Gary Snyder Essay - Critical Essays

Gary Snyder American Literature Analysis

In his recurrent themes and various styles, Gary Snyder could be considered the first truly international Pacific Rim writer. That is, his poetry and prose take the westward impulse of American civilization and literature all the way west to Asia, and his work represents an original and exhilarating synthesis of the two cultures.

From the American West, Snyder derives his interest in American Indian tribal culture and in wilderness adventure. With his backwoods experience as a forest lookout, logger, mountain climber, and foothills homesteader, he is the contemporary equivalent of the American frontiersman—seeking now not to conquer nature, but rather to live in harmony with it. His roots in American literature reach from the New England transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to the trans-American proto-nationalism of Walt Whitman, to the West Coast celebrations of nature in the works of John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, and Kenneth Rexroth. Some of Snyder’s poetry collections, such as Myths and Texts (1960) and Mountains and Rivers Without End (a four-decade sequence of poems based on the extended, unfolding screens of Asian painting), display the expansive ambitiousness to encompass America—or even all Western culture—that one finds in such classic American long poems as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855-1892), Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1917-1970), and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1948-1954).

On the other hand, Snyder’s longtime commitment to Asian philosophy and aesthetics has led him to the mastery of a very different sort of poetry. He was drawn very early to Chinese verse as translated by Arthur Waley and Pound, and his study of Chinese and Japanese language and literature (and of Zen Buddhism) has helped him to create masterful short lyrics. This side of Snyder’s poetry can be seen in his devotion to simple, direct images that resonate in their clarity and depth, sometimes akin to Japanese haiku.

This mystic Asian imagism is particularly characteristic of Snyder’s early poetry, and the title of his first volume, Riprap, presents his controlling metaphor for this aesthetic. To “riprap,” as a worker on a trail crew, is to embed rocks on a steep mountain trail to provide sure footing for horses. For Snyder, the placement of what he calls “tough, simple short words” establishes a necessary connection to natural facts—and to words felt as palpable objects—even as his mind and spirit expand through and beyond these objects to transcendent states of enlightenment. Though Snyder has published several major collections of poetry since Riprap, it is a testimony to the enduring appeal of these early short lyrics that several are still among the most anthologized and analyzed of Snyder’s poems: “Riprap,” “Piute Creek,” “Milton by Firelight,” “Above Pate Valley,” and “Water.”

Myths and Texts, Snyder’s second collection, also employs this riprap approach to poetry, and it, in fact, makes explicit the intended spiritual resonances of this aesthetic when, toward the end of the book, Snyder includes a definition of poetry as“a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics.” Whereas Riprap is a collection of shorter lyrics that makes no direct attempt at overall coherence, in Myths and Texts Snyder groups forty-eight lyrics into three long, interrelated poems. The individual lyrics often display the anecdotal settings, concentrated imagery, and monosyllabic diction of the riprap style, but Snyder hopes through the course of the book to render not only isolated, disparate moments of enlightenment but also an overall critical perspective on Western civilization.

Thus “Logging,” the first long sequence poem, adds up to a critique of American logging practices and the sometimes destructive alienation from nature that these practices reveal. “Hunting,” the second poem, presents an alternative approach to gaining one’s livelihood from nature: The poem dramatizes the attempts made by tribal hunters to enter the consciousness of their animal prey. “Burning,” the final poem, presents a series of dark visions of fire and falling—visions that ultimately lead to a sense of renewal and rebirth. Some academic critics rate Myths and Texts as Snyder’s best book of poetry, praising the precise craftsmanship of its individual sections, the expansive comprehensiveness of its overarching structure, and the wide range of its cultural allusions. The close correspondence of Snyder’s perspective in these poems with American Indian thought has become increasingly clear as the work of American Indian poets began to reach print in the latter decades of the twentieth century. In addition, the global reach of Snyder’s work is evident in the excellent translation of some of these poems by Ignacio Fernández in Spain.

The other collection of Snyder’s poetry that academic critics often rate highly is Mountains and Rivers Without End, also a book of sequence poems but of a different type from Myths and Texts. Snyder sets forth the most useful terms for discussing the difference in a journal entry in “Tanker Notes,” in Earth House Hold:Poems that spring out fully armed; and those that are the result of artisan care. The contrived poem, workmanship; a sense of achievement and pride of craft; but the pure inspiration flow leaves one with a sense of gratitude and wonder, and no sense of “I did it”—only the Muse. . . . [O]ne can see where it goes: to all things and in all things.

In these terms, Snyder’s riprap lyrics would be the poems of “artisan care,” “workmanship,” and “craft,” while what he later calls his “shaman poems” would be the poems of “pure inspiration flow” that go “to all things and in all things.” Mountains and Rivers Without End, according to Snyder, explores the “close correspondence between the external and internal landscapes” of his life. It grew gradually as other books were published. Six sections were published in the 1965 volume, another was added in a 1970 edition, and the project concluded in 1996 in a book that surprised some commentators who felt Snyder would never be able to pull it all together. Critics have been particularly impressed by the additions “The Blue Sky” and “The Hump-Backed Flute Player,” which aspire to the magical powers of a healing chant or mantra. Now complete, the work has been compared to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Pound’s Cantos, two other cumulative poetic projects that occupied their authors over much of their lifetimes, although in his characteristic relaxed style, Snyder has not himself asked for comparisons with these masters even as his work evinces a tighter coherence and sense of completion than these works.

Snyder’s shamanic style also informs the short poems of Regarding Wave (1970), but in a more compressed, less overtly allusive manner. The book was the first of Snyder’s to bear a dedication, “For Masa”; the poems make clear how his third wife fulfilled his ideals, expressed in the essay “Poetry and the Primitive” in Earth House Hold, of how a loving and creative relationship between man and woman can reflect and become attuned to the larger creative processes of nature. The shamanic effect of these poems depends on their silences as well as their sounds, on their repetitions of sound and idea, and on the multiple references of words that express the reflexive unity of poetic, sexual, and ecological harmonies.

In the years since the publication of Regarding Wave, Snyder has tried to lead a life more centered on his family, home, and local community. At the same time, he has graciously (though with some reluctance) accepted the role increasingly thrust on him of international spokesman on environmental issues. This dual focus of his life is reflected in four volumes of his poetry published after 1970: Turtle Island, Axe Handles (1983), Left Out in the Rain (1986), and Danger on Peaks.

Each volume contains impressive, deeply felt, and highly knowledgeable celebrations of nature, like those found in Regarding Wave, along with two other types of poems. One type is the colloquial anecdote, often humorous, sketching incidents in Snyder’s daily life and often involving his wife and children. An entertaining example in Turtle Island is “The Bath,” although the vivid physicality of this poem moves toward some of Snyder’s most strongly expressed ideas about the sheer power of the body. The other type is polemic, in which Snyder speaks in a more firmly didactic voice on environmental or political issues; examples in Turtle Island are “Front Lines” and “The Call of the Wild.” Often, Snyder shifts among these three voices—anecdotal, polemic, and shamanic—in a single poem, addressing the reader on personal, political, and religious levels.

The directions that Snyder’s style has taken in his anecdotal and polemic voices has made his reputation as a poet—a matter of some contention among academic critics—more controversial than the power of his poetry might suggest, although the opening of the poetic field toward the turn of the twenty-first century has made conventional critical strictures less relevant for many readers. Yet rather than become anxious himself that his anecdotal voice is becoming too relaxed and prosaic or his polemical voice too strident and propagandistic, Snyder seems content to reach out to a wider audience and to express the political zeal that he feels is appropriate to specific occasions.

Earth House Hold

First published: 1969

Type of work: Journals, essays, and translations

Snyder’s first volume of collected prose traces his transition from a life of individual exploration to a life of community responsibility.

Snyder derived the title for his first book of collected prose from wordplay on the root of the word “ecology.” As he points out in...

(The entire section is 4167 words.)