Reg(inald) Saner Essay - Critical Essays

Saner, Reg(inald)

Saner, Reg(inald) 1931–

An American poet, Saner is fascinated with landscapes and their rejuvenative effect. His poetic concerns with mysticism and American Indian culture link him with Gary Snyder. Climbing into the Roots, Saner's first collection, won him the Walt Whitman Award in 1975. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Now if you believe, as many do, that a poem is a structure of language and not much more, then ["Climbing into the Roots"] is pretty good writing and probably deserves the handsome Walt Whitman Award…. Never mind if the metaphors are mixed …; the imagery at least has freshness, the lines are taut, the sounds and movements are roughly analogous to the actions they describe. And Saner is good at this, as he proves amply in many poems.

But what if a poem is more than a structure of language? What if it is a structure of meaning, feeling and experience, to which verbal technique contributes primarily as means to an end? I don't suggest that Saner has nothing to say, only that he has very little to say and has apparently given little thought to how he might say more. His writing is verbal display, that's all, loaded with metaphor for its own sake; it may be superficially entertaining, but it is never moving. And it sometimes leads Saner, incidentally, into foolishness. What shall we think of "the rosy foreskin of dawn," "clouds like Swedish blondes in mulberry velvet," or stars that are "the tail-lights of the big bang"? (p. 29)

Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976.

Reg Saner's [Climbing into the Roots] is the winner of the first annual Walt Whitman Award…. It is a deserving award because Saner's voice is exuberant and free of a temporary idiom that might make it seem "in" or "with it."

It is a voice from the Rockies, distinct and personal as are the experiences in the mountains that most of these poems describe…. [Saner's] metaphor is vivid, sharp, and full of clean air…. (p. 40)

Saner can un-perplex nature by noting its logical ironies: "a winter courage/in the delicate breathing/of small animals." He also notes the frustration of the camera bug who can find no compelling scene amid mountains "too gorgeously banal to shoot."

With individual effects,… Saner is first-rate among poets, an incisive professional. In a larger scope, his poems often seem rather thin in purpose. When he tries to add up the effects, he often reaches impossibly big conclusions. As with his "too gorgeously banal" mountains, his views of nature extend to near-infinities such as "beginning of sand," "history of green," "idea of flowers/meaning all," "the full history of bees," "the fabulous past of stones."

Such results expose one of the great difficulties in writing poems about nature…. Poets who have been most successful in this mode have had a complementary theme against which to play off the natural phenomena. Frost had his Calvinism, Jeffers had his contempt for most human events, Snyder has his Zen emphasis on doing things. Saner seems to have not much beyond his awe.

If he were to adopt a more specific complementary theme or if he were to turn his fine gift to human subjects more, as he indeed does in the dissolution of father into son in "Turn," he could become one of our rarest voices. (pp. 40-1)

Richard Gustafson, in Poet and Critic (© Department of English and Speech, Iowa State University), Vol. 9, No. 3, 1976.

Reg Saner, in … Climbing Into the Roots, takes landscape almost as his only subject and finds in it a great restorative power. Gary Snyder's poems have prepared us to read Saner's. Snyder is a more moral, even a more didactic poet than Saner, but their poems draw on similar sources—Buddhism, an acquaintance with the nature sciences, and with American Indian culture. Saner's poems are often about "peak experiences", and, indeed, the setting for them is often on mountaintops. It's correct to describe these experiences as religious, I think, just as in Snyder's case. The immediate problem for both Snyder and Saner, or for any poet attempting to set down such experiences, is to avoid what might be called the banality of transcendence. If transcendence is best described as "emptiness", "no soul", a colorless, odorless, tasteless void, how is it to be rendered in an art that thrives on concretion?

Saner's usual practice here is to offer visual particulars as springboards into what is, or more properly, isn't beyond. The visual particulars are at least successful as visual particulars. The dust jacket of the book mentions that Saner has worked as a photographer, and he has a good eye. The book abounds with sharp-focus diapositives of a clarity and perfection I associate with stereopticons or perhaps those miniature landscapes captured in glass paperweights. (p. 357)

In a world filled with so much Being [as his] the active verb has little place, and reality is telegraphic or simply gerundive. Rudimentary syntax proves to be another drawback, then, in poems arising from the mystic's imagination of the world. Along with that, at least one reader is astonished by the frequency of lines written in monometer, a metrical curiosity normally reserved for the poetry manuals.

On the other hand, in these poems parts of the world are well rendered, and it seems ungenerous to quarrel…. Saner's landscapes are largely unpeopled, or peopled with … campers rendered mainly as spots of color, in their bright orange jackets. Thus, the rare poem in this collection dealing with human relationships, Passing It On, for example,… is especially welcome when it turns up among so many deserted landscapes. (pp. 357-58)

Alfred Corn, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1976.

[Wonder] at high places is carried to the ultimate and made the central theme by an expert mountain climber named Reg Saner … [in] Climbing into the Roots. Saner is no beginner in either of his avocations: … his maturity appears both in the breadth of his vision and in the sureness of his technical command. There are slips here and there, none of them fatal: too much straining after metaphor, too much scrambling over rubble in his language, but these are recovered by the muscular energy that plays throughout the book. The experience of climbing (into the roots of heaven) is conveyed in rich, vigorous detail, until one almost comes to share the fast breathing of these altitudes…. Not all the poems here are mountain pieces; others deal with the plains, speeding cars, waking up at home, family matters—but the core of the book lies in the recreation of the delight of climbing, with the washed vision of nature that comes in high altitudes. It comes across as a form of heriosm still possible in modern times…. (p. 126)

Louis L. Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.