Give Your Heart to the Hawks
August 9, 2007 12:10 AM   Subscribe

The California poet Robinson Jeffers, though once popular enough to make the cover of Time Magazine, is for various reasons now a somewhat obscure figure- however, he has attracted increased interest in recent days both for the quality of his work and his pantheistic personal philosophy, which anticipated much future environmentalist thought. [more inside, with links to poems]
posted by a louis wain cat (24 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Ranging from narrative epics to short lyrics, his poetry is steeped in his worldview of intense love for the natural world(especially hawks) and disdain for what he dubbed "human solipsism". His work was greatly inspired by the beauty of the Big Sur region, where he lived in a house that he built out of the granite rocks on the shore. Links to some of his poems follow:

Hurt Hawks
Shine, Perishing Republic
The Purse-Seine
Ave Caesar
Original Sin
Vulture, Hurt Hawks, Passenger Pigeons
Bixby's Landing
Be Angry At The Sun
The House Dog's Grave
Carmel Point
The Summit Redwood
Rock and Hawk
And the Stars, The Answer, The Beauty of Things, The Eye, The Great Explosion, The Measure, October Evening, Roan Stallion(fragment), Star Swirls
Love the Wild Swan
posted by a louis wain cat at 12:11 AM on August 9, 2007

Great post, but you can't leave out:

A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly.
Things are the hawk's food and noble is the mountain, Oh noble
Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.
posted by freebird at 12:21 AM on August 9, 2007

Yes, I really like that one and I wanted to include it, but the one site I found it on hit me with a pop-up(despite the fact that I had them blocked) that crashed my browser, so I regretfully decided to leave it out and spare other people's computers. Anyway, thanks for posting it in the thread- it's one of my favorites as well.
posted by a louis wain cat at 12:28 AM on August 9, 2007

I don't really understand what people have against modern western pantheism. Frankly, I think it's a welcome addition to the canon of self-created western religions.
posted by parmanparman at 12:34 AM on August 9, 2007

Extra swell post -- thank you.
posted by gum at 12:50 AM on August 9, 2007

"various reasons":
Robinson Jeffers was a steadfast pacifist and was one of the few popular U.S. writers critical of U.S. involvement the first and second world wars. [...] A 1938 pamphlet entitled, Writers Take Sides, put out by the American Writers League, asked writers, "Are you for or are you against Franco and fascism?". Jeffers responded, "You ask what I am for and what I am against in Spain. I would give my right hand of course to prevent the agony; I would not give a flick of my little finger to help either side win." Jeffers political philosophy was that of an inveterate naturalist and environmentalist. He denounced human lust for power and victory as short-sighted and self-destructive, while he hoped to glimpse at the larger natural scheme of the world not predicated on human relations- a reality which defied time, history, emotion and memory, but at the same time encompassed all of these aspects of human perception.
Everyone remembers him for the line "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk," and that's a hard stance to teach in grade school, especially during jingoist times like the 1950s (or today). Plus he broke up some respectable lawyering guy's nice marriage. The PTA wouldn't like Jeffers.
posted by pracowity at 1:28 AM on August 9, 2007

One of my favorites. Used to spend a lot of time around Tor House as a kid.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:37 AM on August 9, 2007

I hd always liked his poetry and his dismissial of the overbearing herd. But, finally, man is like it or not, a memb er of a larger "tribe" and to merely dismiss it is ultimately self-defeating for those things you may care for. But like the guy for his art and that is what matters.
posted by Postroad at 4:49 AM on August 9, 2007

shit. Formatting is all wrong.
posted by exlotuseater at 5:02 AM on August 9, 2007

I've always like Robinson Jeffers, ever since I was a over-eager idealistic high school activist-type and "Shine, Perishing Republic" was a meaty affirmation of my ways of thinking, yet it was all right there in a fairly stuffy old poerty anthology.
posted by statolith at 6:14 AM on August 9, 2007

I hope it's an overstatement to say he's become obscure. Maybe it's just because I'm from CA and an English major but I got fed good helpings of Jeffers growing up. I guess he needs to have one of his poems appear in a movie, or to have a Helena Bonham Carter movie made about him, or something...

Jeffers is one of those poets who appeals even to people who hate poetry.
posted by scarabic at 7:38 AM on August 9, 2007

Love Robinson Jeffers' work, love this post ..... Thanks.

Love the handle "a louis wain cat" too!
posted by blucevalo at 8:27 AM on August 9, 2007

He's one of my favorite poets ever, no question. That said: he can be a little, hmm, overwrought I suppose? As is touched on above, the whole Man Alone In A Stark and Inhumanly Beautiful Universe thing may get a little overdone.

I remember when I was really reading a lot of his stuff getting to like page TEN of: the Blind Sculptor living alone in the desert canyon, scraping his art from the rock with just his bare hands; fingertips torn to bleeding nubs from making his art noone would see; letting the broken doll of humanity lie; and so forth.

And I kinda felt like - you know man, it can't have been too bad living down there in Carmel and wandering around that lush, welcoming landscape. Living in your rock tower, going fishing - come on. The whole angst-ridden artist and cold seperateness of rationality stuff is great, but surely you've got a few "oh, it's nice puttering around in the garden!" or "I like my wife a lot!" poems in you...

I guess that sounds trite, but I deny that only Great Profound Inhuman Things can make great and profound art. He was so good at conveying the beauty of the natural world, and so silent on the beauty of the human one.
posted by freebird at 9:24 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post. I love this. Thanks, a louis wain cat.
posted by homunculus at 9:32 AM on August 9, 2007

Excellent post, and I will take this as an opportunity to give a shout to another forever favorite of mine, Milwaukee's own Antler.

And Gary Snyder.
posted by everichon at 10:55 AM on August 9, 2007

November Surf

Some lucky day each November great waves awake and are drawn
Like smoking mountains bright from the west
And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness: then suddenly
The old granite forgets half a year’s filth:
The orange-peel, eggshells, papers, pieces of clothing, the clots
Of dung in corners of the rock, and used
Sheaths that make light love safe in the evenings: all the droppings of the summer
Idlers washed off in a winter ecstasy:
I think this cumbered continent envies its cliff then.... But all seasons
The earth, in her childlike prophetic sleep,
Keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm that prepares up the long coast
Of the future to scour more than her sea-lines:
The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two-footed
Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
The dignity of room, the value of rareness.
posted by rodii at 11:34 AM on August 9, 2007

But, finally, man is like it or not, a memb er of a larger "tribe" and to merely dismiss it is ultimately self-defeating for those things you may care for.

posted by nasreddin at 11:37 AM on August 9, 2007

Similarly, Kenneth Rexroth:

Inversely, as the Square of their Distances Apart

It is impossible to see anything
In this dark; but I know this is me, Rexroth,
Plunging through the night on a chilling planet.
It is warm and busy in this vegetable
Darkness where invisible deer feed quietly.
The sky is warm and heavy, even the trees
Over my head cannot be distinguished,
But I know they are knobcone pines, that their cones
Endure unopened on the branches, at last
To grow imbedded in the wood, waiting for fire
To open them and reseed the burned forest.
And I am waiting, alone, in the mountains,
In the forest, in the darkness, and the world
Falls swiftly on its measured ellipse...

And Paul Goodman:


At twenty thousand feet—the earth below was overcast—
the top of the cloud was like a desert flat lightly dusted with snow
and I at the sunny porthole agreed to be resigned
as in a bright hospital where they would feed me well,
but like one peacefully dying rather than convalescent
The blue sky was immense to its skim-milky horizon
and the sun glorious as if awash and wet
with its light I stared at hungrily with my own streaming eyes.
Then were my cares for my sick country quieted
though not forgotten, and the unhappy loneliness
In which I ever live was quieted.
Dimly I briefly saw below the wide meandering
among the Blue Ridge Mountains Shenandoah River
and again! one friendly sparkle from a wave
like a signal to me leaped across four miles of space
saying "God! God!" or "Man! Man!" or "Death!"
or whatever it was, very pleasantly.
posted by nasreddin at 11:45 AM on August 9, 2007

Thanks for this post! I'd almost forgotten about Jeffers--I can't believe that publisher's foreword:

"Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume."
posted by saulgoodman at 12:44 PM on August 9, 2007

"...As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man."
Original Sin

You guys really think RJ meant those words?
not just an apple, a WILD apple.

Isn't there a difference between pantheism and misanthropic egoism?
posted by CCBC at 1:12 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

My favorite Jeffers poem I read in a fat blue textbook on American literature, one of three ("To the Stone-Cutters" and "Hurt Hawks" were the others). I never see this one anywhere else, so I'll transcribe it here:

"Self-Criticism in February" from Such Counsels You Gave to Me (1937)

The bay is not blue but somber yellow
With wrack from the battered valley, it is speckled with violent foam-heads
And tiger-striped with long lovely storm-shadows.
You love this better than the other mask; better eyes than yours
Would feel the equal beauty in the blue.
It is certain you have loved the beauty of storm disproportionately.

But the present time is not pastoral, but founded
On violence, pointed for more massive violence: perhaps it is not
Perversity but need that perceives the storm-beauty.
Well, bite on this: your poems are too full of ghosts and demons,
And people like phantoms
—how often life's are—
And passion so strained that the clay mouths go praying for destruction
Alas, it is not unusual in life;
To every soul at some time. But why insist on it? And now
For the worst fault: you have never mistaken
Demon nor passion nor idealism for the real God.

Then what is most disliked in those verses
Remains most true. Unfortunately. If only you could sing
That God is love, or perhaps that social
Justice will soon prevail.
I can tell lies in prose.
posted by cgc373 at 2:47 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thank you! I love Jeffers.
posted by digaman at 5:20 PM on August 9, 2007

Thanks for this! He's new to me.
posted by Shanachie at 9:27 PM on August 9, 2007

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