Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The idea of “the real work” is recurrent in Snyder’s Turtle Island, which includes the phrase “the real work” in the poem “I Went into the Maverick Bar” and in the poem “The Real Work.” The phrase recurs in a collection titled The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964-1979 (1980). The question “What is the real work?” follows Snyder wherever he goes.

On one hand, the idea of “the real work” is very simple. In an interview, Snyder declared that the North American continent is real, and the deepest human loyalty is really owed not to the United States, but to mountains, rivers, plant zones, and creatures. The real work is to discover a citizenship based on natural boundaries rather than the borders of political states. The real work is any form of human endeavor, be it wood cutting, truck driving, garbage collecting, or the making of art, so long as the human involved in the work discovers himself or herself in the work and is made whole by doing the work.

On the other hand, “the real work” is an idea that no one, not even Snyder himself, fully comprehends. He once admitted that the suggestiveness of the phrase allowed him to puzzle over its meaning ever since he wrote it down. He said an honest person might confess that he or she does not really know what “the real work” is. One might go to his or her death without knowing “the real work,” and that unsolved mystery might be satisfactory, too.

If “the real work” has a special connection to poetry, then Snyder’s ideas on writing poems may prove illuminating. Snyder insisted that poetry is based on real life and real feelings. He declared, “Poems are what you do when you want to talk about what really happened.” If someone discovers “the real work” in the writing of poetry, he or she cuts through the levels of enforced correctness and invented pretenses in order to arrive at an authentic record of the human spirit.