A Place in Space

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds, poet, translator, educator, and environmental spokesman Gary Snyder pulls together new and previously uncollected essays, book forewords, and speeches that did not fit in his earlier essay collections, notably the well-received Earth House Hold (1969), Gary Snyder: The Real Work (1980), and The Practice of the Wild (1990). Most of these twenty-nine short pieces, thirteen of which he wrote after The Practice of the Wild, reveal little new about Snyder’s views but make many of his miscellaneous, historic opinions and credos more readily accessible for a new audience. A Place in Space provides a valuable service as an introduction for the general reader first encountering Snyder’s contributions to awareness regarding the shared natural habitat, particularly his advocacy of all cultures’ taking responsibility to preserve our environment. A Place in Space is also a clearly written demonstration of Snyder’s knowledge on a wide variety of subjects from linguistics to literature, from natural science to anthropology, from Native American myth to Asian history.

On one level, readers familiar with Snyder’s previous work may find much of this material reworkings of themes present in his earliest poetry in Riprap (1959) and Myths and Texts (1960), as well as his later 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Turtle Island. Even new readers may find his ideas repetitive throughout this volume and may find themselves primarily interested in either specific sections or essays focused on particular topics, especially in the latter sections that address current issues. Still, for readers familiar with Snyder’s previous works, the latter pieces in this volume will reveal the depth of an important poet’s growth from the ideas he has developed into lifelong themes. Most important, his purpose is both to instruct and to persuade; in both content and style, he is largely successful in achieving his objectives.

In roughly chronological sequence, with new passages updating earlier publications, Snyder organizes these essays into three categories: ethics, aesthetics, and watersheds (the latter two categories overlap in content and meaning). Each section is centered in Snyder’s spiritual and physical home, the Northwest of the American continent that he calls Turtle Island, a term he took from his studies of Native American myths. This point of reference gives an otherwise potentially disparate collection a true organic unity linking time and space. Snyder becomes a focal point fusing cultures, history, and a thought-provoking base from which to envision the future.

For example, “Ethics,” largely a compilation of short political tracts, begins with writings from the 1950’s about the “San Francisco Renaissance” and the Beat poetry movements in which Snyder was a major participant. He recalls his first meetings with fellow Buddhist poets Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg, reviewing their first publications in the context of the then-important shifts in the American poetry scene. These once prophetic observations foreshadow his calls for changes in culture at the end of A Place in Space, which complete the cycle that frames this book. “A Virus Runs Through It,” his review of William Burroughs’ postmodern novel The Ticket That Exploded, is particularly helpful in explaining this complex, difficult book and is a surprising and unusual commentary by one former Beat on another—a literary task that Snyder has seldom undertaken elsewhere.

Snyder restates, in lists and pamphlet form, his well-known social positions on population control, pollution, and protection of the environment in “Energy Is Eternal Delight,” “Nets of Beasts, Webs of Cells,” and “A Village Council of Beings.” Throughout these essays, Snyder emphasizes his Buddhist belief in human beings’ interconnectedness with and interdependency on the natural environment. Speaking from the perspective of a modern, pragmatic Buddhist, Snyder stresses cooperation between Eastern and Western cultures and advocates respect for Native American practices, which he believes add depth to human understanding of life as a whole. He has long made all of these concerns central themes in his prose and verse. Snyder believes that such a expansionist, inclusive awareness among human beings will literally save the planet. His tone alternates between direct calls for...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)