Gary Snyder’s new volume of poems, Axe Handles, is the first he has published since Turtle Island, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. This beautifully crafted book of seventy-one poems includes brief, haiku-like lyrics; riddles; and free-verse narratives. Snyder’s publisher, North Point Press, has quickly acquired a reputation as one of the finest small presses in the country, and their craftsmanship is evident throughout this book, from the cover design to the handsome layout and the poet’s careful arrangement of his material. The dust jacket features an exquisite illustration of Gaia, the Earth Goddess, depicted as a goddess of snow by artist Mayumi Oda. Taken from the artist’s collection, Goddesses, the jacket illustration is entitled “Treasure Ship, Goddess of Snow.” The delicate Oriental quality of the cover design complements the series of haiku poems in the second part of the collection, “Little Songs for Gaia.”
West Coast poet Snyder has been associated with the Beat movement—notably with his longtime friend Allen Ginsberg—and the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who encouraged the young Snyder in his study of Oriental languages and culture. Snyder has always been distinguished from the Beats, however, by his disciplined imagination, tempered by his long study of Buddhism in Japan, where he lived for some years. In his early poems of the 1950’s, he anticipated many of the concerns of the counterculture, blending Eastern thought with environmentalism, and he has not swerved from those commitments. In his poetry, Snyder has tried to articulate this sensibility, one based on a rejection of technology and affluence, a harmony with nature, and a Buddhist inner discipline and tranquility. Snyder’s mastery of his form is evident in the firm, clean lines of verse, reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s Rock-Drill cantos (1955). Pound’s ideogramic technique stands behind Snyder’s work, though Snyder’s extensive familiarity with Oriental languages and thought has permitted him to surpass Pound in his fidelity to the values that inform his Japanese and Chinese models. The poems in Axe Handles are marked by simplicity and understatement, sharpness of image and syntactical spareness, discipline and restraint.
The collection is unified by Snyder’s awareness of the resources of language as a tool for shaping and crafting his verse, a theme suggested by the epigraph, a fifth century B.C. Chinese folk song about shaping axe handles from the pattern of an already existing handle. As he implies in his title poem, “Axe Handles,” poetry is language used as a tool to make other tools. Like the axe handle, poetry is both a tool and a model for shaping other tools. Snyder borrows his metaphor from Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, a fourth century A.D. “Essay on Literature,” which begins, “In making the handle/ Of an axe/ By cutting wood with an axe/ The model is indeed near at hand.” The theme of cultural continuity, present in many of the poems in this collection, appears in the title poem as a wonderful parable of the transmission of culture implicit in the poet’s simple act of showing his son Kai how to shape a new hatchet handle from a broken-off axe handle. Teaching and learning, from master to pupil, father to son, is like shaping a new handle to the form of the old handle in one’s hand. The pleasure Snyder takes in his work reminds him of a phrase first learned from Ezra Pound, who in turn borrowed it from its Chinese original. Thus, in the cycle of renewal, “Pound was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again, model/ And tool, craft of culture,/ How we go on.”
Many of the poems describe the daily life of Snyder and his family at their homestead in the foothills of the California Sierra Nevadas, where he lives with his Japanese wife, Masa, and their two sons, Kai and Gen. The deep and abiding pleasure he finds in the details of ordinary life are registered in these poems, which together evoke a sense of a healthy, harmonious, and productive life-style in which rearing children and bringing the soil back into production through composting and recycling are part of the same caring, nurturing concern.
The poems in Axe Handles are divided into three sections: “Loops,” “Little Songs for Gaia,” and “Nets.” They range outward from family, to community, to national government, to a global environmental concern of the kind that Snyder first articulated in Turtle Island. Judging from the subject matter of many of his poems, Snyder likes tools and uses them well. He values honest labor and the things of the earth as self-disciplines that provide serenity and repose.
These poems record a wonderfully vivid and exact sense of a man’s life rich in ordinary moments—gardening, cutting firewood, painting a school-house, repairing an old Willys pickup truck, putting in fenceposts, enjoying time spent with his two sons, and noticing what is in bloom as the seasons progress. These experiences are the Tao, or “given” of life. Although a deep imprint of Eastern sensibility is evident in Snyder’s work, he is no recluse, as the poems describing his work with the California Arts Council and his conversations with then Governor Jerry Brown testify. Rather, Snyder represents a unique blend of American environmentalism and love of the wilderness with an Oriental serenity, self-discipline, and restraint. This melding of East and West is what accounts for the distinctiveness of his poetic voice, though Snyder resists thinking in these dualistic cultural terms. “Better,” he has said, quoting a Zen saying, “the perfect easy discipline of the swallow’s dip and swoop, ’without east or west.’”
The poems in part 1, “Loops,” emphasize the natural cycles and continuity of family, community, and land. In an obliquely personal poem, “For/From Lew,” a dead friend advises the poet to “teach children about the cycles./ The life cycles. All the other cycles./ That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.” This respect for the balance of nature is evident throughout this section, as Snyder celebrates natural events such as the nesting of swallows and the flow of rivers. “Where do rivers start?” his son asks in the poem, “Rivers in the Valley,” and the answer comes in the form of a verse meditation on the cycles of water. Another poem, “Among,” describes West Coast forest succession, as the tiny Douglas firs, the climax tree, reseed themselves among a stand of ponderosa pine. What rescues these poems from banality is the remarkable discipline and control that Snyder exercises over his material. The craft of writing good free verse is as demanding as writing traditional verse, and Snyder makes effective use of variable line and stress and...