Thursday, April 13, 2006

Poem for the Day: "Cremation" by Robinson Jeffers

Along with Jack Kemp and Terry Gilliam, Occidental College's most famous alumnus is probably the great poet Robinson Jeffers.

It is a great regret in my life that I did not come to fully appreciate Jeffers until after I left Oxy, and during the college's centennial year, in 1987, when Jeffers was celebrated with literary events and readings, I was distracted by literally being a sophomore (from wikipedia: "the word is said to mean "wise fool"; consequently sophomoric means "pretentious, bombastic, inflated in style or manner; immature, crude, superficial" (according to the Oxford English Dictionary)."

Let's just say I was heavy on the fool, and light on the wise, but oh what fun!

Suprise! I digressed. The point is, I was late in coming to love Jeffers, and if there was any doubt in mind, the following poem, one of my favorites, clinched it for me:


It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,

When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth

Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame—besides, I am used to it,

I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,

No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.

We had a great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.

I found this poem first in a wonderful anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz entitled A Book of Luminous Things. Click the title to get it from If you're going to buy one poetry anthology this National Poetry Month, this is a great one to have.

What's so wonderful about this poem by Jeffers is how beautiful it is, in the face of death. It is a celebratory poem, of a life well-lived, and a fully-satisfied soul. And the economy of language is astounding; there is not a word wasted. My poems tend to run longer than they should. This poem is a perfect example of how so much can be said in so little space. The marriage of love and death in the language is exquisite.

Jeffers' wife Una, was the inspiration for this poem. She succumbed to cancer in 1950, a dozen years before Jeffers died in 1962. His ashes were scattered at his home, Tor House, in Carmel.

1 comment:

Ruth Z Deming said...

I'll tell you how I discovered Robinson Jeffers. The year was 1962 and we were reading an anthology of literature at Shaker Heights High School that was collected by our assistant principal. His name was something like Niemand. Every poem in that book was a gem plus there was excellent commentary. The Prisoner of Chillon was in there. Ya know what we should do? Take off a couple of hours. Be not in a hurry. Sit on the back porch and simply read. Read. Read. - Ruth Z Deming