- Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet by James Karman, and: The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume Three, 1940–1962 ed. by James Karman
James Karman’s Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet is, in his own words, “a revised version of [the] introduction to volume one of the Collected Letters” (7), but this stand-alone, authoritative, insightful, and thoroughgoing biography is a must-have for any Jeffers reader. Chronicling carefully, and even lovingly, the personal details, the lived lives, of Robinson and Una, it also adds a new dimension to the study of Jeffers’s work. The book will change the way we understand Jeffers and broaden and deepen the conversation about him—whether among general readers or scholars—for generations to come.
The title’s poet-and-prophet construction provides the two main avenues of exploration for Karman. As to poet, he does something this reviewer considers monumentally important: placing Jeffers among his artistic contemporaries, the modern poets. A deeply knowledgeable scholar of modern literature, Karman does not set out to prove Jeffers better or best, but shows us Jeffers in relation to what was an explosion of literary production. “Some call the years 1921–1925 anni mirabili” (51), Karman writes, and goes on to note important publications by James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost and Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann, Eugene O’Neill, Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf and W. B. Yeats (51). “Jeffers’ contribution to the extraordinary work of this period” culminated in the 1925 publication of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, which “reveals the thematic concerns, technical mastery, and [End Page 101] visionary reach of Jeffers’ mature style” (54). Karman observes that the poems in this volume show Jeffers “reflect[ing] on the enigma of war . . . and humanity’s enduring proclivity for violence” (57), reinforcing Jeffers’s engagement, at least poetically, in the worldly affairs of his era. Indeed, Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems explores an amazing variety of topics, including
the primacy of silence and darkness in the universe, which ultimately overtakes all sound and light; the sublime beauty and supreme indifference of nature; the specious wisdom of spiritual leaders, specifically that of Christ and the Buddha; Jeffers’ understanding of himself as a man and a poet; the unique place of California in American life and in Western Civilization as a whole; and the dangers facing America, especially those brought on by pretensions to empire.(58)
These are very much the concerns of the twentieth century, especially in America, and Karman does Jeffers scholarship a huge service in foregrounding how the poet engaged them as much as any of his poetic contemporaries. As Karman asserts, “Jeffers is essential to understanding ourselves, the twentieth century, and the world” (225).
As to prophet, Karman points out that “the issues raised by Jeffers remain pressing; they are at the very center of public life; and the way we address them in coming years will affect, as Jeffers knew, not only the future of America, but the fate of humanity” (7). Karman enumerates human cruelty and violence, our predilection toward war, environmental degradation, and “the transformation of the United States into a militarized superpower” (6) among these issues. We need only turn to the daily news to understand Jeffers’s prescience and Karman’s precision in focusing sharply on this aspect of the poet’s work.
Readers have always been quick to grasp Jeffers’s concerns with environmental degradation and human cruelty and violence; while Karman does these due justice, his attention to Jeffers’s concerns with war and its attendant politics are important additions to our understanding of the writer’s work. We don’t often think of Jeffers as a war poet—that is, one whose work was shaped by war—but Karman...