Dialogue # 7: Coincidence, Robinson Jeffers’ and John Keats’s Space Ships

November 22, 2011

If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness When everything
is as it was in my childhood Violent, vivid, and of infinite possibility: That the sun and the moon broke over my head.   Then I cast time out of the trees and fields, Then I stood immaculate in the Ego; Then I eyed the world with all delight, Reality was the perfection of my sight.   And
time has big handles on the hands, Fields and trees a way of being themselves. I saw battalions of the race of mankind Standing stolid, demanding a moral answer.   I gave the moral answer and I died And into a
realm of complexity came Where nothing is possible but necessity And
the truth waiting there like a red babe.          —Richard Eberhart (1904—2005)    

[From time to time, Steven and I explore what are commonly called coincidences here in West and how much such phenomena influence the way we experience reality.  A Robinson Jeffers book that fell off my kitchen shelf the morning of this dialogue brought the question to the fore, since this dialogue was to be centered on Jeffers and Whitman, both of whom could see the fiery cosmos in a blade of grass or a hurt hawk on a California promontory.  The dialogue evolves into ways of allowing that awareness to inform an afternoon of clearing out the garage.]

 H: You remember our chat about why Jeffers’ reputation changed after 1932?  I won’t go deeper into all that . . .

M: Why after 1932, though?

H: He was on the front cover of Time magazine.

M: Oh.

H: He was considered America’s foremost poet. 

M: Let me interrupt a moment: Here’s an interesting coincidence.  We have a bookcase in our kitchen jammed with books.  One morning a couple of days ago I reached for an envelope lying on top of the books and one fell out.  It was a book of selected Jeffers poems.  You’ve been focused on Jeffers lately and talking with me about him, and here’s Robinson Jeffers Selected Poems.  So I started reading a few of the poems.

H: What did you read?

M: Oh, I don’t remember the titles.  One, of course, is “Hurt Hawks.”  I remembered that one from some time ago.  And a couple of other ones.  And I think his style of writing is almost like prose.  That could possibly be one reason the general public isn’t familiar with him. Reading him now seems easier than when I was younger.

H: That book falling out onto your kitchen floor, isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?  It wanted you to pay attention.

M: Apparently, because it just popped out and fell onto the floor!

Looking around in awareness

H: It wanted you to pay attention.

M: So, coincidences:  Jeffers book, a coincidence. 

Let me bring in “Hurt Hawks” here so readers who aren’t familiar with Jeffers’ poetic style”

The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat, 

No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the 
week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.

He stands under the oak-bush and waits 
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it. 

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head, 

The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes. 
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant. 

You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him; 
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; 
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved. 

We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. 

I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality. 

M: I think these chance happenings are fun  and fascinating.  I could give you a couple more that I noticed recently, but we both know there are tens of thousands of such incidents that people have described.

The fiery furnace of ordinary realitiy

Using what’s there

The thing about it, though, is that for me there was no sense of shock or surprise.  Only in pondering it does it seem like quite a thing to have happen.  But let me shift slightly and come back again to the contrast of the way our culture treats what we call coincidence and the way most other cultures incorporate whatever pops into their awareness.  The Spanish—I think the whole Spanish culture —when they talk of ghosts and visits from dead people, they don’t speak of them as remarkable, mysterious.  They take it as part of the warp and woof of daily life. They really do.  When you read a story, the narrator will say, “Grandfather came and sat by my bed and talked to me.”  And that’s perfectly normal, and they go about their lives as though that’s how it is, nothing to get excited about.

I do see it cropping up more in our own culture.  in Ann Tyler’s book The Beginner’s Goodbye the narrator is telling his own story and starts out by saying something to the effect, “You know, the funny thing is the way people react to Dorothy when we’re out someplace.” Well, it turns out that Dorothy, his wife, has died and she shows up every now and then, maybe sees him in the market or maybe she’s walking beside him.  For him, it’s perfectly natural, though he’s aware that other people might not see it that way.   And there are four or five ways people will try to make that fit, because they see her, too.  Someone might have thought she died but then maybe he hadn’t been paying that much attention, so maybe she hadn’t died after all, so he’d try to act natural and hurry off.  So there she is.

Put that in your story

So Tyler takes up the issue of people coming back into their lives after they’ve died.  And I think she seriously means this story.  The reason I think so is that her husband, Taghi Modarressi, a psychiatrist, died in 1997.  I don’t recall the particulars, but I do know that.  She never refers to that at all.  But I’d bet she had experiences of him coming back, and she thought, “I’m going to put that in a story.”

The trick is not to ignore anything.

Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander has the dead visiting the living, and no one acting as if that’s anything but normal and natural.  The dead continue participating in the shaping of physical reality, just as any other thing we encounter affects us, be it a spilt glass of milk or a glimpse of something out of the corner of the eye.  The trick is not to ignore anything, to realize that everything is of equal importance.  There is no such thing as generic snow to an Eskimo.

What I’m leading up to is that I think there’s a point of view in which these phenomena fit in quite well with some of the things you and I have been talking about, the fiery furnace that we all come from, the sun, and the little atomic furnaces that make up our bodies, the blood flowing through our veins.

The deeper sense is alwaiys

H: Say some more about that.

M: Well, I’ve been thinking about that. You were saying my book title, Realms of Gold, is a pleasant metaphor, yes, and Wordsworth’s host of golden daffodils, and so on.  These pretty images–but you were saying they grow out of this fierce atomic furnace, the sun and that we have to take that into account when we look at a daisy.  You were talking about Jeffers’ poem “The Great Explosion.”  You were saying, if you really want to know where the gold is, it comes from that.  I was saying, yes, I had thought that was implicit in my remarks.  Because these levels of experience, coincidences, for example, are going on right underneath ordinary reality, and supplement or complement ordinary reality, and there are layers and layers of that. Possibly the blood coursing through your veins can be a constant reminder that you come from a fiery furnace, that you are such a furnace yourself.  In this little atom in the tip of my fingernail, so small it can’t even be seen, there’s a fantastic fire contained in there.

The deeper sense is always available to us.

My point is, sure, go ahead, go to the store and buy the grapes, but if you would really like to enjoy your life, you could let all those various levels inform your life. And wouldn’t that be nice, to be able to experience all those levels while you’re buying grapes?  So you have, yes, what you call ordinary reality, but you know, you always know, you could easily click into what I would call the poetic mode and also experience it in this deeper sense.  The deeper sense is always available to us, if we care to engage it.  I’d guess things like rites of passage are supposed to introduce you to that mode in a sharp, clear way, so that you have that awareness as the background of your journey through life.

My God, all that talk.  Well, Steven, you’re a very good listener!

H: I can see you’ve given some more thought to what I said about Jeffers poem about the Big Bang.

M: I’ll tell you one more thing about these thoughts.  I thought I should tell where the title of my website came from: Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”  So I said, OK, here’s the poem.  Then I realized there were so many allusions in it that people wouldn’t know, and it would be hard for them to get at it.  Then I thought, what if he means his words literally, and not in some kind of poetic exaggeration, but really means realms of gold, what if he means literally this intensity of experience that is so deep?  What if Jacob Boehme wasn’t kidding around when he looked at light reflected off a pewter bowl and said, “I saw all heaven.”  What if he really means that?

 So I print the poem and post it on my Website, and I thought people will not get this.  And that’s because these surface features, these words, are one level.  If you untangle that level, that allows you access to another level that is indeed there.  It begins to be richer, more exciting.  If you allow yourself to go to another level, you’re back to what you were talking about, Steven, “The Great Explosion.”  That’s all there in this poem.  If a person were willing to wake up every day, and tune in to these levels of the cosmos all at once, then something like that poem can be absolutely fantastically meaningful.  And eating these scones that we’ve been having this morning could be the same way.  It’s all there.  It depends on my bringing my sensitivity, my concentration, to that world, for it to come alive.  You see poets running around loose, the real ones, and everything is intense like that.  It’s almost enough to burn them up.  Sometimes it does.  Richard Eberhardt wrote, I remember, “If I could only live at that pitch that is near madness. . .”  I guess it’s no wonder so many of us choose to stand a bit farther from the flame.

So that’s what I’m working on, and that’s why I’m thinking about this so much, ways to get into the several layers of meaning that are available in any aspect of any moment.


Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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