Poet-Mortem

In the hours after Robinson Jeffers ceased to breathe, a cold storm rolled across the Monterey Peninsula region, dropping an inch and a half of snow. The rare event, unequalled on record, is remembered best—perhaps—for the snow that blanketed the fairways and greens at Pebble Beach and postponed the “Crosby Clambake,” a celebrity golf tournament now known as the “AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.”

This snow was a remarkable coincidence, seeing as it marked the death of a poet who prided himself on being in tune with the rhythms of nature. The event was reported as the first local snowfall in forty years, an oddly coincidental time period, particularly when one considers that it had also been forty years since Jeffers found his voice among the unfinished walls of Hawk Tower.

There is a sense in which Jeffers believed himself to be in possession of special knowledge, almost as though he were in possession of a special revelation from his pantheistic, Presbyterian God. If he did possess some exclusive dispensation of Truth, this snowfall, with its subtly miraculous character—and seeing as it confounded the gods of golf, might seem remarkably appropriate.

Zarathustra, the prophet of Ancient Iran, spoke not in lists or parables, but in songs. Muhammad, the Arabian Prophet, was accused by his detractors of being a mere poet, for the earliest suras of the Qur’án are quiet poetic indeed. Other prophets and sages of the east have spoken in verse. Poetry and prophecy often go hand in hand. It is nothing new.

Some of America’s most noteworthy poets were numbered among Jeffers’ admirers when he died. Charles Bukowski declared “Jeffers is my god.” William Everson, alias Brother Antoninus, proudly declared himself Jeffers’ lone disciple. Robert Bly acknowledged being influenced by Jeffers. Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz declared that nothing like Jeffers had appeared in the 20th Century, and grappled at length with Jeffers’ work.1 Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass marked the centennial of Jeffers’ birth with the 1987 collection of Jeffers’ shorter poems, Rock and Hawk.

Award-winning poet and critic Dana Gioia has called Jeffers “the unchallenged laureate of environmentalists,” a description that, coming from a poet, may not be entirely complimentary, but Gioia has paid ample respect to Jeffers in two notable anthologies. Gary Snyder, acclaimed poet of deep ecology, drew much inspiration from Jeffers’ work. Not long after Jeffers’ death, the environmentalist leader David Brower chose Jeffers’ poetry for the text of the Sierra Club’s ground-breaking coffee table book, Not Man Apart. The title of the book was snipped from Jeffers’ poem, the Answer. Some 40 years later, a Los Angeles physical theatre ensemble took that same mantra for its name. Five years after that, the Dark Mountain Project, founded and lead by British counter-cultural artists, took its name and much of its inspiration from Jeffers’ poetry, citing Jeffers at extraordinary length in its 2009 manifesto, Uncivilization.

In one of his late, posthumously published poems, Jeffers shared a vision of global warming:

The polar ice-caps are melting, the mountain glaciers
Drip into rivers; all feed the ocean;
Tides ebb and flow, but every year a little bit higher.2

More sea-flooding can be found in the poems Roan Stallion and November Surf.3

Global warming as a result of “the greenhouse effect” was not a new idea even in Jeffers’ time, yet this poet was more informed of the science than most citizens. It may well come to pass that Jeffers’ vision of demise for Western civilization may come to be taken as more and more prophetic with time.

 

[1] Milosz, Czeslaw. "Carmel," Visions from San Francisco Bay, pg. 93

[2] CP 3:476

[3] SP 133, 381

 

Timeline
  • 1962, January 21 – Play at Pebble Beach Crosby Clambake postponed due to 1.5” of snow, the first snow on the Monterey Peninsula in 40 years.
  • 1962, September 27 – Silent Spring published
  • 1963 – Selected Poems published by Random House
  • 1964 – David Brower and the Sierra Club help win passage of the Wilderness Act
  • 1965 – Not Man Apart published by the Sierra Club (editor: David Brower)

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