The Voice within the Voice: Hearing Jeffers´ Poetry through the Letters

[The following paper was prepared for a panel on Robinson Jeffers that David Rothman organized for the West Chester Poetry Conference in June to mark the publication of the first volume of Jim Karman’s The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers (Stanford University Press). ]

Students are convinced for the most part that fiction is easier to read than poetry.  They’re wrong, of course.  Poetry and fiction are equally hard to read well.  Fiction is simply easier to read badly.  In general, scholars and critics of American poetry are convinced that Robinson Jeffers is easier to read than Pound or Eliot or H.D. or Stevens or Williams or even Frost, for that matter, and they are apt to conclude from this that Jeffers isn’t worth much as a poet.  They’re wrong, of course, and I’m sure you’re a step ahead of me here and already know that the next line of this piece is going to be that it’s simply that Jeffers is easier to read badly.

We can, and typically do, miss what is radical, even innovative, in his poetry and poetics, because the relatively direct surface of his poems, the seemingly clear, even didactic pronouncements they sometimes include, and what seems the consistency and assurance of the voice can lull us into a sense that his poems are the work of someone too isolated in that tower on the Pacific coast and too stubborn to update his product line and get with what, a century ago, would have been “the modern.”  But if we allow ourselves to read Jeffers as if he is simply naïve—if occasionally provocative and powerful in spite of this or because of it—we miss the poetry of his work, we evade the conceptual challenges he poses, and we misjudge how his project as a poet relates to the tradition and how it can be a productive ground and catalyst for those of us trying to write today.  And this is why his letters, especially as we can now read them in Jim Karman’s comprehensive and meticulously annotated edition, are so important if we are to re-establish Jeffers as a major figure in our poetry and to engage his writing productively.

“Hurt Hawks,” first published in the collection Cawdor in 1927 and one of Jeffers’ most anthologized poems, will, I hope, illustrate what I have in mind.  The poem is in two sections, and the second opens with the assertion, “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.”  This startling claim is often quoted and seldom with admiration.  The comment encapsulates, we are told, Jeffers’ misanthropy, and it exemplifies his tendency toward bald, didactic statement of the sort that Pound was busy, when this poem first appeared, teaching us to view as the absolute antithesis of the poetic and therefore to shun.  The way this claim’s seemingly arrogant assurance can also be seen as indicating a seemingly unselfconscious or unmasked or unmediated “I” has Jeffers winning, it seems, a kind of anti-poetic trifecta.  Clearly, this is not Eliot playing peek-a-boo behind Prufrock or “do[ing] the police in different voices.”

How, then, might mere letters save such a piece from the poetic sins of its maker?  Most simply the context that Jeffers’ letters provide require us (or at least give us an opening) to hear this often quoted claim differently, and this in turn can enable us to read a poem like “Hurt Hawks” differently, focusing less on its seeming declarative meaning—its seemingly didactic proclamations—and more on the experience that the poem evokes and how the speaker’s conflicted relationship to that experience frames what is declarative in the poem not as its meaning but as an aspect of meaning.  And when we do so, we find that Jeffers is less monolithic and more modern (though not at all a “modernist” in Pound’s sense of the term) than he appears in the typical accounts of modern poetry.

Across the latter months of 1926 and early 1927 Jeffers was deeply enmeshed in his most ambitious and complex narrative poem, The Women at Point Sur, grinding to try to make the deadline for delivering the book that he and his publisher had agreed on.  We know from the letters that Jeffers wrote in the months following the completion of the poem in mid-February 1927 that his efforts at what, as he noted in one letter, he saw as the “Faust of his generation” had left him emotionally and physically wrung out.  This is even more understandable if we remember that the poet George Sterling, perhaps Jeffers’ closest friend at the time and a pivotal figure in his initial recognition, had unexpectedly committed suicide November 17, 1926.  The two poems Jeffers’ drafted in response to Sterling’s death and letters such as the one he wrote to Edgar Lee Masters December 30, 1926, document Jeffers’ response, mixing mourning and deeply humane meditation on Sterling, their friendship, and the meaning of his choice.  At one point in the letter to Masters, Jeffers writes,

I am as sorry as you are that he chose the artificial way of departure.  Suicide, that looks to most of us like a confession of defeat, didn’t appear so to him, but reasonable in its time and courageous.  It is of course reasonable—but life and death are not to be met reasonably.  Certainly, he was one of the most gallant and loveworthy persons we shall ever know.

I note these things because they are some of the immediate context for “Hurt Hawks.”

Here’s another bit of context.  On January 6, 1927 Jeffers wrote Albert Bender, a patron of California literature, to thank him for a gift.  In the midst of the letter he notes, “I am in a horrid pressure of work just now, having promised to finish a long story in verse by February, and it will be wonderful if I can keep the promise but I’m trying to.”  He ends the letter:

Beautiful days the boys are having now—not going to school because one of them is to have his tonsils out this month—drawing, reading, their pets (3 bantams, one parakeet, one broken-winged hawk) in the mornings, their Christmas bicycles in the afternoons, your book in the evenings.

Two final bits from the letter complete this critically unfashionable scene setting:  On February 22, Jeffers sent his editor, Donald Friede the typescript for The Women at Point Sur, which at that point included, as a kind of coda, four short poems, one titled “Hurt Hawk.”  Writing Friede again on March 3, Jeffers closes the brief letter with, “I shot the hawk two days ago, and buried him in the courtyard.”

These letters refract “Hurt Hawks” in various ways, and they suggest that the way the claim “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” functions in the poem is more complex, more subtle, and more humanly revealing than we have tended to credit.  First, these letters indicate that Jeffers wrote what became Part I of the poem separately from, and before Part II, and that Part I was originally the whole of the poem—that is, “Hurt Hawk.”  The letters also suggest that the crippled hawk was initially a relatively insignificant figure for Jeffers, one of his sons’ pets, an item in their daily menu of amusements, and certainly a relatively slight matter compared to the shock of Sterling’s suicide and the struggle to find his way through the maze of Point Sur.  And if Part I was, indeed, the poem “Hurt Hawk,” this shows that Jeffers, even as he became imaginatively entangled with the crippled hawk’s pain and debility, did not see it as his place to intervene and kill the hawk—to put it, as the phrase goes, out of its misery.  This section of the poem reads:

The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.

We can, if we choose, read these lines as spoken by an imperious voice, which stands as if above and beyond the hawk’s pain and as if as one with the “The wild God of the world” rather than with “you communal people.”  But the religious dimension of such phrases as “lame feet of salvation” and “death the redeemer” can also (and I think more rightly) suggesting that the hawk’s situation is, for the speaker, an occasion for doubt and questioning.  The hawk does not perceive in such categories as “redemption” and “freedom” and “salvation.”  These are human categories and desires, and their absence from the hawk’s experience of its pain and its world is what makes the hawk one with “The wild God of the world.”  The speaker’s metaphorical probing—which can be read, I’d suggest, as informed by Jeffers’ need to come to terms with Sterling’s death and that (as he confessed to Masters) “life and death are not to be met reasonably”—reflect his desire for assurance and reveal the extent to which his very use of such concepts as “salvation” and “redemption” (even if to reject their reality) sets him apart from “The wild God” and threatens to absorb him into the sentimental and limited perspective of the “communal people.”

Perhaps most importantly, if we are to revisualize this poem, the letters suggest that there was some lag, a matter of weeks, perhaps a month or more, between Jeffers’ writing what we know as Part I and his writing Part II.  In Part I, the speaker recognizes and tries to accept that it is the business of “death the redeemer” to “humble” the hawk and end its misery, and Part I ends with the speaker trying to align himself with the awareness of the “the wild God” that hawks have as a natural matter and which “men that are dying” may achieve.  In Part II, the speaker confesses his failure to accept these conditions.  To kill the hawk is to fail to accept the terms of being; it is to meddle.  It is to be human and to try to set right what can’t be set right.

To kill the hawk is at a fundamental level at odds with the nature of the Wild God.  It isn’t the violence of predation or accident.  It is to choose an “artificial way of departure,” as George Sterling did in committing suicide and it is to make death seem “a confession of defeat.”  It is to resort to a kind of moral and psychological calculus—the reasonable, the merciful—even though, as Jeffers had noted to Masters, “life and death are not to be met reasonably.”  To kill the hawk is both justified and a failure to accept the extent to which one cannot change the terms of existence.  It is to fulfill one’s humanity by being humane even as being humane threatens to obscure the reality of the terms of existence, the world’s Wild God, and one’s relationship to them.

In this context, the statement that opens Part II of the poem takes on a different resonance.  Rather than being an aloof dismissal of the human and a startlingly amoral assertion, it registers the speaker’s failure to witness and accept.  Rather than a didactic assertion, it becomes a dramatically inflected response, a kind of lament elicited by the situation and the speaker’s humanly understandable and humane but inadequate response, which leads to an attempt to explain and rationalize but ultimately to condemn his intrusion—or at least the incipient sentimentality that drove him to it.  The speaker, we discover, has presumed to give a “freedom,” which is not his to give and given it in the form of a “lead gift.”

I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance.  I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.  What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

At the end of the poem, the speaker is granted a glimpse of what is “Beautiful and wild” in the hawk (and thereby a glimpse of the wild God and its beauty), but this glimpse is transitory, and the speaker, like the “soft feminine feathers” of the dead hawk, remains sheathed in the embodied complexity of “reality.”

In this too brief and elliptical commentary what I’m trying to provoke is a sense that the poem does not function as an argument that might pivot on the assertion that it might be better to kill a man than a hawk and to suggest instead that it functions as a drama of consciousness that is occasioned by the pain of the actual hawk and the dilemma of how to respond.  In the poem the status of being human, and human awareness as well, are problematic and problematized.  It is, like it or not, more natural, more within the order of things, for a man to kill a man than a hawk, which is perhaps why there are laws against such killing.  But for a man to kill a hawk is in some sense both unnatural and unnecessary.  The pain of the situation draws from the speaker the recognition that he would be more natural, more within the dynamic of “the wild God of the world,” in killing a man and that his killing the hawk has a certain sentimentality to it that is akin to the blindness of “communal people” and reflects his identity as one of these “people” even as he attempts to overcome “blindness” and face up to what he can see without recourse to such notions as “redemption” and “salvation.”  It this is at least in part the case, “Hurt Hawks” is no more a poem of didactic statement than is William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” (and I hope it isn’t amiss to note here Stafford’s deep love for Jeffers’ work).  In both poems, there is loss and dismay and the temptation to give into what Stafford terms a “swerving” that is humanly understandable, perhaps psychologically necessary, but finally conflicted and problematic and a temptation to evade the reality of chance violence, death, and one’s participation in it.

In one sense, we do not need the letters to force us to read against the grain of our preconceptions and our simplistic assumptions about Jeffers to discover that the poem is dramatic rather than didactic or that the status of the “I” is problematic and the voice far from naïve or simplistically unitary, but in another sense, the long history of our misreading and our superficial reading and our dismissive reading of Jeffers that has continued for decades shows how much we do need the letters, especially if we want from Jeffers not only an archive of significant and powerful poems but also a matrix from which we can craft significant poems in the present that engage our complex relationship to nature and our being in and of it and the problematic complexities of consciousness that can both confront us with glimpses of the wild God of the world and blind us to it.

 

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