American Poets: Robinson Jeffers

by lizard


This is the first in what will be a series of looks at American poets, past and present, who I think answer the question posed in the title of my last post.

Robinson Jeffers is an American poet who found critical acclaim in the 20’s and 30’s with long narrative poems that touched on controversial topics, like murder, incest, and parricide.  But it was his vociferous opposition to America entering World War II that caused “gate keeper” critics like Kenneth Roxroth to turn on him.  Thus banished, and voice lost to the fervor of nationalism, his prominence in the poetry world quickly dissipated.

For me, discovering poets like Robinson Jeffers is deeply reassuring.  It allows me to connect my own resistance back through the decades to artists who refused to abandon their internal compasses for external gratification.

Anticipating Oppenheimer’s I am Shiva declaration by several years (Oppenheimer being the physicist who helped bring into this world the nuclear bomb) Robinson Jeffers produced his own take on Shiva’s destructive force:


There is a hawk that is picking the birds out of our sky.
She killed the pigeons of peace and security,
She has taken honesty and confidence from nations and men,
She is hunting the lonely heron of liberty.
She loads the arts with nonsense, she is very cunning,
Science with dreams and the state with powers to catch them at last.
Nothing will escape her at last, flying or running.
This is the hawk that picks out the stars’ eyes.
This is the only hunter that will ever catch the wild swan;
The prey she will take last is the wild white swan of the beauty of things.
Then she will be alone, pure destruction, achieved and supreme,
Empty darkness under the death-tent wings.
She will build a nest of the swan’s bones and hatch a new brood,
Hang new heavens with new birds, all be renewed.


Dark as it is, It probably wasn’t poems like this that caused Jeffers to fall from critical favor.  It was probably poems like this one (this is not exactly how the poem originally appears):

(written in 1943)

Strong enough to be neutral—as is now proved, now American power
From Australia to the Aleutian fog-seas, and Hawaii to Africa, rides every
wind—we were misguided
By fraud and fear, by our public fools and a loved leader’s ambition,
To meddle in the fever-dreams of decaying Europe. We could have forced
Peace, even when France fell; we chose
To make alliance and feed war.
Actum est. There is no returning now.
Two bloody summers from now (I suppose) we shall have to take up the
corrupting burden and curse of victory.
We shall have to hold half the earth: we shall be sick with self-disgust,
And hated by friend and foe, and hold half the earth—or let it go, and go
down with it. Here is a burden
We are not fit for. We are not like Romans and Britons—natural
Bullies by instinct—but we have to bear it. Who kissed Fate on the
mouth, and blown out the lamp—must lie with her.


63 years later and Jeffers’ words still resonate, probably because we are still being “misguided by fraud and fear.”

To bring it back to our present political spectacle, Democrats are tentatively optimistic because the Teabag incursion seems to have fissured Republicans so severely that Rove openly mocked (gasp!) the DELAWARE PALIN CLONE! on the right’s sacred Fox feed, blaming t’baggers for diminishing the opportunity to slaughter Democrats in two months.

Meanwhile Obama does the world same as Bush did, only with a nicer smile and rhetoric delivered in complete sentences.

  1. Totally don’t get poetry. It would have help me get laid now and then, but I just could not pretend. There was one gal in particular, an English prof, and if I could only understand her verse I could have known her fancies. Big and total fail. Still think of her, as she would wear loose skirts and no underwear. Oh, she knew.

  2. The Polish Wolf

    Yeah, I love isolationists…the world would have been a great place for the past sixty years if America had just let the other great powers duke it out and rule as they pleased…who was to tell Germany and Russia how to treat their people? I’m sure it was culturally appropriate.

    • lizard19

      well, wolf, i love interventionists, they are such humble do-gooders with the righteous intention to better the world through military force.

      and WWII was brilliant; let everyone duke out while sitting on the sidelines playing both sides (like funding the nazis through patriotic americans like Prescott Bush) then use the attack on Pearl Harbor to launch ourselves into the melee.

      and since then our imperial ambitions have been purely noble and idealistic, never self-serving, corrupt, or evil. sure, we may have had to support dictators here and there, and fund and train death squads every once in awhile, and even carry out a few covert regime changes, but all in all, it’s been a real boon to be the top dog on the global scene (for some).

      • The Polish Wolf

        Ah lizard, you are a beautifully pure Kantian. Our motives are violent – violence is categorically evil. Thus, it would have been better for us not to act.

        Americans may have funded Nazis (before the war, generally), but America never played both sides effectively, and that’s why we ended up getting attacked. Tell me, at the twilight of the British Empire, would it have better to let Europe and Asia be dominated by Nazis, or Communists, or to save at least a half of it (‘a half the world’, if you will) for Democracy and human rights? Go to Poland and tell them how the United States ought to have let everyone run their own business and left them to it. I won’t defend our methods, but I will defend that our actions in most cases were better than inaction.

        And not for us, mind you – we are poorer now than we would have been following Mr. Jeffers theory, that much is true. But over half the world now lives in Democratic nations thanks largely to our efforts. Can you imagine this outcome if the largest Democratic power on earth ‘lacked all conviction’ while Fascist and Communist powers burned with ‘passionate intensity’? For all our intervention, we can’t stack up close to Stalinism, Maoism, militant Shintoism or Nazism in our crimes, and having stopped those four forces in the past sixty years I think we can say that the world is better for our action that it would have been with our inaction.

        • lizard19

          democracy is not something our ruling class wants to support domestically, or export abroad. instead money runs our politics, and money runs our foreign policy. it’s that simple.

          i don’t know if i have much company, but i’m still of the opinion that our electoral democracy was essentially destroyed in this country in 2000, and it didn’t rise like Lazarus in 2008, not when it now takes half a billion dollars to run a national presidential campaign.

          as for America and human rights, well, I’ve had a long week, so let’s just say we are in absolutely no position to say one goddamn thing to any other country about human rights.

    • History is written by the winners so, of course, they were awesome wars for only good reasons and the other side was pure evil who did all the bad things.

  3. The Polish Wolf

    Really? America may not be an ideal Democracy, but it is one of the freest countries in the world. Even if we’re only number 11, 1-10 cannot exist without our protection. We may commit human rights abuses, but its nothing compared to any country even close to as powerful as we are. Our greatest human rights sins in the past few decades have been those of omission – Rwanda, Darfur, Congo. More people died in Rwanda due to American inaction than died due to American action in the last two decades. So who is responsible for deaths around the world – the interventionists, or the isolationists?

  4. lizard19

    this country’s foreign policy is not altruistic. people who think so are deluded.

    and for a free country, we sure incarcerate more people than any other country in the world.

    after a decade of fear-mongering leadership, we have traded civil liberties for supposed security. feel more safe?

    the roll out of the police state at the RNC in 2008, with journalists getting arrested and activist facing preemptive arrests via provisions of the patriotic act didn’t make this country look very free. it made us look like china.

    the reality is, post 9-11, we are less free and less safe. and under obama, this trend has solidified. domestic spying continues, the patriot act was extended, gitmo is still open for business, and now the predator drones are coming home to patrol the border.

    we are not the shining beacon of freedom anymore. we are an imperial nation that has sacrificed its domestic potency for global dominance.

  5. The Polish Wolf

    And thus, we should have been isolationist in the 1940’s? I never claimed our foreign policy was altruistic. That’s why I said you were a Kantian – you think that because we do things for the wrong reasons, the alternative (doing nothing) is better. We sat out Rwanda, we sat out Darfur, we sat out most of Bosnia, and we sat out WWII for far too long because of people like Robinson Jeffers and you. It’s not to say I don’t see your point – we should change our foreign policy. But becoming isolationist is not the answer. Iraq was the wrong use of our power, but that doesn’t mean we should stop using it.

    • lizard19

      you should read this article about Rwanda. here’s a chunk:

      On August 26, the French newspaper Le Monde revealed the existence of a draft UN report on the most serious violations of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo over an eleven-year period (1993-2003).1 The massive draft report states that after the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s takeover of Rwanda in 1994, it proceeded to carry out “systematic and widespread attacks” against Hutu refugees who had fled Rwanda to neighboring Zaire (now the DRC) as well as against the Hutu civilian population of the DRC in general. Crucially, it concludes that the pattern of these attacks “reveal[s] a number of damning elements that, if they were proven before a competent court, could be classified as crimes of genocide.”2

      The draft report was leaked to Le Monde out of the plausible fear that its most damning facts and charges against the armed forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and President Paul Kagame would be expunged prior to its official release. Sure enough, one week later, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay announced that the official report’s release would be delayed until October 1 “to give concerned states a further month to comment on the draft,” and even “offered to publish any comments alongside the report itself.”3

      Such an unprecedented offer by the UNHCHR follows from a number of factors, including the role that Rwandan troops play in UN peacekeeping operations, and the fact that earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Kagame to serve along with Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as co-chairs of a new Millennium Development Goal Advisory Group. According to the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch — who, after Alison Des Forges, did as much as anyone to sell the official version of the 1994 “Rwanda genocide” to the West, and clearly remains on very friendly terms with the Kagame dictatorship — “top Rwandan officials [have been speaking] freely and on the record about their efforts to have the draft report quashed.” As Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo confided in Gourevitch, “If it is endorsed by the U.N. and it’s ever published, . . . if the U.N. releases it as a U.N. report, the moment it’s released, the
      next day all our troops are coming home. Not just Darfur, all the five countries where we have police.”4

      A third, no doubt more decisive factor is that the Kagame dictatorship is a client of the United States and “acts as a mercenary for U.S. interests in Africa,” as Glen Ford observes; the current conflict between this dictatorship and the UN “threatens to reveal the United States’ role as enabler in the deaths of as many as six million people while Washington’s allies occupied and looted the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”5 It is Washington’s ties to Kagame’ RPF, ultimately, as well as London’s and Brussels’, that public discussions of the draft UN report should turn the spotlight on.

  6. The Polish Wolf

    Also, one could argue we’re more safe..since, you know, before we became a police state we had 9/11, and before that Oklahoma city, and since then we’ve had nothing comparable. Not saying its worth the price, but there’s no reason to stretch the truth when it covers your point just fine already.

    • lizard19

      oklahoma was blowback from the human barbecue of American citizens at Waco. 9-11 was blowback from our dirty dealings in the middle east. both attacks were used by our “elected” leaders as a justification to increase domestic controls, while 9-11 was used as a justification to invade and occupy two sovereign nations.

      terrorist attacks are great for our ruling class, because it allows them to tighten the screws. that’s why some folks go so far as to wonder if there might have been some level of complicity within our intelligence community to allow the attacks on 9-11 to occur.

      now, feel free to skewer me with ridicule.

  7. The Polish Wolf

    I don’t plan on skewering anyone. That Rwanda link is interesting – especially considering the fact that one of the top critics of Kagame’s government was sentenced to life imprisonment today. Rwanda was clearly a double-sided genocide, though the Tutsis still got the worst of it. My point is, the crime of the US was not being in any way involved with what happened, but instead in having the full capacity to stop it, and failing to do so. The same as our failure in Bosnia, the same as our failure in Darfur, all the way back to our failure during the Shoah, and the list goes on – American isolationism has cost more lives internationally than interventionism. That was my point originally, and remains my point. And no matter what America’s domestic failings, they pale in comparison to the alternative.

  1. 1 An April Feast Of Poetry « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Robinson Jeffers […]

  2. 2 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Robinson Jeffers […]

  3. 3 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Robinson Jeffers […]

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