Message from the President ~ September 2020

Message from the President

September 2020

 
“September again.” These two words, from the opening section of Hungerfield, do not refer to the changing of the seasons, or to the turning wheel of time. They refer, rather, to the way life stopped for Jeffers when Una died, September 1, 1950. A year after his “awful loss,” grief was unassuaged. Even the beauty of Carmel was dimmed. “The gray grass, the gray sea” and the “ink-black trees” around Tor House reflected the “gray ashes” of his distress. By literally (or poetically) wrestling with Death in Hungerfield, however, Jeffers achieved a measure of peace. At the end of the poem, his gray despair has lifted, and he finds Una in the resplendence of the natural world. “You are earth and air,” he says; “you are in the beauty of the ocean / And the great streaming triumphs of sundown.” With eyes open once again, he could see Una “alive and well” everywhere, even in “the tender young grass rejoicing / When soft rain falls all night, and little rosy-fleeced clouds float on the dawn.” “I shall be with you presently,” Jeffers says in the last sentence of the poem—soon, that is, and always.
 
I was led to these reflections in the wake of our recent webinar, when Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, Susan Shillinglaw, and I, led by Tim Hunt, discussed “The Purse-Seine.” In preparing for that discussion, I looked for net imagery in Jeffers’ poems and discovered that nets, webs, and traps pervade Jeffers’ work and provide a key to his world view. A very early reference can be found in “To Helen About Her Hair” from Flagons and Apples, where love-struck Jeffers, addressing Una as his archetypal “Helen,” describes the “splendor” of her “long, lovely, liquid, glorious” hair, and implores her to “comb it carefully, / For my soul is caught there, / Wound in the web of it.” And so it was, through all the halcyon and turbulent times to come—which might explain why Jeffers left Una’s hairbrush on her dresser after she died, as a lasting symbol of their bond.
 
Perhaps we can explore the nature of Robinson and Una’s creative partnership in a future webinar. Our first webinar appears to have been a success. Nearly a hundred people registered for the event, presented in partnership with the Tor House Foundation. A recording of the discussion can be accessed here. We are currently planning our second webinar, which will take place next month. Information about it will be provided soon.
 
The next issue of Jeffers Studies is nearing completion and should be ready for distribution before the end of the year. In an effort to expand the journal’s reach and to open it to as many voices as possible, we are hoping to commission at least two special issues, conceived and organized by guest editors. An invitation to participate in this program can be found here. Meanwhile, we welcome submissions for our regular issues. If you have an article ready for consideration, please send it to editor@robinsonjeffersassociation.org.
 
Tim Hunt has completed the initial phase of our website overhaul. Our existing website is still active, but we will soon be switching over to a new host. Once we do, we will introduce improvements to the user interface, along with some preliminary changes to the menu. We will then be ready to add content and upgrade the website’s appearance. If you would like to help with this endeavor, even if only to offer suggestions, please contact webeditor@robinsonjeffersassociation.org.
 
Our treasurer, Charlie Rodewald, is stepping down from his position later this fall. As a dependable officer of RJA, his presence (and dry wit) will be missed, but he leaves with our deepest gratitude for his years of cheerful, dedicated service.
 
The majority of Charlie’s responsibilities will be assumed by Brett Colasacco—our new, I am very pleased to announce, Executive Director. I will capitalize the title for now simply to emphasize the importance of the position, which has been vacant for nearly two years. Brett has been a member of the advisory board since 2018, so he brings a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to his new role. An example of Brett’s behind-the-scenes work is before you right now, for he prepared the electronic format of this message and handled distribution.
 
In normal years, a “Call for Papers” would be issued in September for our annual February conference. Because of ongoing uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, however, this is not a normal year and the conference has been canceled. We still hope to partner with the Tor House Foundation for the 2021 Fall Festival.
 
After wrestling with Death in Hungerfield through a dark September years ago, Jeffers continued to think about his adversary for the rest of his life, not just with Una in mind, but himself as well—as such classic poems as “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones” and “Vulture” attest. Beyond Una and himself, he also reflected on death for others close to him, and in widening circles of concern—through poems like “The Shears,” “Passenger Pigeons,” “An Extinct Vertebrate,” “End of the World,” and “Epic Stars”—for all beings, and ultimately for everything that exists. In “De Rerum Virtute,” which begins with a Hamlet-like contemplation of a human skull, Jeffers turns attention, as he always does, toward the “the immense beauty of the world” and to “the transhuman intrinsic glory” of the cosmos as a whole, where light and dark, life and death, being and non-being, are seamlessly woven together. Whatever the universe is, Jeffers says in a late untitled poem, “It flows out of mystery into mystery: there is no beginning— / How could there be?—and no end—how could there be?” All we have is here and now.
 
James Karman
Emeritus Professor
Department of English
Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities
California State University, Chico

News ~ September 2020

News from Jeffers Country
 

Welcome new members BEN BOYCHUK (Running Springs, CA), BRUCE GRANT (Scottsdale, AZ), JESSICA HUNT (Baltimore, MD), FRANK TAKACS (Carmel, CA), ARLEEN TARANTINO (Carmel, CA), and ALICE YAMANISHI (Monterey, CA).
 
An important new book project is currently underway—The Point Alma Venus Manuscripts: Preliminary Versions of “The Women at Point Sur,” edited by Tim Hunt and Rob Kafka. Stanford University Press has a projected publication date of June 2021. In addition to transcriptions of four substantial fragments that predate The Women at Point Sur, the volume will contain an introduction, chronology, and critical afterword—all of which will shed new light on Jeffers’ maturation as a poet at a key moment in his career.
 
Congratulations to Geneva Gano, former president of RJA, who has just published The Little Art Colony and US Modernism: Carmel, Provincetown, Taos (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). The book is described by the publisher as “the first to historicise and theorise the significance of the early twentieth-century little art colony as a uniquely modern social formation within a global network of modernist activity and production. Alongside a historical overview of the emergence of three critical sites of modernist activity—the little art colonies of Carmel, Provincetown and Taos—the book offers new critical readings of major authors associated with those places: Robinson Jeffers, Eugene O’Neill and D. H. Lawrence.” Click here to see the full publisher’s flyer, which includes a discount code for those interested in purchasing the book (or asking their library to do so).
 
Geneva also has an essay scheduled for publication in the autumn issue of ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment): “The Poetry of Ecological Witness: Robinson Jeffers and Camille T. Dungy.” Check ISLE’s website for an electronic version.
 
Michael Broomfield has added an important addendum to His Place for Story: Robinson Jeffers: A Descriptive Bibliography. On the Oak Knoll website, click “Author’s Addendum (PDF)” just below the description of the book and order number: oakknoll.com/pages/books/119716/michael-broomfield/his-place-for-story-robinson-jeffers-a-descriptive-bibliography.
 
The 2020 Robinson Jeffers Prize for Poetry, sponsored by the Tor House Foundation, was won by Jerl Surratt of Hudson, New York, for his poem “Twilight Time.” Judge Marie Howe also awarded Honorable Mentions to Joanne M. Clarkson, Lesléa Newman, Ellen Romano, and Jess Skyleson. The winning poems can be found at torhouse.org/prize.
 
Jeffers, H. D., and Eugene O’Neill are included in a discussion of Aeschylean drama in modern literature in an essay titled “Reception Theory, New Humanism, and T. S. Eliot” by Matthew Hiscock, published in Classical Receptions Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, July 2020, pp. 323–39: doi.org/10.1093/crj/clz033.
 
California’s Wild Coast, an updated edition of California’s Wild Edge (2015), a book of “poetry, prints, and history” by woodcut artist Tom Killion with poet Gary Snyder, has just been published by Heyday Books in Berkeley.
 
The September issue of Harper’s magazine contains a major article by University of Kentucky professor Erik Reece titled “Bright Power, Dark Peace: Robinson Jeffers and the Hope of Human Extinction.” The article can be accessed here:
harpers.org/archive/2020/09/bright-power-dark-peace-robinson-jeffers-tor-house.
 
The San Francisco Chronicle published a feature article on Jeffers by California journalist Scott Anderson in its Sunday, September 13, edition. The article is available on the Chronicle website: datebook.sfchronicle.com/books/tech-trends-and-a-captivating-destination-help-california-rediscover-its-greatest-nature-writer.
 
Because of the pandemic quarantine that was imposed in March, the Philadelphia Orchestra canceled the concert that was to include the premiere of Jessica Hunt’s Climb. A new concert, which puts Jessica in company with Mozart and Brahms (instead of Beethoven) is now scheduled for October 15: philorch.org/performances/our-season/events-and-tickets/fall-2020-season/axmozart-piano-concerto-no-14. When not teaching as a professor at the Peabody Institute, Jessica serves as RJA’s social media coordinator.
 
“A Big Sur Sojourn: Scouting the Rugged Sea-Meets-Landscape that Fired the Imagination of So Many Writers,” a story by Elliott Almond with photographs by Karl Mondon, was published in the Bay Area Mercury News, May 17, 2020: pressreader.com/usa/the-mercury-news/20200517/284288187216697.
 
A previously unrecorded review of Be Angry at the Sun surfaced recently. Written by A. M. Klein in 1942 and originally published in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, the review is titled “Robinson Jeffers—Proto-Fascist?” Acknowledging Jeffers’ genius as a poet, Klein nevertheless wonders why he wrote about Hitler the way he did in “The Bowl of Blood” and other poems. The review is included in Klein’s Literary Essays and Reviews, edited by Usher Caplan and M. W. Steinberg (University of Toronto, 1987). It can also be found in the journal itself, available at Google News. See page 4 of the February 6, 1942 issue: news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2Q0AJrNhS-QC.

Message from the President ~ May 2020

Readers of Robinson Jeffers are accustomed to finding words of wisdom in his letters and poetry that address issues of timely concern—even issues as far from Jeffers himself as the outbreak of Covid-19. The word “pestilence,” for instance, appears in Passenger Pigeons, a poem about mass extinction and humanity’s false belief in its own invulnerability. The word “plague” shows up in There is this infinite energy, a poem that urges us to see beauty in everything. And the word “virus” is featured in The unformed volcanic earth, a poem that describes the first major stage of life as a virus floating on the surface of a primal ocean. These, and any number of other poems (we all have our favorites), are worth rereading as we ponder the Hydra-like crisis we’re facing.

Before the pandemic arrived, an RJA ad hoc committee was working out the details of a partnership with the Tor House Foundation, whereby RJA scholars would provide most of the program material for the 2020 THF Fall Festival. If the partnership proved successful, the RJA membership would then consider the possibility of dropping its annual February conference and joining THF each October instead. Due to the ongoing need for social distancing, however, this year’s Fall Festival has been canceled. Since it is uncertain when it will be safe for people to socialize as usual, all plans are currently on hold. We will keep you informed of developments as they occur.

Fortunately, other RJA initiatives are untouched by the pandemic. The next issue of Jeffers Studies, for instance, is already in a preliminary phase of production. Also, a thorough revision of our website is nearing completion. Tim Hunt, with the assistance of Mick McAllister, has steered the project through a number of challenges, including a move to a more dependable host and the creation of a whole new set of operating protocols. In order to improve the look of the website, new graphics will be added soon.

Meanwhile, before life returns to “normal”—which means more human activity—we can all enjoy, so long as we stay healthy, the quiet city streets, cleaner air, and slower pace of life. Such immediate and apparent changes point to a reservoir of strength in nature. As Jeffers says in Metamorphoses, “the beauty of earth is a resilient wonderful thing, / It dies and lives, it is capable of many resurrections.” For an example, Jeffers describes a canyon where redwoods once stood in “hushed and holy” grandeur. Having been clear-cut for lumber, the canyon looks utterly cursed; only “Grim stumps remain, and naked raw earth torn by tractors.” But come back in two or three years, Jeffers says, “and see the vines hiding the stumps, the flowering bushes and vines; and here is the holy grass again.”

The same sort of recovery seems to be occurring now—after just a few weeks of quarantine, not years. In California, where I live, signs of it are everywhere. For the first time ever, my wife and I saw a Western Bluebird in our front yard. We’ve heard of sightings in the farmlands and orchards near the Sacramento River, but not in town. When it flew from an oak tree, the flash of brilliant blue was almost blinding. A friend of ours who lost his home in the nearby Camp Fire eighteen months ago (the fire that destroyed the entire town of Paradise, killed 85 people, and blackened an area the size of Chicago), returned to rebuild his life there. With far fewer people now living even quieter lives, nature is naturing. A black bear and her cub rambled through “his” property a couple of weeks ago; a few days later, he saw a mountain lion lounging in a nearby tree. In Yosemite and other wild places where the tourist population has suddenly disappeared, the old order is returning, with animals roaming the park freely. Come back in a million years, Jeffers says in Metamorphoses, “My God the place is beautiful! green sun-trap between the mountains, / The flashing stream sings in the light.”

A long view is one thing, but dealing with an immediate crisis is another. Fortunately, Jeffers has something to say about that, too. In The Poet in a Democracy, his 1941 address delivered at the Library of Congress on the eve of World War II, Jeffers reflects on the inevitable breakdown of civilization. “When at length it wears out and crumbles under us,” he says, “we can ‘plot the agony of resurrection’ and make a new age. Our business is to live. To live through . . . anything. And to keep alive, through everything, our ideal values, of freedom and courage, and mercy and tolerance.”

James Karman
Emeritus Professor
Department of English
Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities
California State University, Chico