Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

In Memoriam: William Everson

William Everson vividly represented one of the great traditions of California poetry–the prophetic visionary. His worldview was more religious, his temperament more mystical, and his voice more private than his spiritual and artistic model, Robinson Jeffers, and yet the two poets are recognizably kin. Their resemblance goes beyond mere literary influence, though Everson's lifelong devotion to Jeffers surely rivals in depth and intensity any case of poetic emulation on record. Their affinity also reflects a deep imaginative connection. Both poets wrote out of the elemental confrontation of man and untamed nature. If Everson characteristically found the divine flashing through the surface of the creation while Jeffers stoically accepted the eternal indifference of the inhuman world, both visions emerged from an almost primal existential struggle. Although one must ultimately find Jeffers the incommensurably finer poet, Everson is nonetheless the genuine article. Like John Muir, Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, John Steinbeck, he remains one of a dozen or so irreplaceable northern California authors. There is no way to understand the literature of this region of the American imagination without comprehending their work. Everson grew entirely out of his native place, and his importance to Californian poets–among whom I include myself despite my long residence in the East–remains immense.

I never had the good fortune to meet the man, but we did exchange a few brief letters in 1977 when I first read his work. I was poetry editor of Sequoia, the Stanford literary magazine, when Albert Gelpi brought in the transcript of an impassioned seminar Everson had conducted the previous year at a Stanford faculty renewal. Professor Gelpi had also completed a fine general essay on the poet's work. Gelpi's enthusiasm fired ours, and we began reading Everson's verse. We soon wrote him in nearby Santa Cruz for a poem, and he responded immediately with "Rattlesnake August," which so dazzled us that in the fall of 1977 we published a "William Everson/Brother Antoninus Issue." Just as the issue appeared, I headed east to begin a business career. In New York I soon discovered that Everson's poetry remained virtually unknown in the Northeast. Perhaps his work was so deeply rooted in its native landscape that it did not travel well. One may need to have lived in its settings to feel its full force. Once years later I sat on a committee whose job it was to give an award for lifetime achievement in American poetry. When I included Everson among my nominations, my colleagues greeted the suggestion with astonished indignation. New York literary prizes, I learned that afternoon, were too important to squander on Californians.

In praising Everson's poetry for this memorial issue, I hope we do not forget his singular accomplishments as printer and critic. The extravagant beauty of his greatest books–especially Novum Psalterium Pii XII and Granite & Cypress–have earned him a permanent place in the history of American fine printing. Beyond their sheer physical beauty, Everson's productions demonstrate the creative power that deep, intuitive literary intelligence can bring to book design. However magnificent their form, the total design of his books grew naturally out of the needs of the text. No one, for instance, can read Granite & Cypress without learning something essential about Jeffers' prosody. Every aspect of Everson's notably original and yet simple design reveals a profound, holistic understanding of the poetry.

As a literary critic, Everson is a unique case. Has any poet-critic of comparable power written on so narrow a range of subjects? Has any comparable critic so passionately and enduringly identified with a single author? I am aware that a certain type of academic critic might smugly deny Everson the status of a literary critic, but that sort of intellectual bureaucrat confuses the professional etiquette of academe with the full imaginative possibilities of criticism. He or she would have denied the status of criticism to Ezra Pound's ABC's of Reading and D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classical American Literature until those books reached canonical rank. Literary criticism as an imaginative enterprise is a greater thing than the shifting conventions of scholarly fashions. At its infrequent best, criticism even attains the status of literature; it becomes "news that stays news." I think Everson's best critical writing operates at this level of achievement. It will be read long after the works of many current academic superstars are utterly forgotten.

One could easily make a list of Everson's critical shortcomings. He is subjective, digressive, unsystematic, portentous, unflaggingly partisan, and unscholarly. These would be fatal flaws if they were not compensated for with passion, originality, specificity, insight, and–I shall not hesitate to use the problematic and abused word–beauty. Few poets ever have a critical book as compelling and exciting as Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury written about their work. Few American poets could sustain such forceful attention without distortion. It was part of Everson's artistic intuition to know that Jeffers could.

It is no exaggeration to say that Everson wrote criticism like a poet. Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury is lyric in the purest sense. Even when it presents its critical case in organized, intellectual terms, it moves with the passionate energy and personal stamp of a lyric poem. When Everson finally switches to poetry in the volume's final section, the transition is almost imperceptible. His language seems a change only in degree, not in kind. The whole book–not merely its concluding verses–constitutes an elegy on Jeffers. It is unlikely that a finer memorial poem will ever be written than Everson's rhapsodic prose. Now Everson the elegist himself is dead. California has lost a true artist.

© 1995 Dana Gioia. First published in Robinson Jeffers Newsletter (No. 93 and 94, Winter/Spring 1995 )