Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A wave is a visible manifestation of energy or power in action. The wave that rolls in from the sea and crashes on the shore is energy in motion. Wind blowing across a wheat field and causing it to ripple and undulate is evidence of energy, though the wind itself is invisible. The surge of inspiration that overtakes a poet, a musician, or a dancer is also a manifestation of energy; but what actually is energy? In “Wave,” Snyder contemplates the subject but gives no definite answers.

Though Snyder is not a scientist, his approach in “Wave” demonstrates his interest in physical science, specifically the subject of energy. Certainly, he has the perceptive eye of a scientist and the keen, analytical mind of a physicist. The way he describes the delicate striations on the surface of a clamshell and the veins on the back of his hand are proof enough. Though these images are immediate and true, Snyder is looking much deeper beneath such surfaces in an attempt to understand the nature of energy.

In a previous collection, The Back Country (1967), Snyder, through his poetry, paid homage to the value of the wilderness experience. His experience as a practicing Zen Buddhist and his knowledge of Native American myths and traditional beliefs in the interrelatedness of man and nature shaped his understanding of the wild territories.

This understanding was grounded in a sense of the interdependence and interrelatedness of all life. In “Wave,” Snyder examines the phenomenon of energy not only as the elemental unifying force in nature, but also as the source and fountainhead of life, and thus consciousness—the ultimate mystery.

In seeking deeper penetration into the grainy essence of existence, Snyder wants to be open to the “radiating wyf” (or wave) that is his muse and the source of his poetic vision. In “Wave,” the poet searches for spiritual understanding—without the restraints of institutionalized religion—by contemplating natural processes both externally, in nature, and internally, in the mind. By showing the connection between the outer physical manifestations of energy and the poet’s muse, the poem points the way toward an understanding of the essence of being, a puzzle shared equally by the scientist, the clergyman, and the poet.