October 27, 2009
Poet Robinson Jeffers and wife, Una, 'tell their own story' in newly published letters
By Cynthia Haven
They fell madly in love. But she was married to a wealthy and prominent Los Angeles attorney. Her lover, Robinson Jeffers, three years younger, was an unemployed student who drank too much. The affair hit the front page of the Los Angeles Times in 1913.
"Una did not want a divorce, despite the torrid romance," said scholar James Karman, editor of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, Vol. I, newly published by Stanford University Press. She went to Europe to think it over, sending hundreds of pages of letters to her husband "asking for forgiveness, a second chance," he said.
She didn't get one. The letters to Teddie Kuster, her jilted spouse, and her future husband, Jeffers (1887-1962), one of the greatest American poets of the last century, are included in the volume's nearly 1,000 pages, which cover the years from 1890 to 1930.
"I'll say he's the most important poet of the 20th century, but nobody's buying that yet," said Karman. "No one in the 20th century came near to what he was trying to do. The sheer scope of his endeavor is unrivaled. There's nothing like it in American literature in the 20th century."
According to Tim Hunt, editor of Stanford University Press' five-volume Collected Poetry, Jeffers is "the least understood of the major American poets from the first half of the 20th century." The projected three-volume series of letters is fully annotated, with a substantial introduction to Jeffers' life and work.
Karman's effort "profoundly complicates our understanding of Jeffers the person, offers powerful insights into his poetry, provides an important context for understanding the literary culture of California in the 1920s and 1930s, and reminds us that Modernism was an aspect of modern poetry and not the whole of it," wrote Hunt.
Karman, calling it an "epistolary autobiography," said, "In a sense, by putting these letters in chronological order, I'm allowing Robinson and Una to tell their own story. Virtually everything of significance that happened in their lives is referred to somewhere in these letters."
For those who think of Jeffers as the craggy, roughhewn poet of the Pacific Coast, the letters show something of the heart of the man who wrote: "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man as a hawk."
"I have thought of you night and day, beautiful, and have treasured you up for a life-time," he wrote to Una on Nov. 21, 1912. "You are all wonderful, but I think perhaps your gameness is what I admire most your courage and your unrepentence. Pure gold you are, dearest, by every test. I'm going to try to do better than I have, and become a mate fit for you. This is uninvited humility, isn't it? And you'd better make the most of it, because I won't always be humble."
He was as good as his word. The letters document his rise as a poet, from the uneven steps in his 1912 Flagons and Apples to his more confident Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems in 1925.
"Jeffers never stopped looking at the fire inside the human mind, or soul, itself the molten core of consciousness that lights all thought and feeling," wrote Karman, who is also the author of Robinson Jeffers, Poet of California.
The 1913 marriage that followed was a lifelong legend in a profession not known for enduring unions and it proved fateful. Despondent over the loss of their first child, the newlyweds moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea, at that time an offbeat, bohemian literary center of about 500 people. As the stagecoach topped the hill from Monterey, wrote Jeffers, they realized they had discovered "our inevitable place."
It's a cliché that geography is destiny but clichés become so for a reason: Sometimes they're true. The Pennsylvania-born Jeffers met his spiritual match not only in Una, but on the Pacific Coast. Man and destiny merged: "One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men," he wrote. From Carmel, he codified his controversial theory of "inhumanism," which calmly saw, perhaps even welcomed, the extinction of the human race: "We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must inhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from."
"Those who listen to Jeffers hear an uncommon voice," Karman wrote. While many of America's poets fluttered to academia and the urban centers, Robinson and Una stayed in Carmel, as its population doubled, trebled, quadrupled. "In all his years, there was never a moment he could not hear the sound of waves breaking on the shore," according to Karman.
"Within the limits imposed by the lyric form, others wrote beautiful poems about nature, but no one devoted himself or herself to bringing an entire landscape to life in verse; and no one else was so persuasive in doing so that he or she can be credited with helping to inspire the modern environmental movement."
As for Una's discarded husband, Teddie Kuster, "He's crushed," said Karman. "When he discovered how long-lasting and deep her love for Robinson was, he felt displaced." The letters show "his attempt to come to terms with that central fact."
Karman said the letters change our notion of Una's long-suffering husband: "Teddie always has been thought of as somewhat peripheral." In the letters he emerges as "a loving, intelligent husband who could not tolerate Una's behavior. It shattered his sense of who he was and who they were," he said. "It's Teddy who dissolves the relationship. Una does not put up much of a fight."
With his second wife, Kuster moved to Carmel also, building a stone house rather akin to Jeffers' Tor House and Hawk Tower (the poet learned stonecutting so he could build them himself). Through his subsequent marriages, Kuster maintained a lifelong friendship with Una.
Karman said one of the big surprises in the letters is the breadth of the Jeffers' social circle. "Robinson and Una were part of an aristocracy of sorts. Virtually everyone they knew was either very wealthy, very accomplished in some field or very gifted as an artist."
The extensive annotation of the new volume "gives a better sense of their widening circle of friends, and it also helps us understand the California scene. Many of the footnotes are about people who shaped the state and the country in the 20th century."
In the years following the letters in Vol. 1, Jeffers' fame crested (he was on the cover of Time magazine in 1932) and then fell when he was a conscientious objector during World War II. "No major American poet has been treated worse by posterity than Robinson Jeffers," wrote poet Dana Gioia, '73, MBA '77, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Jeffers had his champions through the decades of neglect: Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz praised Jeffers even as he decried his inhumanism, writing in the essay Carmel: "He bet everything, drew his own conclusions in voluntary isolation, making no attempt to please anyone, holding his own.
Jeffers's work resembles nothing else produced in this century."
U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Hass, PhD '76, edited Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers in 1987.
Then, during the 1980s, Stanford University Press launched a two-decade project to publish Jeffers' entire oeuvre. "They have taken Jeffers under their wing, and they are making sure that his work is brought to public attention in the most conscientiously prepared edition as possible," said Karman.
Perhaps the 21st century will be better equipped to understand his legacy. "Jeffers questioned the entire intellectual and spiritual legacy of Western Civilization," wrote Karman. "He turned Humanism inside out, claiming Inhumanism for his religion, and turned Christianity outside in, finding the suffering of God at the center of everything."
Commenting on the ancient storytellers of millennia ago, Karman wrote: "If they could see a hawk through Jeffers' eyes or hear in his rhythms the pounding surf, they would sit before him spellbound and marvel again at the world they knew."