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P A T R IC K D . M U R P H Y University of California, Davis Reclaiming the Power: RobinsonJeffers’s Verse Novels Robinson Jeffers developed in the early 1920’s the accentual prosody and narrative structure of his long poems in direct response to the primacy of the novel and as a self-consciously crafted alternative to modernist poetry. As William Everson notes, “Jeffers emerged at the height of the Modernist triumph, but of its aesthetic tenets he utilized only one. . . . the Modernists insisted that poetry must assimilate the techniques developed in the refinement of contemporary prose style. It was the chief break with the past that brought poetry up to date. Jeffers followed suit” (ix-x). As he notes in the foreword to his Selected Poetry, Jeffers shares with Ezra Pound the desire to wrestle the reading public free of the enthrallment of prose fiction: 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, (xiv) Radcliffe Squires argues that “Jeffers’ choice of form, then, was in part determined by a decision to risk meeting prose on its own ground” (145) -1 And throughout much of his life Jeffers envisioned his long poems in rela­ tion to the popularity of the novel and the effect its rise had on dramatic and narrative verse (Jeffers, Roan ix, Powell 206, Bennett 79 and 203). With this self-awareness on Jeffers’s part of creating a verse alternative to the modern novel in mind, one recognizes the insufficiency of criticism that tends to define his long poems as simply traditional narratives or classi­ cal tragedies. In fact, generically defining his long poems has proven a sore point of Jeffers criticism. Many critics, hostile and sympathetic, analyze these poems against the requirements of classical tragedy or traditional 126 Western American Literature narrative and find them wanting. Frederic Carpenter simply notes: “Cer­ tainly his poems do not fit into any of the usual categories of literary criti­ cism. His long poems are sometimes narrative, sometimes dramatic, some­ times philosophic; they are usually a mixture of all three” (55).2Robert Brophy defines them as “ritual-tragcdy,” which he considers a genre paral­ lel to the “medieval mystery play” (286). Unfortunately, this can encour­ age an allegorical and symbol-hunting reading of Jeffers’s long poems.3 A more helpful recognition is Robert DeMott’s view that Jeffers “chose the narrative technique and dramatic development employed in fiction and drama. The narrative structure provided Jeffers a means of preventing the lapsing intensity and abatement of lyricism which often besets the long poem” (411). I believe it ismore fruitful to consider Jeffers’slong poems examples of a developing genre, the modern verse novel, with the word “novel” used in Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic sense of the term.4 As Michel Aucouturier puts it, “for Bakhtin the constitutive ‘mode’of the novel is not epic narra­ tion but dialogue; that is, the relation that is established . . . among several autonomous discourses in respect to which the author himself takes the position of an interlocutor and not of a sovereign master” (238). Jeffers’s long poems from “Tamar” through “Hungerfield,”5with the exception of the written-to-be staged dramas, reflect the novelization of verse in their author’s aesthetic conception and in the prosodic realization of that con­ ception.6Jeffers designed verse novels to compete with prose novels for the attention of the reading public and to counteract the abandonment by modernist poets of previously held fictional terrain. In approaching Jeffers, one would expect to find the clearcut domina­ tion of the monologic and homophonic, the unmistakable and single-toned authoritative voice of the prophet of doom and preacher of Inhumanism in accordance with the reputation delegated him by the New Criticism. While the narrative voice of several poems does display homophony, the main...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 125-148
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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