Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A recurring theme in Snyder’s poetry is his love for tools, which he presents as providing ways to interact with the physical environment, ways of negotiating human life. Often the tools of physical labor are seen as analogous to the poet’s tools of the trade. In “Axe Handles,” the handle itself is very important: literally, the part of the tool that is designed to be held or operated by the hand. The poem also demonstrates how immersion in the world, either by manual or by scholarly labor, gives people a kind of metaphorical “handle” as well, a sense of competence, achievement, or understanding. When, in the poem, Snyder’s experience in the everyday world of working and playing outdoors with his son coincides with wisdom gleaned from literature, he is deeply gratified. The fact that the piece of wisdom is precisely about the method and value of cultural transmission deepens and justifies his love for intensely lived daily experience and for poetic tradition, particularly Asian poetic traditions.

The poem reveals Snyder’s way out of finding the past burdensome, as some twentieth century American poets find it. Instead he “hears” his forebears’ words spoken as if into his ear and knows them to be of immediate and absolute pertinence. He finds his embeddedness in history not a trap, but rather a secure path, a repeating pattern in which “we go on.” The sweet companionability of his relationship with Kai is contiguous with his filial relationships with teachers and with poets he has read and emulated. They pass down to him not only their poetry but also their poetics, bound together as in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu (c. 302; Essay on Literature, 1948), which both describes and demonstrates the art of poetry.

The “tool” of poetry is forever both a model artifact and a device for making more poetry, just as the axe is itself a model and a tool. So the poem “Axe Handles” is a new poem (a brand-new, finely hewn axe), made out of Snyder’s living experience yet also modeled on and constructed by using those venerable “axes,” Ezra Pound, Lu Ji, and the translator Shih-hsiang Chen.