Bukowski’s “God”

“Jeffers is my god,” Bukowski often said, and, as far as poetry was concerned, that was true. Robinson Jeffers, king of the long lines and the jaundiced outlook, was once the fair-haired boy of American poetry, the first poet ever to grace the cover of Time magazine and even later, after his career and ultimately his life had ended, the honoree of having his face on a U.S. postage stamp. Yet Robin, as his friends called him all too innocuously, is a forgotten man today and was even largely forgotten when Buk was singing his praises.

Why? It was not because he went out of fashion. Robinson Jeffers was never “in fashion,” and—like Bukowski—would have hated the idea. He was a man and an artist out of time, loudly and defiantly declaring his independence of time and of the human race itself.

Like Bukowski, Jeffers was a natural Californian, though born in the East. Going west in the early years of the twentieth century, after a sojourn in the south, in 1919 he had come north with his newly acquired—and scandalously divorced—wife Una. They settled in what was then the near wilderness of Carmel, the town overlooking Big Sur. Here he built with his own hands the famous Tor House, on the cliffs above the beach, a house of stone that perfectly symbolized his innate toughness and inherent loneness. And there he wrote:  long narrative poems like “Tamar “ and “Roan Stallion” and short, bitter lyrics like “Hurt Hawks” or “Shine, Perishing Republic.”

These poems, especially the longer ones, enthralled Bukowski. He said of Jeffers, “All of his  figures … finally smashed up against the landscape. Always fascinating—they were very conscious of life. They were bloodfilled creatures, and they finally, you know, came to a bad end…. He influenced me a great deal with his simple lines—his simple long lines. Using the precise language, you know, not ‘pretty language’—just saying it. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

“Just saying it.” That was Bukowski’s creed and it was Jeffers who helped show him the way. In 1972, ten years after Jeffers’ death, Bukowski honored him in “He Wrote in Lonely Blood”:

Jeffers was alive and a loner and
he made his statements.
his rock and his hawks and his isolation
counted.
he wrote in lonely blood
a man trapped in a corner
but what a corner
fighting down to the last mark

What had caused Jeffers’ estrangement from the world and from the world of letters? In large part, it was Jeffers himself, his personality and his inherent unwillingness to be a part of the herd. More practically, it was the world’s response to him. Shortly following World War II, Jeffers published his last major collection: The Double Axe and Other Poems (Random House, 1948). These poems, with their bitter denunciation of Roosevelt and of America’s recent triumph in the war, caused a firestorm in the Random House offices. The publisher, Bennett Cerf, otherwise a famous game show contestant, took major offense at the political slant of the collection and insisted not only that ten of the poems be deleted but also that a publisher’s disclaimer accompany each copy, disavowing the views contained within.

Jeffers’ career never recovered from that betrayal by his own publisher.  Hostile critics piled on to his wounded and prostrate form and academics turned away from an artist who had grown toxic. Though he never again published a major collection, he endured it all in his solitude and grace. He was indeed a man “trapped in a corner . . .  fighting down to the last mark.”

Comments

  1. Quentin Hardy says:

    A little overstated. “Shine, Perishing Republic,” “Hurt Hawks,” and the opening of “Roan Stallion” were all commonly anthologized poems when I was in high school. The Vintage edition of his collected poems is still in print: You won’t find that’s true for most poets from the 20s.
    Jeffers, who was a Classics scholar, wrote long lines in an older form, with a fluency that keeps them crisp. While he was marginalized for being antiwar, that was fine with him – not so big on the human race, that guy. I’m not sure we should treat him like a victim.
    For my money, “Their Beauty Has More Meaning” is one his most beautiful short poems.

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