A poet’s heart: Rancho Santa Fe writer publishes ‘A Westbound Sun’


Rancho Santa Fe writer James Hurley calls it courageous, the ongoing effort to help poetry find a resurgence. He has loved and written poems throughout his life, since he was writing for his college literary magazine, drawn to the carefully crafted cadences and the choosing of the perfect right words.

"A Westbound Sun" author James Hurley
(Michael Coy)

“A poem comes out of your heart, then your mind. And then you need the ability to count and to rhyme,” he said. “If you have all three of these then you can have a poem, no matter who you are.”

A collection of poems and writings are featured in Hurley’s first book “A Westbound Sun”, a long time in coming, published as he nears 84 years old.

Available in hard cover, paperback and as an e-book, Hurley sees the book as a bit of his legacy, he has poured his heart into the work and hopes his readers will come along for the ride. As he says: “If a writer can get into his own heart but not into the hearts of his readers, he’s not worth much.”

“Judiciously distributed throughout ‘A Westbound Sun’ are poems that show us again and again how a loving family, deep friendships and perseverance conspire to defeat the darker forces in our lives,” writes author Robert Bernard Hass in the forward. “As Jim’s life and book testify, he has endured to plumb his imagination and remind us that in the end the last and greatest theme is love, and for this I am most grateful.”

Originally from Waterloo, Iowa, Hurley lived in Los Angeles for over 50 years before moving to Rancho Santa Fe about 10 years ago. After graduating from Loras College and serving in the US Navy as a journalist, he launched a successful career in business communications. As an executive and consultant he handled public affairs, investor relations, crisis management and corporate governance. He also produced documentary films.

Hurley has always written but diverted from literature to business writing for many years. About three years ago, he decided he was “running out of runway” and his writer’s heart needed to get going on writing this book and getting everything down.

“This book is all the fault of Robert Frost,” remarked Hurley.

Hurley met the poet, his favorite and a lifelong mentor, in 1959 at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I was a burry, would-be Poet. He was plainly one,” he writes in the poem The Offered Hand. “I caught an old desire in those color blinded eyes to puzzle out an ideal rhyme containing God and science similarly born.”

In 2019, 60 years after they sat elbow to elbow, Hurley finally started working on his memoir about the meeting. He wrote, rewrote and rewrote again his essay capturing the moment and he eventually had it published in the Robert Frost Society’s peer-reviewed annual journal, the Robert Frost Review.

Hass, the executive director of the Society, become a friend and literary companion, penning the forward to his book.

In learning more, Hurley was alarmed to find out that the Society had not held a permanent home since 1978.

Using his expertise and connections with San Diego business and civic leaders, he helped create a new home for the Society at the downtown Central Library. Opened in 2020, it is a center for research and study of Frost’s work and collections of his rare books and letters.

A condensed version of the 1959 encounter “A Personal Rebuke from Robert Frost” appears in “A Westbound Sun.” Almost an anthology, the book includes some older writings but the majority, 28 poems, he wrote in the last two and a half years.

The volume even surprised himself but he seemed to find inspiration daily—in the poem Illusion, he writes of being awakened to write by the rhythm of clinking his spoon in an empty coffee cup at the breakfast table.

He aimed to write every day, usually starting around 10:30 a.m. and sometimes writing into the night, printing out pieces to edit and rework by hand.

The book includes short stories like the stirring “The Broken Day of Bernie McCarville”, a retelling of a true story of his maternal grandparents in 1915, and vignettes on six public figures he met throughout his career and what he learned from meeting them— from mentor poet James Hearst to Louis Armstrong to the Chicago Cubs’ Ernie Banks.

“Over time, I was to discover that the only thing that need be feared from being near accomplished people is the fear of becoming accomplished myself,” he wrote.

The poems fly the reader to places in Hurley’s past, into nature and to remembrances of friends and family. Of his wife Jennifer, an Impressionist painter, he writes: “If you had never chosen me, I never would have seen the hue of burnt sienna or phthalo blue. Renoir said emotion is the cue: I owe my becoming fully me, to you.”

The pages include revealing and personal poems, including a poem he wrote at his mother’s death bed, a tribute to her and his eight siblings that he read as the eulogy during her funeral.

The book’s title “A Westbound Sun” is a reference to age and serenity, Hurley said.

“I’ve often thought that sunset was a more contemplative time than any other time of the day,” Hurley said. “It also speaks to a sense of mortality, not in a sorrowful sense but a joyous one.

“As I’ve gotten older I learned that what you’re looking for is looking for you,” he mused. “It’s a timeless feeling to be in a sense of equipoise.”

This fall, Hurley intends to take his book tour on the road back to his Midwest roots. He also has several events planned locally:

  • Aug. 14: A reading and Q&A at San Diego Central Library with Robert Bernard Hass, author, critic and executive director of The Robert Frost Society.
  • Aug. 15: Book signing at Warwick’s in La Jolla from noon to 2 p.m.
  • Aug. 18: Reading at Soul of Yoga Encinitas, 7-8 p.m. Owner Ryan Stanley will host and match traditional yoga sounds (chimes, bells, drums, bowls), to readings of his poems. The studio is located at 162 S. Santa Fe Rd., Suite A70 in Encinitas.