Aftermath

Una’s death left Jeffers alone and, all too often, inebriated. Una was no longer around to keep him company, to keep him on schedule, or to moderate his drinking. On top of that, Robin was old and frail. Since his illness in 1948, he’d never quite been the same. Still, this new solitary life seemed to have borne fruit. Jeffers, now 65 and counting, was more eloquent than he had been in his 50s. His poetry was now lighter, and unburdened by the politics of war. Perhaps he had even been liberated by Una’s death, that is to say, by her liberation from cancer. Though his reputation as a poet would not recover during his lifetime, his poetry may be said to have improved, in spite of his mounting age and infirmity. Still, though he could still write, he did not write much, but then he hadn’t really written much poetry since late 1936. He published only three volumes in the last 25 years of his life.

Jeffers had started back at the stonework in 1937, on what would become the East Wing on Tor House, but progress was slow, and because of a nearly fatal illness in 1948, he wasn’t able to finish the job. At that point, Jeffers became an old man. Una, several years his elder, died a couple years later.

The passion and elaborate eloquence of his thirties, and even the mature craftsmanship of his middle years had diminished. One of his most noted poems, Carmel Point (1954), repeats the word “beautiful” as though he had forsaken the contrivances of art (the word, admittedly, had been an old favorite of his). In this poem, he follows his familiar pattern of spelling out the moral of the poem at the end. Rather than weaving the message into an image and trusting in that image, he chose to spell it out instead. This violates the show don’t tell principle, but in the poem’s defense there may be times when brevity and directness may be better served by simple assertion. This had been part of the beauty of his sonnet Return. In the case of Carmel Point, the conclusion builds upon the image in a way that might lose immediacy were the declaration replaced by a more nuanced image. Yes, it is a little preachy, but maybe this is a time and place for such “preaching.” One might imagine it would be difficult to use imagery to say “we must uncenter our minds from ourselves” without losing the authenticity of brevity.

This directness could really wear on the sensibilities of critics, and even some few of his supporters (such as yours truly).

The short meditation Skunks1 is an excellent example of how Jeffers acquired a gentle, unpretentious eloquence with age. This is a poem about how the barbarism of man stinks less and less when viewed over the span of centuries. It even notes how monsters are transformed by history into geniuses. This is not an angry or hateful poem, but rather dryly humorous.

His unpublished2 poem Vulture (SP 697), is another outstanding lyric of Jeffers’ later years. Again, this poem deploys the word “beautiful” twice in succession. In such manner, it may have given up on the English language too hastily. More important, this poem seems to give up on the image too soon. Rather than imagining the “enskyment” of being devoured by a vulture in any detail, and rather than depicting the “life after death” that it would realize, Jeffers simply concludes, “What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death” as if throwing in an afterthought. He says very little about the existence that one would become a part of once eaten by a vulture. It almost seems antipoetic. Simplicity can be a valid defense, yet I have often stumbled over the ending of Vulture, perhaps all the more because of my love of vultures and their role in the afterlife of a few ancient cultures.

Furthermore, the use of the word “enskyment,” a word that seems to be Jeffers’ creation, stands out with what I presume to be a long vowel that draws attention to it—too much attention to a contrivance if modest simplicity is what the poem is after. That said. how should it be pronounced? Who is to say? These are the thoughts that take over my mind while I’d rather be imagining a vulture. The best that I can suggest is to voice it with a restrained voice, or, as Jeffers describes earlier in the poem, “solemnly.”—also a useful key to how one ought to recite the entirety of the poem.

All that said, enskyment is a word that seems to be aching to exist. Why don’t we have a word for sky-becoming? The words metamorphosis and transfiguration, though not literally meaning “becoming the sky,” might impart a powerful message, largely because of their living history as words, and partly because they would better respect the vulture’s form, rather than attempting to use the vulture as bridge to some kind of grand, universal existence. Given this, I’m not convinced that this poem was the appropriate context for the coining of such a word.

Speaking of comparative afterlives, it strikes me that the proud enskyment of Vulture counters the modest, subterranean afterlife espoused by Jeffers’ poem Tor House (SP 181). This is an odd distinction, for Vulture is clearly a more modest poem.

All these quibbles aside, Vulture remains a profound reflection, at least if voiced solemnly, rather than with levity or grandiosity.

Other standouts from among Jeffers’ late, posthumously published poems include To the Story-Tellers) and Pleasures.

To the Story-Tellers is a brief exposition on the insanity of man that opens with the stark observation, “Man, the illogical animal,” runs through a variety of the everyday insanities of human behavior, and adds somewhat parenthetically, “And only man will deny known truth.” The poem then closes with frank eloquence:

You story-tellers … have a free field.
There are no fences, man will do anything.3

Pleasures opens a broad window into the poet’s final years. It shows us the old poet working over his old themes and, though sticking to his personal philosophy of Inhumanism, does so with openness and honesty:

But I lied when I said / I have no pleasure. There is on the lowest level, lower than animal, / The pleasure of drinking whiskey, and to watch the world / Totter above its grave, …

This sounds almost like Jeffers’ wayward disciple, Charles Bukowski. The poem does find its way to a world-affirming position, and a characteristically Inhumanist one. It arrives with a sharp turn and a sudden but graceful stop:

… The vastness here, the horror, the mathematical unreason, the cold and awful glory, / The inhuman face of our God: It is pleasant and beautiful. 4

At last, the height of pleasure is to encounter beauty.

 

[1] Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems (1965) and CP 3:406. Also included in Rock and Hawk (Hass).

[2] “Posthumously published” is unpublished so far as the dead author is concerned, particularly if he had no immediate plans to publish.

[3] CP 3:411

[4] CP 3:473

 

Timeline

  • 1951 – Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize for poems published in Poetry Magazine
  • 1952 – Hungerfield published
  • 1954 – Hungerfield and Other Poems published (includes Carmel Point)
  • 1954 – Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) produces The Cretan Woman
  • 1954 – garage converted to a kitchen
  • 1955 – Borestone Mountain Poetry Award for Hungerfield
  • 1955 – Stanford University produces The Cretan Woman
  • 1957 – Donnan completes the East Wing of Tor House
  • 1958 – “Academy Fellowship” awarded from Academy of American Poets (14th fellowship awarded since 1936)
  • 1960 – Jack Kerouac’s stay in Bixby Canyon
  • 1961 – National Poetry Society “Shelly Memorial Award”
  • 1962, January 20 – Robinson Jeffers dies at his home at Carmel Point, California at 3:40pm.

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