While scanning through Facebook this morning, I noticed an interesting post on the wall of one of my old elementary and high school classmates:
The description: “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones:” Poems by and in the spirit of Robinson Jeffers. California poets will read Jeffers’ poetry and their own responses. Led by Suzanne Lummis of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival and featuring Charles Harper Webb, Cecilia Woloch, actress Dale Raoul (True Blood) read the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and special guest poet Jamie Asae FitzGerald. Presented by the Historical Society of Southern California.
While the Big (Group) Read happened last week (more on the installation at the end of this blog), it brought back wonderful memories of reading authors’ works in their exact settings. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to assist Central California poet-professor Ingrid Reti in leading literary excursions to Big Sur – where Robinson Jeffers wrote his most commanding nature and ecology poems. We would stop along the wild, majestic coastline in a tour bus, and take turns reading from the works of Big Sur pioneer-authors while also discussing their relationship to the rugged land. We would stop at locations that either inspired or served as the settings for pieces of writing. We’d also make the obligatory stops to the Henry Miller Library and Nepenthe.
The eclectic cast of Big Sur authors included the literary and artistic powerhouse Henry Miller, Lillian Bos Ross, Jaime de Angulo, Jeffers, and John Steinbeck, who wrote several of his books while lodged in a clifftop cabin that still exists in Lucia. One of our staples was Miller’s great book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, which contains priceless descriptions of walking down from Partington Ridge to the pools at Slate Hot Springs – now the mineral baths of the Esalen Institute. A few years later, I wrote a magazine cover story that interwove these Big Sur literary adventures with the experiences of a heart alive with new love. One day, I’ll retype it and lodge it on my website.
This experience began a new passion for me: Reading works in the locations where they were written. When I read a Robert Frost poem while sitting in the snow in Franconia Notch, NH, every word and image springs to (frosty) life. When I sit on the point at Sirmione, Italy, and read the open-hearted works of Roman poet Catullus while perched in the ruins of his football field-sized villa atop Lake Garda, I can feel how the lake gave his tortured soul solace. While standing in my garden, or writing in the woods behind my house, I am immediately called to any combination of essays, poems and phrases by Kentucky’s great literary treasure, Wendell Berry. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gone up the San Juan Ridge in the Sierra foothills to seclude and meditate at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, then walked across the manzanita-lined road to read the poems of Gary Snyder while sitting next to Kitkitdizze – the great poet/essayist’s home for the past 40 years. Travel down the Grand Canal in Venice, and a potpourri of authors and their works spring to mind – and give further depth and insight into the experience. Hit the beaches of Venice, CA, and it’s easy for me to fall into the lyrical rhythms of two of my favorite musician-poets, Jim Morrison of the Doors and Exene Cervenka of the great L.A. punk/rockabilly band X.
While so much of writing is what we create and shape in our minds, place and setting are an equally large part of the picture. As both working writers and readers, we can draw great wisdom and technique as writers by reading works in their root locations. First, it gives us direct insight into what the author observed in that moment. We can only speculate as to why he or she chose certain words or phrases, but that speculation is certainly enhanced by training our eyes and senses on the same or similar subjects. Furthermore, we can grasp a sense of what created meaning in the author’s life. If Robinson Jeffers wrote countless great poems of nature and ecology while sitting amongst the redwoods, cliffs and raw beaches of Big Sur, then clearly, Big Sur fed his heart, soul and mind. Any time an author spends any length of time in one place, a relationship with that place is formed. Their writing will reflect the relationship with the landscape, ecology, history and people of that locale.
As writers, we can learn how to weave ourselves into our essays, or our characters into their settings, by simply taking literary excursions – and writing about our perceptions, observations and feelings, then creating a new work that integrates place. Visit the home of a noted local author. Go to a place where a favorite author or poet composed a work. Walk the same steps your favorite travel writer took. Sit down, become very quiet, and soak in the energy the author felt and conveyed.
By the way … The Big Read: Robinson Jeffers and the Ecologies of Poetry will remain installed at the Occidental College Library in Southern California through November 7. Hope to see you there!