November Surf

It can be hard to watch the common tourist trash your personal beach that you bought with your hard-earned inheritance.

On the one hand, this is a poem about the cleansing role of the sea, or more generally the cleansing role of time and a desire to see the world less crowded by humans and their waste, but it seems Robinson Jeffers has got something more Biblical in mind when he imagines cities being washed off the face of the earth. Something of the genocidal God of the Old Testament (and the Calvinism of Jeffers’ father) is being conjured up here.

It can easily be ascertained from the closing words of this poem that it is about modern man, duly represented by “orange-peel, egg-shells, papers, pieces of clothing,” “clots of dung,” discarded condoms, etc.

I wonder: Are the “clots the dung” more likely from family dogs or from seagulls? … or some other creature? Are the egg-shells fragments from picnics at the Tor, or are they from the nests of shorebirds? What idler, pray tell, brings papers to a sea cliff? A poet?… How shall the world be cleansed of all this “filth?” Answer: A good purgative flood, straight out of Genesis. Humanity and its inhuman, fellow defecators are depicted here not as anything consciously malignant, but as something frivolous and impure; filth to be washed away.

It has been reported that Jeffers was not fond of beach “idlers,” seeming to have forgotten that he had once been one himself before he bought the beach. He posted signs to beachgoers, one implying to visitors that they should clean up after themselves because they were playing on private land: [1]

THIS SHORE IS PRIVATELY OWNED TO THE OCEAN.
DO NOT LEAVE PAPERS OR OTHER FILTH.

Papers! Could one imagine anything more disgusting? The logic of the message appears to presume that private ownership itself renders the land sacred. With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder what the Jefferses did with all the smelly excrement produced by their highly-engineered bulldogs during their seaside walks. Perhaps they tossed it in the ocean to keep the continent clean?

With all this in mind, it might seem a little ironic that the Una and Robin Jeffers chose an Indian midden (trash pile) for their home site. As for those unsightly condoms, at least they help to keep the human population down, and yes, they are biodegradable.

There is some redemption for this poem in that the author sees hope for man in the value of rareness, that one or two people are not intrinsically filthy but only large groups of people; but this redemption is undercut by the fact that sin here is not depicted as the cruelty of our species but rather its joy. The poem expresses a desire for the cleansing of the world not merely of the impurity of humanity itself, but its joys in particular.

I suppose this poem could use a good dose of the death of the author, that is, to put our knowledge of the author aside so as to approach the poem without bias. The poem may well appear a little less bitter with less knowledge of the poet. Unfortunately, some things are not so easy to unlearn as we’d like them to be.

 

[1] See James Karman, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California, Revised Edition, page 129.

The text of November Surf has been made available online by the Robinson Jeffers Association.

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November Surf has been included in the following anthologies:

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