Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reader-Response Criticism: Robinson Jeffers' "Carmel Point"

The following interpretation of Robinson Jeffers"Carmel Point" is via reader-response criticism.

1.   Read the poem aloud.  What are your initial reactions? 

2.   Scan the poem, using a dictionary. 

      Line 1: u u / u / u / u u / (end-stop) = 10 syllables with 4 stresses
      Line 2: u / u u / u / u u / u u / u / u (end-stop) = 16 syllables with
                   6 stresses
      Line 3: u / u u / u / u / / (end-stop) = 10 syllables with 5 stresses
      Line 4: u / u / u / u u / u / u / / (end-stop) = 14 syllables with 7
      Line 5: end-stop
      Line 6: end-stop
      Line 7: end-stop
      Line 8: u / u / u u / / / u / u u u / (enjambment) = 5 syllables with
                   7 stresses
                   u / u / u / / / / u / u u u / (enjambment) = 15 syllables with
                   8 stresses
      Line 9: enjambment
      Line 10: enjambment
      Line 11: end-stop
      Line 12: end-stop
      Line 13: end-stop
      Line 14: u / u / u / u / u / u u u / / u u (enjambment) = 17
                     syllables with 7 stresses
      Line 15: u u / u / u / u u / / (end-stop) = 11 syllables with 5

      Prevailing meter: irregular, but iamb is dominant foot
      Primary variation on dominant foot: anapest
      Form: free verse 

3.   Determine the poetic techniques Jeffers employs, and use a
      dictionary to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words.      

      Line 1: pathetic fallacy = objects ("things") are patient
      Line 2: assonance = "place" and "defaced"
                   wordplay = "crop" (meaning "cultivated plants or
                   agricultural produce" and/or "a group, quantity or supply
                   appearing at one time")  "Crop" complicates the idea that
                   the suburban houses are defacing Carmel Point because a
                   crop is the result of cultivation, a process in which
                   humans and nature work together.  Furthermore, the
                   houses are no more durable than a crop of tomatoes or
                   artichokes.  The word also suggests that cultivation
                   momentarily defaces the landscape.
      Line 3: ambiguity = "it" ("It" is not a former beauty that has
                   been ruined by humans.)
      Line 4: Poppies are perennial plants with mostly single flowers
                   that have black centers.  They bloom for short periods in
                   early summer.
                   Lupines are perennial plants with tall spikes of pealike
                   flowers that bloom in middle to late spring above deeply
                   divided leaves.
                   wordplay = "walled" (nature is containing itself)
                   alliteration = "clean" and "cliffs"
      Line 5: "intrusion" refers to "walled" in previous line = horses
                   are a part of nature
      Line 6: "milch cows" provide milk
                   repetition of "crop" in "outcrop"
      Line 7: ambiguity = "spoiler has come" (referring to the "crop of
                   suburban houses" or to what follows the colon?)  The
                   present perfect tense, formed with the auxiliary have or
                   has and a verb's past participle, indicates an action that,
                   although begun at some past time, continues to have an
                   impact in the present.
                   pathetic fallacy = "it" (nature) does or does not "care"
      Line 8: metaphor = "people are a tide" (humanity is an ocean)
      Line 9: metaphor = "swells and in time will ebb" (population
                   growth and decline)
      Line 10: "Their works dissolve" = The speaker is shifting our
                     perspective to a different vantage point, moving us
                     beyond a merely human perspective and inviting us to
                     look at "their" houses from the outside.
      Line 11: metaphor = "grain of granite" (stands for the enduring
                     essence of nature)  What we see at Carmel Point is a
                     passing image, an illusion.  What we see in the granite is
                     an image of "pristine beauty" (line 10) that will return
                     after the human settlement is gone.  It is "pristine"
                     because humans cannot spoil it.
                     alliteration = "grain" and "granite"
      Line 12: "endless ocean" = The speaker's assertion that the
                     ocean is "endless" may not be accurate technically, for
                     the ocean and even the solar system will end someday,
                     but from a strictly human perspective, the oceans are
                     "endless" with respect to time (as are the perennial
                     plants in line 4).
                     personification = the "ocean ... climbs our cliff"
                     alliteration = "climbs" and "cliff"
      Line 13: In order to "uncenter our minds," we must first
                     disengage ourselves from our strictly human perspective
                     (line 10).
      Line 14: anaphora = "We must"
                     In order to "unhumanize our views," we must first
                     disengage ourselves from our strictly human perspective
                     (lines 10 and 13).
      Lines 14-15: pathetic fallacy = "the rock and ocean" are "confident" 

4.   Summarize and interpret the poem via reader-response criticism.

      Robinson Jeffers wanted us to experience the poem as the
      speaker experiences nature: hence the volta ("turn") at line
      eight.  Initially I thought the third line refers to a formerly
      beautiful landscape that has been ruined by humans, which led
      me to decide that humanity's deeds and misdeeds are important
      to the speaker.  But as I analyzed the poem, I discovered that
      humans are not significant.  The speaker's view of nature is
      much larger: "It has all time" (8).  All humanity's works,
      including the "suburban houses" that deface Carmel Point, will
      "dissolve" (2 and 10, respectively).  Does that suggest humans
      can spoil nature however we wish because our effects will not
      last?  Yes, one may draw that conclusion.  If a reader responds
      to the poem in that way, then our effects will not matter, for "the
      image of the pristine beauty / Lives in the very grain of the
      granite, / Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff"
      (10-12).  However, and this is the primary reason I like the
      poem, an inescapable conclusion is also that humanity must be
      more humble.  Nature is powerful and deserves our awe.  Thus,
      we must "uncenter our minds from ourselves" and "unhumanize
      our views a little" (13 and 14, respectively).  Those actions,
      according to the speaker, will transform the way we experience
      Carmel Point.

      The poem evokes a response that is deeply and powerfully
      environmental.  Humans are simply a small part of nature.
      Ultimately it does not matter what we do because we will not be
      here forever.  I think Jeffers hoped such insight would alter the
      way we live during our time on Earth.  Because decentering
      involves a loss of self and dehumanizing further displaces an
      individual within humanity--which, again, is part of something
      larger--the reader, according to the speaker, should strive for a
      humility that is spiritual.

5.   Use outside sources of information if you feel you have not
      achieved a valid interpretation.

      Robinson Jeffers' poetry exhibits influences of Friedrich
      Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson's philosophies.  Jeffers
      agreed with Nietzsche that poetry must reclaim substance and
      sense, must contain physical and psychological realities--the
      reasons scientific and philosophic ideas are in his poetry.  Jeffers
      also agreed with Emerson's concept of reality--powerful enough
      to prevent possession of it--concept of beauty--greater than
      intellect--and concept of nature--a combination of power, reality
      and beauty.  Jeffers was not a humanist.  He believed humanity's
      existence will be short and will end tragically.  His primary
      concern was nature as a beautiful necessity.  He wanted his
      readers' souls to learn to love something that is not personal and
      not human.  Although there are religious undertones in his
      poetry, they are not Christian; rather, they are naturalistic, for
      God is equivalent to physical forces.

For more information on Robinson Jeffers, read Roy Harvey Pearce's The Continuity of American Poetry (1987), Hyatt Waggoner's American Poets (1984), or David Perkins' A History of Modern Poetry (1987).