Who is born when the world wanes, when the brave soul of the
world falls on decay in the flesh increasing…
—“Mediation on Saviors,” Robinson Jeffers
Love, if you love me,
lie next to me..
Be for me, like rain…
with a decent happiness.
from “The Rain,” by Robert Creeley
It’s getting harder to love anybody, much less humanity, the genre. Instead of turning with Whitman to live with the animals, it’s tempting to find solace in rage. Robinson Jeffers was good at rage. A poet who, like many of his more studied contemporaries, lived through both world wars, he rode it all out behind the walls of Tor House, his bizarre castle retreat in which was then called Carmel-by-the Sea. An American naturalist writer aligned with a non-Christian form of pre-determination, Jeffers engaged the elemental in nature, and his work is much more allied to the legacy of the pre-Socratics which found origin in earth, air, fire, and water. Yet in Jeffers, there is no Heraclitan obedience, no solace from the change that the river promises. If pantheism, in the hands of Whitman 50 or so years earlier, had suffered from an overreaching humanism, then the elemental observations of Jeffers, and his construction of a mythopoeic, impersonal universe, erred equally in its urgent drive towards inhumanism:
Here on the rock it is great and beautiful, here on the foam-wet
granite sea-fang it is easy to praise
Life and water and the shining stones: but whose cattle are the
herd of people that one should love them?
If they were yours, then you might take a cattle-breeder’s delight in
the herd of the future. Not yours.
Where the power ends let love, before it sours to jealousy…
Unlike Whitman’s redwoods in “Song of the Redwood Tree,” which yield themselves, as the poet would have it, willingly to the saw, Jeffers nature exists separately (and yet he is privy to its secrets, hidden in his seaside retreat), and somehow purely apart from the herd of “cattle” he sees as “the people.” Caught “in the stone of his own person,” the poet contemplates a Whitmanesque stance:
But if a man could hold in his mind all the conditions at once,
of man and woman, of civilized
And barbarous, of sick and well, of happy and under torture, of
living and dead…—what should persuade
him to speak? And what could his words change?
The “if” here seems crucial…The imagination has encountered a plurality, but the mind has decided, via the traditional sentence driven syntax of Jeffers’ prosody, that the object of his sentence will not be supplied, until the efficacy of such negative capability be brought into question, i.e. ‘what could his words change?” Jeffers’ nature, as Whitman’s before him, gives him the answer he seeks:
The mountain ahead of the world is not forming but fixed. But
the man’s words would be fixed also,
Part of that mountain, under equal compulsion; under the same
present compulsion in the iron consistency.
(“Meditation on Saviors,” 99)
In a poem that conflates the separate sacrifices of Oedipus and Jesus, Jeffers here meditates on forms of natural power as an analog to human power. As the mountain is “fixed,” so the “man’s words” are fixed. Great men like Christ demonstrate the analog to the priests— “The apes of Christ lift up their hands to praise love…”and yet the priests fail to see the inhuman “blinding fire behind the tragic eyes…”. The natural world outside of Jeffers window, the volcanic Pacific Ocean, and here specifically Point Lobos and Point Sur, were “also wounded with that fire…” and “endured.” Both Oedipus and Jesus, in Jeffers view, misuse love, one “defiling his own household,” while the other “forc[es] the imaginations of men…”in order to possess them. What is needed, Jeffers suggests, in the “new savior” is wisdom without love…/power without hatred,” and, in what will be the foundation of his poetics, a “deep indifference.” Jeffers’ deep mistrust of humanity, as Whitman’s deep dedication to the same, dominates each page of their collected works and demonstrates equal sides of despair in the failures of the American experiment. So much later, where do we stand now?
It’s getting harder to love anybody, much less humanity, that genre; but love’s the same problem, even while everything, as it changes, remains the same. The more I know, the farther I fall from gnosis. The topos sketched by Thoreau in Walking is the old topos of Heraclitus, one that Christ outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, and one that will encourage Buddha to homelessness. From the end of the 19th, to the 20th and 21st centuries, the new emphasis will be on artistic movements that foreground process over personality. Claude Monet, mostly homeless until Giverny, painting his subjects—haystacks, train smoke, flowers in fields, the lily pond—on four or more canvasses each time, will chase light, as it changes, all of his life and with his contemporaries redirect the focus of painting. Modernist European and American writers, from Mallarme, Baudelaire, Brecht, Pound, Stein, Williams, Celan, Jabes, Stevens, etc. will make changes and corrections to genre which will draw attention away, or multiply the possibilities of, the speaking subject and the page. In Connecticut, Charles Ives will compose sonatas that conflate the patriotic tunes of John Phillip Sousa with “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” (making way for John Cage’s compositions years later) and include the sound of boys throwing stones into the river outside the church window. With the Cubists and Abstract expressionists after them, the focus will expand from following light, to calling attention to materiality. Black Mountain via Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and laterally John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, will insist on “field composition,” hearkening back to the negative capability described by John Keats, and lamenting the exclusion, in the 1950’s, of Walt Whitman from the American canon. The Beat Generation will become shamanistic in its pursuit of illumination of the human condition, and Kerouac’s work will be called “typing” by Truman Capote. .The San Francisco Renaissance with Robert Duncan’s mythic pursuits and Spicer’s practice of the Outside also puts poem before poet. The New York school will continue into a second, possibly a third generation of poets. The Objectivists, introduced by Louis Zukofsky in his essay in 1931 for the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, will, with the exception of George Oppen, remain largely unknown until the intense canon-formation endeavors of L=A=N-G-U=A=G=E patriarch Charles Bernstein make them the subject of choice for Ph.D. dissertations at Buffalo,UCSD, and elsewhere from the late 90’s until the present. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement itself will intersect and extend beyond the Objectivist platform, and there will be dozens of others, many of them women, whose revisions and additions to poetic practice will shed new light on the polarities embodied in the oeuvres of Whitman and Jeffers, but more importantly, in the polarities of the explicitly American psyches the two present. With Thoreau, there will be several who go beyond these polarities, producing work that is as multifarious and miscellaneous as the natural world. With the exception of the Confessional and Deep Image poets of the 1950’s and 60’s, whose work was canonized in their life times, lyric poetry has been in Diaspora, largely because its means and methods are so varied, and the very poets and critics who might have been able to read it, have turned their attention to poems and movements whose attention is away from the claims of a first person. It may be lyric poetry is in Diaspora because Diaspora is the social equivalent of wilderness. In her citation for Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic, Marjorie Welish remarks: “She writes as if the lyric poem had a political calling.” When, I ask, has it not? Since Sappho’s fragments, the lyric has insisted upon the reality of the speaking subject, indeed a political claim in a Greece where women were not allowed to speak in public. The English romantics were engaging the demos of their period. Blake overtly attacked political institutions, Wordsworth insisted on writing in the language of real men, Shelley claimed the poet as legislator of the universe, and Keats’ notion of negative capability summoned forms of humanism and inhumanism in endless postponement of self for the possibilities of the world and poem that might arise from such postponement. So late (so early), the poetry most thrilling to me is poetry which negotiates the poles of humanism and inhumanism, and then gives itself away to the wilderness inherent in revealing radical essence. Interestingly, it has been mostly Californian poets who have advanced this wilderness agenda, with the notable exception of Susan Howe, whose redactor’s position has done much work to bring the book forward to wilderness. The book I’ve read most recently that engages the wild is Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water. It is a California book, a book in drought, a book that addresses the failure of “the west”—i.e. the Western state of California, and the Western expansion continually demonstrated by our government. The latest volume in her meditation on the elements (a pre-Socratic in Berkeley!) Practical Water is described as a “meditation and an ecopoetics” on water. Asking the central question “what does it mean to live a moral life,” the poems in this collection negotiate the endangered position facilitated by our relationship to water, and call attention to the logic of Empire in such proceedings:
What does it mean to live a moral life
It is nearly impossible to think about this
We went down to the creek
The sides were filled
with tiny watery activities
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
Knowing with absolute perception that “everything feels everything,” a repeated mantra throughout Practical Water, Hillman’s point of view works laterally in the poems. The poetic mind which, separate from creation, in Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” makes “the slovenly wilderness” (46) surround it, is here “split & mended,” and :”divided into more.” This division is seen by the poet in the water molecule’s physical structure, the “little branches perpendicular to thought…” In Hillman’s oeuvre, the thinking subject is part of the landscape, as is the creek, and is moving, as is the creek, and so is in counter-distinction to the Whitmanesque humanism which places foundational authority in the poet’s first person point of view: “…what I assume you shall assume,/for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”(188).In this sense, Hillman shares more with the high Romantic position which refused nature as a detached object, i.e. natura naturata in favor of nature as a creative power, i.e. natura naturans. Our shared atoms give Whitman confidence in his ability to speak for the whole; there is no such assumption in Hillman’s humanism, and the refusal of such a poetic model is this work’s operative poetics:
Lower frequencies are the mind
What happened to the creek
is what happened
to the sentence in the twentieth century
It got social underground
You should make yourself uncomfortable
If not you who
You should make yourself uncomfortable/if not you who (emphasis mine). “You” should poet, “you” should reader, “you” should America? Yes and yes and yes. Our “you” has proliferated. Because the human body is anywhere from 55 to 75% water depending upon size, because without it the body perishes, because every modern decision made regarding water use and building codes diminishes the water supply, because I live in the desert that some millions of years ago was an ocean, because together you and I must be the cause, and if you and I are part of the cause, then you and I can be part of the solution. As Hillman’s humanism demands a revision of Whitmanesque poetics, so is Hillman’s inhumanism tutelary. Unlike Jeffers’ inhumanism, which with Robinson, stands apart, Hillman’s distance from the people arises from close observation of Being—which is made of infinite parts and is thus always situated locally, i.e. a part of:
Had lobbied the Congress but it was dead
Had written the Committee on Understanding
Had written to the middle
middle of the middle
class but it was drinking…
(“Practical Water” 4)
A book mediated by the activism that led Brenda Hillman to civil disobedience and participation in the political protests of Code Pink, Practical Water is a call to action to the “middle of the middle” place where our citizens live, unable to believe their actions matters; as well to our poetries, which so often shy away from active belief in favor of self expression, or worse, canon formation. The poems in part 2 of the book subtitled “(Of Communal Authority), were composed via “trance” while Hillman “attended hearings & participat [ed] in actions to make the record collective and personal” (emphasis mine) and are described by Hillman as “reportorial poetry,” which she defines as follows:
Reportorial poetics can be used to record detail with immediacy while one is
doing an action & thinking about something else.
Experience crosses over with that which is
outside experience; the unknown receives
this information as an aquifer receives re-
plenishing rain. Meditative states can be
used to cross material boundaries, to allow
you to be in several places at once, such as
Congress and ancient Babylon.
(“Reportorial Poetry, Trance & Activism: An Essay” 33)
If we must admit that the human body is mostly water, and thus have to question our deceived, sovereign, and hierarchical position in relation to the water that runs through the land’s body, we must equally consider the possibility that the unknown is formed by both our experience and what lives outside it. Instead of using mind to categorize, Hillman proposes a poetry produced by meditation, or trance, one of the most ancient activities of mind. An often hilarious priestess in her conveyance of the senate’s pedantic activities, she is again and often profoundly so, the wisest of all teachers, providing the most deceptively simple advice:
Whether or not you have the strength to resist official versions that are devastating the earth and its creatures, you could in any sense send back reports. If political parties will not provide solutions, the good can occur when people gather in small groups to work for justice in each community using imagination without force.
A book with Queen Calfia secretly presiding, and blessed with many visitations from Ishtar and river and other goddesses known and forgotten, Practical Water is also a travel diary wherein Hillman travels widely— in California. In her tour de force “Hydrology of California, An Ecopoetical Alphabet” Hillman dreams “a dream of a west that would outlast us…” and rewrites the “Apostle’s Creed” (as Thoreau did before her) from the land’s point of view:
life from Life Form from Form Be-
gotten not sprayed Of one being with the Mother
Through Her rough cones were made
Following the hydrological typology of the Golden state, Hillman summons “the future of poetry,” where “everything feels everything” an opinion, she avers “i don’t/ just think…/I know…(89) Here, as throughout the book, water, and here the California rivers she follows, are “a grammar” that this contrary “pilgrim with no progress” recalls. “Hydrology” is cacophonous, the syntax threading in diverse directions, and it is a poem for poetry, and to poets living and past. In the trash and detritus on the highway, and the overbuilt Californian earth, where the natural world survives in spite of us, pilgrim makes her detours:
There’s a quiver of rivers the Sacramento We saw a pleasant pheasant
near a pylon in the Delta its back a walking rainbow in 100,000 acres
they saved the they who can save/We don’t hate developers or do we
We hate their greed
those butt-ugly buildings Actually
butts are adorable to gated communities/the poor buildings
can’t even cry though wild radishes loves them raphanus raphanistrum
“common in disturbed places”
The wild radish thrives in “disturbed places,” a fitting plant for a ravaged earth. The moment’s current icon to folly —“the gated community”— which overruns the western United States, is a scar and an affront, as is the notion of a “they” embodied in the proliferation of KB, Pardee, etc. homes by countless developers, who have defaced the once perfect beauty of the American West with their “butt-ugly buildings” it’s impossible to believe anyone could call home. A travel diary, Practical Water is also a startling encyclopedia of plant life, and thus in “Hydrology” we reencounter Whitman’s “leaves of grass,”literally:
Future of poetry we saw
dactylic glomereta Leaves of grasses/I don’t honestly mind the word
introduced as in introduced species…
Dactylic glomereta or “leaves of grasses” are an introduced species which survive fitfully in the water poor state, and reading I’m struck with the question what are humans if not an “introduced species?” Whitman’s recognition of the future and the past running through the present, his incessant and beautiful dedication to the “filtering” of all things in relation, and the pluralities he recognized because of his attention to phenomena is key in PW and to what Hillman is clearly stating is the “future of poetry.” Near Tulare Lake, she encounters both Spicer and Jeffers, reframing Spicer’s famous last words as “Agribusiness did it to our vocabulary.” A lake at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, Tulare Lake was formerly the largest lake in the Western United States. Once an important fishery and major stop for hundreds of thousands of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, in the twentieth century the lake was drained and is now a shallow basin of fertile earth run by agriculture. Reading in the guidebook the “elegy words once formed as in ‘once formed Tulare Lake’,” our eco-pilgrim becomes as “mad as Jeffers.” A eco-liturgy, “Hydrology” calls for a poem, and a world, human to human, human to earth, world to word to the pages that is our earth:
Visit us Future of Poetry with a solitude of streamlets into a local
pond… Nothing was gone when we
saw that bird We saw its feathers as water… It was in & out of time. (86)
Creeley, Robert. The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1982.
Jeffers, Robinson. A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Robert Hass, New York: Random House, 1987.
Hillman, Brenda. Practical Water. Middleton CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.
Whitman, Walt: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. Justin Kaplan, ed. New York: The Library of America, 1982