Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
William Oliver Everson, born September 10, 1912, in Sacramento, California, was the second of three children and the first son of Lewis Everson and Francelia Everson. It is noteworthy that Everson was the first son of his family because throughout his career he has stressed (in his poetry, in some autobiographical essays, and quite specifically in his autobiography, Prodigious Thrust, 1996) that an Oedipal complex is a key factor in his own psychology, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his relationship with the women in his life. Everson’s mother, almost twenty years younger than his father, had been Roman Catholic but was forced to leave the Church to marry the man she loved (a fact of increasing importance to the poet later in his life when he converted to Catholicism). Everson’s father was a Norwegian emigrant and had been an itinerant printer, musician, and bandmaster until, with a wife and children, he settled in Selma, California, in 1914, and there established the Everson Printery in 1920. As a boy, Everson looked to his mother for support, confidence, and emotional understanding, while growing increasingly intimidated, resentful, and—he has said—even hateful of his father, a taciturn and self-professed atheist who believed Christianity and faith in an afterlife were below the dignity of enlightened minds. In short, from infancy, Everson was exposed to—and often torn between—the extreme differences of his parents’ dispositions and sensibilities.
Everson’s first poetic attempts were love poems he wrote to his high school sweetheart, beginning in his junior year. In his senior year, he wrote topical poems for the Selma High School yearbook, The Magnet. After graduation (June, 1931), he enrolled in Fresno State College the following fall but remained there only one semester, during which time he had what might be called his first “literary” poem, “The Gypsy Dance” (blatantly derived from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” with its strict trochaic meter and long lines), published in The Caravan, the Fresno State College literary magazine. Unable to find anything in college interesting enough to keep him, he returned to his parents’ home (December, 1932) and remained there, while working at a local cannery, until June, 1933, when he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Except for short leaves of absence, Everson remained in the CCC camp for a year, but he felt intellectually deficient and painfully isolated, so he returned to Fresno State in the fall of 1934. This time, he remained enrolled for the entire academic year, and he found something that was not only interesting but also inspiring: the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. It was after this discovery that he decided to be the first poet of the San Joaquin Valley.
In 1935, again living in his parents’ home, Everson had his first collection of poems, These Are the Ravens, published. Although the poems in the volume were not very remarkable, at twenty-three, he had begun a lifelong career that would encompass much more than the San Joaquin Valley. Everson married Edwa Poulson, the young woman to whom he had written the love poems in high school, in May, 1938; they settled on a small farm outside Selma, she teaching elementary school and he writing his poetry and tending the vineyard that surrounded their home. Although he was content with his domestic life, the threat of America’s involvement in the war being waged in Europe set the tenor of much of the poetry contained in his next two published volumes, San Joaquin and The Masculine Dead. In 1940, Everson’s mother died; in the same year, he was forced by the Selective Service Act to take a stand on the war, and he registered as a conscientious objector. Thus, in 1943, the poet was incarcerated in a Civilian Public Service (CPS) camp for conscientious objectors in Waldport, Oregon, where he would be instrumental in establishing the Waldport School of Fine Arts and the United Press, both precursors of the later San Francisco Renaissance.
Everson remained incarcerated, with the exception of short leaves of absence, for almost three years, during which time his father died, and he and his wife agreed to a divorce because she had fallen in love with another man; thus he lost all his familial connections with his home back in the valley. In August, 1946, two months after being released from a CPS camp in Weaverville, California, where he had been transferred earlier that year, Everson met and fell in love with Mary Fabilli, an artist and Catholic, recently divorced herself. They were married in the summer of 1948, a year that was also important for Everson because the first national publication of a volume of his selected poetry was issued (The Residual Years) and because he converted to Catholicism on Christmas Eve of that year. Paradoxically, the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognize the Eversons’ marriage because both had been married previously and Mary had been married in a Catholic ceremony; in short, their marriage was annulled, they separated in May, 1949, and Everson was baptized in July. A month before his baptism, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that would enable him to write with financial support for a year; the stipend lasted only ten months, however, and shortly thereafter Everson entered a Catholic Worker House in Oakland, California, where he would remain for fourteen months. In June, 1951, he entered the Dominican Order at St. Albert’s College in Oakland, as a donatus, and there he was given the name Brother Antoninus.
From The Crooked Lines of God through The Hazards of Holiness, the poems of Brother Antoninus emerge as a tortuous series of twists and turns as he struggles, because of his vows of celibacy, in the embrace of Thanatos (that is, the death-urge of the self). In 1960, however, he fell in love with Rose Tunnland, a Catholic divorcé and mother of three children; it was out of this intense love relationship and the breaking of his vows that The Rose of Solitude emerged. Partly out of guilt but mostly out of a difference in personalities, this relationship was ended in 1963, but in 1965, the poet fell in love with another woman, Susanna Rickson, again broke his vows, and this time made the painful decision to leave the Dominican Order. So, in December, 1969, Brother Antoninus concluded a poetry reading (at the University of California, Davis) by stripping off his monk’s habit and walking off the platform as William Everson once again. He married Rickson six days later, and they lived at Stinson Beach until, in 1971, Everson became poet-in-residence at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the 1970’s, although he continued to give poetry readings. He died in Davenport, California, in 1994.
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