story of Google software engineer Freeman Ng and his website Haiku Diem.  Through his Haiku Diem Facebook page, Twitter feed, blog, and mailing list, he has over 4,000 readers, and it’s climbing:

July 9th will be the one year anniversary of Haiku Diem, a website that started as a simple writing exercise but which has grown into a high tech experiment in self-publishing and online community building.

“I began this on a lark,” says Ng. “I wondered how many consecutive days I could keep it up, and thought I might go a month at most. Two things have happened since then. First, the writing has become so ingrained into my daily life that I can’t imagine ever stopping. Second, the growth of my readership has made me rethink how I might be able to get published some day, and even to rethink what it means to be published in the first place.”

His remarks suggest that haiku is addictive, in a addition to being ubiquitous.  Thanks to his daily, online readership, he probably has more readers than almost any mainstream poet, which will stand him in good stead:  “Some day, I might have to self-publish them,” explains Ng, “and if that happens, it will be invaluable to have what is essentially a mailing list of thousands of people who love my writing to market them to.”

Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out Koko the Gorilla‘s haiku contest, in time for the primate’s 40th birthday.  To my best knowledge, it’s the first time a non-human has announced announced and judged a poetry contest.

As Terry Hummer said on his Facebook page: “I think gorillas should judge all poetry contests.”

My goodness.  I thought they did.