Saturday, December 19, 2015

Robinson Jeffers on our (lack of) duty toward poetry

I've just finished reading Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet, an excellent brief biography in which James Karman claims that "Jeffers, like planet Earth, had a molten interior around which a thick mantle of stone had formed," which sounds about right to me. The photos carried me back to the poet's stone house in Carmel, and Karman's careful explication of historical and cultural contexts illuminate the poems without diminishing their power. It would be a great text to use in a class devoted to Jeffers, if I ever get a chance to teach such a thing. I was especially struck by this passage from an essay Jeffers wrote in 1948:
I have no sympathy with the notion that the world owes a duty to poetry, or any other art. 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.
He may be right--but if everyone took this advice, then I'd never have a chance to introduce poetry-phobic students to the powerful poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

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