A Poet in the Wilderness
‘Jeffers at Point Sur’ celebrates the man in his milieu.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
If the best way to learn a language is immersion, then the same must hold true for experiencing poetry. This Friday the public is invited to become immersed in the work of Robinson Jeffers on one of the great, craggy perches of the coast that inspired his work.
“Robinson Jeffers at Point Sur” is a unique opportunity to explore one of the coast’s most scenic landmarks while enjoying the great man’s wild and visionary verse read by four highly regarded local poets. The evening includes a tour of the lighthouse, refreshments and a poetry reading in the Barn by Frances Payne Adler, Diana Garcia, Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts and George Lober. The evening ends with a moonlit walk back to the parking lot.
Ruchowitz-Roberts, the Carmel poet and Tor House Foundation vice president who organized the event, timed the reading to coincide with the natural cycle, a touch that Jeffers would have no doubt appreciated.
“We arrive in time to watch the sunset,” he says. “After the reading, at around 9:30 or 9:45pm, we will be treated to a full moonrise over the ridge as we walk back down to the cars.”
It was just such a moonrise that inspired Ruchowitz-Roberts to coordinate the reading.
“My wife and I went on a moonlight tour during the eclipse last year and as we were standing up there watching the moon rise over Piedra Blanca, we thought it was just a great place for a poetry reading,” he says.
A great place, but also a wild and untamed one. Participants got an authentic and bracing sense of “the wild sea-fragrance of the wind” last year when winds at the Point Sur lighthouse were clocked at 59mph.
“It was great for Jeffers because you really get a sense of the wildness of the coast that he writes about in so many of his poems,” Ruchowitz-Roberts says.
In earlier works, like “Roan Stallion” and “Tamar,” Jeffers described modern society as being too self-centered and too indifferent to the “astonishing beauty of things.” He referred to humanity as a mold we needed to break out of. Much of his later work explored the quest to shed human egocentrism and develop a relationship with the divine beauty of nature. His work is also populated by moments of tragic intimacy with the landscape’s cold, wild violence.
Most of these poems were set in Big Sur; lighthouses appear often, and perhaps his most ambitious poem, “The Women at Point Sur,” is set in the immediate area of Friday’s reading.
To illustrate his belief that modern society had evolved a wildly self-centered view of the world, his poems use incidents of rape, incest, or adultery to express moral despair. “The Women at Point Sur,” for instance, deals with a minister driven mad by his desires.
Hearing the work read at Point Sur is to understand Jeffers’ passionate belief that we must learn to have greater respect for the rest of creation.
It is easy to see why his work resonates with deep ecologists. Jeffers work was before its time in describing a holistic ecosystem where humans were integrated rather than at its center. It served to inspire revolutionary biologists like Ed Ricketts and writers like John Steinbeck.
The political undercurrent of his work also remains highly relevant. Despite passionately-avowed patriotism (Jeffers flew a US flag at his Carmel home Tor House and served as a coastal spotter during World War II), Jeffers was critical of US involvement in the war.
“Jeffers is very current,” Ruchowitz-Roberts says. “After 9/11, almost every person familiar with Jeffers went back to read ‘The Purse-Seine.’ It was as if he was speaking to everyone today.”
Yet his fearless political stance against a popular war cost him. According to Ruchowitz-Roberts, his 1948 poem “The Double-Ax” was published with a disclaimer from his publisher and drew a great deal of criticism. Many critics say it contributed to the decades-long period of obscurity Jeffers’ work suffered after he lost his general audience.
Now he’s getting more recognition. Stanford recently came out with a five-volume collected works edited by Tim Hunt and a selected edition called Wild God of the World. Yet Ruchowitz-Roberts is unsure whether Jeffers will ever truly get his due from the academic establishment.
“It’s hard to say whether he will ever receive that recognition,” he says. “Because his landscape and poetry are so alien to the East Coast. They have a hard time getting a sense of what he’s writing about.”
Robinson Jeffers at Point Sur takes place Friday from 6pm to 10pm. $20. Advance reservations are required and participants are urged to dress warmly, bring a flashlight and arrive on time. For more information, visit torhouse.org or call 624-1813.