The passages below are taken from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Volume Four: Poetry 1903-1920, Prose, and Unpublished Writings, ed. Tim Hunt, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988 – 2001, and from The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, ed. James Karman, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009 – 2015.
from “Preface” (June 1922)
But the poet does not write chiefly for his own generation; he must therefore write about permanent things, or things that are permanent because they are perpetually renewed, like grass and humanity. The most important part of a poem is the subject; and permanence is the one essential element in the subject of poetry. The gods of Greece are dead, there is pathos in them but no poetry; the customs of Greece are dead, there is pathos in them but no poetry; Homer and the race he sired are alive, because light and darkness, mountains and sea, humanity and its passions, are permanent establishments.
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Poetry is more primitive than prose. It existed before prose and will exist afterward, it is not domesticated, it is wilder and more natural. It belongs out-doors, it has tides as nature has; while prose is a cultured interior thing, prose is of the house, where lamplight abolishes even the tides of day and night, and human caprice rules. The brain can make prose; the whole man, brain and nerves, muscles and entrails, organs of sense and of generation, makes poetry and responds to poetry.
from “Remembered Verses,” A Bibliography of the Works of Robinson Jeffers (1933)
My first deeply felt encounter with poetry interests me; for it was rather bizarre, besides being one of the greatest pleasures I ever experienced. I was fourteen or fifteen, at school in Switzerland, and my father on one of his summer visits brought me two little paper-bound books, poems of Thomas Campbell and poems of D. G. Rossetti. Neither name meant anything to my mind; nor did Campbell’s poetry; but no lines of print will ever intoxicate me as Rossetti’s rather florid verses did, from “The Blessed Damozel” to the least last sonnet. I wonder why was that? How had Longfellow’s Hiawatha, or Horace and La Fontaine, or association football and the Swiss lakes, conditioned my mind to thrill to Rossetti?
My pleasure was pure; I was never a critical reader, and was not yet looking for someone to imitate. And now, if I should ever wonder about the uses of poetry, I have only to remember that year’s experience. The book was worn out with reading; when it fell to pieces I was sixteen and found Swinburne. Later came The Wind among the Reeds, and Shelley, and Tennyson’s Alcaics and Boadicea, doubtful imitations of classical meter but sonorous as the beat of surf; when I grew older came Milton and Marlowe and many another; normal and reasonable raptures; but never again the passionate springtime that Rossetti (of all authors!) made me live.
from “Foreword” to The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938)
Long ago [ . . . ] it became evident to me that poetry—if it was to survive at all—must reclaim some of the power and reality that it was so hastily surrendering to prose. The modern French poetry of that time, and the most “modern” of the English poetry, seemed to me thoroughly defeatist, as if poetry were in terror of prose, and desperately trying to save its soul from the victor by giving up its body. It was becoming slight and fantastic, abstract, unreal, eccentric; and was not even saving its soul, for these are generally anti-poetic qualities. It must reclaim substance and sense, and physical and psychological reality. This feeling has been basic in my mind since then. It led me to write narrative poetry, and to draw subjects from contemporary life; to present aspects of life that modern poetry had generally avoided; and to attempt the expression of philosophic and scientific ideas in verse. It was not in my mind to open new fields for poetry, but only to reclaim old freedom.
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Another formative principle came to me from a phrase of Nietzsche’s: “The poets? The poets lie too much.” I was nineteen when the phrase stuck in my mind; a dozen years passed before it worked effectively, and I decided not to tell lies in verse. Not to feign any emotion that I did not feel; not to pretend to believe in “optimism” or “pessimism,” or unreversible “progress”; not to say anything because it was popular, or generally accepted, or fashionable in intellectual circles, unless I myself believed it; and not to believe easily. These negatives limit the field; I am not recommending them but for my own occasions.
from “Themes in My Poems” (1941)
Another theme that has much engaged my verses is the expression of a religious feeling, that perhaps must be called pantheism, though I hate to type it with a name. It is the feeling…I will say the certainty…that the universe is one being, a single organism, one great life that includes all life and all things; and is so beautiful that it must be loved and reverenced; and in moments of mystical vision we identify ourselves with it.
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If a person spends all his emotion on his own body and states of mind, he is mentally diseased, and the disease is called narcissism. It seems to me, analogously, that the whole human race spends too much emotion on itself. The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature, or the artist admiring it; the person who is interested in things that are not human. Or if he is interested in human things, let him regard them objectively, as a very small part of the great music. Certainly humanity has claims, on all of us; we can best fulfil them by keeping our emotional sanity; and this by seeing beyond and around the human race.
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Science usually takes things to pieces in order to discover them; it dissects and analyzes; poetry puts things together, producing equally valid discovery, and actual creation. Something new is found out, something that the author himself did not know before he wrote it; and something new is made.
from “Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years” in the New York Times (1948)
. . . What seems to me certain is that this hypothetical great poet would break sharply away from the directions that are fashionable in contemporary poetic literature. He would understand that Rimbaud was a young man of startling genius but not to be imitated; and that The Waste Land, though one of the finest poems of this century and surely the most influential, marks the close of a literary dynasty, not the beginning. He would think of Gerard Hopkins as a talented eccentric, whose verse is so overloaded with self-conscious ornament and improbable emotion that it is hardly readable, except by enthusiasts, and certainly not a model to found one’s work on, but a shrill note of warning.
Aside from these instances, and to put the matter more fundamentally, I believe that our man would turn away from the self-conscious and naive learnedness, the undergraduate irony, unnatural metaphors, hiatuses and labored obscurity, that are too prevalent in contemporary verse. His poetry would be natural and direct. He would have something new and important to say, and just for that reason he would wish to say it clearly. He would be seeking to express the spirit of his time (as well as all times), but it is not necessary, because an epoch is confused, that its poet should share its confusions.
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Poetry is not a civilizer, rather the reverse, for great poetry appeals to the most primitive instincts. It is not necessarily a moralizer; it does not necessarily improve one’s character; it does not even teach good manners. It is a beautiful work of nature, like an eagle or a high sunrise. You owe it no duty. If you like it, listen to it; if not, let it alone.
Lately I had occasion to read more attentively the Medea of Euripides, and, considering the reverence that cultivated people feel toward Greek tragedy, I was a little shocked by what I read. Tragedy has been regarded, ever since Aristotle, as a moral agent, a purifier of the mind and emotions. But the story of “Medea” is about a criminal adventurer and his gun-moll; it is no more moral than the story of “Frankie and Johnny”; only more ferocious. And so with the yet higher summits of Greek tragedy, the Agamemnon series and the Oedipus Rex; they all tell primitive horror-stories, and the conventional pious sentiments of the chorus are more than balanced by the bad temper and wickedness, or folly, of the principal characters. What makes them noble is the poetry; the poetry, and the beautiful shapes of the plays, and the extreme violence born of extreme passion.
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Yet our [hypothetical great] poet must feel (in his own mind I mean) the stimulation of some worthy audience. He will look, of course, to the future. “What do I care about the present,” Charles Lamb exclaimed, “I write for antiquity!” But our man will reverse that. It may seem unlikely that he will have readers a thousand years from now, but it is not impossible, if he is really a great poet; and these are the audience whom he will habitually address. If the present time overhears him, and listens too—all the better. But let him not be distracted by the present; his business is with the future. This is not pleasantry; it is practical advice. For thus his work will be sifted of what is transient and crumbling, the chaff of time and the stuff that requires foot-notes. Permanent things, or things forever renewed, like the grass and human passions, are the material for poetry; and whoever speaks across the gap of a thousand years will understand that he has to speak of permanent things, and rather clearly too, or who would hear him?
“But,” a young man cries, “what good will it do me to imagine myself remembered after death? If I am to have fame and an audience I want them now, while I can feel them.”—It seems to me that the young man speaks in ignorance. To be peered at and interviewed, to be pursued by autograph hunters and inquiring admirers, would surely be a sad nuisance. And it is destructive too, if you take it seriously; it wastes your energy into self-consciousness; it destroys spontaneity and soils the springs of the mind. Whereas posthumous reputation could do you no harm at all, and is really the only kind worth considering.
from a letter to George Sterling (July 13, 1924)
To return to theory: I think two essential qualities of poetry are that it be rhythmic (and not in the sense in which we talk about rhythmical prose, but with fairly regular recurrences, metrical or other, making at least a tidal regularity; the tides don’t follow the clock nor yardstick but they are regular if you see enough of them)—and that it deal with things and emotions that are permanent or capable of perpetual renewal. Perhaps you have noticed how much of the modern movement fails to be rhythmical and deals with God may know what.
from a letter to Camille McCole (May 1930)
I think the quality that I most value in poetry is of imaginative power activated by strong emotion, so that the imagination is not displayed idly for a show, but as if of necessity and in earnest, under emotional compulsion.
from a letter to Jake Zeitlin (March 22, 1935)
When I think, I know that pleasure and pain counterbalance each other pretty accurately on the average, but when I write verses I am just the opposite apparently of that delightful fellow Ford Maddox Ford writes about, who “had tried so hard to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness would come creeping in.” – However, our ends tend to be rather sad, and we bawl at birth; I suppose my verses are thinking of the ends of life, and with what sort of hard faces to meet them, rather than the way-stations. – At which I wish you and me many pleasant pauses.
from a letter to Frederic I. Carpenter (September 18, 1943)
—I awoke this morning idealizing Anglo-Saxon words that I have practically forgotten—a semester nearly forty years ago—admiring the big heavy vowels, like rocks in a hissing surf of consonants, thinking how much our language has lost in gaining its atomic fluidity. It seemed to me that people who used such words might spend a whole winter rolling in mind one big thought or passion, instead of playing with a thousand little ones a day as we do now. —One rock versus a thousand pebbles. —I suppose this dream represents as well as possible the hardly logical reasons for my scunner against civilization.