I have on my bookshelf Can Poetry Save the Earth: A Field Guide to Nature Poems (2010) by John Felstiner. I found it in the gift shop at the Missouri Botanical Garden, in the “ecology and activism” section. It’s the kind of book I can’t read straight through. Too much of a fixation on a theme (especially a political theme) is a bit too much to take at once; it’s better consumed in small bites.
One of those bites was about a poet named Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). In fact, references to Jeffers are sprinkled throughout the book, almost as much as those to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. (Surprisingly, Wendell Berry is mentioned only twice in almost 360 pages of text.) The chapter on Jeffers was intriguing enough to lead me to his Selected Poetry, first published in 1938 and republished in 2013.
This collection is not for the fainthearted. The first poem is “Tamar, ” a narrative poem that occupies about 60 pages of the 600-page work. This is the poem, in fact, that established Jeffers as a major poet when it was first published in 1924. If you’re familiar with the novels of William Faulkner, especially The Sound and the Fury, you will be familiar with some of the themes and ideas of “Tamar, ” themes like violence, incest, and illicit love. To be fair to Jeffers, “Tamar” came before The Sound and the Fury; if there was influence involved, then Faulkner was the one influenced.
Selected Poems contains several long poems, although none as long as “Tamar.” Long narrative poems require close reading; otherwise, you can lose the thread of the story. Most of the poems in the collection, however, are about nature, geography, topography, and the natural world. Here’s one example:
People And A Heron
A desert of weed and water-darkened stone under my western windows
The ebb lasted all afternoon,
And many pieces of humanity, men, women, and children, gathering shellfish,
Swarmed with voices of gulls the sea-breach.
At twilight they went off together, the verge was left vacant, an evening heron
Bent broad wings over the black ebb,
And left me wondering why a lone bird was dearer to me than many people.
Well: rare is dear: but also I suppose
Well reconciled with the world but not with our own natures we grudge to see them
Reflected on the world for a mirror.
As a child, Jeffers was trained in the Bible and theology; his father was a Presbyterian minister. Before he became a full-time poet, he tried his hand at a number of things. A volume of verse was published in 1916, but it was “Tamar” that established his reputation. He and his wife Una lived at Tor House in Carmel, California, and much of his poetry reflected the region.
He went into something of a poetic eclipse after World War II; his poetry was considered by some to be unpatriotic (the late 1940s and early 1950s were not a good time to be considered unpatriotic) and his philosophy seemed to advance the idea that the extinction of the human race might be a good thing. It was some time before he was discovered (or rediscovered) by the environmental movement, and today he is something of an environmental patron saint, just not as well known as Rachel Carson and John Muir. And thus his inclusion in Can Poetry Save the Earth.
Jeffers’ poetry is rugged, reflective of the terrain that figures so largely in his work. It might even be best read in a nature preserve, a national park, or someplace away from the noise of civilization, or perhaps overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Carmel.
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