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October 23, 2008
Washington, DC

In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts partnered with the Poetry Foundation on a new component of The Big Read that celebrated the nation's historic poetry sites. To date, two poets have been part of this pilot initiative: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robinson Jeffers. (We are planning a pilot Big Read on The Poetry of Emily Dickinson in spring 2009.)

This fall, three organizations are hosting The Big Read: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: The Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation (www.torhouse.org), the National Steinbeck Center (www.steinbeck.org), and the University of California, Santa Cruz (www.ucsc.edu). Visit their Web sites to learn more about their Big Read activities.

From The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers's Reader's Guide, here's an essay on how American culture has been impacted by Jeffers's poetry, which NEA Chairman Dana Gioia describes as "distractingly memorable, not only for its strong music, but also for the hard edge of its wisdom."

"Jeffers and American Culture"

In a culture where many believe that "poetry makes nothing happen," Jeffers remains strangely influential among both artists and scientists.

Artwork by John Sherffius.

Environmentalists and conservationists consider him an influential figure in the movement to protect natural habitat, wilderness, and coastal land. Guided by Ansel Adams, The Sierra Club's lavish folio Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast combined lines from Jeffers's poetry with photographs in a work that helped focus political efforts to preserve that spectacular stretch of California coastline. Poet Robert Hass calls Jeffers an "early environmentalist," as he was "perhaps the first American poet to grasp the devastating extent of the changes human technologies and populations were wreaking on the rest of the earth's biological life."

Jeffers thoroughly understood and embraced the scientific worldview of his time. Indeed, the physicist Freeman Dyson, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1995, compares Jeffers to Einstein and says, "He expressed better than any other poet the scientist's vision." Astronomers and geologists remain interested in his work.

Jeffers's poetry inspired two original and seminal California photographers: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Throughout his life, Ansel Adams was particularly inspired by Jeffers: "I am going to do my best to call attention to the simplicities of environment and method; to ?the enormous beauty of the world,' as Jeffers writes." Morley Baer, another important California photographer, read Jeffers's poems as a college student, and many years later claimed, "Jeffers helped me see and sense the coast of California as a place of great tensions, great natural tensions that are part of life and not to be subdued and eradicated."

Many musicians have been inspired by Jeffers's poetry -- from jazz musician Walter Tolleson to UCLA geophysics professor Peter Bird. Composer Alva Henderson's first opera, Medea -- after Jeffers's adaptation -- was originally performed by the San Diego Opera. Even the California-born Beach Boys were inspired to write a song after Jeffers's poem "The Beaks of Eagles," which originally appeared on their 1973 album Holland .

Jeffers's great triumph is that now -- more than 75 years after his radical poetic voice first sounded -- his poetry retains its power to inspire and disturb.

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