A Field Trip to Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House and Hawk Tower

It was raining, the windshield wipers didn’t work fast enough, and I had been driving lost in suburban streets.  I drove in circles.  I could hardly see through the November rain hitting my windshield to recognize the outlines of Hawk Tower.  I found it at last but had almost given up.  I knew that if I kept driving I’d eventually find Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House, the tower he built for his wife, and perhaps discover for myself the latent tragedy that the poet envisioned in the natural landscape of the Monterey Peninsula.  So much of his poetry embraces the harsh contradictions of “divine, superfluous beauty”— the violence of land, ocean, and sky—the cyclic patterns of nature and the cosmos.  Amidst a seascape of jagged granite and weathered oaks, Jeffers carved a niche for a writer’s existence, versifying the rhythms of Carmel: winging cormorants on the pacific horizon, sailing red-tailed hawks in lowing valleys, and the sloshing spray of surf at high tide.  As I looked at the granite stones of Hawk Tower, darkly saturated by the rain, I witnessed the parabola of Jeffers’s posture, his straining back lugging stones to shore, mortaring them into position, making “stone love stone,” building his permanent edifice, as he had once strove with words to shape the curved lines of his poetry.  The heavy drops of rain on the windshield, the outcropping cliffs against the sea, and the subtle shifting dunes of wildflowers framed the sea-shredded composition of the poet’s creation.  It was the location of a writer’s transgression against time which impressed me as deeply as agate that runs into the heart of stone.

In my student days at California State University, Long Beach, I fondly recall Professor Robert Brophy’s seminar on Robinson Jeffers, which included a field trip to Tor House and Hawk Tower.  It’s one thing to read and discuss poetry in the classroom under a scholar’s supervision, but I learned that poetry becomes more resonant and clear when it’s sounded to the wind atop Jeffers’s five-story granite tower.  It comes alive and its materiality is more palpable, less imaginary than real, at the location in which it was composed.  I was fortunate to have that experience as a student, and I was perhaps even more fortunate to become a college composition instructor, who led my own students on tours of Tor House and Hawk Tower.

When I was a student, I was a late bloomer and had no conception of poetry.  I lacked experience and wasn’t sure that I liked it.  That is, until I read Jeffers’s poetry at Tor House.  Then my views on poetry turned around.  I realized that his verse was rough around the edges, similar to the landscape that he wrote about, but the images and rhythms of the natural world moved me deeply, and I eventually became a devoted poetry student.

As an instructor, I once had an evening composition class at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hills, CA.  Nothing seemed to be working with students—no amount of freewriting or brainstorming seemed to help them with vivid details in their writing.  I struggled to inspire them.  Often I felt ineffective and defeated.  But near the end of the term, I had a meaningful insight that veteran instructors likely have much more regularly.  I recalled my own struggles with writing.  Then I remembered Professor Brophy’s Tor House field trip.  To relieve the tug-of-war power struggle between us I asked my composition students whether they’d be willing to take a field trip, and they agreed—anything to get out of the classroom—even if it was on their own time.

So I supplied them with Xerox copies of poetry that rolled at the edges and led a motley group of writing students to Jeffers’s Tor House.  We paid the entrance fee, took the tour, climbed the secret staircase in Hawk Tower, and read Jeffers’s poetry.  Without invitation or provocation, students soon pulled out their notebooks and started writing.  Some wrote spiritual odysseys.  Others quickly sped essays on nature with details about foliage, flowers, bark, butterflies, and the churning sea.

I’ll never forget a particular student who I knew struggled with his writing.  When he wasn’t attending the evening composition class, he worked construction, road skateboards, and took care of his ailing mother at home.  He had announced in class that he hated poetry and consequently refused to complete writing assignments.  However, as I accompanied him on a tour of Tor House, and as we stood over Jeffers’s death bed, which looks out a horizontal window to the sea, I witnessed his eyes well up with tears as he read “The Bed by the Window,” which clarifies the purpose of the bed.  The student’s voice broke several times and as he reached the final words, “When the patient daemon behind the screen of sea-rock and sky / Thumps with his staff, and calls thrice: ‘Come Jeffers,’” we both choked back tears.  He looked up and the former classroom tensions between us had dissipated, and surprisingly he continued quoting poetry, solemn lines from Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats.  I couldn’t believe what I heard.  I had no idea.  I stood there astonished and tight-lipped, for I knew that the spirit of that locale, perhaps the spirit of Jeffers, his ghost “deep in the granite, not dancing on wind / With the mad wings and the day moon,” had transformed this student’s perceptions on writing about poetry.

Then I finally felt what Professor Brophy must have experienced on many field trips with his students: the importance of student freedom and the liberating power of language for those who struggle with reading and writing.  I also learned the tremendous value of role reversal: students taking control of their own writing processes by active participation in ecological immersion.  Writing locations vary, but Jeffers’s Tor House allows students to explore the productive binaries of the classroom beyond the academy.

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