[This essay was written for the blog metaxyturn.com]
I spent the last few years before college in the Bay Area of northern California. As a child I had driven up the Central Valley to visit Carmel on vacations–a pretty little tourist town on one side, on the other, the paradoxically named Pacific ocean– it is not particularly peaceful. Sublime is not too big a word for the Pacific crashing into that rocky coast. (Not to mention the sea lions, barking in the fog.) In any event, in my teens, Robinson Jeffers was one of my favorite poets. He could summon up my cherished sense of place in a few words: “Unbroken field of poppy and lupin . . .”
His reputation has grown since then; major editions have solidified his academic standing. He was championed by Czeslaw Milosz, and that helped his international standing. Here is “Carmel Point”:
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses–
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupid walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads–
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. — As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
(from Wild Reckoning: an Anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, edited by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan, Calouste Gulbenkain Foudnation, 2004, p 159)
I loved the compact visionary imagery serving the prophetic intuition: “the image of the pristine beauty / Lives in the very grain of the granite . . .” Behold: “the very grain of the granite” (my dictionary confirms that “granite” is rooted in the Latin word for grain). A vision of the “pristine” (I believe Jeffers intended the true meaning of the word, which goes beyond science to myth). A vision to live by! Living with that vision includes inuring oneself to nature’s “indifference” and helped tune me to Hardy and other great modern writers.
But reread the poem in light of climate change: nature does “care” about what the spoiler has done to it. Jeffers’s confidence was misplaced. His “Carmel Point” is a myth.
Even the tremendous final line seems reductive now: “the rock and ocean that we were made from.” Well, of course, yes, that’s true, but there’s more, and poets are witnesses to the more as well as to the “less deceived” versions of human consciousness.
For me, as a poet Jeffers is more than a spokesman for an outmoded ecological view. The beauty of his images can still change minds. But if the ecological view turns out to be just another system (geological or otherwise), it will not have served the purpose it seemed to promise: an inclusive and open vision of existence on earth.
Jeffers’s vision of life draws strength from a firm awareness of finitude: everything passes. In light of this cosmic fact, human pride is foolish. Indeed, humans, taken as individuals, pass more quickly than other things residing on the earth. This is tonic for a young man who loves solitude and desires to grow up to be a poet. He is quite willing, he feels, to uncenter his mind and unhumanize his views. He has little to lose.
But it is not good enough for what I know now about human life and indeed the life of the earth. Ecological systems must be open to the “meta” dimension suggested by metaphysics: “meta” meaning both “with” and “beyond” (as William Desmond reminds his readers). We live with other beings on the earth; and each of us is “beyond” the other. The situation has a complexity beyond belief.
This level of complexity outstrips Jeffers’s vision of geologic time. There is more to time than time, there is eternity. We cannot know eternity but as a dimension of existence we must stay open to if we are to avoid turning the earth into our image. All of this arduous spiritual unhumanizing and ascetic awakening is to no avail without going beyond human dialectics to a new patience, perhaps “like” that of Jeffers’s vision of things, but unlike it in being patiently conscious of transcendence as other. Even the sublime imagery of granite and Pacific waves falls short of this transcendent other. We want to speak of the sacredness of the earth: it is sacred as an image of what is beyond “belief,” beyond system, beyond myth. Earth is a place of wonders, and sometimes they open our clogged mentalities to mysteries beyond words. Those poppies, those lupins!