Tamar and Other Poems (1924)

By the spring of 1924, Robinson Jeffers, age 37, may have been known as much for his stonemasonry as for his poetry. He’d published a mediocre volume of regional interest eight years earlier, but since then he’d seen only rejection from book publishers. He had recently printed, at his own expense, some 450 copies of his latest book, Tamar and Other Poems, and stuffed them in the eaves of his attic. In contrast, his productivity and creativity as a stonemason was quite visible.

Jeffers’ luck—and the face of American verse—was about to change. The Book Club of California was soliciting submissions for a new anthology of California poetry. The Carmel stonemason’s one published book, titled Californians[1] had a name that might have caught the attention of the Book Club. When Jeffers was solicited, he replied with several poems and a copy of his little attic stuffer. The print quality of the book was poor, and the text was difficult to read, but it roiled with dark beauty, sublime violence, sexuality, and fire.

Though Jeffers would not coin the term Inhumanism for decades to come, the theme: human narcissism collapsing under the majesty of the inhuman — is evident in the title narrative, Tamar.

Jeffers’ latest poetry turned out to be unlike any the Book Club editors had seen before. One of them, James Rorty, [2] wrote a glowing review of Tamar for the New York Herald Tribune, and also shared the book with fellow critics on the East Coast. More rave reviews followed in the Nation and the New Republic. The obscure little book of poems being passed from critic to critic sparked a sensation on the East Coast.

15 years earlier, Jack London, California’s premier novelist and occasional Carmel vacationer, had published a novel about fame and a writer’s struggle to survive on his work. In the story, the writer Martin Eden was paid little more than poverty for his labors. Even when his work was published, Eden found it hard to get the magazines to pay him what they’d promised. Eden’s only friend was a poet named Brissenden, who resembled London’s real-life friend and Carmel poet, George Sterling. Brissenden, who was sickly, committed suicide (as would Sterling). Suddenly, the dead Brissenden and the living Eden were blessed—and cursed—with instant success. The cynical adoration Eden then received from people who had previously ignored him, scorned him, and contemptuously pitied him soon drove him to suicide.

Jeffers’ experience was not quite so extreme, but it was all-too similar. One prominent East Coast reviewer suddenly claimed to have been a long-time lover of Jeffers’ work. New friends and admirers would soon crawl out from behind the paneling.

The new California anthology ended up being named Continent’s End,[3] after one of Jeffers’ poems. The title piece would take the place of honor on the frontispiece of the book, framed and headed with its title in large, red, gothic letters. The anthology would include three more of Jeffers’ poems[4] plus an “invocation” from Tamar itself. One of the poems, To the Stone-Cutters, would later be included in a number of major anthologies. Another, Wise Men in their Bad Hours, would later be linked to Christopher McCandless (as reported in John Krakauer’s Into the Wild), having been passed down to him by way of western novelist Louis L’Amour.

In the short poem Continent’s End, Jeffers begins with a celebration of the Pacific Ocean and the world-sea, identifying the Pacific as the womb of life, but then probes deep within himself to find something “harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean.” It is not that Jeffers claims—as a man—to have something too profound for the sea to possess (such as consciousness); rather, he closes, “both our tones flow from the older fountain.” Jeffers recognizes that we are in one sense children of the sea, yet he sees that we are also siblings of the sea.

The tone of this poem is rugged. It combines the power of the sea with the “insolent quietness of stone,” giving it a majestic quality that would characterize Jeffers’ poetry in the years to come. The regular flow of it contributes to a mood of cosmic flux. It flows, yet it stops at regular intervals. Perhaps this is intended to represent a surf pattern. Jeffers observes that his “song’s measure is like” the sea’s “ancient rhythm.” The line length is consistent. Every second line ends in a full stop, and there are no mid-line stops. This was the form of an even more well-received poem that Jeffers did not publish until later, Shine, Perishing Republic, and quite similar to the form of a contemporary surf-lyric, Point Joe. Though this form was for Jeffers a new development circa 1922, yet Jeffers would soon move on to a less regular “measure.” Jeffers’ pre-1923 poems did not exhibit the fluctuating rhythm that Tamar would introduce, yet the rhythm, language, and tone of Continent’s End renders it distinctly Jeffers.

Tamar goes beyond concise abstractions, but weaves its thought into its narrative flow. It is a middle-length narrative poem about the self-love, the narcissistic passion that corrupts and destroys human society. It is also about a kind of subconscious interaction between the human mind and the inhuman environment. The spirit of place and the ghosts of the place intermingle in this narrative. The poem makes heavy use of fire imagery and shows some odd similarity, in its dramatic narrative arc and imagery, to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In a time of modernistic minimalism and short, often abstract poems, this must have seemed more than a little out of step.

 

[1] His first book of poems, Flagons and Apples, was printed at his own expense.

[2] “James Rorty (1890-1973) was an American writer and poet who tackled subjects such as American industries, Joseph McCarthy, labor, medicine, nutrition, advertising, and Jim Crow.” Archives West: James Rorty Papers.

[3] Published May 15, 1925, in a limited printing.

[4] Other poems included: The Cycle and To the Stone Cutters.

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