Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Review of Robinson Jeffers' poetry

Robinson Jeffers thinks of life like a kid who can’t play basketball, and now wants to ban the sport. He’s a man constantly dreaming of death, but in a twist of irony, he didn’t kill himself or completely stop eating. I guess death isn’t so fun when you can’t dream about it.

Jeffers’ Freudian “Death Drive” must have been in overdrive. Even Schopenhauer would have talked Jeffers back from the ledge. Jeffers poetry suffers from a breathtakingly mellifluous denial of the human situation. While Jeffers does not recognize any moral depravity in animal or vegetable, and sometimes even excusing all humans from immorality—not ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but beings who “mean well”—he is quick to want to sweep all being and matter to the big trash bin of oblivion. He has apparently had enough, and he’s decided the rest of us has had enough too. I think it’s a good thing the ‘fire project’ button for the universe wasn’t within arms-reach of him.

Though he was reportedly interested in Nietzsche’s writings, the mood of his poems are a far cry from the life-affirming, life-surpassing things that Nietzsche’s works were. Nietzsche himself would probably have considered Jeffers a downer…which Nietzsche most definitely was NOT. Nietzsche condemned whiny, world-weary souls (religious or otherwise) who looked too far backwards or forwards, and begged for the punishment of life to be over.

“Weariness, which seeketh to get to the ultimate with one leap, with a death-leap; a poor ignorant weariness, unwilling even to will any longer: that created all God’s and backworlds” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

Nietzsche had no time for people who just wanted quiet lives and quiet deaths, and he didn’t believe the point of existence was to avoid struggle; rather, he conceived of life as a realm where joy can be so rich and profound that it “thirsts for woe.”

“O man! Take heed!
What saith deep midnight's voice indeed?
I slept my sleep—
From deepest dream I've woke and plead:—
The world is deep,
And deeper than the day could read.
Deep is its woe—
Joy—deeper still than grief can be:
Woe saith: Hence! Go!
But joys all want eternity—
Want deep profound eternity!" (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Even in the tradition of the 20th century existentialists, a nihilist like Jeffers—for that’s what he appears to be—would fall into the category of a denial of freedom and a flight from self and existence. It’s basically self-rejection.
“All in a simple innocence I strove
To give myself away to any power…
I failed, I could not give away my soul.” (The Truce And The Peace)

He’s what Simone de Beauvoir, the French activist and philosopher, would have described as a “sub-man” who has an increasingly destructive bent against one’s own existence that stems from the deep anguish brought on by the responsibility to live and create new values. Not sure if he would agree, but he also didn’t have to READ HIS OWN BOOKS LIKE I DO! Okay….I just totally sub-manned it. Sorry. Ahem. I’m back.

Let’s face it, Jeffers wanted to die. He had clearly euphemized death into some kind of euphoric peace, which I don’t understand since peace is a state of mind and being, and not a state of mindlessness and beinglessness.

“[Death] said, Come home, here is an end, a goal
Victory you know requires
Force to sustain victory, the burden is never lightened, but final defeat
Buys peace. (Woodrow Wilson)

So, peace in the womb and peace in the grave is what you always wanted? Making sure I understand here: it’s what you always wanted as long as you were able to want, which you are only capable of in this life, so you’re basically using your life to bitch about life? So, just die then! What’s with all the poetry? Why write about hating to be alive to write? really is worth it in some way, and whining just helps people blow off steam.

I’m a big believer with the other existentialist thinkers that nothingness proceeds (comes after!) being and “plays on the surface of being.” Even the very idea of ‘nothing’ is only a maneuver of consciousness to separate out oneself from matter and think of self as ‘not that’. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “Human reality secretes a nothingness which isolates itself…and this is called freedom.”

Imagine, if you will, the process of a consciousness. A person is born, and their consciousness, or self, begins to distinguish itself from its environment. Then it begins to account for ‘space between’ as a metric for that distinction. For some people, this consciousness, this subjectivity, that is now independent of the objective world may begin to feel so alone and isolated that it wishes everything back ‘into the box’. It begins to wish even for an identity that is the empty space itself between, before, and after self and world, and neither subject or object!

“Surely you never have dreamed the incredible depths were prologue and epilogue merely
To the surface play in the sun, the instant of life, what is called life?
I fancy that silence is the thing, this noise a found word for it.” (The Treasure)

However, HOWEVER, besides sounding like complete nonsense—which, I admit, the best of any of our ideas sound like sometimes—it is an expression of pain and loneliness; and I suppose that THAT always is valid, no matter how it is expressed. It’s sad that some people feel that way so much of the time, but pity from others, or worse—self-pity—will only make things worse. Get out of there Jeffers! She’s gonna blow!

But one thing gives me hope: Jeffers didn’t commit suicide. He kept writing and speaking and living. He must have liked life more than he admitted. Maybe his words were, as author Paul Tillich liked to put it, “a courageous expression of decay” which tacitly affirmed self even while seeming to disavow his life.

So, maybe I’ve been a little hard on him. Maybe I heard too much about him protesting the U.S.’s involvement in WWII. Maybe, just maybe, he still loved life, even if he allegedly loved death a little bit more.

“And I and my people, we are willing to love the four-score years
Heartily; but as a sailor loves the sea, when the helm is for harbor.” (Night)

And, to be honest, there were some pretty awesomely awesome lines in his collected poetry that left me stunned with their beauty. Even some of the lines which I hated for the philosophy, I loved for the gorgeous way they were expressed, and the way I was challenged to look outside my normal perspective and feel with others.

And, if I’m being honest and not just biting his head off for fun—which I do to the delight of some of my more blood-thirsty readers—even some of his odes-to-death were beautiful in that they helped me not fear death so much. I happen to think that a limited will-to-death may be an authentic coping mechanism of over-exposure and reinterpretation of the thing we fear most—death—and may even be healthy to a certain extent. As another example of what I liked, I lift up the poem “Mediation On Saviors” in which he is critical of what people look for in their heroes, “This people has not outgrown blood-sacrifice, one must writhe on the high cross to catch at their memories.” Good stuff there, no doubt.

All said, I do think Jeffers fell face forward into his morning bowl of death-soup and drowned his will to live, but he left a few helpful things behind. And for that, I’m thankful.

Best poems:
The Truce And The Peace
Shine Perishing Republic
The Treasure
Woodrow Wilson

The Old Man’s Dream After He Died

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