by Ray Jason
|TOR HOUSE - photo by Ray Jason|
My heroes do not score touchdowns or lead armies or star in movies. Instead, those in my Pantheon think deeply and dream elegantly and write poetically. They are secular saints, who tried to decipher the mysteries of the human condition and who shared their discoveries with all of us. Out of reverence for their quests, I have tried to visit some of the places that were crucial to their personal and artistic development.
I sat on the stone foundation of Thoreau’s tiny cabin next to Walden Pond and marveled at his 19th century journals. They are so full of wisdom that still resonates 150 years later. But my joy at being on that hallowed shoreline was tempered by my awareness that nowadays his message is but a muted rustling of leaves in a distant forest. His insistence on the need for humanity to stay connected to Nature and to be suspicious of the glories of Man is even more vital today than it was in his era.
While seated in the garden of the house where Walt Whitman was born, I could still feel his colossal lust for Life a dozen decades after his death. The ecstasy and spontaneity and curiosity that saturated both his poetry and his daily wanderings are in such contrast to the lives of the modern multitude. There is so much to be learned from the immediacy with which he embraced the world. But instead, our contemporary cyber-blindness has substituted screen-to-screen “connecting” for face-to-face living.
During my Key West years, I spent many a pleasant afternoon at Hemingway’s home pondering the paradoxes so dominant in both his work and his life. His rugged, rough-and-tumble image was always at odds with his sensitive explorations of bravery and honor and loyalty. This dichotomy translated into some powerful writing. But in our pampered modern world the artist who blends intellect and courage is an endangered species.
As a lover of the Sea and of the risks and glories of the Wide Waters, I naturally found my way to Jack London’s house. Unfortunately, it is but a foundation for the home, since the magnificent structure was destroyed in a fire (of suspicious origins) just before he was about to move into it. The tragedy of that loss was also reflected in the shortness of his life. Jack was profoundly aware of the fragility of Life as is exemplified in one of his famous quotations: “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” His lust for both deeds and words was a powerful influence on my formative years. He was so emblematic of what is real and genuine. It must be difficult for young people these days to find such inspiration when they are surrounded by so much that is artificial and fraudulent.
But one sacred site had evaded my exploration for a very long time. It was Tor House, where Robinson Jeffers had created his superb but largely forgotten poetry. Unlike the others mentioned here, he did not purchase or commission his home - he built most of it with his own hands. During the construction of the modest, British Isles style cottage, he apprenticed himself to the stone mason that he had hired.
He erected the other buildings in his small compound with his own hands and basic tools. He would haul large granite rocks from the edge of the sea below his property up the steep hill on a horse-drawn sled. Then he would shape and cement them into structures that will probably endure even the most horrific destruction of humanity. As he once described this skill in a poem, he had the ability to make “stone love stone.” More importantly for me, he had the genius to make word love word.
I first encountered Jeffers in a college creative writing class. My professor was the most inspirational teacher that I ever had. He made literature burst from the page with radiant energy and beauty. And as the one and only composition teacher in my life, he gave me some extremely wise counsel. He advised me to “write for just two people – yourself and an unknown reader one hundred years from now.”
This teacher, whose name was Matthew Mc Sorley, loved Robinson Jeffers not just for his poetic brilliance, but also for his personal incorruptibility. Jeffers was the darling of the literary world in the 1930s and was even featured on a cover of TIME magazine. But his refusal to cheerlead for World War II was denounced by the artistic establishment. The rest of his career was a sad, lonely battle against literary orthodoxy.
His refusal to surrender to the System was very appealing to me. In an era where modern poetry seemed like indecipherable word riddles full of codes and references that only insiders could understand, Jeffers was accessible. His poetry was straightforward and almost stark - like the brooding coastline that so inspired him. In those days, the windswept shore where he lived and worked was almost untouched by the hand and menace of humankind.
The reason that it took me so long to make my pilgrimage to this shrine of Pantheism, was because after it was converted into a museum it was only open to visitors on the weekends. And because my experience in Vietnam had convinced me to veer away from the so-called Real World as much as possible, I found myself leading the most counter-culture of lives - as a San Francisco street juggler. So, I was always working on the weekends.
But finally, in the autumn of 2015, I stepped foot on that hallowed ground with mild trepidation. That’s because I feared that the anticipation might outweigh the visitation. It did not! From the garden gate the curve of the planet was clearly visible. This reminded me of Robinson’s image of the Pacific Ocean as an enormous blue eye gazing out into the infinite. The hawks still circled overhead as living symbols of the wildness that Jeffers found so lacking in civilized man. And the rough granite stones of the buildings stood unflinching and bold - as enduring as he hoped his poetry would remain as the decades thundered past.
When the tour was concluded we were permitted to linger for a while in this modest but magnificent compound. I immediately climbed to the top of Hawk Tower and tried to ponder more deeply some of the lessons that I had learned from this man’s poetry and philosophy.
It was startling how relevant his major messages remain even 50 years after his death. And it was tragic to recognize how the modern world has ignored his counsel. He termed his personal philosophy “Inhumanism.” Essentially, he argued that Humankind is too infatuated with its own self-acclaimed glories. He warned that as we sever ourselves from Nature we amputate our connection to that larger essence that birthed us and shapes us and tempers us.
Imagine the fury that might arise from him these days as he witnesses the masses dedicating their lives to watching and driving around in and talking to machines. He railed against an un-culture of rampant Materialism that seemed crass and meaningless and ignoble to him. And that was before the arrival of pay-for-view “cage fights” and the Kardashians and pre-teen beauty pageants.
But besides the metastasized culture, Jeffers also took issue with the two great Goliaths of human societies – The Church and The State. He exposed and assailed them with a bold brilliance that earned him enemies in high and low precincts. But he was unwavering in his commitment to revealing the Truth – even if it drove him into an internal exile.
There are quite a few photographs of Robinson Jeffers staring out to sea from the parapet of the tower that he built with his own hands. His gaze is somber and stoic and steel-eyed.
He was frequently accused of misanthropy – of dislike for the human species. But I have read much of his work, and I believe that his view of humanity was a mixture of sadness and despair and sympathy. He realized that his attempts at guidance were but a fool’s errand. He knew in his heart of hearts that the same species that had blessed us with Mozart had also cursed us with the Mushroom Cloud.