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Walking Through Tor House, Sharing Jeffers' Poems

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The late poet Robinson Jeffers built Tor House in Carmel, Calif., in the early 20th century. The house sits on a cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

As part of our summer Nickel Tour series, Rachael McDonald, of member station KLCC, introduces us to another poet who gives tours of Tor House.

RACHEL MCDONALD, BYLINE: Elliot Ruchowitz Roberts grew up on the East Coast, and didn't hear about Robinson Jeffers until about the time the poet died. Ruchowitz Roberts was teaching in the Midwest.

ELLIOT RUCHOWITZ ROBERTS: And one of my colleagues got drunker earlier than usual that day. And I asked him what was the occasion, and he said it was the death of Robinson Jeffers. And then, once I came here and lived in the area, I began to read Jeffers and of course, that's what drew me to Tor House.

MCDONALD: Seventy-six-year-old Ruchowitz Roberts has been leading people through Jeffers' home for about 15 years. He infuses his tours with Jeffers' poems, most recited from memory. Tor House is named for a rock outcropping, which the Irish call a Tor.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCEAN)

MCDONALD: He stands at the side of the large boulder with a group of six people who listen raptly while the ocean roars below.

ROBERTS: And he has a poem called "To the Rock That Will Be The Cornerstone Of The House," which he wrote before he built the house. And he comes and he pours wine and white milk and honey on it, to consecrate it. And the last line of the poem is: How dear you will be to me when I too grow old, old comrade.

MCDONALD: Jeffers hired a builder to construct the original house out of stone, in 1916.

ROBERTS: And Jeffers - because he felt the construction was going too slow - paid himself $4 a day to help build the house. And he worked with a stonemason. And it was during this time that, as he later wrote, his fingers learned the art of making stone, love stone.

MCDONALD: On the same property next to Tor House, Jeffers built what he called Hawk Tower for his wife, Una.

ROBERTS: Hawk Tower took five years to build, 1920 to 1925.

MCDONALD: Jeffers hauled stones up from the beach to build the tower. People on the tour can go inside and sit at Jeffers' desk.

ROBERTS: If you'd like to sit in the chair he sat in while he wrote his poetry...

MCDONALD: Everyone takes a turn in the chair.

ROBERTS: And the way Jeffers would compose his poems is, he'd walk back and forth, work the lines out in his head. Then he'd sit down, handwrite it, and then later type it.

MCDONALD: Jeffers made the cover of Time magazine in 1932. His book of selected poems has never been out of print. Among the visitors on this day are L.J. and Lin Lin Zigerell, newlyweds from Pittsburgh.

LIN LIN ZIGERELL: It's our honeymoon, so I Google online to see everything that is interesting for us to pay a visit.

LJ ZIGERELL: He did an amazing job, and it was really nice to get sort of personal touches about Jeffers.

MCDONALD: One of the most personal touches is in the garden, where Haig - Jeffers' English bulldog - is buried. Jeffers wrote a poem, "The House Dog's Grave," from the dog's point of view. Ruchowitz Roberts reads the poem while standing next to the dog's headstone.

ROBERTS: (Reading) I've changed my ways a little. I cannot now run with you in the evenings along the shore, except in a kind of dream. And you, if you dream a moment, you see me there. So leave a while the paw marks on the front door, where I used to scratch to go out or in, and you'd soon open. Leave on the kitchen floor the marks of my drinking pan. I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do on the warm stone, nor at the foot of your bed. No, all the nights through, I lie alone.

MCDONALD: Ruchowitz Roberts says he can't think of a better way to spend the day than walking through Tor House and sharing Jeffers' poetry.

For NPR News, I'm Rachael McDonald in Carmel, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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