I don’t know quite how to feel about today’s poetry; most of what I read is hard for me to relate to. Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry because of that. Much of it seems to be simply prose in verse form. It’s as if many just jotted down a free-floating mood, off-set it in lines instead of paragraphs, and called it a poem. If much work actually went into some of them, I don’t see it. But, maybe that’s just me.
Some, of course, are better than others at setting moods, feelings, and thoughts down in words and arranging them into lyrical lines for effect. It’s comforting to know there’s still a place for them today, however small and crowded, however particular individual taste me be. I suspect that our current swing toward rationalism may be partly responsible for poetry’s recent decline…
I first heard of Robinson Jeffers in a quote by Joseph Campbell. I later happened on a small book of his in a used bookstore. Copyrighted in 1941, this is from, Robinson Jeffers Selected Poems:
The House Dog’s Grave
(Haig, an English bulldog)I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now Run with you in the evenings along the shore, Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment You see me there. So leave awhile the pawmarks on the front door Where I used to scratch to go out or in, And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor The marks of my drinking pan. I cannot lie by the fire as I used to do On the warm stone Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the nights through I lie alone. But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet Outside your window where firelight so often plays, And where you sit to read — and I fear often grieving for me — Every night your lamplight lies on my place. You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard To think of you ever dying. A little dog would get tired, living so long. I hope that when you are lying Under the ground like me your lives will appear As good and joyful as mine. No dears, that’s too much hope; you are not so well cared for as I have been. And never have known the passionate and undivided Fidelities that I knew. Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. … But to me you were true. You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend. I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures To the end and far past the end. If this is my end, I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.
Like everything else, poetry is changing. To reveal the depth and movement of the soul has always been the poet’s task. The suddenness of the changes in consciousness in the last generation are duly noted discursively, as in a history book, but their effects on the soul seem only hinted at by poetical meanderings through personal complexes. It is a reflection of where we are and what we think about.
Real depth and relation are in Jeffers’ poem, for he trades between himself and something greater (and smaller, too) in a way that reflects the paradox of being human. In that sense, it’s timeless. But, much has changed since then: modern depth psychology has introduced a new reckoning for the scientist and philosopher, the preacher and the poet. None, it seems, has much embraced it.
The old poets’ openness to the collective unconscious which once revealed the secret path of the soul’s direction has, like religion and philosophy, given way to materialism and technological progress. What’s left of the poet’s time-honored truths, the immaterial ones, has become a personal tale which has little to do with the unseen movements taking place beneath culture’s frenetic activities.
I only hope the house dog we’ve made of nature and spirit, the truths we’ve sacrificed for our illusions, may sooner than later be felt as the poignant and painful loss Jeffers felt in his heart for his little English bulldog. It is today, as it’s always been, the poet’s task to reveal such things as trouble the human soul.
For a new poetic look at a very old human problem, read more here.