Teaching Robinson Jeffers in Israel

Hadas Marcus holds a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from UCLA in contemporary Latin American, English and Hebrew poetry. She has taught English for Academic Purposes at Tel Aviv University since 1981, after immigrating to Israel from California. She has a keen interest in environmental conservation, particularly wildlife. She also freelances as an editor, translator, and illustrator for nature publications. Her goal is to instill concern about anthropogenic (human-caused) global problems related to climate change and loss of natural resources. Besides poetry, Ms. Marcus enjoys delving into literature connected to biodiversity and species preservation. She has long dealt with the writing of E.O. Wilson, Rachel Carson, and others.

After discovering Jeffers through the redesigned RJA website, Hadas Marcus became a member of RJA. She gave a paper titled “Voices from the Cliffs of Big Sur and Isla Negra: Jeffers and Neruda in the Natural Realm” at the 17th annual conference in Long Beach, 2011.

Teaching Robinson Jeffers in Israel
My father, who is now 89 years old, often reminds me to teach my students poetry, which he dearly loves to recite. My participation in the 2011 RJA conference left me inspired and motivated to share some of Robinson Jeffers’s verse with my students in Israel, who are college freshmen taking required courses in English for Academic Purposes at Tel Aviv University. The advanced English courses are categorized by academic areas of study, and although somewhat out of the ordinary I introduced a couple of Jeffers’s poems to three classes of Biology, Exact Sciences, and Nursing students. Our syllabus centers almost exclusively on academic articles from professional journals and college textbooks, but every so often more literary texts on related themes are introduced.

In my Advanced English courses there is an emphasis on bioethical dilemmas, and “Hurt Hawks” ties in beautifully with this topic. For the Exact Science students, for whom I often bring in texts related to environmental issues, I also assigned Jeffers’s poems “Science,” “The Answer,” “Carmel Point,” and “Star Swirls,” although we only had time to study a couple in class.

In these courses at Tel Aviv University, teachers work with multicultural groups of students comprised mostly of secular, but also religious, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Despite the heterogeneity of the classes, they all study together towards their first degree. Most of these students have done compulsory military service and so they are older than their American counterparts. Whereas the academic English skills of the nursing students are quite weak, the biology and chemistry/physics/math students tend to be much stronger in terms of their level of comprehension and critical thinking skills. As science majors and non-native speakers, they may have been exposed to poetry in English only once or twice in high school (for example, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is popular). I therefore decided to keep a lesson about Jeffers’s poetry extremely simple, without getting into too many poetic terms or literary allusions.
Because I wanted the experience to be fresh, I read the poems out loud as I verbally translated almost every word into Hebrew. Some terms like coyote, an animal which is not in the Middle East, or talons, had to be explained to them.

In order to make “Hurt Hawks” visually dramatic for them, I decided that the last twenty minutes of The English Patient (with Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas) would be an apt comparison.

Watching Fiennes as the protagonist reminded me of Robinson Jeffers (and also of a bird of prey), especially in the character of Count Lazslo de Almasy. He is a brilliant polyglot and a daring geographer– aloof, aristocratic, pessimistic, and intellectual– who scribbles poetic notes in his journal. He is physically impressive, severe, tall, and lean, with an aquiline face and sternly chiseled features. A man passionately in love with a married woman, he loves to explore the open territory laid before him by “the wild God of the world.” Both Jeffers and Fiennes have an air of “implacable arrogance” in their proud demeanor. And both of these handsome men also bear a striking resemblance to a hawk or eagle, with their beak-like noses, deep-set eyes and prominent brows, their graceful power and agility, their deliberate gazes and “intrepid readiness.” This analogy mirrors Jeffers’s theory of Inhumanism and the close link between all creatures, that there should be less of a distinction made between the dominance hierarchy of Man and (non-human) Animal.

In class, I allowed the discussion of this poem to develop and flow spontaneously as we interpreted the lines. In my nursing class, we talked about quality of life vs. the desire for longevity. We noted that the degrees of “heroic” medical intervention, which take place in hospital settings, are often at the expense of the best interest and dignity of the patient. The nursing students felt very sorry for the mutilated red-tailed hawk in the poem and, despite their diverse backgrounds and dissimilar belief systems, all agreed that it was appropriate and much more humane to put it out of its pitiful misery by shooting it, by giving it “the lead gift in the twilight.” The students felt that this seemingly violent act was, in fact, a gesture of unselfish compassion and love. A discussion began about euthanasia and assisted suicide, that it is legal in some places and forbidden in others, and that most religions frown upon it. I then connected this to the final scene in The English Patient in which the nurse Hana respects the wishes of horribly-burnt Count Lazlo Almasy. He silently indicated that he wanted her to help him die by giving him a deliberate overdose of injected morphine. Like Jeffers who had “fed [the hawk] six weeks” without being able to rehabilitate him, Hana had cared so lovingly for Almasy who “had nothing left but unable misery” and was “too shattered for mending.” Only “death the redeemer” could offer him salvation, and like the injured hawk, he asks for it, not with humility and “not like a beggar,” but by pushing the small glass vials of morphine at her. Grateful for her compliance, he asks her to read to him until he sleeps, and as he dies, he “remembers freedom” and soars like a hawk in a small glider plane over the vast desert wilderness he loved. In a previous scene with his lover Katherine, Lazlo claimed that what he hated most was ownership, to be owned by someone. Lazlo treasured freedom about all else—“the fierce rush”—and, like the hawk dragging its useless wing, had no desire to live without the ability to navigate the heavens, “no more to use the sky forever.”

In “Hurt Hawks,” the narrator believed that the hawk could not have a life worth living in captivity and chose to be merciful (unlike “the wild God of the world” who does not spare the arrogant) by ending its suffering. The students responded that this was very sad indeed, but that in confronting life-and-death decisions such as these, mercy killing may be the kindest thing to do.

Many of the students had comments about the lines “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a hawk than a man” and “incapacity is worse” to the strong. Students remarked that the former line echoes the nobler qualities of wildlife versus human corruption and evil, and some seem surprised and even repulsed by this notion. About the latter line, students were in agreement. They believed that strong young individuals (like soldiers) suffer more when they are injured and have more difficulty in accepting their fate. Due to the unfortunate reality of this region, a number of students knew a young person who had been killed or badly wounded, and they responded on a deep emotional level to this line.

Other poems such as “Science” and “The Answer” worked very well with my exact sciences and biology students. Previous to this, we read several articles about environmental destruction and climate change. We talked about and watched film clips of 2011’s tragic events in Japan, following its natural disasters and manmade catastrophes. While nothing could be done to prevent the earthquake and tsunami, the leak of radioactive materials from the nuclear power plants and danger to our health and surroundings is another story. These tragic outcomes are echoed in the lines:
   Now he’s bred knives on nature turns them also inward: they
   have thirsty points though.
   His mind forebodes his own destruction

Jeffers admonishes his readers that human foolishness and egocentrism will bring about our own demise. The students were fascinated by “Star Swirls” which was published posthumously and, even though it was written in the early sixties, echoes a prediction of global warming. I also introduce excerpts of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson to my science students when we discuss toxic substances and the tumultuous controversy over DDT.

Here too, I have found other interesting points of comparison between her somber prophetic tone and empathic concern for all living creatures and his poetry. It may be said that, as literary icons, Carson was the mother and Jeffers was one of the fathers of the modern environmental movement. As their children, we would do well to listen to their words.