By Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof
In the 1930s, a new poetry magazine published in London, New Verse, asked poets to answer a standard set of questions – there were six. The answers given by Robinson Jeffers were included in the December 1934 issue. Jeffers was known for his reluctance to talk about his own poetry or to explain it. In response to “Do you intend your poetry to be useful to yourself or others?” he answered, “Both.”
So, with his permission, intended or not, this month I profess a lesson I found in one of his poems, “To the Stone-Cutters.” This is a very short poem. In it there is one word he made up. Jeffers took the word, fore, and put it in front of the word, defeated. So, now we have the word, foredefeated. Let’s define it as losing before you even begin.
Stone-cutters fighting time with marble. You foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain.
Let’s stop there in the middle of what is line 5. Here we have workers who incise stone with lettering – we see their work on the cornerstones of buildings. Not far from my home in Pacific Grove, California, in Los Gatos a new library opened in 2012. They re-used the cornerstone archived from the old library that had been demolished in 1954 after being condemned as unsafe. Today on the new building, you can see cut in stone:
Oh, I see. The old library building did not last forever, the new one will not either, and, some day, as Jeffers predicts, the words cut into the cornerstone will wear down and disappear. Jeffers must have thought about the half-life of our monuments as he stood in front of the thirty-foot stone tower that took him five years to build (1920- 1925). There in the keystone, cut by the Monterey cemetery gravestone carver, are their initials: U-R-J.
Let’s return to the poem. We left off in the middle of line 5.
The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die,
the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained
thoughts found the honey of peace in old poems.
Oh, I see. This poem Jeffers wrote will not last forever. Gulp. Neither will my poems. Nothing we make, build, or do is permanent. Here we find the limits of the work of the individual. Next month we will consider the limits of collective action.