Robinson Jeffers, Dimensions of a Poet

By Robert Brophy | Go to book overview

9
Nature and the Symbolic Order:
The Dialogue Between Czeslaw
Milosz and Robinson Jeffers

Alan Soldofsky

ONE OF THE IRONIES of recent literary history is that Robinson Jeffers, the great poet of the California coast and self-described inhumanist, first began to be recovered for readers of mainstream American verse by the Lithuanian-born Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. An avowed humanist who had endured Nazi occupation and Stalinist oppression and who received political asylum in France where he lived in the 1950s, Milosz started reading Jeffers shortly after he arrived in Berkeley in 1960 to teach Polish literature at the University of California. Milosz took Jeffers far more seriously than did most American poets and critics for whom at the time Jeffers was a completely marginalized figure, at best treated with scorn and at worst ignored altogether, except for a declining number of devotees—the most notable being the poet William Everson, Jeffers's only true disciple.

Milosz's interest in Jeffers was perhaps as much a geographical as an historical inevitability. For a man of letters born in a soonto-be-annexed Baltic duchy in 1911, the year before Jeffers published his first book, Flagons and Apples, and three years before Jeffers came to Carmel, California in the 1960s must have seemed an exotic if not an alien place to continue his poetic practice. To get his bearings, Milosz had to reconfigure his identity once again, isolated from speakers of his native language, living almost anonymously, his European imagination unsettled by the West Coast's vast wild panoramas. Moreover, he had come to Berkeley, arguably America's most quixotic city, living through the century's most quixotic decade. He began by trying to come to terms with the place where he was. In Visions from San Francisco Bay, a collection of essays written in Polish and published in 1969 in France, Milosz writes:

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