The Drama of Self: A Personal Reflection on the Poet William Everson

“Everson has been accused of self-dramatization. Justly. All of his poetry…is concerned with the drama of his own self..Everything is larger than life with a terrible beauty and pain. Life isn’t like that to some people and to them these poems will seem too strong a wine. But of course life is like that.”

I love those lines, which come from the introduction to poet William Everson’s 1948 volume, “The Residual Years.” They were written by his friend and fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth, who came up for discussion here a few posts ago, and who served as a kind of mentor to Everson and other younger poets who had gathered around him in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s.

Rexroth’s droll insistence that “of course life is like that” points to the fact that even when we try to numb ourselves with various inebriates (including electronics and overwork) or present ourselves externally as even-tempered and even blasé observers of a Self we’re not all that taken by, inside we can be—and often enough are—hot roiling messes, driven by passions only marginally under our control, by events totally beyond our control, and by genes and histories that shape us in ways we spend a lifetime trying to understand.

It is good we have poets and other artists who are willing to carry that load, explore its depths, and proclaim to all those who come across their work: “Life is beautiful and awful and full of devastations and griefs and glory. Welcome to mine.”

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Give me my pain for purge.
Give me my pain to heal me on,
Lord and Master,
Burn me black and burn me brittle
But slip me deliverance.

***

***

William Everson became a friend of mine for a few years after I wrote a profile on him for the “San Francisco Chronicle” Sunday magazine in late March, 1983. (Camera phone photo of the cover above.) I had visited him in December at his woodsy Santa Cruz home for a long day’s interview and hike that ended with him pulling out a bottle of wine to share.

I subsequently saw him half a dozen times or so over the next several years when he conducted his one-of-a-kind readings around the Bay Area, and we’d occasionally touch base via phone or mail.

Browsing the first few pages, I sunk down into my couch and stayed there for, I don’t know, maybe five years, it was hard to tell…

He was “only” 71 at the time of our interview, and working on a last epic autobiographical poem. But his energy was waning with the tremors and constraints wrought by Parkinson’s disease, and with his long and shaggy white beard, he seemed old as Father Time himself.

“I’m almost ready to die,” he confided to me. “I just can’t find the right poetry to allow it yet.” As it happened, he lived another 11 years but never did complete the epic.

William had come to my attention via my graduate school woman friend, who bought me a volume of his poetry after a hip nun had spoken of him glowingly at the seminary where my friend was studying to become a minister. Browsing the first few pages, I sunk down into my couch and stayed there for, I don’t know, maybe five years, it was hard to tell, before I got my bearings and got on with a life that would be, I felt then and which has turned out to be true, forever altered by the experience.

William (I always called him that, even though his friends of longer standing all called him “Bill”) was a poet of fierce physical presence and even fiercer internal sensibility. Tall, lean and angular at 6’4″, he understood like few other poets the power of personal presence beyond just words on a page.

Despite a somewhat high-pitched voice and a truly gentle and caring spirit, he absolutely commanded a room with the power of his personal presentation. In the years he wasn’t wearing a monk’s habit (more on that below), he would usually don a broad-brimmed hat, bear claw necklace, buckskin jacket and jeans to effect an archetypal man-of-the-deep-woods persona.

At a Berkeley reading I attended in the mid-80s, he came out on stage, proceeded to fix the audience with a withering stare, going west to east, front to back, his Parkinsonian arm clattering against his side for added effect.

Bringing the audience fully into an excruciating silence that probably lasted 45 seconds but seemed like hours, he finally moaned to the heavens, “The agony, the agony…” 

“People will not read my poems, but when I read to them I can spellbind,” he had written in his personal journal years earlier.

***

William had grown up in the San Joaquin Valley, the son of Christian Scientist converts. He began his poetic life as a nature poet and pantheist in the mold of his idol Robinson Jeffers, chronicling the unfeeling ferocity and “is-ness” of the natural world and his search for a place in it.

The sky darkens;
Lights of the valley show one by one;
The moon, swollen and raw in its last quarter,
Looks over the edge;
And I kneel in the grass,
In the sere, the autumn-blasted,
And seek in myself the measure of peace
I know is not there.

Over time, he came to correlate his nature-love in a way that Jeffers didn’t: with a highly charged near-worship of human carnality as the closest we will ever come to knowing God.

That preoccupation reached its apotheosis with publication of “River-Root,” a 45-page narrative poem depicting a single sexual act that Stanford University professor and critic Albert Gelpi at the time called “the most sustained orgasmic celebration in English, perhaps in all literature.”

Surveying the landscape of glitzy or simply vulgar or debasing treatments of sexuality that prevail today, there would seem to be little or nothing that would refute Gelpi’s claim.

Everson saw the sexual act in prodigious archetypal terms, a rushing river over rocks and untamable rapids, an occasional resting in jetties, then a resumed tumbling like great boulders and mountains and meteors as they quake and collide and split apart before ultimately coming to rest, the underlying impetus of desire for union with God finally achieved.

                                  For over the bed
Spirit hovers, and in their flesh
Spirit exults, and at the tips of their fingers
An angelic rejoicing, and where the phallos
Dips in the woman, in the flow of the woman on the phallos shaft,
The dark God listens.

                                   For the phallos is holy
And holy is the womb; the holy phallos
In the sacred womb. And they melt.
And flowing they merge, the incarnational join
Oned with the Christ. The oneness of each
Ones them with God.

Forty-five pages of that and a whole lot more explicit narration can leave one almost as exhausted as our lovers wind up being on the page, but that was no doubt one of Everson’s purposes in taking sexual union out to the nethermost regions of human ecstasy and actualization.

It also bears mentioning now that 1976 was only the publication date of “River-Root,” which was actually written in 1957. (His signed copy of the volume he later sent as a gift to me is shown at top of this post.)

Everson wrote “River-Root” in the sixth year of what turned out to be an 18-year stint as “Brother Antoninus,” a lay monk of the Dominican Order in the Bay Area who devoted himself to serving the poor, washing dishes and other humble tasks while also writing poetry of sexual ecstasy and epic spiritual torment which he regularly read on poetry platforms around the Bay Area while wearing his monk’s habit.

That is why he was also known at the time as “The Beat Friar,” alluding to his Beat Movement compatriots who rather joyfully flouted all cultural norms. Unlike him, many of them made a virtue of their irreligiosity.

Everson’s trajectory had been very different, his imagination having been captured by a love affair and subsequent marriage in 1948 to returned-to-the-faith Catholic poet Mary Fabilli. It was the second marriage for both.

Accompanying her to midnight Christmas Eve mass later that year, he had what he considered an ecstatic religious experience that compelled him to join Fabilli in her Catholicism. In a cruel twist of fate, his conversion rendered their marriage invalid in the eyes of the church—they had both been divorced.

That set the stage for their disengagement and Everson’s metamorphosis into Brother Antoninus in 1951. But the dramatics of The Beat Friar life were hardly coming to a close.

***

Asked to counsel a troubled 18-year-old woman in 1965, the now 53-year-old Antoninus soon found himself in tumultuous waters again as both parties began feeling an attraction for each other.

Four years of push-and-pull later, Antoninus was at UC Davis reading a poem he had written for the woman, after which he theatrically tore off his monk’s habit and announced to the stunned crowd that he was leaving the order and re-entering secular life as William Everson, poet, and soon-to-be husband to Susanna and step-father to her two-year-old son, whom he later adopted.

It was a typically dramatic gesture for this otherwise gentle soul, and the media ate it up. Nearly a year later, the “Pacific Sun” weekly newspaper in Marin County published the only photographs taken at the event, a sequence of the disrobing that Everson had undertaken on stage. A photo of those photos captured by E David Show is worthy of note, I think, here.

***

***

William and Susanna enjoyed an ostensibly happy marriage for many years at their Santa Cruz home he had dubbed “Kingfisher Flat,” before divorcing in 1992, several years after I had lost touch with him. He died in 1994 at age 81.

Few poets survive on book sales, and after leaving monastic life William taught poetry for 11 years to great acclaim from students at UC Santa Cruz, a satisfying late career that let him influence a new generation and gave him the regular stage that he loved so well.

“I’m happy,” he had told me in our interview. “Never happier in my life. I’ve done a lot of agonizing, the number 1 agonizer of the day. But I’ve won something immensely satisfying to me. Life keeps getting better. Old age is so much more satisfying than youth was that I have utterly no regrets.”

I saw him for the last time in maybe 1988, when he was to do a reading at a church in Berkeley. Driving down from Santa Rosa, mental images were coursing through my mind of the multiple times I had seen him read, always an event, a drama, food for a long night’s reflection.

Entering the church, I espied him on stage, hunched in a wheelchair with his head almost down on his trademark bear claw necklace, being tended to by Susanna. The program began with a moderator offering a few introductory remarks and then explaining that William would offer only brief selections from his poems and then give way to others reading for him.

Wheeled to the front of the dais, William started in, his voice quavering and barely above a whisper, more or less unintelligible. No more withering stare nor anguished claims of agony, but agony itself, writ all the larger for its wholly unmetaphorical reality.

It was a scene of deep pathos, the old fire now gone, rent asunder by illness and the merciless passage of time. After a few minutes of halting words interspersed with silence that retained none of its former compelling power, it was obvious to everyone, including himself, that going on served no good purpose.

I watched as he was wheeled back into place, and as a speaker approached the lectern I decided to leave, knowing it would be the last time I would see William, bidding him a silent adieu as I headed out into the night.

***

In honor of the devout years…

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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

3 comments to The Drama of Self: A Personal Reflection on the Poet William Everson

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I’m not familiar with William Everson’s poetry, but your description of the reading of his own works had me search through my too extensive and now considered outdated CD library for “Poetry Speaks” , a three-volume CD with readings from Tennyson to Plath and approximately forty in between. No Rexroth or Everson included, but Beat poet Ginsburg and environmentalist Jeffers (an Oxy grad for us Eagle Rockers) do find their way into “Poetry Speaks.” For those who haven’t heard readings from the greatest poets of the late 19th and 20th (Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop et al) centuries, it gives one a new and usually more appreciative respect for their words. As for “River-Root”, a 45-page poem on a sexual orgasm, well…maybe I better leave my comment at that…WELL.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yeah, Robert, at this point I suspect there is probably a lot more poetry available on You Tube, both audio but with some film as well, than there is on a CD from yesteryear. And the other thing is guys like Rexroth & Everson were usually left out of such collections, given American poetry’s longtime East Coast bias, which Rexroth in particular often railed against.

      Everson considered Jeffers his idol & mentor, though he never met him. But coming across a Jeffers poem one day in the library is what turned a light bulb on in Everson’s head, more like a lightning bolt, actually, and he always attributed that moment to his finding his vocation as a poet.

      Oh, and just to clarify: “River-Root” is about far more than an orgasm. It was a lonnnnggg encounter, and Everson covered every bit of it, first to last. :-)
      He wrote it soon after doing a deep dive into Jung, so the archetypal elements roar right through all of it, in true epic fashion…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    What’s a YouTube? Is Jung some woman Everson had a deep dive into? Maybe I better stay away from “River-Root”, the 21st century or even some pathetic attempt at humor!

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