Book of a Lifetime
My choice: Robinson Jeffers' Selected Poems
The Independent, 2nd May 2008
As both a writer and an environmentalist, I have long been on a quest for writing which languages our relationship with what we like to call ‘nature’ (as if we were somehow not part of it) without recourse to agitprop, hippy sentiment or an over-dependence on science. I have searched in the usual places – Thoreau, Wordsworth, Schumacher, Lovelock – but it was the work of an almost-forgotten poet which finally gave me what I had been looking for.
Living a reclusive life on the Californian cliffs, in a stone house he built himself, Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962) wrote dark, powerful narrative verse about Mankind’s propensity for violence against nature and against ourselves. In his day, Jeffers was a star: in the early decades of the twentieth century he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, read his poems in the US Congress and was respected for the alternative he provided to the Modernist juggernaut.
Today he has been written out of poetic history. When I first came across his Selected Poems it was clear why. Jeffers set out to destroy the last genuine taboo: humanity’s own self-importance. He believed that our narcissism as a species was driving everything to destruction. Add this hard message to verse which itself follows the rhythms of nature – flows like the ocean, roars like the wind – and you have something entirely unique and, to me, utterly thrilling. Jeffers was a prophet, rejected because he brought us messages we did not want to hear.
Who, in an age of ‘consumer choice’, wants to be told that ‘it is good for man … To know that his needs and nature are no more changed in fact in ten thousand years than the beaks of eagles’? What good liberal wants to hear the poet’s angry warning issued at the height of the second world war: ‘Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy / And the dogs that talk revolution / Drunk with talk, liars and believers … / Long live freedom, and damn the ideologies’?
Towards the end of his life, Jeffers saw the crowds move away from him. His dark prophecies about the future of his country (‘this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire’) and of a world in which humanity was doomed to destroy its surroundings and eventually itself (‘I would burn my right hand in a slow fire / To change the future … I should do so foolishly’) were never going to be popular in the rising age of consumer democracy which he also predicted (‘Be happy, adjust your economics to the new abundance …’)
At last even his lonely house on the cliffs was surrounded by suburban houses. But the poet remained sanguine. The world, he wrote, ‘has all time. It knows the people are a tide / That swells and in time will ebb, and all / Their works dissolve.’ As for us: our best hope is to ‘unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’