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A Black Sheep Joins the Fold

Stanford Press champions a poet once shunned in academe.

Tony Sollecito

LAST WORD: The fifth book of Jeffers's poems arrives this fall.

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By Cynthia Haven

Robinson Jeffers. Never heard of him? You’re not alone, and it’s rather a wonder. One of the bestselling American poets ever, Jeffers (1887-1962) once ranked alongside T.S. Eliot. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1932, and The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers was reprinted so many times that Random House lost track of sales. Tor House, the stunning, invincible granite cottage Jeffers built with his own hands in Carmel, Calif., remains the focus of literary pilgrimage.

Yet, as California poet Dana Gioia, ’73, MBA ’77, wrote in his essay “Strong Counsel,” “No major American poet has been treated worse by posterity than Robinson Jeffers.” Jeffers’s pessimism about the human race didn’t sit well during the dark Depression years, and his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II turned respect to ridicule. His exaltation of nature above humankind also ran counter to 20th-century sensibilities. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he wrote.

Jeffers retained many fans nevertheless. Unlike most contemporary American poetry, his legacy has been kept alive by individuals who love his work, not by academia’s class-assignment sales. Such luminaries as Stanford’s late Yvor Winters, who in 1947 declared Jeffers’s work “unmastered and self-inflicted hysteria,” effectively banned him from the curriculum. There was never an authoritative, scholarly edition of California’s premier bard—until Stanford University Press came to the rescue.

In the 1980s, the press launched a 20-year project to publish Jeffers’s entire oeuvre. This fall, the fifth and final volume of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers will be released. Three other books cap the project: Stones of the Sur (2001), a pairing of Morley Baer’s photography and Jeffers’s verse; a new Selected Poetry (2001); and The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers (2003).

Critical acclaim has been resounding. “Jeffers is the last of the major poets of his generation—Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot—to get his collected poems,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Now that the job is at hand, it is done very well.” The Los Angeles Times exulted: “It is hard to see how anyone can read Jeffers’s best poetry and not perceive greatness.” The San Francisco Chronicle praised the volumes for establishing “the verse legacy of a poet who looked on all things with the eyes of eternity.”

Eternity to Jeffers was rock and sea and hawk and trees. With his wife, Una, who endured a scandalous divorce to marry him, he moved to Carmel in 1914. Jeffers wrote incessantly: piercing lyrics of nature and prophecy, and obsessive narratives—combining violence, illicit sex and the quest for spiritual freedom—that created a popular sensation. In their cottage by the sea, he and Una raised twin sons and grew increasingly reclusive. “One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men,” he wrote. And so he promulgated his theory of “inhumanism”: “We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must inhumanize our views a little, and become confident /As the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

For some, the philosophy was a lodestone. Tim Hunt, a professor of English at Washington State who edited Stanford’s Collected Poetry and Selected Poetry, first heard of Jeffers as a high school student in Sonoma, Calif. Hunt says his English teacher had lived in Carmel and told the class, “A lot of people think Frost is the great American poet—some of us think it is Jeffers.”

“The name stuck,” recalls Hunt. Later, in a Sebastopol, Calif., library, he thumbed through a volume of Jeffers. “Whatever it was, it was not what they told me poetry was. What struck me was a lack of pose. He was writing about real things, because he felt deeply about them. It wasn’t a poetry of irony and indirection. It startled me into being curious enough to read more.”

Hunt hoped to study Jeffers at Cornell, but found “he didn’t exist, as far as the academy was concerned. I wondered if the academy was off the mark or I was off the mark. I studied literature to understand that disparity—my experience of Jeffers, and the canon.”

James Karman, professor of English at Cal State-Chico and editor of Stones of the Sur and Collected Letters, was similarly impressed by Jeffers. He recalls reading “Shine, Perishing Republic” in the volatile 1960s. “That poem addresses the spirit of protest—essential, but sometimes futile. Our generation didn’t accept the futility of protest. In those more somber moments, he extended the reach of my own mind and helped me put events in a larger historical context.”

At Stanford University Press, the project’s beginnings were more incidental: “In truth, it was an over-the-transom submission,” quips Helen Tartar, the humanities editor who has managed the project. Yet she and Norris Pope, ’68, then assistant director (and now editorial director), were eager when “the Jeffers people”—friends, fans, readers and family—approached the press to publish the collected works. “A major authoritative edition struck me as immensely valuable, and just what university presses are meant to publish,” says Pope.

The late George White, founding president of the Tor House Foundation, spearheaded the proposal. Partway through a mid-1980s Jeffers Festival in Carmel, he had taken foundation members and visiting young scholars to a local restaurant. “George looked around the table,” Hunt recalls. “He said, ‘The centennial [of Jeffers’s birth] is in two years. We need a collected poetry, a good critical biography, a new selected letters—who’s going to do what?’” Karman says both he and Hunt left with a sense of mission.

Gradually, the Stanford Press was drawn to the task. Tartar became friends with the late Lee Jeffers, widow of Jeffers’s son Donnan, and came to know something of Jeffers’s spirit. She recalls a cold January evening at Tor House, discussing Jeffers in front of the kitchen fire. Tartar found a branch to rescue a panicky ant she saw scrambling along a log that had been thrown on the fire. Lee remarked that such gestures were typical of Jeffers. “‘He couldn’t bear suffering—the contemplation of suffering was terrible for him,’” Tartar recalls Lee telling her.

As the project gathered momentum, it drew some of the finest California talent. Adrian Wilson volunteered to design the five-volume Collected Poetry. “This was the last design of Wilson, who was a very, very distinguished book designer,” says Pope. “Purely typographically, it is the handsomest of the books Stanford has ever produced.” Wilson died before the first volume appeared in 1988.

The late Morley Baer, a noted California landscape and architectural photographer and longtime Jeffers devotee, approached Karman about pairing his work with verses from Jeffers.

“He told me once that he had become convinced that he finally understood what Jeffers meant when he said stones are alive,” says Karman. “Jeffers went so far as to say they were conscious, in some way. It is difficult to imagine what kind of consciousness a stone would have—but Jeffers and Baer went some way to imagine just that,” he says, citing Jeffers’s belief that “if you know stone, in a fundamental way, you know God.”

Pope, a native Californian, had a personal link to the Baer project, which resulted in Stones of the Sur. While finishing his Oxford doctorate in Berkeley, he had served as Baer’s assistant. “It was a revelation to watch a master view-camera photographer work,” he says.

It is hard to tell whether Stanford’s involvement started a Jeffers revival or capitalized on one already under way. Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, PhD ’76, edited the popular Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems in 1987. Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz championed Jeffers in Polish even as he decried his inhumanism, writing in the essay “Carmel”: “He bet everything, drew his own conclusions in voluntary isolation, making no attempt to please anyone, holding his own. . . . Jeffers’s work resembles nothing else produced in this century. . . .”

But certainly the Stanford series helped reawaken interest. “They’ve taken Jeffers seriously as one of America’s greatest poets —and as a California poet, they’ve given him the attention he deserves,” says Karman.

Hunt is equally effusive. “When a major university press puts its prestige on the line, which Stanford has done, and produces the volumes in the way they have done, it encourages people to take a new look. It brings people back. This edition makes the poetry much more available than it has been for years. It’s not my editing—it’s Stanford.”

Cynthia Haven writes regularly on arts and letters for Stanford.

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