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Friday, October 9, 2009

The cultural and environmental legacy of an Occidental College poet

The poetry of Robinson Jeffers is in the spotlight as Occidental College hosts a series of events celebrating one of its most notable alums (class of 1905) who wrote extensively on the environment. On Saturday, Jeffers poetry will be part of several events - including a reading, sculpture dedication and garden opening - at The Southwest Museum in Mt. Washington and the Lummis House in Highland Park. The events will continue through early November as part of The Big Read: Jeffers and the Ecologies of Poetry.

Jeffers, who died in 1962, is best known for his poems inspired by the Western landscape, the Central California coast, in particular. So, why should his work be of interest to modern day Angelenos, particularly those who live in the Eastside? Occidental College professor Thomas Burkdall said Jeffers' words and sentiments still resonate with Americans living far from the Pacific.

"Even though Jeffers did focus his work on the Central Coast of California, I see his poetry as relevant to all of California ecology and, indeed, much of America," Burkdall said in an email. "In his poem, Carmel Point, Jeffers observes:

'This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it.'

Whether this is the Carmel coast or the Verdugo Hills, I think we can all understand this nostalgia for a pristine landscape," Burkdall said. In the wake of the recent fires that swept through the nearby mountains, Burdall offered up this Jeffers poem titled Fire on the Hills:

The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brush-fire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the back slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than men.

- Robinson Jeffers

Portrait of Jeffers by Remsen Bird/Occidental College

1 comment:

  1. Why should people in LA be connected to Jeffers? Let's try to raise awareness that his education and early inspiration for writing was Highland Park and the Arroyo Seco corridor!

    His parents built a house on Avenue 57, he attended Occidental College (when it was in Highland Park). Any wonder that he went on to build his home with local materials... because that was the Arroyo Culture influencing him right here in Los Angeles -- handbuilt structures by Charles Fletcher Lummis' El Alisal or Clyde Browne's Abbey San Encino (both within a short walk of the Highland Park Oxy campus).

    He walked the hills of the Arroyo and one would assume made a strong connection with the land while writing his early poetry.

    Let's celebrate that this was the part of Los Angeles that shaped Jeffers to become a great California poet of the western landscape, just as it always has for many artists of all disciplines.