In 2007 the NEA partnered with the Poetry Foundation to add poetry to the The Big Read list. According to the NEA website, The Big Read “is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture.” Three poets were added: Robinson Jeffers, Emily Dickinson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The fiction list created for The Big Read is an interesting one, but not a particularly helpful one. The NEA, which always “acts” surprised when it finds itself caught up in the politics of the culture wars, managed to take a great idea and make it a mediocre one. A list which purports to have as its goal “literary reading” would obviously look much different in a process that made literary merit, not political correctness, the order of the day.
The same can be said for the poetry list. If the list is American poetry only, how can you leave Whitman off the list? or Frost? or Sandburg? or Eliot? or Marianne Moore? or Amy Lowell? or a half-dozen more?
If the goal is get people to read under-read poets, you cannot really have Dickinson on it. She is widely read already, and deservedly so. So the list makes no sense at all. In fact, the only good thing you can say about the list is that Robinson Jeffers is on it. Robinson Jeffers should certainly get more attention than he currently does.
I have written elsewhere of reading Jeffers that “it is natural for readers to approach a Jeffers’ poem as if it were also built stone-by-stone.” Today’s poem is no exception. The words violence and bloodyare words which, of course carry much weight but not what we think of as “poetic weight.” These arenot the words most poets have in their quivers… or at least, most ordinary poets. We can easily,of course, see them being used by Yeats and Auden and Eliot and Ted Hughes. But a lesser poet… a lesser poem would quickly fall apart under the weight of such words. The stone house they were trying to build would quickly collapse.
It is not bad. Let them play.
Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?Violence, the bloody sire of all the world’s values.Never weep, let them play,Old violence is not too old to beget new values.
As I have written, “Jeffers, maybe more than any poet, understood the true weight of words, a primitive and anachronistic weight. A weight we cannot always articulate but which is always able to articulate us.” In these lines we see how true this is. To tackle such a subject and to be able to pull it off, is proof that we all should be reading more Robinson Jeffers.