Robert Zaller – Cliffs of Solitude – A World of Activism: Talking of Troubadours and Poetry with the Historian
Robert Zaller, historian, critic, poet, Professor of History at Drexel University, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society might balk at the term polymath, but the longer you engage him in conversation the more the term fits.
Among his honors, he has received a Guggenheim fellowship. He is a noted scholar of the poet Robinson Jeffers (who was in the forefront of the environmental movement) and for which his biography of Jeffers, The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers, received the Tor House Foundation Award.
It’s easy to imagine Zaller setting out to have a career as an academic, but his story is more complex and interesting, and speaks to how artists make a place for themselves in our society.
WRR: So, how did you find your way into academia?
Robert Zaller: I had no particular career in mind until I decided that writing was the only thing I was good for. How do you support an expensive habit like that?
Academia seemed like a reasonable trade-off of time for money. It was also a refuge from the draft. It didn’t occur to me that I might be a 4F; in any case, I didn’t want to take the chance. Being a soldier was not an option for me. I wasn’t a pacifist; it’s just that I’m averse to taking orders.
The same for the nine to five work world. Graduate school was the alternative. Doing a Ph.D. dissertation was my personal way of learning the craft of writing. I always thought of what I was doing as writing a book, not a dissertation that might be turned into a book. So, becoming a writer and becoming an academic were one and the same for me.
WRR: What was your first book about?
Zaller: It was a study of the English Parliament of 1621. I became an historian because I never bothered to declare a major in college, and when I came around to my last term the only degree requirement I could meet was in history. I had more credits in English, but not the right distribution.
I went into English history in graduate school, and the seventeenth century interested me. I originally planned to go into the eighteenth century, but I didn’t get along with the guy who taught it. I didn’t get along with the seventeenth century man either, but I had to settle down somewhere.
WRR: What interested you about this particular parliament?
Zaller: My advisor suggested it. The records were mostly in print, and he probably knew I was too lazy to do much archival research. Once I looked into it, I found it quite fascinating, full of conflict and high drama—it featured the first modern impeachment, among other things.
I thought it was critical to explaining the revolution of the 1640s, the most important event of the century and in many respects the first popular democratic insurgency since ancient times. Since I was living through another such period myself, I thought I might discover something about the present as well as the past.
WRR: Did you?
Zaller: I’d say so. I found that certain problems are perennial—the relationship between elites and the general population, the construction of ideology, the contest for power. Seventeenth England was, at least notionally, a divine right monarchy, and our society is formally democratic. But there’s less difference than you might suppose. You can’t govern without courting opinion, one way or another. That was just as true in the seventeenth century as it is now.
WRR: You were very active in politics.
Zaller: It was the Sixties—just about everyone was involved in politics. I started out as a premature cynic, as a lot of adolescents are. I read Thorstein Veblen and H. L. Mencken; I wore an armband when Mencken died. But the Sixties forced me to get real. The civil rights movement and Vietnam were both tearing the country apart. What I thought of as a blanket dismissal of all politics as corrupt was simply a way of giving myself a free ride.
People hosed down in Selma or burned by napalm in a rice paddy made me think differently. As they said in those days, I was radicalized. So I spoke, I marched, I wrote. I managed to get myself fired from five academic jobs in two years. Hard to do, but I was a very angry young man.
WRR: And then you took a sabbatical from academia.
Zaller: At some point I had to get away. The university seemed to me fully complicit in the war machine. The antiwar movement had failed. Peaceful protest hadn’t stopped the war; the war simply absorbed it. The Weathermen came along, but, though violence exerted a very strong pull, it was a line I decided not to cross. That really left me no way to stay in the country, though. Travel was cheap. I wanted to see some of the world; I’d been in school since kindergarten. So, I went.
WRR: Where did you go?
Zaller: First to Greece, where my wife Lili had family. Then around the Mediterranean. I kept an extensive diary that I later turned into a travel book, The Unpossessed Country, an exploration of who I was and where I was. What was still valid in Western culture and what had gone wrong and how one could situate oneself in the last third of the twentieth century. At the same time, I’d begun to write poetry and plays. I found creative writing liberating, and began to think of myself as a wandering poet, a troubadour. Translating Lili’s work from her native Greek to English inspired me.
Of course, the money ran out eventually. I had to go home and look for work. But for awhile I felt genuinely free. I knew I was living on borrowed time. But I think prisoners who break out of jail enjoy their freedom while it lasts, even knowing they’re going to be caught and returned to their cells.
I wanted to find out who I was and where I was. What was still valid in Western culture and what had gone wrong and how one could situate oneself in the last third of the twentieth century.
WRR: How did you reconcile yourself with America? Was the war still on?
Zaller: Oh, yes, on and on…I didn’t reconcile myself to America, I reconciled myself to necessity. Eventually, I found a job at the University of Miami; I’d been blackballed before I left, and while I was gone the Great Academic Depression had set in. There were few jobs anywhere, and there still aren’t. I was one of the lucky ones to find work.
WRR: You’ve been teaching since the Sixties. How have your students changed over the years?
Zaller: Not as much as you’d think. I’ve been struck over the years at how durable certain aspects of American society are. American adolescence is still pretty much the same. Of course, educational standards are far lower. Literacy has declined; expectations have been redefined and dumbed down.
That isn’t to say there aren’t still bright and inquisitive students. But it’s harder for them to concentrate; harder even for people who weren’t brought up in the MTV and IPod generations. We’ve become jumpy, and at the same time politically passive. We’re trained to act as consumers, and so we do. Students in the Sixties were in revolt against an empire of junk. Now they’re drowned in it.
WRR: How do you think politics has changed for them?
Zaller: The last forty years have been so dominated by the right that the left tradition has to be reinvented. Left is now center and center is right, and what was the right is a place where Attila the Hun would be comfortable.
Unfortunately, Obama has failed to seize what might have been a progressive moment. We’re fighting two failed imperial wars at once, and trying to prop up a failed capitalism. I stay hopeful about my students. I wish the world were a better place for them, and I think you always have to respect the potential of youth.
But Obama has colossally failed anyone who put any stock in him as a progressive figure. I must say that I didn’t, myself. I think an alternative politics has to be built from the ground up, outside the major parties. That was true forty years ago, and it’s all the more true today. We’ve just wasted a lot of time in between.
WRR: You have a special relationship to Greece, and it’s been the source of much of your poetry. How has Greece changed?
Zaller: I love Greece. I find in the landscape and the climate and the culture something that makes me feel vibrantly alive and perfectly at home. I felt this from the first. I can’t explain it, but my response was so sharp and immediate that I just decided to go with it.
Byron said that he had never been happy a day outside Greece. I won’t say that exactly, but I’ve never been happy the way I am in Greece. Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, warts and all. I’m certainly an American and nothing else; I look like one, walk like one, talk like one. I wouldn’t want to be Greek if I could.
But Greece is a deeper homeland for me. I know that Grecophiles are a numerous tribe, and that there are all sorts of cultural and historical reasons behind the way people idealize Greece. I’m sure some of them apply to me, but I don’t really care. Greece just gives me great joy, and I hope to enjoy my particular relationship with it as long as my legs will carry me.
As for the way the country has changed: well, a great deal, and not generally for the better. Greece was a Balkan nation when I first came to it, and now it’s almost fully Europeanized, at least on the surface.
I remember when the first shipment of Coca-Cola came to the island of Kythera, and the priest came down to the boat to bless it. That was a long time ago. The culture is a lot more homogenized now, television and the Internet leveling everything. It’s more prosperous too, with all the middle-class anxiety and consumption mania that comes with it. You can’t begrudge the Greeks their gadgets; you can’t ask them to live in holy poverty. I don’t think it’s made them happier though, any more than it makes us. Still, the rocks are the same, and the waves, and the wind. At some deeper level, perhaps the Greeks are too.
WRR: You’ve recently published a new book on 16th and 17th Century English history, 800 pages long. That’s a lot of words.
Zaller: (Laughs) Well, yes. It’s called The Discourse of Legitimacy in Early Modern England, a title that obviously begs three questions: What is discourse? What is legitimacy? What is early modern England?
To start with the easy part, the book covers the period from the beginning of the English Reformation in 1529 down to the mid-1640s, the period of the revolution. The question I posed was why England, probably the most stable country in Europe for most of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, came apart at the seams in the 1640s, and produced the first great revolution of modern times.
The English have been debating this ever since the revolution itself. It’s even been debated in recent decades whether what happened was a revolution at all. Whatever you prefer to call it, King Charles I lost his head in it, and modern democratic theory cut its eye teeth on it.
From a technical point of view, the question is whether the revolution should be seen as having deep-rooted causes, or as simply representing a momentary collapse of authority. Some people assume that great events must have great causes; others think that relatively trivial ones can have serious consequences if they aren’t properly handled.
I think that the whole idea of ‘cause’ is problematic with respect to historical events. It’s an idea much better suited to phenomena in the natural sciences, which often do obey fairly straightforward physical laws, at least on the level of ordinary sense experience.
Historical events are much more complex and there is generally an overdetermination of circumstances that apply to them. These circumstances create possibilities that may or may not be realized at any given time, just as the stresses in geological faultlines may or may not produce an earthquake on a particular day.
The English Revolution did not have to happen, but there was an increasing likelihood that the English political system would experience a serious crisis of some sort. Mapping the faultlines—social, economic, religious, legal, political, and ideological—that lay beneath it was the task I set for myself.
I wanted to see how they developed, how they interacted, and how they gradually narrowed the options of the system. I used the idea of “discourse” to describe the way in which these faultlines were articulated and concluded that the system had become very fractile over the course of more than a century, that the crown and its elites were speaking past each other, and that an unanticipated crisis could precipitate a general breakdown. Aren’t you glad you asked?
WRR: Yes I am. But I’m also interested in your poetry, which explains the world through metaphor.
Zaller: Poetry fascinated me, but modern poetry seemed difficult and strange. I came to it in my late twenties. It was my wife Lili who triggered my gift. She began to write poetry after we met, and I began to translate it for her. That meant making English poems out of her Greek ones, and once I felt I’d got the hang of it I decided to try writing my own poems.
When I began, it was like a waterfall. I had enough poems in a year for a book, which I called The Year One. I was very shy about it—it was badly printed—but I had met the poet Kenneth Rexroth at UC Santa Barbara, and I left a copy in his box.
A few days later I ran into him on campus. I could see he was reaching for my name, which he’d obviously forgotten. But he said, “That book you left me—it’s, it’s…marvelous.” He said nothing else, and just kept walking. I have no idea whether he was being polite out of embarrassment, or whether he meant what he said. Rexroth had very correct manners, but he wasn’t particularly polite. I left the country soon after, and never saw him again.
Of course, Rexroth was a marvelous poet himself, one of the great love poets of the century, and a poet of philosophical depth too. So I took heart, and decided to assume he was more sincere than not. I didn’t need Rexroth to confirm my own sense of vocation as a poet. But he could have used a lot of other epithets for a one-word review. Marvelous was just fine.
WRR: You’ve been very involved with writing about another poet, Robinson Jeffers. How did that come about?
Zaller: I knew Jeffers’ name in the Sixties, but he had pretty much faded from view, and the New Critics who hung out with Pound and Stevens were very dismissive of him. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Rexroth had written a particularly scathing review in the Saturday Review of Literature.
When Lili and I were living in Athens, though, I patronized an American lending library, probably financed by the CIA. Browsing one day, I saw a heavy volume of Jeffers’ Selected Poetry on the shelf. For some reason I decided to take it home.
At any rate, I began with the first poem in the book, a sixty-page narrative calledTamar, and I plowed right through all 600 pages of the volume. I’d never read modern poetry—any poetry, I thought—of such power.
When I got back to the States I looked for the rest of Jeffers, and for what I assumed must be the voluminous critical literature about him. But he was virtually out of print, and the criticism I found was meager and mixed at best.
I could see Jeffers’ faults, but they were inseparable from his strengths, and those strengths were so massive they seemed to put everyone else in the shade. It was impossible that this should not be recognized by someone other than me. I couldn’t doubt my own reaction, but I needed to hear it from someone else—one other human being at least.
Finally I found the person I’d been looking for, William Everson. We’d actually met him at a poetry reading in Santa Barbara when he was still Brother Antoninus, a lay brother just on the point of leaving the Dominican Order. He’d written a book on Jeffers put out by a small publisher in San Francisco in which he described being seized by Jeffers’ poetry as if by a giant hand.
Yes! I said to myself. That’s just it!
Years later, I wrote an essay about Everson’s relationship to Jeffers, and I called it The Giant Hand. Bill was an amazing poet himself, and a great hand-press printer—I can just imagine his reaction to e-books.
What I didn’t know was that he’d been sponsored by Rexroth in the Forties, who warned him to stay away from Jeffers. Eventually I wrote about Rexroth’s relation to Jeffers too. It was very obvious Rexroth was indebted to him. But he didn’t want to acknowledge the influence, as so many other West Coast poets freely did—Everson, Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski. He wanted to be king of the hill himself.
Anyway, I found I couldn’t shake Jeffers. I wrote an article about him, but then I realized that nothing less than a book would do. This was The Cliffs of Solitude, which Cambridge has just reissued. It wasn’t a good career move, because I was supposed to be an historian, writing about the seventeenth century. I had to keep it a family secret; Lili was the only person who knew what I was doing.
Eventually I approached Everson with a chapter, and he was very encouraging. The book was published on his recommendation. Lili and I finally met him in his house up the California coast, near Davenport. He looked like a totally different man. He’d been a huge, very fleshy figure in his Dominican habit when we saw him in Santa Barbara, smooth-shaven of course. Now he was gaunt as a hermit, had a long white beard, and dressed in a fringe jacket with bear-claws around his neck.
I’d never seen such a transformation in anyone. He was really a medieval figure, a worker-priest with a touch of the heretic. But Catholics are often attracted to Jeffers, who was a latter-day Calvinist. And here I was, a Brooklyn Jew! But we became warm friends, and I cherished that friendship as long as Bill lived.
WRR: You are still writing about Jeffers.
Yes. I’m just finishing a new book about Jeffers and the American sublime. I wrote The Cliffs of Solitude as a rite of exorcism, to get Jeffers out of my head. It didn’t work; I wound up as part of his head instead. When the book came out, he was undergoing a modest revival, and I met other scholars interested in him. I joined the conversation, and it’s been going on ever since.
WRR: How is the new book different from the old one?
I used a Freudian perspective in writing The Cliffs of Solitude—Jeffers was the first writer to bring the Freudian revolution to America, O’Neill and Faulkner followed him. It worked for me, but obviously there are other ways to read Jeffers. I became interested in relating him to the idea of the sublime, and through that to the American tradition.
Jeffers is generally seen as a figure apart, but I think he is a very crucial successor to Emerson and Thoreau. He is also one of the few major poets to have grappled with the consequences of Darwin and the implications of modern science. So there was a lot to handle. I’d done a few articles about all this, and I thought putting the book together wouldn’t be all that difficult. Wrong as usual.
WRR: You also knew the diarist Anais Nin who became well-known for fankness about sexuality.
Zaller: Yes, I knew her thanks to Lili. When the Lili and I met, I introduced her to Anais’ work, which was just becoming popular. Lili was very enthused about it, and announced she was going to meet Anais. I was taken aback a little; I said you just didn’t walk in on famous writers, and anyway the best of them was in their work.
Anais Nin and Lili Bita
Lili ignored that, and looked Anais up in New York. Anais was receptive, and before I knew it we found ourselves having dinner with her in Greenwich Village. Lili and Anais adored each other, and Anais wrote a very generous preface to a book of Lili’s poems, completely unsolicited.
Anais was like that, tremendously supportive of young writers’ work, helping them financially. This was while she was immensely busy herself, editing and promoting the volumes of her Diary, visiting college campuses across the country, and living a very complicated private life. You have to have energy to be famous. And she was secretly fighting cancer at the same time, as she confessed to Lili. It finally took her life.
WRR: You published a book about her too.
Zaller: Yes, I edited a volume about her. She was also badly underserved by critics. One day I woke up with the idea of collecting the best criticism about her, with new work too, and putting it out as A Casebook on Anais Nin. It was a gift, in return for all she’d done for us. Lili also translated a novel of hers, A Spy in the House of Love. It was the first Greek translation of Anais.
The Casebook was accepted by a publisher who was going out of business. One day, I found that my contract had simply been transferred to another publisher, Meridian. I met my new editor. Her first words to me were, “Who is Anais Nin?” But the book did get published.
WRR: You’ve been a lifelong activist as well and are involved in work against the death penalty.
Zaller: Back in the Sixties there was a sense that revolution was imminent, that we just couldn’t go on in the same way that had brought us to the brink of nuclear destruction and made America a frightening caricature of itself. It was an international moment, a crisis of capitalism. But no one pulled the plug. We all fell back into the same postures.
Fundamentally, the past forty years have been a period of reaction. So, one chips away where one can. It seems to me that capital punishment is the single greatest evil human beings can inflict on one another, and that puts it at the head of a very large catalogue. It’s also, in theory, the easiest one to get rid of—it only requires the stroke of a pen. Getting the pen to move is the hard part.
WRR: With all the evils in the world, why do you believe that the capital punishment is the greatest evil?
Zaller: Humans are distinguished above all by our awareness of mortality; that awareness is the very basis, I believe, of consciousness and identity. Humanity, as an idea, is our common compact against death.
We serve it by the obligation to preserve life, although obviously there are moments, on a deathbed or a battlefield, where mercy may dictate otherwise. It follows from this that murder is the gravest of crimes; but state murder is the worst. When the entire community turns upon a single individual for the purpose of taking his life, the human compact is most flagrantly violated.
A murderer who takes another’s life has done what no one, except in the most exigent circumstances of self-defense, has any right to do; but the state that turns the full, lethal force of the community it purports to represent against a single individual it has rendered helpless and shackled, compounds that individual’s offense, whatever it may be, a thousandfold.
I define evil as that which a properly instructed moral sense must refuse to do or see done. The wilful taking of life by the state, where clear alternatives that protect the community exist, seems to me the strongest case of such evil. No individual violence, cruelty, or depravity can match the cold calculation of the law. No scene of human degradation can rival that of the execution chamber. In no other civil act are we all made a party to that which, as individuals, we are most strongly forbidden to do.
WRR: In your not so spare time, you’re also trying to save the collection of art housed by the Barnes Foundation in the suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania. Why?
Zaller: The Barnes Foundation is not only a unique collection of art, but a unique experiment in American democracy. Albert Barnes believed that fine art could educate ordinary Americans in the skill and vocation of democracy more than anything else. It was and is one of the noblest dreams anyone has ever had for this country.
The people who are trying to move the collection to a mass-market museum in Philadelphia are antidemocratic in a profound sense. This isn’t just an issue about where some art gets to hang. It’s about a vision of America, about creating citizens, not making consumers. It’s a deeply important battle.
WRR: You’re an historian, a poet, a critic, a translator, playwright, activist and social commentator. What should we call you?
Zaller: Call me a writer. That’s what I am.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul