Posts Tagged ‘Yvor Winters’

Happy birthday to poet Charles Gullans! “He did political poetry especially well!”

Friday, May 5th, 2017
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Wilkes as seen by Hogarth

Another birthday celebration, coming to us courtesy the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele:

The poet and translator Charles Gullans was born on this date in 1929. Educated at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters, he achieved significant notice in the 1950s and appeared in such anthologies of the time as “New Poets of England and America.” Though his classically inclined work fell from favor during the ascendency of the Beats and the Confessionals, he was a popular and productive professor at UCLA and continued to write excellent poems until his death in 1993. He did political poetry especially well, as is illustrated by his poem about John Wilkes, the eighteenth-century Whig politician, journalist, and thorn-in-the-side of George III. (Wilkes once declined an invitation to play cards, remarking that he couldn’t tell the difference between a king and a knave.) In view of this past fall’s election, some readers may find timely Gullans’ suggestion that we should prefer an imperfect political leader to one who is barbaric. The anecdote to which Gullans refers at the end of his poem exists in several versions and may be apocryphal. But it suits the context and Wilkes’ character in any case. Happy Cinco de Mayo! Happy Birthday, Charles Gullans! (The caricature of Wilkes that accompanies this post is by William Hogarth. [Go here for Tim’s birthday tribute to the artist – ED.])

John Wilkes

Lord Bute, whose rant was the establishment,
Had studied and had mastered the appearance
Of public virtue, but his private bent
Was mistresses and whores built for endurance.

The public interest hid his private acts.
His principle, self-interest of the few,
The fool aristocrat, he hated facts,
And any man of strong, contrary view.

But here was Wilkes, the upstart gentleman,
Bourgeois, with an aristocrat’s disdain
Of canting ethics and of rant in one,
Or in the many, whom he hoped to gain.

“I have no minor vices,” though a boast,
Was license to quick, brittle fools to laugh;
Then, teaching what hyperbole may cost,
His wit pursued him like an epitaph.

No hypocrite, his vices all well known,
“Godless, but never womanless an hour,”
Hard and contemptuous, still the man had grown
Hating restriction and abusive power.

Consistency is firmness in each type.
Yet men of principle may simply be—
Hero or saint, coward or guttersnipe—
Persistent in the partial good they see.

Then if defect seems equal in each eye,
Prefer the cynic to the hypocrite.
Despise the Bute who said to him, “You’ll die
Of syphilis or on the gallows yet.”

birthday cakePrefer the Wilkes who looked into that face,
And with the swift inconscience of the bored
Said, “That depends on whether I embrace
Your mistress or your principles, my Lord.”
Charles Gullans (1929-93)

Robert Pinsky: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.”

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
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Stanford’s handsome civic poet (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, has returned to Stanford as a Mohr Visiting Poet for a few months. It’s a familiar habitat for him: as a Stegner Fellow years ago, he studied with the legendary poet-critic Yvor Winters and poet Ken Fields.

Robert has been called the last of the “civic” or public poets – something Irish poet Eavan Boland noted when introducing him at last night’s reading: “Through his work and his example he has made a compelling shape that has restructured the sense of the personal and public poem – and the personal and public poet – connecting and reinvigorating them in new ways.”

She continued: “As a poet he has always been of his moment and has wanted to be. In an interview he said: ‘Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am.’ He was born on the threshold of war, at the gateway of a modern era. The enticing new American world of sports, music, vernacular energy and popular culture was to become part and parcel of his poems and his approach to poetry.”

Louise Glück, also visiting this quarter, speaks of his poems as having “dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.”

Eavan praised his newest book, At The Foundling Hospital: Poems, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, saying, “The poems in it are at once a catalog of causes for pessimism but finally an inventory of reasons for optimism. The poetry is deeply concerned with ancestors, with the mysteries of culture but finally most of all with the intimate details of what survives history or is not recorded in it, and yet makes an important angle to our human story. In the title poem of the book “At the Foundling Hospital,” comes the phrase ‘Fragment of a tune or a rhyme or name /mumbled from memory.’ It carries much of the book’s meaning.”

His own commitment to the art he practices has been stated this way: “We have this great treasure that we got from our figurative grandparents, and it would be very sad if we failed to hand it on to our figurative grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

One of Ireland’s leading poets.

During the question-and-answer period, he was asked about last week’s inauguration ceremony, which omitted the traditional inaugural poem. “I personally don’t think it’s a great loss,” he said. “Most of them are not very good.” He pointed out that the tradition is a fairly recent one, anyway.

However, he had his own inaugural poem for this month, “Exile and Lightning,” published on CNN as an “opinion,” with a disclaimer: “The views expressed here are his.” The first two lines:

You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

You can read it all here.  One of the ancestors he claims in the poem is our Polish grandfather Czesław Miłosz. Since he’s my grandfather, too, that means we are related. In fact, that is how we met. He contributed an essay to my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and communicated by phone and by email years before we finally met face-to-face last night.

Another comment might be interpreted as a response to the proposed cuts to government arts funding: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.

Yvor Winters’s westward journey

Sunday, September 15th, 2013
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Loquat lover

“I have spent my entire life in the remote west, where men are civilized but never get within gunshot of each other,” wrote Yvor Winters (I wrote about him yesterday here).  According to poet Kenneth Fields, who was also Winters’s gardener for four years as a graduate student, “It’s usual to think of Yvor Winters as a Chicago poet who came west and spent most of his life in California — at Stanford, where he received his PhD and taught until his retirement. This is true enough, but his actual journey is more complicated and is reflected in some of his best poems. In some ways everywhere he lived before he got to Stanford was wild — even Stanford, but that’s another story.”  The incomparable Ken tells them all in “Winters’s Wild West,” in the current Los Angeles Review of Books, based on a talk he gave last April at Claremont McKenna College.  Ken traces his Winters’s path from Chicago, to Southern California, to Seattle,  to Chicago again, to New Mexico (where he not only taught, but also spent a couple years recovering from tuberculosis in a Santa Fe sanatorium), to Boulder and then to Moscow (Idaho, not Russia), and eventually (and finally) to his Los Altos home with the loquat tree in back.  I had never eaten a loquat before my visit to Winters’s widow, Janet Lewis.  Winters said “loquats are one of the finest fruits I know, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking and so are never marketed,” which explains why.

loquatKen compares Robert Frost‘s late-life “To Earthward” with Winters’s “A Summer Commentary”:  “As delicate sensations diminish with age, Frost craves stronger and more painful feeling until, at the end of the poem, he wishes for death; Winters does not. Winters contrasts his youth with middle age — always earlier in those days than it is for us. (I’m counting on all those 146-year-old men to keep me middle-aged.) With the loss of sharpness of sense comes something else, especially for a writer who looks for meaning. In his youth he was a spectator — he said once that free verse was a state of mind. With age, he is a participant. His point comes home through a kind of synesthesia, a blending of the senses — the dove makes two different sounds, one in its cry, the other in flight. The repetition of soft and sweet sets the tone of the poem, as does the oxymoron “rich decay.” Winters said the brandy of the fallen fruit was no metaphor. “You could almost get drunk on the smell.”

Ken’s piece is about as good an introduction to the legendary Winters as one will find anywhere. Read it here.

The famous Winters massage and electric shock treatment

Saturday, September 14th, 2013
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Charmed by smart kids

How’s this for “Letters to a Young Poet”?

“Your poems are pretty rough, and half the time you fall flat on your face. But the piece on the airplane crash has a good deal of power, especially in the second half, and could probably be revised into a good poem. There are good fragments in several others, but you certainly contort yourself like a muscle-bound acrobat. However, we will try the famous Winters massage and electric shock treatment.”

taj-mahal-moonlight

Home sweet home.

The 1955 pep talk was given by Yvor Winters to Calvin Thomas Jr., an incoming Stegner Fellow at Stanford.  The second letter is addressed to Thomas’s father, a very moving endorsement of the son’s gifts, and some strong opinions on the poetic craft, the role of universities, and his own preeminence as a teacher. “I find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies,” he concludes.

The eminent Poetry Magazine published a single poem by Thomas in 1955, before he vanished from its crosshairs.

He’s been rediscovered.  According to Poetry Magazine: “Cal still writes poems, and a selection of his work can be found at poetryfoundation.org; his short story, “The Repatriate,” about a German veteran returning to civilian life, appeared in Stegner’s Stanford Short Stories series. He now lives in New Delhi.”

Read the Winters-Thomas correspondence here.  

What’s wrong with the humanities today? Ask Yvor Winters.

Friday, August 16th, 2013
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Disciplined.

For Yvor Winters, literature was not mystical indulgence, but a spiritual discipline.  He insisted that “hedonism” was the death of literature and the human being.

James Matthew Wilson offers an interesting introduction to Stanford’s poet-critic (hat tip to Frank Wilson over at Books Inq).

What’s wrong with the humanities?  Winters thought we might start with some of the professors:

A poet and literature critic, Winters ordered his moral and intellectual life to accord with the spiritual discipline of literature. “It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission,” he writes in the foreword to his greatest prose book, In Defense of Reason.  One will get no help in making this discovery from the typical literature professor, he warned, for they are all hedonists and romantics, “with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defense of their profession.”

A doctoral student and then professor of English at Stanford, Winters knew and loathed these men. Against their insouciant relativism, which took for granted that one could enjoy pernicious and self-destructive ideas without being affected by them, Winters held up the suicide of the poet Hart Crane as one of many instances where someone died precisely because he had attempted to live according to bad ideas—in Crane’s case, the irrational romantic mysticism of Emerson and Whitman. Winters’s writing gives voice to a theory of literature that cultivates reason and cordons off the soul from the disintegrating effects of emotion, thereby enabling one to live well in the world.

According to Wilson, “Winters defended the liberal arts against the shoddy emotionalism and politicization of his age, and he provides a model for how to do so in ours.”

Read the whole thing here.

“One of the most significant short novels in English”: Janet Lewis and The Wife of Martin Guerre, Feb. 20 event

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013
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She loved to travel. (Photo: “The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis,” used by permission of Ohio University Press)

NOTE:  Some of you may remember the launch of the Another Look book club last fall – I wrote about it here and here and here.  This season’s pick is another winner:  Janet Lewis‘s 104-page The Return of Martin Guerre, a novel that was, in fact, born at Stanford.  As I wrote in an article here, it all began with a terrible scandal in 1933.  From the “Another Look” website:

In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.

Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally acquitted.

Young Janet (Courtesy Melissa Winters)

One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case: three distinguished novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it “one of the most significant short novels in English.”

The book will be the focus of the second “Another Look” book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).  

Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

Winters’ role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at the injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson’s acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case.

A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.

Outraged … and right.

According to the New York Times, “Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century’s most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.”

But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis’ passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months. She returned with a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 1950.

There was another reason for Lewis’s novels and short stories: Lewis was a gifted poet, but her prose brought more money than verse – and the Winters family of four needed the extra cash. In pre-war days, academia was still something of a gentlemen’s profession, with many professors holding independent incomes.

Moreover, colleagues who had been riled by Winters’ pugnacious opinions delayed his promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old – although he went on to get an endowed chair, a Bollingen Prize, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

David Levin, writing in 1978, recalled that the Lewises “lived in extraordinary simplicity”: “The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death,” he wrote.

Her friends describe the Winterses devotion to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they’d assumed in 1934 and never left.

The poet in her 90s. (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps the externally uneventful life contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrotein London’s Independent: “Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.”

Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.”

In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their “clear-sightedness” and “intelligent warmth.”

“They’re full of joy and sorrow. It’s very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn’t hide behind ironic postures or anything like that,” he said. “She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants.”

Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. “Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato,” remembered Steele. “Janet appeared and said happily, ‘Does anyone want to go for a swim?’

“It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon.”

In any case, Lewis didn’t wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.

Yvor Winters: “The practical mind … has destroyed every state.”

Monday, January 28th, 2013
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Himself

Thought for the day culled from today’s reading.  I pass it along without comment on a busy day that is descending into a busy night:

“I am pessimistic about the human race. Few men are born with sufficient intelligence to profit by more than a small part of the tradition available to them. The practical mind, the mind which conquers, rules, invents, manufactures and sells, has dominated every civilization and ultimately has destroyed every state. The great philosopher, the great poet, the great painter or musician has almost always lived precariously on the fringe of the state, sometimes as the servant or dependent of the “great,” sometimes in poverty, sometimes in the priesthood, in our times as one of the most contemned members of the academic profession. But he has created and preserved civilization, often while working in the rubble of a collapsing state. Alexander of Macedon conquered the known world, but any mark that he has left on later times would be hard to identify. Aristotle, his tutor and his father’s servant, remains as one of the fundamental rocks on which our civilization is built.”     Yvor Winters, Forms of Discovery (1967)

“And finally time runs out”: Evan Connell dies at 88

Sunday, January 13th, 2013
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“I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next.”

Evan Connell has died, “of old age,” according to a relative.  He was 88 at the time of his death last week in  Santa Fe.

I didn’t know Evan Connell’s work, except from Ken Fields, who recently mentioned Mrs. Bridge as a masterpiece.  Apparently Wallace Stegner thought so, too.  He called it “a hell of a portrait…She’s as real and as pathetic and as sad as any character I have read in a long time.”

Connell, the author of 18 books, was a student of Stegner’s during his time at Stanford in the 1940s.  And Stegner was his first publisher:  Stanford Short Stories: Nineteen Forty-Nine (Stanford University Press), edited by Stegner from submissions by Stanford students, contains the first book appearance of a work by Connell.

Connell was in the first class of Stegner Fellows at Stanford, 1947-48, in the illustrious company of Donald Davie and Donald Justice.

The road to Stanford was not an easy one.  Connell was the son and grandson of physicians, and his father did not take easily to the idea that his only son would not follow in his footsteps. According to the Los Angeles Times:

He was a pre-med student at Dartmouth, which he attended from 1941 to 1943, but ultimately decided against following in his elders’ footsteps. This did not please his father, whom Connell described as “a rather severe man.”

“He was concerned that I would never be able to make a living at this kind of thing,” Connell, in a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, said of writing. “It was a justifiable concern, I think. I grew up in a home where there was no music, no interest in any of the arts.”

He dropped out of Dartmouth and joined the Navy, training as an aviator at a base near Albuquerque, where he fell in love with the vastness of the West. After completing his military service, he studied painting on the GI Bill and traveled, living in France during the 1950s and writing for the Paris Review.

Usually, Connell’s first published work is credited as the critically acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories (1957). His first novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959), according to the Man Booker Prize website, “dissects the life of a conventional upper-middle-class Kansas City matron who lacks a sense of purpose and conforms blindly to what is expected of her.”  Connell published Mr. Bridge a decade later, retelling the same story from the husband’s p.o.v.

According to the Los Angeles Times obituary:

He initially wrote Mrs. Bridge rather conventionally, with about 15 chapters, but it was rejected by numerous publishers in part because it lacked a climax. That was his intention, Connell said, because “our lives do not reach a dramatic climax in the way that books usually do. Most of us just go on day to day through major and minor trials and defeats. And finally time runs out.”

He restructured the novel as a series of 117 vignettes, which paint a devastating portrait of a woman puzzled by the emptiness of the small world she inhabits. The novel was “one of the very few written since World War II that clearly deserves to be called, as it has been, a masterpiece,” William H. Nolte wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Connell followed the same theme and structure a decade later in the companion novel, Mr. Bridge. Some critics found it darker and more satirical than the first novel because the main character, Mrs. Bridge’s joyless lawyer husband, was far less likable than his wife.

Both novels became the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge with the husband-and-wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Success didn’t spoil him.  Again according to the L.A. Times: “Despite the success of the Bridge novels, Connell held a number of odd jobs to get by. He delivered mail, read gas meters and was a counselor at an unemployment office. In his exceedingly dark 1966 novel The Diary of a Rapist, the main character is working in an unemployment office when he goes crazy.”

Connell’s bestselling 1984 biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star also earned praise and became a 1991 mini-series.  Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, said the book was “one of the few masterpieces to concern itself with the American West” and particularly noteworthy for its portrayals of the Native Americans.  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times also called it a masterpiece with a “lasting visceral resonance.”

Connell told the New York Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

Connell won the $100,000 Lannan Literary Award in 2000 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2010. He was nominated for a Man Booker lifetime achievement award in 2009.  But I can find nothing else online about his time at Stanford.

Postscript on 1/16:  D.G. Myers has an excellent piece on Evan Connell’s oeuvre over at The Commonplace Blog.  “Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention…”  Check it out here.

Can a dog be the test of a good poem?

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
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Winters loved Airedales.

Patrick Kurp‘s blog Anecdotal Evidence is always a treat, but it is particularly excellent today, as it celebrates the birthday of two poets: the late Yvor Winters and very current Les Murray, who identifies himself as “a very high-performing Asperger’s.”

How can we avoid sentimentality?  According to Murray, “I think it’s probably in not telling lies. There’s always something false about the sentimental. When it’s feeling without lies, it’s terribly scary, but it’s not sentimental.”

Winters defined a poem as “a statement in words about a human experience,” and later in the same text added, “special pains are taken with the expression of feeling.”

He wrote elsewhere:  “The basis of evil is in emotion; Good rests in the power of rational selection in action, as a preliminary to which the emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated, and, in so far as it cannot be eliminated, understood.”

These are two very different poets, but one thing they had in common was their love of dogs.  “Here’s a test for both poets,” says Patrick. “If any subject invites sappy sentimentality, wallows in whimsy, it’s dogs. Their extreme poetic admirers want to be admired for their love of canines. To address the subject in poetry without falsity or self-admiration means swimming against the warm fuzzy tide.”

See how both poets fare in Patrick’s essay, with two poems on the death of their dogs.  Well worth the read.  It’s here.

Meanwhile, happy birthday, Les Murray and Yvor Winters, wherever you are in time and space.

Robinson Jeffers gets his due.

Thursday, December 8th, 2011
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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 www.robinsonjeffersassociation.org – 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: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sewanee_review/summary/v119/119.1.rothman.html.”

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.