William Everson Everson, William (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Everson, William 1912– (Formerly Brother Antoninus)

An American poet formerly associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, Everson was a Dominican monk from 1951–69. He began his poetic career as a disciple of Robinson Jeffers; however, many critics feel that Everson's contribution has surpassed that of his master. Everson, whose deepest concerns are with the sexual union of man and woman and the analogous ecstatic communion of man and God, views his entire body of work as a spiritual autobiography. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Kenneth Rexroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's long ago now, another epoch in the life of mankind, before the Second War, that I got a pamphlet of poems from a press in a small California town—These Are the Ravens—and then a handsome book from the Ward Ritchie Press in Los Angeles—San Joaquin. They weren't much like the poems being written in those days, either in New Masses, Partisan Review or The Southern Review. They were native poems, autochthonous in a way the fashionable poems of the day could not manage. Being an autochthon of course is something you don't manage, you are. It was not just the subjects, the daily experience of a young man raising grapes in the Great Valley of California, or the rhythms, which were of the same organic pulse you find in Isaiah, or Blake's prophecies, or Whitman, or Lawrence, or Sandburg at his best, or Wallace Gould, or Robinson Jeffers. This, it seemed to me, was a young fellow out to make himself unknown and forgotten in literary circles. The age has turned round, and the momentary reputations of that day are gone, and William Everson, now Brother Antoninus, is very far from being unknown and forgotten.

I say this, not in a spirit of literary controversy, but to try to bring home to a time that accepts his idiom and his sensibility, how unusual these poems were thirty years ago. Everson has won through, and in a very real sense this whole book [The Residual Years: Poems 1934–1948]—a new edition of his early poems—is a record of that struggle. It is a journal of a singlehanded war for a different definition of poetic integrity. There is nothing abstract or impersonal about these poems. They are not clockwork asthetic objects, wound up to go off and upset the reader. T. S. Eliot and Paul Valéry told the young of the last generation that that's what poems were, and the young dutifully tried their best to make such infernal machines, never noticing that their masters never wrote that way at...

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Frederic I. Carpenter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Poet Is Dead" is a moving elegy [to Robinson Jeffers] in which the living poet who is with us now, mourned the passing of the poet recently dead. But instead of writing a conventional elegy, Everson remembered Jeffers' own earlier poetry, especially "Post Mortem"; and, borrowing some of Jeffers' imagery and poetic phrases, spoke as it were with the tongue of the dead poet, in order to realize his presence in the world which he had just left. These two poems complement each other—the first looking forward to the time when the poet should have died; the second remembering the dead poet and naturalizing him in our living world. (p. 4)

The strophes of "The Poet Is Dead" alternate between images of nature (the natural environment in which Jeffers lived), and images of human nature (the nature of the dead poet)…. The parallelism and repetition of the imagery subtly emphasize that the poet, both in body and in spirit, was integrally a part of physical nature—his "pen, splintered on the excesses of vision." Then, throughout one extended metaphor, the poet's body seems magically to become one with the wild rock coast which he loved…. The poem succeeds in naturalizing Jeffers, both body and spirit, in the larger world which he had just left.

Further, this process of naturalizing the visionary poet has the effect of assuaging some of his own fears, expressed in "Post Mortem." In this new poem, which might have been entitled "Post Post Mortem," the poet's ghost becomes no longer an "impotent voice on the sea-wind." By means of his naturalization in the world after his death, the poet's body is rescued from the embalming process which has been called "the American way of death," in which the reality of death is disguised with rouge and cosmetics. In Everson's poem the impotent ghost becomes refleshed. (pp. 6-7)

Finally, even the voice of the poet who is dead seems to speak again through the voice of his disciple. Not only the dead body, but the "voice on the sea-wind" returns, and both body and spirit become realized anew. For Everson's poem remembers phrases and recalls images from the earlier poetry of Jeffers: from "Post Mortem," from "The Bed by the Window," from "The Wolf Who Died Snapping," and from "To Death"—a poem in Hungerfield, the last volume published in Jeffers' lifetime. Addressing "Death," Jeffers had written: "I think of you as a great king," and continued: "You have a sister named Life, an opulent treacherous woman / Blonde and a harlot…." Now Everson's poem echoes these words:

Now the opulent
Treacherous woman called Life
Forsakes her claim. Blond and a harlot
She once drank joy from his narrow loins.
She broke his virtue in her knees.

But these particular words and phrases, first used by Jeffers and now repeated by Everson, seemed to me to emphasize the life-denying aspect of Jeffers, which had increased as he grew older. And as I read and reread the poem, this single strophe disturbed me. Everson seemed to accept Jeffers' characterization of life as "blonde and a harlot," and even to universalize the metaphor. Flatly stated, he seemed to agree: "Life is a harlot." And so,...

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Albert Gelpi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If] T. S. Eliot is the most important religious poet in English in the first half of the twentieth century, Everson // Antoninus is the most important religious poet of the second half of the century.

The extreme contrasts between those two poets point to a symptomatic tension in the religious commitment. The differences are less doctrinal than temperamental: Eliot the conservative classicist submitting the weaknesses of the individual to the reasonable authority of tradition and institutional structures in order to absolve him from the exigencies of personality; and Everson, the romantic individualist, trusting reason less than the undertow of passion and instinct to write out a life-long poem, as Whitman did a century ago, of the struggles with himself to realize himself. (p. 355)

[The] explicitly Christian poets of the twentieth century have, by and large, tended to stress the constraining limits of a radically flawed creation through which the refractions of the Spirit penetrate at best tenuously and elusively, and they have generally insisted on working within the limitations of formal conventions as a way of testing and fixing "hints and guesses," as Eliot described our experience of the Incarnation. The means and the meaning, the norms and the measure have therefore been ruminative, guarded, Apollonian in the main. (p. 356)

It is the very history of religious—especially Christian—poetry in the twentieth century, with its fixation on human fallibility and its consequent insistence on necessarily prescribed forms, that makes Everson's poetry seem radical, original, transformative. Most of the Dionysians in recent poetry—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, like Hart Crane in the twenties—have used alcohol or drugs for release into vision…. The distinctiveness of Everson's achievement springs, rather, from the Dionysian character of his Christianity. This has evolved in two complementary phases: from the beginning, his surrendering to primal experience until at last it yielded him the Christian mystery; and his surrendering, then, to the Christian mystery so unreservedly that it enflamed and illuminated, below and above structured rational consciousness, that dark area, at once the center and circumference of psyche, where passion and spirit reveal themselves as personhood incarnate. (pp. 356-57)

William Everson's life has been punctuated again and again by interruptions, abrupt changes and seeming reversals…. [In] 1934 he discovered the master whose work made him a poet: Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers represented an "intellectual awakening and the first religious conversion, all in one." "When Jeffers showed me God in the cosmos, it took and I became a pantheist," and "that pantheism was based on a kind of religious sexuality," a sense of the universal life-force compelling all things in the sexual rhythm…. "August" is characteristic of much of the early poetry in its identification with the female earth so deep that masculine intellect relinquishes sovereignty and the poet yields virginal to the God of Nature…. (p. 357)

Everson's pantheism made him a pacifist [during the Second World War]; death and destruction in nature were part of the ecological cycle, but in the human order were violational because egoistic and malevolent. The figure of the bloody warrior from his Nordic ancestry stalks the poetry of the late 30's as the Shadow-inversion of the feminine pacifist-pantheist. But when the holocaust broke, Everson retreated to nature and spent the years 1943–1946 as a forester in an Oregon camp for conscientious objectors. "The Raid" describes war as rape, and "The Hare" acknowledges the Shadow in himself with the awareness, "father of guilt," that we are all killers. Still, fascinated as he was and remained with assertive masculinity (Jeffers was similarly ambivalent), he chose the C.O. camp in the name of his feminine susceptibilities….

In 1946 he came to San Francisco to join the pacifist-anarchist group around Kenneth Rexroth who as writers were opposing the established academic poets and critics in the cause of open form and spontaneity. There he met and married the poet-artist Mary Fabilli. The sequences The Blowing of the Seed and The Springing of the Blade hymn their union and move the nature mysticism of the earlier poetry more explicitly into the area of human sexuality. But she was a lapsed Catholic undergoing a rebirth of faith, and through her ordeal Everson found his own life unexpectedly altered and clarified…. (p. 358)

At Midnight Mass, Christmas 1948, Everson was overwhelmed, psychologically, almost physically, by the divine presence in the tabernacle, and that mystical encounter led directly to his conversion the next year. However, by a grotesque twist of irony, the previous marriages of both partners and the prevailing Church procedures at the time made it impossible for them to remain husband and wife. The Falling of the Grain deals with the wrenching ironies and the overriding commitment which underlay their decision to separate. Two years later he entered the Dominicans as a lay brother and served for almost nineteen years, during which time the poems written as Brother Antoninus made him a figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation…. (p. 359)

Everson's conversion and Antoninus' monasticism did not so much "break" his pantheism and erotic mysticism, as break them into a new set of circumstances and a new psychological and spiritual dimension. Now his life was centered on the Incarnation. Not an isolated historical event, but a daily miracle: the ongoing infusion of Creator into creation, supremely expressed in Jesus, the God-Man. The individual hangs on that cross, where all the contradictions of the human condition take on new consequence. The natural and the supernatural, soul and body, sexuality and spirituality—the Incarnation means that those seeming polarities, often vehemently at cross purposes, are meshed at the point of tension.

From the human point of view the Incarnation cancelled out Original Sin, so that God could redeem man from the sinfulness which was part of his freedom. Everson had seen the killer in himself; like Eliot, he knew that the fallible will needed to be curbed by ethical restraints and external norms lest creative freedom become oppression or anarchy; and his penitential bent sought the stricter discipline of monasticism. But from God's perspective the Incarnation is the completion of...

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James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A poet whose religion was of as much interest as his writing, William Everson (then Brother Antoninus) has republished the work of his eighteen years as a Dominican lay brother. [The Veritable Years: 1949–1966] is the second in a trilogy called The Crooked Ways of God. Reading these poems again several decades later, one wonders what the fuss was all about…. Everson falls back on imitations of Jeremiah and Jeffers. Did Everson's reputation depend on the verbally sensational, the mock-biblical, and the autobiographical shock rather than on content and style? It appears so. Tip over the first exclamation point and line after line of poetry collapses like dominoes. Here pseudo-Donne ("Make me! Slake me! Back me! Break me!"), pseudo-Song of Songs (the poet's affair with "Rose"), and pseudo-Aquinas (Being exists, etc.) exploit the Christian tradition, not explore it. Everson explains too much, whether about his sexuality or his spirituality. (p. 117)

James Finn Cotter, "Familiar Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 109-22.∗

Roger Taus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What a beautiful thing that William Everson's River Root comes out in a period of such sexual derangement. For what this epic and magnificent poem does is restore the love making between a man and a woman to its voluptuous and shuddering essence. It is as if Walt Whitman saw from the grave, with somber yet newly startling visage, that all the democratic vistas have long since been shattered like so many burned out tenements in the South Bronx, but still believed…. [Everson] gets to a vision of bonding in this poem that is enrapturing. Quieter, for obvious reasons (a century's difference), than Whitman, his celebration is nonetheless ecstatic, ceremonial and deeply erotic.

In a most intelligent foreword, the poet speaks of this work as "a monolithic anacronism, a core of primitive exultation out of the past." Its presence, however, sings, and calls us together.

Roger Taus, "Books in Brief: A Syzygy for the Bicentennial of These States," in The Minnesota Review (© 1978 The Minnesota Review), n.s. No. 12, Spring, 1979, p. 113.