Posts Tagged ‘Robinson Jeffers’

Wallace Stegner, Czesław Miłosz, and what they had to say to each other

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Stegner got used to the barbs.

I discovered this offbeat and little-known treasure on Youtube – a rare treat for fans of American Pulitzer prizewinning author Wallace Stegner and Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. The interview was filmed sometime in the 1980s, and has less than 1,450 views to date.

It is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable “friendly” interviews I’ve ever watched, with only occasional flashes of smiles and laughter. The unedited raw footage comes to us via Stephen Fisher Productions – with the cameramen periodically stopping the filming, interjecting questions, and restarting with calls of “Rolling!” Stegner gamely keeps trying to draw Miłosz out, as they stand on a breezy hilltop in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. They both look like they’d rather be indoors.

A happenstance Californian.

A reluctant Californian

The topic at hand: the effect of landscape on a writer’s spirit. “I lived through rebellion against California landscape,” Miłosz admits in his heavy Polish accent. It’s a rebellion, he said, that lasted twenty years. (I write about Miłosz as a California poet here.) Stegner agrees that California “offends a lot of people by being so dry and barren and prickly. Everything in it has barbs.” Naturally, the subject of poet Robinson Jeffers comes up on a couple occasions.

Miłosz said he missed the “cosiness” of the Lithuanian valley where he grew up – when he wasn’t traipsing about the vast expanses of Russia with his family during pre-revolutionary years (his father was an engineer of the empire). Miłosz does say that he was intrigued by the number of species he found in California  – species of pines and birds and everything else. Plenty of jays in Europe, he said, but not so many as here. “I was intrigued by the essence of being a jay,” he said. Well we know what happened with that, with his poem “Magpiety.”

Watch it for yourself:

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.


Notes from the Sierra Nevada wilderness

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The rocks of Yuba River

California is parched and yellow in late August, before the rains begin – but away from the coasts,  the dryness becomes dire.  Inevitable wildfires are seasonal guests in the famed “Gold Country.”

I am driving through the manzanita, scrub pine, live oak, and dry brush of the fire-scarred Sierra Nevada foothills en route to a stepson’s wedding.

A journey that only a dozen years ago would have been accompanied by a lapful of maps is instead guided by a handful of google printouts and “Eunice,” the Australian-voiced GPS in my daughter’s ancient Toyota.  Eunice won out against google with her reassuring voice, and by promising the shortest route – though, as it turned out, not the quickest.  Eventually, Eunice steered us through Woodland, Marysville, and Downieville, winding along Highway 49 over Bullard’s Bar, the dam where the current wildfire blazes after devouring 1,300 acres.  The smell of smoke (“like salami,” said my daughter) penetrates the car and, in places, fogs the landscape.

Sardine Lake and the Sierras

The moon is huge, heavy, and low on the horizon, a golden half-melon.  The chill takes even the August air by the time you reach 5,000 feet.  For my daughter, this is home.  Now, a city-dweller, she is nostalgic, but can’t envision the place as a campground.  She’d rather, if she were inclined that way, go to Oregon’s redwoods, rather than these “gross pines and scrub.”

We encounter no one on our travels, speeding through the darkness towards Sardine Lake.  “We are in the center of nowhere,” she says, as we drive deeper into the night, past the deserted Coyote Café, North Yuba Trail, and signs that advertise sales for “Aged Steer manure.”  We see a jackrabbit and a gray fox ambling across the street at midnight.

Life in the Sierra Nevada

Welcome to California

I do not like the country.  I lived here for a decade —  and fled for my home three times in the face of approaching walls of flame.  The granite walls along the highways are striking, but more than offset tonight by the bugs hitting the windshield, and the possibility (not having checked beforehand) that these orange warning signs we are passing will yield to closed roads and detours unforeseen by Eunice.  This very California landscape overwhelmed Czesław Miłosz, also, and he chastised its spokesman, Robinson Jeffers, who viewed humanity as a blight on a more-perfect natural world.  Miłosz wrote:

Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.

The moon moves as we round the winding curves — it goes under and over mountains again and again, digging out the hills with its golden shovel.

What I miss most about living in these hills is the quality of silence, that enters you, that deepens into still pools within you.  The solitude that troubles my daughter (reminding her of the opening scene of a horror flick, where someone horrible jumps out of the bushes), refreshes me.

All this was meant to be a lead-in to another California poet,  Moore Moran, and his poem on the Gold Country, “Outside Truckee.” But driving through the night, thinking of Miłosz’s alienation from the California landscape that has entered me, that entered him, too, I find I am drawn instead to Moran’s poem on the facing page, “Star Dust,” which concludes:

Yearn is another term for breathing.
Hostage, we live on cruising wheels,
eye ever quick, need ever seething,
rejections linger … unrung bells.

We trust our immortality
To sex, its produce and its scars,
and so persists the roundelay,
This dance of dust among the stars.