Dialogue # 7, Part 2 Nature Headon, Fleshed Out Moments, Randomness

Dialogue # 7, Part 2  Nature Headon,, Fleshed Out Moments, Randomness

The morning wind forever blows,
the poem of creation is 
uninterrupted, but few are
the ears to hear it.

[Steven and I continue discussing poetry that penetrates the barrier of the ordinary, Jeffers being one who confronted nature headon, stripping his images to the bone so that there is no way for a reader to take them as pretty words.  We both are familiar with the choice of paying attention to random occurrences and allowing them to help flesh out our moments.]

Random Occurrences

Nature in the Raw

M: As I was saying, we do have the choice of fleshed out moments, and I think possibility would fit in well with your Jeffers work.  As I read him, he wants for himself, and he’d like to make it available to others, what we’re talking about here, that nature is so raw.

H: I think that’s the main reason that he writes, to convey to the reader the sense of what he calls the beauty of things.  He even says to the reader, “Can’t you feel it?” “Look . . .”

M: (Laughing) Yes, look, for Christ’s sake!

H: Look at how beautiful it is.  And, I think, not just the nature that we see but the transparency behind nature, that sheen of gold behind the external object.

M: I think I mentioned earlier that Lawrence Durrell called it the cloth of gold beneath the sackcloth of ordinary reality. 

H: Something internal that shines forward–which comes from the great explosion.  For example, this golden orchid that’s come into bloom, here on the table.

The Difference Between Pretty and Beautiful

M: Ah, yes.  I think for most of us, living on that first level, this is pretty.  If you allow this orchid to express itself, it’s beautiful.  That’s the difference.  There’s a great difference between something pretty and something beautiful.  What’s beautiful is non-verbal, speechless.  Pretty, you can describe.  You have to experience beauty.  And beauty is what it’s all about. I know everybody wants to live in beauty.  They may not know it, but they do everything they can think of to get there.…

Well, let’s get back to what you’ve been working on.  Where are you now?

H: Oh, let me tell you about a dream I had last night.  I’ve been planting redwood trees you know, and in my dream I was planting trees.  So there’s something about tree planting that for me right now is an expression of what we’ve been talking about here, an expression of the poetic.  Planting a tree is poetry. 

M: Yes.

Reverence for the tree


H: When it’s done right and with the right attitude, reverence for the tree, it is poetic.  And that tree will possibly live for two-thousand years.  That gives me peace of mind, gives me pleasure, and it helps me see longevity.  Another reason redwood trees are so important to me is because of the fact that we are writers on the West Coast.  And poets, both of us as well, and as appreciators of good poetry, know this.  In his “Song of the Redwood Tree” Whitman sees the tree is alive and gives it a voice.  It speaks in the poem, and he becomes the voice of the tree.


It’s a beautiful poem.  In many respects it reflects Whitman’s feelings for spiritual democracy, for the unity of all life.  The other side of the poem is the sacrifice.  He celebrates the sacrifice of the tree; it’s a symbolic offering.  There’s a certain lack of awareness in it about the ecological dimension, a consciousness that should have been in the teamsters’ minds, the loggers, who cut down those great first growth forests in Mendocino County, where the poem takes place.  Of course, they were doing it for money and because was their jobs. Nevertheless, there’s a certain sense in which humanity must be elevated to the point in which it fully realizes the tree is sacrificing its life for this new society, which Whitman says is proportionate to nature.  So “Song of the Redwood Tree” is really an anticipation of what Whitman calls poets to come, the future bards of the West.

Jeffers, you could say, is one of the great voices of the West Coast, in regards to the interconnected relationship between the poet and nature, that cosmic unity that is there in so many of his great poems.  So I think planting redwood trees in this park area [Joaquin Miller Park just back of Steven’s home] where we had, not one, but two tragic deforestations for the building of San Francisco and Oakland, with the redwood trees that were cut down here. Planting redwood trees is also an expression of ecological awareness that as writers we have some kind of role in giving something of our own spirit back to nature.  Lori and I found a plaque back in Roberts Park where two massive trees had been cut down, believed to be amongst the largest redwood trees in California.  They were so large ships used them as navigation points to go through the Golden Gate so they wouldn’t crash on the rocks at Alcatraz.  They were so high they towered above everything else.  You can go and see the rings, thirty feet in diameter, today.  These may have been three-thousand-year-old trees. And the largest living things in the world!  And the fact that the forest was cut down for profit says something sad about the need we have right now for a shift from political and economic levels of democracy, to the religious strata–which is what spiritual democracy is, according to Whitman.

They Would Eat a Forest for Profit.

Just to finish this off, there’s a great little poem that Jeffers wrote, right before he went to Taos, probably around 1927, called “A Redeemer.”  Speaking of the Americans who came West, he writes, “Oh, as a rich man eats a forest for profit and a field for vanity, so you came west and raped / The continent and brushed its people to death.”.  The Indians, the Native Americans.  Jeffers writes, “They would eat a forest for profit.”  So here a focus, an ecological focus, on the shadow of economic democracy, and there’s this criticism of manifest destiny.  It’s a serious critique of the economic side of our democratic system–that doesn’t have enough of an ecological awareness in its religious outlook. We’re speaking of coincidences.  Here’s one more.  Lori and I were coming home yesterday after a nice long hike up into the Redwood park, about two miles down to the creek area and on our way back I looked up and I said, “Lori, look!” And four of the redwood trees, right here in back of our house, had been butchered.  Somebody had cut the tops off four of the trees so that they can have a view from their house, looking out toward the South Bay.  I can understand someone wanting to appreciate the beauty of the Bay, but it was sad to see those    trees cut like that.  They’ll grow back, they’ll survive, because Redwood trees are resilient.  They’ll outlast all of us.  It was sad to see because it reminded me this whole hill where we are right now was once filled with Redwood growth–because of the fog belt. So that’s it.  That’s what I wanted to say.  So let’s get back to what you were talking about.

M: Well, the first thing is, I would say in American politics today there are those who speak only of economics and cut down Redwoods for profit and vanity.  Their opponents only counter in those same terms.  They are very reluctant to bring in the spiritual aspect of what we’re doing.  I think we should be strong and clear that democracy is a spiritual thing. We don’t have to say that.  But there is a moral aspect to all these arguments about the environment, gay rights, equal pay for women, the right to an education for every human being, the right to health care, a dignified old age.  These are all spiritual things.  They don’t have anything to do with economics.  You can’t argue there’s profit in any of these.  There’s not enough profit in the arts, and so forth.  Well, democracy isn’t about profit.  These things must be done because of our souls.  You don’t have to use this kind of language, but you have to be willing to stand and say, “We are a spiritual democracy.”  There is no such thing as democracy without the spirit underlying it.  And that brings us right back to the deep layers of meaning. Now there’s the poet coming back in again.  The other thing I was thinking about when you were talking about Jeffers is his style.  I’d say he’s kind of a successor to Whitman.  Whitman was much more flowing and melodic.  I’d bet a few dollars that Jeffers was very familiar with Whitman.

H: Oh, I am sure he was although he says in a letter that Whitman never interested him.

Jeffers’ style versus the safety zone of closed thinking

M: He took it to the next step.  He must have intentionally decided to make his poems less poetic than Whitman.  It must sound almost like a dialogue.  It couldn’t sound like what people were used to in poetry.  It seems, in reading his poems that he jettisoned the conventions of poetry so that he could somehow penetrate the thick skulls, including those of the intellectual establishment, to get past their barrier, that glass partition.  Looking out at the world through glass prevents the world from touching us.  It’s a lot cooler or hotter out there but our mind-sets insulate us.  I’d say that our politicians and establishment thinkers are looking at the world through glass.  I think Jeffers is trying to smash that partition, to get us out of our safety zone of closed thinking. 

H: Yes.  That’s a good way to put it. He is forcefully trying to do that. 

M: His very life, as you know, was lived in that location on the cliff above the Pacific in Carmel. If he lived there, and if he built his house from stones he dragged up from the shore, then he would almost be forced to live the life he was talking about.  Drag one of those rocks up the hill and you’re not looking at life through the window.  You’re not having someone else bring life up for you. I think just the few poems I’ve been reading would suggest that to me.

H: Um hum.

Jeffers and the ecological movement

M: So today, just putting things together from our dialogue, I’d venture to say Jeffers is a successor to Whitman.

H: That’s the way I see it, too.  He is in many ways an answer to Whitman’s call for a future literatus order, which would fulfill his dream of a future society that would be proportionate to nature.  He’s probably the strongest spokesperson in America for the ecological movement.

M: I could see that, yes. 

H: He’s highly regarded by ecological thinkers.  The Sierra Club quotes him quite a bit.

M: Do you have any audios of Jeffers reading his poems?  I was wondering how he would deliver those lines, his emphasis.

H: That’s a good question.  I know there’s at least one recording and probably others. I was saying earlier regarding the Apollo of Keats’ poem that of course Apollo is the sun god but also the god of poets.  Regarding the classical reverence for the poet as the voice of the deeper and wider world, Whitman writes, “Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? Have you reckon’d the Earth much? / Have you practis’d so long as to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud as to get at the meaning of poems? / Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, / You shall possess the good of the Earth and the sun, (there are millions of suns left,)” (Leaves of Grass).  Millions of suns! You see how cosmic he is? He wants to give the reader a sense of the unity of the cosmos in these lines, the origin of all poems.  The shift from the classical period where Keats uses the metaphor of looking up and discovering the new planet, to countless suns, comes in because Whitman was reading Alexander von Humboldt’s book Kosmos.  There are millions of suns.  We are merely one.  Apollo is only one inspiration. 

M: Yes.

Millions of suns yet to discover

H: So he’s saying there are millions of suns left for you to discover.  That’s one thing I wanted to say.  The other thing is that Keats says, “Then felt I . . .”  He feels.  He has a feeling for something that is transcendent.   It swims into his mind; it swims into his ken. This is really the significant aspect of the experience.  The planet swims into his mind and into his understanding, “Ken” being of course the word for understanding.  He goes on, “Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eye . . .”

M: That’s a good image, too.  He had a less powerful image in an earlier version of the poem.

H: I think it’s a great metaphor because it shows the ability to see things from outside of the human realm, from the point of view of the eagle, the animal intelligence within all of us.  More than just animal intelligence, it’s the intelligence of the bird of prey that has this kind of vision that looks down at the Earth and at humanity. That’s what Jeffers brings in through his hawk symbol, and Whitman brings forward in the dalliance of the eagles.  And, yes, it was Balboa, not Cortez, who was the first European to see the Pacific on a peak in Darien, which is in Panama.  Panama was also the place where Alexander von Humboldt went to explore.  This is interesting because what Keats is into, as a British poet, is a vision of the Pacific, the West Coast, which is where Jeffers put his roots down.  Darien is also significant in terms of locale because of the Inca culture. The Incas, of course, were killed off by the Spanish and Portuguese.

M: Yes, yes.

H: Killed off because of their quest for gold.  The Incas had all that gold.

Spanish gold

M: Oh, yes.  The Spaniards took back tons to Spain.

H: Tons, to build their churches.

M: Yes, they really did.  What irony!

H: So that’s how the metaphor plays on the actual place where some of the greatest gold was found.

M: Well, as we talk and in this context, you can see why people valued the metal.  It was probably something that was touching their spirits, a physical version of what they experienced, knowingly or not.  They misunderstood, as you were saying earlier, about the economic use of trees, converting redwoods into gold coins.

At play in the realms of gold

I want add here that Karl Staubach a year or two ago gave me a book called The Tree by Colin Tudge.  A central ideal of that book is that human beings and the tree go back a long way together.  Trees pretty much made civilization possible, if you really think about it.  This was how human beings were able to survive, with fire, housing, and all that sort of thing. There is a great reverence of trees in that book.  And Karl isn’t kidding around when he regards a tree as he would a person.  They are people to him, and he pays a lot of attention to them.  I think he’s one of those who live in the realms of gold all the time.  He told me, back when kids were telling him about their psychedelic experiences, “That’s what I see all the time.”  Nothing special about that!  What’s annoying about geniuses is that they take those realms of gold for granted. They probably wonder why everybody doesn’t see it that way.  But if you’re not wired that way, you can’t.  You have to come at it from a different angle.  And maybe you have to mess around a little bit.  That’s how I came at it in my teaching: We have to mess around a little—play–to get things going, to invite the soul, as Whitman put it.  So, back to the poem, as we’ve been demonstrating, the more you play with it the more it comes alive, doesn’t it?

H: Yes.

The key to the poetic mode

M: After a while, you start to say, “Wow!”  I think everything you and I’ve been talking about is what Keats was fully aware of when he crafted the poem.  Or, let’s say he wasn’t consciously aware, and he wrote these words that resulted in this sonnet.  It doesn’t mean what we’ve seen is not there.  What you, the reader, bring to the poem—always–is what brings it alive.  It’s not alive till you do something yourself to that poem, which is to bring your intensity of vision, your openness. Your flood gates of sensitivity are open so that that poem can penetrate.  It would be the same thing with this pair of glasses here, or anything else.  I can imagine going into a class one day and saying, “Well, let’s look at these glasses today.”  We would spend an hour on that. You can’t believe how poetic that would become within an hour or so.  The option, the opportunity, to participate in the world with that kind of intensity is available, and it would be nice for every educated person to know that much about it.  Not that you have to go around doing that all the time, but you at least ought to know that if you mess around with the world, that that’s what’s there, available to you at any time.

H: That’s good, and I think that Keats was aware of something very profound and that there’s something about the Pacific in that poem that spoke to him.  Keats was looking West, he was looking, as Whitman was looking, to the West Coast.  There’s something about the Golden West, too.

M: Yeah!  There’s so much!

The golden gold of gold

H: Right here, the Golden Gate.  The bridge just had its 75th anniversary. But getting back to what you said about trees and gold. The Gold Rush, of course, the Forty-Niners.  Right after that, the redwoods were cut down in the 1850s. The Gold Rush, and they were still using gold coins back then.  So, profit, cutting a tree, a forest, for profit was equivalent to getting gold.  You could get gold by cutting down redwood trees.  We’re at a point now where we have to shift the focus back to the spiritual level. 

M: Well, yes. 

The petal of the rose and a million suns

H:  That gold is really in the trees. The poet, Dylan Thomas, writes, “. . . that blasts the roots of trees, is my destroyer.”  You remember, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”?  It drives the redwood tree. That is the secret force of the universe.

M: Yes.

H: “Drives my green age, , . Blasts the roots of trees . . .”  So there you see Thomas is actually on to something that Whitman foresaw when he wrote there are millions of suns left and that Jeffers would later explore.  Jeffers showed what blasts the roots of trees is that universal force and it is not just soft petals and warm beds.  It is something much larger than science had ever conceived–until we discovered the idea of the giant atom. That was a real breakthrough in science, and it changed the shape of poetry forever.  Jeffers was very aware of this, and it’s interesting what you’re saying about his lines.  When he wrote “The Women at Point Sur,” he said that metaphors would serve.  He would tell stories again, but there was something that had changed in the shape and structure of poetry.  It’s no longer the kind of poetry that Keats wrote.

M: No.

H: The kind we find in modern verse.

Keats’s spaceship docks in the Oakland hills

M: But I want to say–this occurred to me while you were talking–that Keats’ poem is like a little space ship that came sailing across two centuries.

H: It’s a beautiful poem.

M: And here it is.  It arrived in your living room this morning!  It set sail and arrived here, and we started looking at the space ship and what he embedded in it is now available to us again. So that’s a good lesson for you in your writing.  You want to make sure that 200 years from now somebody’s going to open up your Jeffers book and say, “Oh, Boy!  This is great stuff.” H: There it is.  Keats uses the metaphor of discovering a new planet.

M: Yes.

Silent on a peak in Darien

H: So the science is there, too.

M: Ha!  He poem swims into our ken!  Also, you can’t falsify anything.  It has to ring true at all these levels we’re talking about.  In this poem the surface features produce a picture.  Then we go deeper into the allusions and see what Keats’ inspirations are and then deeper into the source of all those allusions, the very atomic nature of nature and our experience of it. Not a bad little space ship!

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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