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.

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