Robinson Jeffers January 10, 1887 – January 20, 1962 Photo at Tor House by Nat Farbman, 1948
The old pagan burials, uninscribed rock,
Have shed the feeble delusions that built them,
They stand inhumanly
Clean and massive; they have lost their priests.
“Delusion Of Saints”~Robinson Jeffers
Last Friday, my day wouldn’t maintain its gyre. I was supposed to grade and then blog (and then bake lasagna) but I couldn’t seem to keep my hands off this one. So I put it aside and did what needed doing. Now I can get back to what wants doing.
I meant to just write about Xochiquetzal and Xolotl (as you can see from my brief post earlier today)—but the Aztec pantheon has always made me do handsprings into some murky memories. So, inevitably, I ended up trolling an opaque lake or two in my psyche. I posted my X post and had to revisit my psychic acrobatics.
The first of these handsprings is Robinson Jeffers. I know, another American poet. However, though I’d love to tell you why Jeffers wants America to “Be Angry at the Sun” or how his “Shine, Perishing Republic” (or even “To the Stonecutters”) bleeds wretchedness for the America Whitman dared to hope for, I’m just going to tell you about the mythology in his poetry.
And about how detecting it almost ruined my life.
Almost a solid decade ago, I was finishing graduate course-work. It was my intention to do American poetry—I especially loved the middle generation: Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co., as Suzanne Ferguson calls them. Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman. But it wasn’t until my last poetry course that I got sufficiently exposed to Robinson Jeffers.
And the whole course was so traumatic that I’m surprised I still like Jeffers. Heck, I lurve Jeffers—he’s right up there with O, Captain and Huffy Henry. But, like I said, the course was traumatic and I shifted my interest to film. (I talked about it more than I should have in Unnecessary Roughness. So, I’ve already said too much.)
Damn, grad school made me stop writing poetry. It’s not until this moment that I realize it made me stop reading poetry for goin’on ten years. Feck.
This is from my class notes—if you’re not into academic blahbiddy-blah, go ahead and skip it; the point will remain the same:
I chose Robinson Jeffers as the focus for my final project because I had detected something in his poetry that was unlike anything coming out of the Modern era. It seemed almost non-Western, certainly non-essentialist in that it seemed like there were some larger forces creating the cohesion between his lyrics and his narrative poems. At first glance, I contributed what I was hearing to his philosophy of inhumanism, the notion that androcentricity is the dividing force in American culture. As I read and re-read the narratives–and even more markedly in the lyrics—I had the feeling (as Jeffers would put it, the certitude ) that everything was off-center from what I had come to expect from a (particularly male) Modernist. The characters are allegorical, never one dimensional or interchangeable like Hemingway’s injured men and officious women. The function of myth in Jeffers’s poetry didn’t fit the bill I expected either; Eliot’s allusions are indefatigably Western: Christian or Classical mythology. Jeffers’s system of allusion includes multi-layer planes of Judeo-Christian myth, Greco-Roman myth, and North American aboriginal myth, often within the same figure.
. . . .
His amalgamation of Anglo-Christian mythology with Native American and Mexican folklore creates a completeness in Jeffers’s narratives that is unparalleled in most Modernist texts that forget (or ignore) the previous cultures of this geographical location. Further, there is an advanced layer of scientific schemata; to his spiritual philosophies is added a conception of microcosmic certitude. From these manifold perspectives, Jeffers combines realism and spiritual philosophy into his idea of inhumanism, a unique device in his texts.
And that’s not even the paper—it’s just notes. What the paper ends up doing, as you can prolly guess, is to walk the reader through the amalgamation of Jeffers’ use of myth. When I began a close reading (of, specifically, The Roan Stallion and Tamar —but also Shiva and Cassandra ) I was astounded at his use of non-Western mythology. I was further astounded to discover that, in using non-Western myth, Jeffers was able to create a non-essentialist landscape: his poetry tends to be very critical of assumed patriarchal roles.
After a really horrible semester in which a junior-classmate was allowed to run roughshod all over the rest of the course, I had a hard time getting arsed up to write anything for my final. In the end, I wrote the paper from the perspective of a feminist Pagan shouting Boo-yah! for Jeffers. And really, there wasn’t any theory in the paper—it was simply a close reading that reveled Jeffers’ non-Western, non-patriarchal content. But my (female) professor was (is) staunchly anti-feminist and told me that I “wielded feminist theory like a blunt object” and granted a B—an insult. The big problem was that I had asked her to lead my dissertation. A week after finals, we agreed that perhaps my interests lie elsewhere.
I tucked the paper and her comments away and never looked at them again. I tucked all of my poetry books away and dust them occasionally. I made a complete 180 and moved on to Alfred Hitchcock. (Anthony Hopkins, squee!)
I was convinced, given this and a completely different but equally wounding experience with poetry in academia, that poetry just wasn’t for me. I knew that the professor was unnecessarily rough with me, but I retained that awful nagging that it just wasn’t good. In my mind it became a spotlight of shame, The Worst Paper Ever, and I would cringe whenever the memory would rear its head. God forbid anyone try talking about Jeffers.
And when I imagined the paper, I simply saw a twenty-six page jumble of words and half formed ideas. I expected to open the file and see crayon scrawled across my screen: Jeffers good. Patriarchy bad. BAM! I whack you with my anti-phallus.
But that’s not what happened. I opened it last week (rather than grading) and glanced it over. It’s actually quite elegant. It’s entirely logical. And my memory of the paper is correct—there is no feminist theory in it. Sure I imbedded some feminist-flavored arguments, but there’s no mention of theory. The paper is foremostly about mythology. Now, I wonder if she even read beyond the first page. I honestly wonder. And I feel a little less stupid. It’s not the worst paper ever; it’s actually quite good. (I do feel some regret about having changed the path of my life over it, but que sera, sera.)
That bifurcates my brain in a way that only Jeffers’ narratives can do.
My first thought—and the one that is nagging at me with its immediacy—has to do with re-reading my old blogs.
I was convinced, given two equally wounding experience with pagan “friends,” that this shit just wasn’t for me. I knew that the others were unnecessarily rough with me, but I retained that awful nagging that I was just Bad. In my mind I became The Worst Witch Ever, and I would cringe whenever the memory would rear its head. God forbid anyone try talking about blogging.
After a year of being told that I had written this or that I went back to see what was what. Turns out, I’m not crazy. I opened the old Files and expected to see blood spatter across my screen: This and That.
But that’s not what happened. Over the last few weeks, I’ve realized that most of my arguments are actually quite elegant (as blogs go). Most are entirely logical (as blogs go). And my memory of previous posts is correct—there is no this or that in them. Sure I imbedded some double entendre footnotes for the two or three folks (like The Husband and The Bestie) on the in, but, despite my having told you that this blog would be a tell-all, there’s no overt mention of this or that. The posts are foremostly about Witchcraft and ethics in general. And I feel a little less Bad. I’m not the worst Witch ever; I’m actually quite good. (And to round off that parallel paragraph—I do feel some regret about having changed the path of my life over it, but que sera, sera.)
My second thought gets more to the crux of what this post is supposed to address: Aztec mythology. In the Jeffers paper, I wrote quite a lot about Tlazolteotl, with whom I have had a strong connection since the late 90s. And that’s my second handspring.
For the weekend.
 And, I think I told you, I gave my American Lit class an assignment to create a distinctly American mythology. I didn’t remember writing this, but I said of Jeffers:
The narrative poems are complex labyrinths. Jeffers draws from various intersecting cultural mythologies to invent a distinctive, unified, specifically American mythology. In doing so, Jeffers formulates a (nearly pantheonic) lineage within specifics of time and place, as well as revelation of the surrounding world–suggestions of war and human political developments–but the allegories have a ostensible agelessness. . . . I don’t mean to infer that Jeffers is imitating the mythologies of other cultures; my position is that Jeffers is creating a uniquely American mythology and that thematic intersections are inevitable.
 Have you been watching Homeland? (Spoiler alert.) I have been feeling a lot like mid-season-two Carrie Mathison: “I was right!”