Study Guide


by Gary Snyder

Anasazi Summary


Gary Snyder placed "Anasazi" as the first poem in his 1974 collection Turtle Island. Its placement is significant because the first poem often sets the tone for the rest of the book, and this is the case here. Anasazi is a Navajo word most often translated as "ancient ones," and it designates a group of Native Americans thought to be the predecessors of the modern Pueblo Indians. From about 200 to 1300 A.D., the Anasazi inhabited the Four Corners region of the United States, encompassing southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona. As Snyder's poem indicates, the Anasazi people were very adept at horticulture, pottery making, basket weaving and architecture, and were remembered especially for their villages built into the sides of steep cliffs. Although opinions vary on what eventually scattered these Native Americans throughout the southwestern United States and Mexico, there is widespread agreement that they were a very sophisticated, highly developed people who left behind a wealth of remarkable wares and intriguing structures.

"Anasazi" is a celebration poem, much like a chant or a song of praise. Its creator is both poet and anthropologist, and he combines the two callings to produce works of vivid imagery and in reverence for a humankind that lives simply and in harmony with nature. While the poem may be sparse in language, it is full of meaning, evidenced by strong, descriptive words and effective cadence. It engages both history and myth, presented with striking metaphors and alliteration. And, too, it refleets Gary Snyder's fervor for depicting the strength and beauty of Native American culture and his ability to express great praise in a minimal amount of words. For these reasons, the poem provides a fit beginning for Turtle Island whose own title refers to the original name of North America handed down through Indian mythology.

Anasazi Summary

Lines 1-2:
A discussion of the meaning of "Anasazi" must include mention of its style, as the form of the poem—its rhythms, its sounds, even its look—is intrinsic to what it tells us. The first two lines appear to be only a repetition of the title. In fact, they are. And, yet, these two one-word lines also set the tone for the poem's celebratory effect. Read aloud, they should be read slowly, allowing each syllable equal voice in the incantation: ah-nah-sah-zee, ah-nah-sah-zee. On an obvious level, they simply describe the subject of the poem, but they also imply the author's feelings about that subject. In essence, he prepares us for the "song of praise" that follows.

Lines 3-4:
Line 3 of the poem refers to the cliff dwellings that the Anasazi people constructed on the steep sides of the mountains, particularly in the Mesa Verde, Colorado, region. They eventually built hundred-room villages in the cliffs and caves of this area, and many of these remarkable structures still stand today. The cliff houses were blocks of rectangular living and storage spaces, tucked into rocky walls, providing shelter from inclement weather as well as aggressive enemies. As the people themselves moved into the cliffs, so did their livelihoods, and they used their excellent stone masonry skills to construct cliffside granaries. As line 4 indicates, the Anasazi also planted their crops on the mountains and were able to grow "strict fields of corn and beans" even on such unlikely terrain. The word "strict" here is not used as in "austere" or "harsh," but in the "absolute" or "accurate" sense. Maize horticulture had been the driving force behind turning the ancestors of the Anasazi from a hunting-gathering culture into the more settled crop-growers, and it became a mainstay of their economy. The addition of beans and squash pro vided a nutritious supplement to their diet, and re maining evidence indicates that they were very precise and skilled farmers.

Line 5:
Line 5 of the poem may be interpreted both literally and figuratively, for the Anasazi sank "deeper and deeper in earth" in more ways than one. In the actual sense, the Anasazi people of 200 to 500 A.D. stored their goods (as well as their dead) in deep pits in the ground. Over the centuries, the Anasazi increased the size of partly underground spaces until they became their actual living quarters, now known as pithouses, consisting of several rooms. When the people began to move up into the cliffs, the earth dwellings did not disappear, but, rather, took on a new significance in the culture. By 900 A.D., the pithouses were completely subterranean, and they were used in the ceremonial role of the village "kiva." Kivas are prominent throughout the history of all Pueblo tribes and are typically underground chambers used especially by men to hold council and to perform religious...

(The entire section is 1178 words.)