Robinson Jeffers: Poetry and Place

This weekend should be great and wonderful and long because it's already started and it's only Thursday. Since I suddenly have all this extra time and no freelance work (!!!), it will be a poetry weekend of revision, submission and reading.

On Saturday, October 10, at 4 p.m, at El Alisal/Lummis Home (200 E Ave 43, Los Angeles, CA 90031), I will be taking part in a tribute to the California poet Robinson Jeffers. The featured readers are Suzanne Lummis, Cecilia Woloch, Charles Harper Webb and actress Dale Raoul (who happens to play a part in the HBO series "True Blood"). The poets will read a combination of their own poems and the poems of Jeffers. I will read just one of each.

In 2006, when I visited the poet's home, Tor House, I experienced a kind of poetic baptism. I had not read anything by Jeffers, but I had a clear memory of seeing his long-lined poems in a book that Wanda Coleman showed to me (that he is one of her beloved poets might at first come as a surprise, but if you've ever heard her read, it's not so hard to make the connection). The visit to Tor House cured me of my ignorance.

We were received by a gentle man with a longish black beard, who guided us through the home, garden and up to the top of the stone tower the poet built for his wife, all the while reciting poems that Jeffers had written there.

Jeffers and his wife had dreamed of moving to the English coast, but WWI put those plans to rest. Instead, they chose the Carmel coast, where they would live until their dying day. Now the area around Tor House is packed to the gills with million dollar homes, but the integrity and simplicity of Tor House remains. It's possible to imagine what it must have been like for Jeffers and his wife Una to settle there--the wild beauty, rocky cliffs, ocean blasts, looming mountain and birds of prey he loved so well.

For Jeffers, the house was a labor of love. Everywhere in and around it you can sense his presence. The place has a feeling of being lived in, loved in and loved (and it was). Next to the main house stands Hawk Tower, which Jeffers single-handedly built for his wife. Throughout the home there are personal details: a special stone set into a doorway, a favorite line from a poem engraved onto a ceiling beam. Outside in the garden, we visited the grave of Haig, the family's beloved bulldog, after whom Jeffer's penned the heartbreaking, "The House-Dog's Grave."

Place and poetry. Poetry and place. These two are so often married.

For me, Jeffers is almost a mythic figure. He did what I dream of... I often wonder: Is there no place left like this? At times, his poetry can be heavy-handed, but the solidness of it and its seriousness, and its lack of frills, is often the touchstone I need as a poet to set me back on track. His is the kind of poetry you want to stay up late at night reading in bed with your lover while drinking red wine. It's gratifying to see that there is a sort of Jeffers Renaissance taking place (Jeffers was among the minority who were opposed to US participation in WWII, after which his popularity as a poet declined and never recovered). One indication of this renewed interest is that his poetry was selected to be part of the NEA's The Big Read (Saturday's reading is an offshoot of this project). Hopefully, anthologists everywhere will begin to include his work in their hunky books, where it rightly belongs.

On Saturday, I'm thinking of reading "Birds," since it's less famous and goes wild with alliterative music. But I'm also considering "To the Rock that will be a Cornerstone of the House," to which my poem has a thematic connection. Either way, it will be a great day at El Alisal, another stone structure that will recall the beauty of Jeffers' Tor House.


Happiness from 1-5

I feel so happy today for a number of reasons. I figure, I better write it out before it flutters away, so I'm using the last ten minutes of my lunch break to compose this post.

First off, it's early fall--the sun is shining and the air is cool. Secondly, I can finally wear the meadow-green wool sweater I bought in Ireland. Thirdly, I am done reading manuscripts for the writing contest. Fourthly, I slept in every day this past weekend and, by the time I had energy to do anything, I was forced to spend copious amounts of time on the couch watching DVDs because my husband was working, and I had no other plans. It was boring, but now I feel good! Fifthly and lastly, I just read the first chapter of Nicholson Baker's new novel, The Anthologist, which is why I'm writing like this.

Baker has done Introduction to Creative Writing teachers across the country an enormous favor. The first chapter concerns itself with the main character and narrator Paul Chowder's musings on meter, and his argument that iambic tetrameter rather than pentameter (aka blank verse) is the true foundation of English poetry. Now, what I just described probably caused certain parts of your brain to cease functioning, but the way Chowder/Baker talks about it is just marvelous:

"People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They're going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because 'pent' is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting."

I can't wait to read the rest. And the next time I teach an Introduction to Creative Writing class, I'll be assigning Chapter 1, at the very least.


Campion Gets Keats

This evening, I went to see Jane Campion's new film "Bright Star," about the romance between John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. The film takes its title from Keats' sonnet of the same name, which many believe was inspired by Ms. Brawne.

I have long been an admirer of Jane Campion's films (and of John Keats' poetry). One of my favorites, "Holy Smoke," starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, concerns itself with spiritual enlightenment and mind control. It is an intense, sexy, layered, complex work--and it made me a devotee of Campion.

Campion is both writer and director. She also has a background as a painter and, throughout her films, you see this manifested. "Bright Star" is no exception. The film is a moving painting. In the scenes with Fanny and her family, all is light, clean and fresh. Fanny has an interest in fashion, so there is a focus on fabrics and the way light shines through them. In the scenes with the poets, the colors are brown and navy; there is a dusty, musty look to everything; and the rooms are ill-lit. When Keats' friend Mr. Brown asks Fanny what color his eyes are, she describes them as "suitcase brown."

"Bright Star" is the classic tragic love story, and Campion doesn't try to make it anything other than that. A less sensitive filmmaker might have cheesed things up a bit, cluttered the film with romantic inanities, glossed over the emotional depths and trivialized the poetry. But in the expert hands of Campion, none of this happens. She highlights the best bits, especially the moment when Keats compares the experience of reading a poem to that of jumping into a lake; with elegant restraint she convincingly shows the bond of love and affection that forms between Keats and Brawne; and, without it seeming forced or awkward, interweaves Keats' poetry seamlessly into the film.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening where the filmmaker was present for a Q&A. She mentioned that when she turned 50, she decided something needed to be done about her problem with poetry. Now, I'm not sure exactly what she meant by this, but I gathered that she had the same experience many people have of being taught poetry in school and never feeling like she "got" it. As an accomplished artist herself, I would imagine she felt guilty for not being more in touch with this under-appreciated art form. She decided a good approach for her would be to set about reading poetry in the context of the poet's life. She began with Andrew Motion's biography Keats, which led to her discovery of the love letters between Keats and Fanny Brawne, which inspired the screenplay.

Hats off to Campion for taking on the challenge of poetry. I hope her film will inspire others who are fearful of the medium to take the plunge.



It never ceases to surprise me how many poets, for no apparent reason, don't use punctuation. There are cases where this works wonders (thank you ee cummings), but for the most part, I appreciate punctuation and miss it when it's gone.

I suppose there's the potential that a poem will look cleaner or more modern when words float freely and unencumbered on the page, but it can also look incomplete, like a cat with a piece of its ear missing or a lizard without its tail.

Punctuation is one of the most valuable tools I have as a poet. One could argue that no punctuation is itself a form of punctuation. Nevertheless, I wouldn't throw it away lightly. I've heard of a Japanese building style (and a good joke) that's all tongue and groove, but you have to be a precision craftsperson to achieve lasting results with this technique. These people were building shrines. They invented zen.

How do I love punctuation? Let me count the ways:
  1. Punctuation allows me to pause mid-sentence, take a breath, soutenu and keep on dancing without having to break my line.
  2. I can say "Merde," and everyone knows it.
  3. Fragments? No problem.
  4. My favorite punctuation mark—the emdash, baby.
  5. I can even invent my own whim-of-the-moment adjective.
  6. Or I could go on in the fashion of Marcel Proust, except instead of talking about tea and madeleines, little girls and toy boats (wait, maybe that was a different book), I'd rant for at least four pages with no period in sight about when to capitalize the first word of a phrase after a colon (: You must change your life) and when not to (: your money or your life), although there are poets who eschew the colon and its poor cousin the semicolon entirely; but I wouldn't want to bore you, especially since no discussion of punctuation could be as revelatory as a passage by Proust—if you can just make it through to the end.
  7. Punctuation is there to help you throw words around the ring, fashion them into intricate coils, breathe air and light into them, ball them up into tight wads with which to pellet the reader or spin them into seductive silks.
Use it sparingly or with abandon. But if you're tempted to drop punctuation altogether, please be sure it's for a very good reason.