Cover of Robinson Jeffers by James Karman
Robinson Jeffers
Poet and Prophet
James Karman

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August 2015
264 pages.
$19.95

Paper ISBN: 9780804789639
Digital ISBN: 9780804795500
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Winner of the 2016 Oscar Lewis Award, sponsored by the Book Club of California.

Winner of the 2016 Lawrence Clark Powell Award for Distinguished Scholarship, sponsored by the Robinson Jeffers Association.

The precipitous cliffs, rolling headlands, and rocky inlets of the California coast come alive in the poetry of John Robinson Jeffers, an icon of the environmental movement. In this concise and accessible biography, Jeffers scholar James Karman reveals deep insights into this passionate and complex figure and establishes Jeffers as a leading American poet of prophetic vision.

In a move that would define his life's work, Jeffers' family relocated to California from Pennsylvania in 1903 when he was sixteen. While a graduate student at the University of Southern California he met Una Call Kuster, a student who was the wife of a prominent Los Angeles attorney, and they began a scandalous affair that made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. They eventually married and escaped to Carmel, California to write poetry; there they would spend the rest of their lives.

At the height of his popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, Jeffers became one of the few poets ever featured on the cover of Time magazine, and posthumously put on a U.S. postage stamp. Writing by kerosene lamp in a granite tower that he had built himself, his vivid and descriptive poetry of the coast evoked the difficulty and beauty of the wild and inspired photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. He was known for long narrative blank verse that shook up the national literary scene, but in the 1940s his interest in the Greek classics led to several adaptations which were staged on Broadway to great success.

Inspiring later artists from Charles Bukowski to Czesław Miłosz and even the Beach Boys, Robinson Jeffers' contribution to American letters is skillfully brought back out of the shadows of history in this compelling biography of a complex man of poetic genius who wrote so powerfully of the astonishing beauty of nature.

About the author

James Karman, Emeritus Professor of English and Religious Studies at California State University, Chico, is the author of Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California (1987).

"Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet gives us an occasion to get reacquainted with the poet's work. Karman economically tracks the development of the poetry in parallel with the events and trends of the times."

—Ron Slate, On the Seawall: A Literary Website by Ron Slate

"A deliberate outlier from his generation of American poets, Robinson Jeffers stood apart both literarily and literally . . . Karman discusses Jeffers' achievements in the context of his, his wife Una's and their twin sons' isolated yet everyday normal family life . . . This elegant review of a truly unique poet who has become a prophet of modern environmentalism belongs in all American literature collections."

—Ray Olson, Booklist

"Perhaps now, with the publication of the third and final volume of his letters and a short biography by their editor, James Karman, the time has come to bring Jeffers back to a wide readership. The letters detail his life in its dailiness, as well as its surprising outbursts of drama, while Mr. Karman's biography places Jeffers in the context of the literature and events of his era. Taken together, they are very nearly the major, full-length study that Jeffers really deserves . . . [Karman's] biography humanizes the inhumanist and will help new readers understand Jeffers's importance, while leaving room for a full-length life in the future."

—David Mason, The Wall Street Journal

"Jeffers sought a plausible and sustaining vision, sought it explicitly outside the human circle, but sought it with an unremittingly human yearning."

—Louise Glück, Poet Laureate, author of The Wild Iris

"James Karman's deeply informative biography of Robinson Jeffers situates the poet in his time and place, tracing the effect of both contemporary history and wild nature on his work. In eloquent prose Karman evokes the grandeur of Jeffers's poetry and argues for its author's unique position amid the constellation of major poets of his day."

—Edwin Cranston, Harvard University

"James Karman's new biography of Robinson Jeffers is an excellent introduction to one of America's greatest poets and a fine complement to Stanford University Press' exemplary editions of Jeffers' collected poetry and correspondence, the latter edited by Karman himself. The course of Jeffers' biography is clearly and deftly laid out, with particular attention to the most crucial relationship of his life, that with his wife Una. Each of his published books is individually considered, with trenchant analyses and generous quotations from key texts. The book situates Jeffers both among his major Modernist contemporaries and among the other poets—not necessarily less important—who constituted his milieu. It carefully tracks Jeffers' engagement with the history of his times, and the stance he marked out as its tragic observer. Finally, it shows Jeffers as a figure who evolved a singularly holistic view of humanity's place in the cosmic order at a time of fragmentation and division, and whose relevance to today's world has only grown with time. Karman's book will be of equal value to the introductory reader and the advanced specialist. It is written in a clear and supple prose that rises to more than occasional eloquence, and is generously illustrated with images both of the poet and of the wild California coast he made so uniquely his own."

—Robert Zaller, author of Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime

"Only now, it seems, are we beginning to hear what Robinson Jeffers proclaimed decades ago—that to live an authentic life we must overcome self-centeredness and turn with compassion to the natural world. The wisdom of Jeffers' message is evident throughout his life and work, as James Karman convincingly demonstrates in this splendid book."

—Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self

"Karman discusses each of the poet's major books . . . and celebrates the poet's diverse output: meditative lyrics, long narratives, verse dramas. Karman also addresses issues that made Jeffers controversial . . . [and] urges a reevaluation of this 'anti-modern modernist,' emphasizing the ways in which Jeffers anticipated today's ecological concerns. Succinct, lucid, informative, evenhanded in its judgments, this is the best overview currently available of Jeffers's life and work."

Choice

"Karman chronicles Jeffers's life in measured prose, and his close readings of the poems draw out the prophetic, visionary voice of Jeffers's verse, most notably in his anticipation of current environmental concerns...Overall, this is an accessible and engaging biography that will be of use both to new readers of Jeffers's work and to advanced specialists."

Forum for Modern Language Studies