Voices of the Headland

Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey

by Alan J. Malnar (Author)
Monographs XXVI, 170 Pages


Voices of the Headland: Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey explores the image of the raptor in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Emanating from the continent’s end of the American West, Jeffers’ poetic eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, and other birds of prey symbolize the compelling presence and voice of nature, a pantheistic universe of beauty and splendor, death and destruction. It is the perilous bird of prey which calls forth the very essence and life-force of Jeffers himself, winging its way through his expansive body of narrative and lyrical verse, a poetry fundamentally anti-social in its vision and primitive in its basic, instinctual surge. Voices of the Headland examines this distinctive imagery from many critical viewpoints.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Foreword by Peter Quigley
  • Author’s Preface
  • Credits and Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Solitary Hunters
  • Chapter 1. Critical Viewpoints
  • Chapter 2. Words of Prey
  • Chapter 3. Of Flight & Sky
  • Chapter 4. The Hawks of Jeffers Country
  • Chapter 5. A Natural History of Hawks
  • Chapter 6. The Hawk’s Dream
  • Chapter 7. The King and His Hawks
  • Chapter 8. Beasts in Peril
  • Chapter 9. Merciless Cries
  • Chapter 10. The Hawk Poet of the Tower
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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In the early 1980s, American ecocriticism with its back-to-nature thematic attempted to extricate its themes from a European-based discourse of ambiguity and deconstruction. We studied and read Thoreau, Jeffers, Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder and talked about individual independence, and yes, beauty. Now those themes and authors are accused of being elitist, imperialistic, patrician, patriarchal, reified, sexist, xenophobic—the list goes on—and, ultimately, according to Ursula Heise, a “visionary dead end.” As Ira Brooker has recently reported, there has been “a school of thought that casts Thoreau and most of his era’s prominent nature writers as naive tools in a massive cover-up of the destructive force of 19th-century America.” Place, beauty, and the individual, once thought to be the basis for a Theoreauvian position of resistance and independence are, oddly now, thought to be part of a power structure to be brought down and deconstructed. Dana Philips, in The Truth of Ecology, has characterized this as a self-defeating and unproductive strategy. He summarizes these concerns by stating that constructivists, or radical relativists, “deploy this theory in so heavy-handed a fashion that they seem to be less interested in mounting a plausible critique…than in pursuing a Mutually Assured Destruction.” How and why did this happen? And how can Jeffers’ hawk save us? ← xi | xii →

Jeffers’ hawk was his touch-stone for truth; it kept him looking at the world clearly. Candidates come and go; history swings this way and that, but there are certain things that are permanent. In “What of It,” Jeffers observes that with the detonation of the bomb “Over Bikini lagoon” that “Life’s norm is lost.” But there is salvation and hawks form a central part of this world for Jeffers:

      Nobler than man or beast my sea-mountains
Pillar the cloud-sky; the beautiful waters in the deep gorges,
…Flow, and the sacred hawks and the storms go over them (CP 3: 208).

The sacred hawks. They are beautiful, powerful, and solitary. They find a serene center in the midst of chaos. They ask for no quarter and get none. Watching and writing about hawks, the mountains, the stars and the ocean gave Jeffers the peace he sought. These things teach him that human rage and our critical issues are not what they seem, “not / great and shattering, but really / Too small to produce any real disturbance” (CP 3: 124).

Jeffers’ sense of beauty was not romantic or simply pastoral although it could partake of these elements. Beauty is a combination: “I cannot tell you / How beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible” (CP 2: 517). He inherited his poetic and aesthetic program as a result of his relation with nature. His aesthetic program emerged from the disinterested but powerful beauty of nature: and no image suited these purposes better than the hawk.

The hawk became one of the most frequent and strongest embodiments of this sense of power, endurance, and beauty for Jeffers, as in “Rock and Hawk.” This sense of disinterested beauty and power was not only the basis for his poetics, but also the way in which he tried to discipline his mind as an individual: he wanted to un-center his mind from himself; he wanted his country to be neutral and calm; he wanted his granite house to reflect these granite qualities of nature and neutral and stoic politics. He wanted to become like neutral nature, “As the rock and ocean that we were made from,” and honor the insights he had gained into the world of the granite, the ocean, the hawk (CP 3: 399).

I initially met Alan in 1996, at a Jeffers conference in California. We formed a friendship around our love of Jeffers. As things would have it, we found ourselves working together at a college in the mountains of Arizona. At some point, Alan began to explain he was a falconer and was planning to capture and train a redtail hawk. I knew enough about these wild creatures, or so I thought, to think this was a flight of fancy by my friend. Sure enough, ← xii | xiii → though, a short time later there was a giant redtail hawk on a perch in Alan’s living room. We went out hawking, and I saw him thrust the big bird into the sky so it could soar, and finally dive down on prey. I’d never seen this kind of relationship between a human and an animal. The beauty, the power, the fierce determination in eye and wing, all willing to land on Alan’s gloved fist upon a call or whistle.

Because of what Alan exposed me to during this time, I also began to see, as if for the first time, the many hawks always present around me: kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine and prairie falcons, osprey, eagles and more. Shortly thereafter, Alan gave a presentation at a Jeffers conference at Northern Arizona University, featuring his redtail in person. It was a delight to see all of these Jeffers’ scholars, who thought they were acquainted with Jeffers’ fierce image from his poetry, overwhelmed by the real thing! The power and fierceness Jeffers expressed about this animal gained a new and unforgettable sense for all in the room. Thereafter, Alan became more focused on the relation between Jeffers and hawks, and now we have this splendid book.

Voices of the Headland is a delight. Like Jeffers’ hawk and sense of nature it is grounded, informed, and it is poetic and passionate. Malnar has gone deep into the world of hawks and into Jeffers’ use of this image and explores where these meet as “words of prey.” His book is a wild read.

—Peter Quigley ← xiii | xiv →

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XXVI, 170
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXVI, 170 pp.

Biographical notes

Alan J. Malnar (Author)

Alan J. Malnar, Associate Professor of Humanities and Communications at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, teaches courses in writing, literature, film, and cultural studies. He has published articles in both scholarly and serial periodicals, and has received many national leadership awards from the Associated Collegiate Press for his work with Horizons newspaper. Voices of the Headland: Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey is his first full-length publication.


Title: Voices of the Headland