Saturday, January 07, 2006

Sunday Poem: Galway Kinnell

Note: This poem is not for the squeamish.

The Bear

In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
and know
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.

I take a wolf's rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.

And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.

And I set out
running, following the splashes
of blood wandering over the world.
At the cut, gashed resting places
I stop and rest,
at the crawl-marks
where he lay out on his belly
to overpass some stretch of bauchy ice
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.

On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and rise
and go on running.

On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
steamy hulk,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.

I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
the dismayed
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
flared, catching
perhaps the first taint of me as he

I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.

And dream
of lumbering flatfooted
over the tundra,
stabbed twice from within,
splattering a trail behind me,
splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.

Until one day I totter and fall --
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: and now the breeze
blows over me, blows off
the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood
and rotted stomach
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,

blows across
my sore, lolled tongue a song
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.

I awaken I think. Marshlights
reappear, geese
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lies, licking
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue. And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the next,
the next,
the rest of my days I spend
wandering: wondering
what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood,
   that poetry, by which I lived?

from Body Rags, Galway Kinnell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

Here is the biographical info on Kinnell from The American Academy of Poets:

Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1927. He studied at Princeton University and the University of Rochester. His volumes of poetry include A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990); Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980); The Book of Nightmares (1971); Body Rags (1968); Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964); and What a Kingdom It Was (1960). He has also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, and Francois Villon, and, this year, Rainer Maria Rilke. Galway Kinnell divides his time between Vermont and New York City, where he is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. He is currently a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.

Galway Kinnell shares with William Everson the unique status of poet-shaman. Both men sought to delve beneath the Christian ethos to find the raw nature of humanity. It is through nature, for both poets, that humans can find their meaning in the world. For Kinnell, in particular, the need propelled him toward an experiential poetry that relied on vivid images and short chanting lines, and that retained the sacramental elements of his early Christian poetry in What a Kingdom It Was (1960).

Both Kinnell and Everson sought transcendence through regression, and were therefore doomed to failure. But what we get with Kinnell, and the above poem is a perfect example, is a revitalization of the lower Memes of the spiral, especially Beige and Purple. In both "The Porcupine" and "The Bear" (these are companion poems from the same book), death is a literal and figurative emptiness, an egoless void in which we become one with the earth.

In "The Porcupine," Kinnell offers a series of images suggesting parallels between humans and animals. However, in "The Bear" Kinnell transcends the separation, speaking as both man and bear--is he the bear dreaming his life as a man, or is he the man dreaming his life as a bear?

The deeper religious element of this poem is the ritualistic elements. What we have in this poem is a primal initiation ceremony. The poet who once focused on a God in the heavens is now seeking the God of Earth. The bear is symbolic of earth energy, often revered as a powerful shaman by Native Americans. To ritually kill and consume the bear, then wear its body/skin is the symbolic act of assuming the bear's power. The bear is associated with introspection, medicine and magic, and the role of the psychopomp.

The gritty detail of this poem grounds it in the real world even as we know the poet only imagines or dreams the events it describes. With this poem, Kinnell's career changed direction to an extent, moving toward a much greater focus on the interior life and a quest for the transcendent God in nature.

For further reading:

"Fergus Falling" -- From Selected Poems, reprinted at the Why Vermont? site
"Telephoning in Mexican Sunlight" -- With a statement by Kinnell, at
Kinnell Exhibit from the Academy of American Poets
A New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell

Buddhism as Integral Spirituality

In the new issue of Buddhadharma (Winter 2005), Reginald Ray has an article on the three lineages of Buddhism: the primordial lineage, which seeks to convey the direct experience of the awakened state; the transmission lineage, which comprises the variety of methods for conveying or teaching the primordial lineage to students; and the organizational lineage, which in this sense is the person who is officially responsible for upholding and maintaining the organizational structure of a given tradition.

As Ray discussed the transmission lineage, I found myself thinking that in this example Buddhism takes a very Integral (via Spiral Dynamics) approach to the world. In Spiral Dynamics, we are shown a world in which individual skills and talents combine with specific life conditions to create unique worldviews. Clare Graves, the original source for the SD model, identified eight worldviews based on years of extensive research. However, a person does not reflect any one worldview but, rather, reflects several--with a "center of gravity" that can often be narrowed to a combination of two worldviews (known as Memes). If one wants to speak to a person, it is helpful to be able to speak in a language that fits his/her worldviews. For example, I wouldn't get very far talking to a tribal inhabitant of the Amazon basin in the terminology of post-modernism. In order to convey information, especially in efforts to teach new ideas, we must be able to speak to people where they live and in their language.

The Buddha understood this. He developed a variety of teaching techniques (the transmission lineages) in order to convey his wisdom (the primordial lineage) to his students. Buddha recognized that each person, or type of person, would need to have the teaching presented in a way that was accessible from their life conditions, from their worldview.

Here is Ray's discussion of this Integral Buddhism:
The Buddha himself had followed a very circuitous path to realization. He had studied with many different teachers and followed a variety of paths, and his journey was filled with obstacle-ridden routes and dead ends of all kinds. He did not want to put his own disciples through the same kind of unguided trial and error that had marked his own path. So, beginning with his first sermon in Deer Park, the Buddha began to develop methods, often unique to his dharma, of bringing others to the primordial truth. The first teaching to his five friends marks the beginning of the transmission lineage in Buddhism.

The early texts tell us that far from settling on one method or "program" for transmitting the awakened state to others, the Buddha spent his entire teaching career developing different "gates to awakening" that reflected his disciples' differing capacities and needs. By the time of his death, so we are told, the Buddha had developed 84,000 different methods of transmission of the awakened state.

By now, among the various Buddhist traditions, there are probably many times the original 84,000 dharmas. Part of the genius and creativity of great teachers is the variety of ways they lead their students to the heart essence. A central concern of the practice traditions of Tibetan Buddhism has always been to maintain the full range of the transmission lineages. In particular, the renowned Rime masters of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to preserve, as living traditions, the many different transmission lineages that were in danger of dying out in their day.

The multitude of transmission lineages is important because every person has a different set of capacities, inclinations, and karmic connections through which to receive the primordial lineage. The job of the skilled teacher is to find that one teaching or practice that at this precise moment in a student's journey will open his or her mind to its full depth.

To be able to teach in this way, as the Buddha did, requires what we might consider a second-tier worldview--the ability to relate to any of the first six worldviews directly, without privileging one above another. Only second-tier worldviews can do this--each first-tier worldview thinks it is the one true worldview. When you add all the possible combinations of developmental lines within each of the major worldviews, the Buddha probably needed at least 84,000 different techniques to convey the primordial truth.

Yet even within Buddhism, there is conflict between various organizational lineages over who holds the "real" truth, or the best path, or the most effective practice. What we are seeing in these instances is a first-tier person, who may have achieved non-dual consciousness, teaching from his/her unique perspective/lineage and unable to step outside of it to see the validity of other approaches. This is the same thing we see in all the various denominations in Christianity. Yet, even Christians have their second-tier teachers, such as Thomas Merton, who are not limited to a single approach and who recognize that different people need different techniques to find God/primordial truth.

In a world that is becoming increasingly divided into smaller and smaller camps, we would do well to remember the Buddha's wisdom in this area. What is important is the striving for God/nondual consciousness/primordial truth, not the various ways we try to get there.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Is Pat Robertson Insane?

Pat Robertson has stepped in it deep--again--by claiming that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke is divine punishment for "dividing God's land." Is Robertson insane, or is he a symptom of a bigger problem? More on this below.

From the AP story on Yahoo News:

"God considers this land to be his," Robertson said on his TV program "The 700 Club." "You read the Bible and he says `This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, `No, this is mine.'"

Sharon, who ordered Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year, suffered a severe stroke on Wednesday.

In Robertson's broadcast from his Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, the evangelist said he had personally prayed about a year ago with Sharon, whom he called "a very tender-hearted man and a good friend." He said he was sad to see Sharon in this condition.

He also said, however, that in the Bible, the prophet Joel "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who 'divide my land.'"

Sharon "was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU (European Union), the United Nations, or the United States of America," Robertson said.

In discussing what he said was God's insistence that Israel not be divided, Robertson also referred to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had sought to achieve peace by giving land to the Palestinians. "It was a terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless he was dead," he said.

This is about as clear an example of traditionalist, authoritarian Blue Meme thinking as you're ever going to see. Robertson believes, beyond all doubt, that there is a divine order that has been dictated by God. Anyone who violates that order will be struck down. This is the same worldview that allowed Hal Lindsey, Charles Colson, and Pat Robertson to claim that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for any number of things they dislike, including abortion.

The question is--and I sure don't know the answer--how do we change conditions so that people who share these views can grow into a more healthy version of Blue? Religion-based authoritarianism is the shadow side of Blue, not the healthy side. So how do we get these people, as a group, to look at their own shadow?

Quadrant by quadrant:

We can't change their brain chemistry, so that approach is out.

We can't force them into therapy, into a more introspective spiritual path, or to develop a greater degree of compassion and empathy, so that quadrant doesn't hold the answer. Although, one possibility would be for church leaders to re-emphasize prayer, which seems to have fallen by the wayside. A stronger emphasis on prayer could act as a catalyst for more introspection among church members and a reduced willingness to believe whatever they are told. This possibility goes hand in hand with next quadrant.

We can stir them toward a less literal interpretation of scripture, but that would have to come from within, from people like Jim Wallis, not from the integral community. If other Christian leaders began to speak more forcefully against the fundamentalist worldview Robertson espouses, there might be a chance to force him out of a power position. We need more progressive Christian leaders to step up. This is also the place where prayer can become a central part of religion again--contemplative prayer, not petitionary prayer.

Or we could change the political structure in this country so that Blue doesn't have to feel so defensive, which might then allow it to be more introspective and examine its shadow side. But right now it feels up against a wall, that it must defend its turf as violently as possible. Mean Green is the problem here. Blue needs hierarchies of power, beginning with God; Green can't stand hierarchies because for them relativism is king. There are enough Greens with political power of some kind that Blue feels its whole worldview is under attack by post-modernism.

None of these possible answers are easy to achieve. We would need a whole movement with power and funding to even begin to see any change. For now, we can only try to generate more interest in Integral thinking so that this very important meme can spread.

Is "Integral" Conservative?

There has been a series of posts in the integral world of late on whether or not Integral is conservative. I suspect that the positions taken in this debate reflect the individual biases of the writer as much as any truth about Integral. This isn't a bad thing. Each of us holds beliefs and has experiences that shape our point of view. That said, I want to venture into the conversation.

The debate began with Matthew Dallman's post back in late December. He argued that Integral is essentially conservative, using sociological conservativism as his model. Dallman tried to distance his view from traditional conceptions of political conservatism, but I'm not sure he succeeded. CJ Smith and Joe Perez both had some very intelligent things to say on the subject, both finding problems in Dallman's argument. I think Joe nailed the problem in Dallman's logic:
My impression in reading Dallman's post is that he somehow came up with a list of attributes (respect for institutions, the need for rigorous debate, a rebirth of interest in history, etc.), proclaimed that the items on the list are important both to integral and to conservativism, and therefore concluded that the essential ethos of integral and conservativism is virtually identical. There's some truth in there, and I certainly have no qualms with any of the items in the list as being linked to some degree with integral thinking, but it hardly proves an identity between integral and conservativism. One could just as easily come up with an alternate list of attributes and argue that integral is really liberalism or Marxism or something else entirely.
I think Joe correctly concludes that it is not advisable to define Integral from a traditonalist/rationalist values system--essentially trying to elevate Blue/Orange Meme values to second tier.

Today ebuddha waded into the debate. I have to admit that I clicked with ebuddha's use of the Apollonian/Dionysian conflict on this issue, but mostly because I am developing a post on that conflict in relation to my Birth of a Poet series. Essentially, in this view, Integral's quest for order and discrimination is Apollonian, and therefore conservative (as opposed to Dionysian disorder and its quest for the ecstatic). Finally, ebuddha concludes with my original point:

Lastly - because of the "fuzziness" and complexity of integralism, to a degree, there is danger of rorschach blotism - seeing in the model a reflection of one's own pre-existing ideas - which of course are only, to use the well-worn phrase, "partial"!
So, where does that leave us?

When in doubt, go to the source. Ken Wilber has a fairly comprehensive definition of liberal and conservative that I think applies to this debate. In Part II of his essay "The Deconstruction of the World Trade Center," Wilber claims that the way to define what is liberal and what is conservative is to ask the question, "Why do people suffer?"

Well, if you ask the simple question-- Why do human beings suffer? --you will get two different, basic answers. The conservatives will say, You suffer because of yourself ; the liberals will say, You suffer because of someone else.
For Wilber, the difference is that conservatives look at the inner state of the person for causes of pain and suffering, while liberals look to the outer conditions that can cause a person to suffer. Essentially, liberals blame the right side of the quadrants for human suffering, while conservatives blame the left side of the quadrants for human suffering.

By these definitions, conservative thinking cannot be Integral because it only focuses on the interior of the individual (from an exterior point of view), nor can liberal thinking be Integral because it only focuses on the exterior of the individual (from an interior point of view).

By definition, Integral is an integration, AQAL--not half of the quadrants and some of the lines.

From the Spiral Dynamics viewpoint, things are still a little murky. Second tier recognizes the value of the traditional Blue/Orange worldview AND the value of the progressive Orange/Green worldview. But in SDi, each Meme fluctuates between self-focus and group-focus, so that Yellow, the first Integral Meme, is a warm color that is self-focused. Can it still be Integral by Wilber's definition? I think so.

Third tier is likely to be a LONG way off in our future, despite Wilber's claims to the contrary, but it seems that may be when the Memes quit moving back and forth from self to group focus and become truly Integral. Maybe Coral will change the landscape, but that is still 50 years away from emerging in any real number of people.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Religious Stories and Trends from 2005

Admittedly, much of this is Christian-based religion. Still, the trends are interesting for what they say about religion in America (and the world). The information here is from three sources: Newsweek (Rabbi Mark Gelman), Integrative Spirituality, and the Buddhist Channel.

First up, Newsweek's trends in religion from 2005, based on research by The Barna Group. These are the first sentence or two from each item; read the rest here.
1. Pathetic prayer. Churches are more concerned with programming than with prayer. Barna discovered that prayer is rated as one of the top priorities by less than one out of 25 churches. Most church attendees say that they do not experience the presence of God in the service and fewer than one out of 10 spent any time worshipping God outside of their church service.

2. The continuing demise of the black church. Using the measures of church attendance, Bible knowledge, the priority of faith in a person's life, and the reliance on the religious community for support and relationships, Barna concludes that things are not looking good for black churches. Barna surprisingly concludes that the main reason for this decline is the increasing wealth of the black community.

3. The energizing of the evangelicals. Although only 7 percent of adults are evangelicals, their voice is the loudest and their energy, charity, Bible study, and prayer life is the greatest. They give away more than three times as much money as other Americans.

4. Biblical illiteracy. The Barna Group has discovered that most Christians (and I would add most Jews) are in increasing numbers biblically illiterate. Churches have demoted and de-emphasized Bible study.

5. Revolutionaries. Barna labels as “Christian revolutionaries” the more than 20 million people who are pursuing their Christian faith outside the box. They meet in homes or at work. I even knew some New York Knicks who had a prayer and Bible-study group, but perhaps to see members of the Knicks turning to deep prayer may be motivated more by necessity than by faith.

Next up, the top 10 religion stories of 2005 from Integrative Spirituality.
The death of Pope John Paul II, followed by the election of Pope Benedict XVI, were rated the top two stories in religion for 2005 in a survey of specialized reporters belonging to the Religion Newswriters Association.

Participants also overwhelmingly picked John Paul as the year's top "religion newsmaker."

The other top 10 events, in order:
- Controversy over removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.
- Faith-based agencies' response to hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami and Pakistan earthquake.
- Mainline Protestant denominations' o­ngoing discord over homosexuality.
- Evolution and "intelligent design" debates, especially in Kansas schools and a Pennsylvania federal case.
- The U.S. Supreme Court's split decisions o­n Ten Commandments displays.
- Religious involvement in Supreme Court nomination politicking.
- A Vatican policy statement barring most gays from seminaries and ordination.
- Billy Graham's farewell revival meeting in New York City.

Finally, the top ten Buddhist events from 2005, courtesy of the Buddhist Channel (click the link to read the story).
Event No. 1 CATASTROPHE Asian Tsunami Disaster
Event No. 2 Tzu Chi shines in humanitarian relief
Event No. 3 Stem cell: Shocking breakthrough, then a heartbreak
Event No. 4 Revered Dharma Masters passes on: Venerable Sayadaw U Silananda passed away peacefully on August 13, 2005
Event No. 5 Buddhism tangos with the Mind
Event No. 6 Ancient artifacts threatened
Event No. 7 Buddhism grows fastest in the West
Event No. 8 Temple building in US suburbia face protests
Event No. 9 Buddhism rises in Russia
Event No. 10 The Dalai Lama turns 70

Sam Harris's Fundamentalism

Sam Harris has taken up the cause of atheism, or more precisely, scientism, with such a fervor that he has clearly become as insular, narrow-minded, and fanatical as the religious extremists he often castigates.

His latest offering, Science Must Destroy Religion, is nothing more than a manifesto for scientism (science as religion). Normally I wouldn't care, but people listen to this guy. He has a platform to reach millions of people. There are a lot of people in this country who are sick and tired of fundamentalist religions that are waging wars and burning books. We have our own American Taliban in the form of Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and Concerned Women for America. To some, Harris seems to offer a logical alternative.

But his alternative is flatland--all science, no soul. He is Orange Meme to the core, with a little Red Meme rebellion thrown in to fuel his outrage. This isn't the answer.

What Harris really hates is an unhealthy Blue Meme trying to run the world. The solution isn't to eradicate Blue, but rather to help it become healthy. We need to create conditions for Blue to feel safe enough that it can relinquish its hold on Red anger and move toward Orange reason. It need not give up its faith in a higher order, in cause and effect, and in God to make that leap. God is not eliminated by Orange Meme rationality.

Don Beck has convincingly argued that we cannot change people, we can only change the life conditions so that people may change if they are ready. I agree with this approach.

The first step is to set limits on Green Meme efforts to make the world politically correct. The whole "war on Christmas" fiasco was an attempt by Blue to get out from under its perceived dominance by Green Meme relativism. Blue's war on evolution (a war against the Orange Meme Harris represents) is another example of its sense that it is no longer safe to be Blue in this culture. Orange must become more tolerant--the Orange Meme atheists (Harris and Richard Dawkins are the best examples) are rabidly anti-religion. Scientism just makes Blue feel more persecuted.

We should not teach creationism in the classroom, nor should we marginalize those who choose to believe in divine creation. Christianity is still the majority religion in this nation, and it has political power. We are better served by creating space for their beliefs to be honored than we are in ridiculing them. Again, this does not mean that we should burn books that some Christians find offensive or do away with Darwin.

Blue is an essential developmental stage that we must go through as individuals and as a culture. The bottom line is that our culture is slowly shifting its center of gravity from Blue-orange to blue-Orange, with an increasing number of Green folk making things interesting. Blue will not go down without a fight. People like Sam Harris just make them want to fight that much harder.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Ven. Thubten Dondrub on Karma

Image by Paul Bourke

If we investigate what is the essential teaching of the Buddha, what is the single most important teaching of the Buddha, some people say it might be a teaching on compassion, which, in its highest form, is the teaching about bodhicitta. Some people might say that the most important teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of the true nature of self and phenomena--the wisdom teachings of the Buddha.

I think that the single most important teaching of the Buddha is the teaching on the law of cause and effect--karma--because it contains within it all of the other teachings. By understanding the law of cause and effect, and practicing it in one's life, one can develop loving-kindness and compassion, and eventually, bodhicitta. Practicing the law of cause and effect in our daily lives is the way to develop wisdom. And by practicing and giving central importance in our daily life to observing the law of cause and effect as the single most important thing, moment by moment, we develop renunciation.

Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche makes this joke: "This ordinary mindfulness is not good enough--now I'm picking up a knife, now I'm stabbing this person, now I'm stabbing this person very carefully." That kind of mindfulness is not helpful. Real mindfulness has a moral connotation of knowing or being aware that what one is doing is either virtuous or nonvirtuous. Knowing that this action of body, speech, and mind is going to produce some happiness now and in the future is the kind of mindfulness that we need--mindfulness mixed with an understanding of and faith in the law of cause and effect.

From Mandala Magazine (Aug/Sept 2005), reprinted in Buddhadharma (Winter 2005).

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Quote

A Carpe Diem image.

On the day you were born, you begin to die. Do not waste a single moment more.
--Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Sunday Poem: Robinson Jeffers

Hurt Hawks


The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
   but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed
   under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening,
   asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear
   at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Reading Robinson Jeffers as a freshman in college changed my life. Before Jeffers, I had thought of poetry as boring words by long-dead, boring people. Jeffers was vital and and his words were precise. He did not force language into unnatural rhyming patterns. I was fortunate to have Bill Hotchkiss, an important Jeffers scholar, as my teacher, and later, as my friend.

Jeffers was born on January 10, 1887. His father taught Old Testament Literature and Biblical History at Western Theology Seminary in Pittsburgh and supervised Jeffers's early education. After a varied and well-traveled education, Jeffers married Una Call Kuster in 1913 and moved to Carmel, California. In 1919 he began building Tor House, a 40 foot stone tower next to his home.

From the Academy of American Poets:

Jeffers brought enormous learning in literature, religion, philosophy, languages, myth, and sciences to his poetry. One of his favorite themes was the intense, rugged beauty of the landscape in opposition to the degraded and introverted condition of modern man. Strongly influenced by Nietzsche's concepts of individualism, Jeffers believed that human beings had developed an insanely self-centered view of the world, and felt passionately that we must learn to have greater respect for the rest of creation. Many of Jeffers's narrative poems use incidents of rape, incest, or adultery to express moral despair. The Woman at Point Sur (1927) deals with a minister driven mad by his conflicting desires. The title poem of Cawdor and Other Poems (1928) is based on the myth of Phaedra. In Thurso's Landing (1932), Jeffers reveals, perhaps more than in any of his poems, his abhorrence of modern civilization. His many other volumes include Solstice and Other Poems (1935), containing early use of the Medea story, to which he later returned.

Jeffers is often thought of as an extension of the transcendentalist movement of Emerson. But his view of nature is less as a vehicle of transcendence and more as a source and destination of human meaning. Jeffers rejected much of the "civilized" world and felt more at home in wild nature. He disliked the impact of civilization on human morality, which does not stand out as terribly unique among the modernist writers following WWI.

However, one key phrase in the above poem set Jeffers apart from his peers--it made him an outcast to some and a hero to others. "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk," a statement that became the foundation for Inhumanism, Jeffers's philosophy that places those closer to nature as morally superior to civilized, "communal people." For Jeffers, the hawk is more worthy of life in that it lives by its natural instincts, uncorrupted by culture, expectations, rationalizations, or any other "humanizing" force.

"Hurt Hawks" is one of the most widely anthologized poems from Jeffers' vast collection. The inherent duality in the speaker's behavior makes it a poem that readers come back to again and again. It is not the statement of Inhumanism that makes it a great poem; it's that the speaker makes such a claim and then kills the suffering bird anyway. The second half of the poem is his attempt to rationalize what he has done.

Jeffers believed in a very primal idea of God. In this sense, it is a prerational, prepersonal conception of the Divinity. Jeffers did not hold much hope for humanity in its evolution, especially after the unleashing of the atom in WWII. He chose to advocate a return to a more primitive, authentic life close to nature--living with and within the fluidity of natural forces.

Many of Jeffers's greatest poems were long narratives. "Tamar," Roan Stallion," "The Women at Point Sur," and "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" are among the best-known of these poems. As a bit of context, "Tamar" was written at about the same time that T.S. Eliot wrote "The Wasteland." Where Eliot goes back to the Greek and Roman for imagery and themes to express an intellectualized desire for humans to return to the cycles of nature, Jeffers goes back to the Old Testament story of Tamar, daughter of King David, and resets the story in the California landscape that Jeffers found so powerful. In Jeffers's version, Tamar is the seductress, not the victim--a primal force of nature.

As his career progressed, Jeffers became more and more misanthropic. He rejected U.S. involvement in WWII, favoring an isolationist approach that would allow Europe to destroy itself. He lost much of his literary support because of his political and philosophical views. His last great moment came with his hugely successful rewriting of Medea for the Broadway stage.

Jeffers died in 1962, having influenced a whole new generation of poets, including Bill Hotchkiss, William Everson, Czeslaw Milosc, and Mark Jarman. Jeffers was one of the few poets ever to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

There are limited online resources, but there are many books about the man and his poetry. The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Random House) remains the best collection of his poetry still available.

For further reading:
William Everson, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury (1968)
Arthur B. Coffin, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism (1971)
Robert Brophy, Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems (1973)
Bill Hotchkiss, Jeffers: The Sivaistic Vision (1975)
William Everson, The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure (1988)
James Karman, ed., Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers (1990)
Robert Zaller, ed., Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers (1991)