Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles,” a thirty-six-line poem, tells a small domestic story that widens into a meditation on parenting, the transmission of cultural heritage, and the relevance of ancient wisdom to ordinary, everyday life. The poet (who speaks the poem), tells about teaching his son Kai, on an April afternoon, how to throw a hatchet so deftly that it will lodge into a stump. Kai remembers having seen a hatchet-head stored in “the shop” and goes to get it. He “wants it for his own.”
The father uses the hatchet they had been throwing to shape an old broken axe handle into a handle for Kai’s rescued hatchet-head. As he works, the speaker suddenly recalls a phrase from his reading of modern American poet Ezra Pound, who did free translations of Chinese literature: “’When making an axe handle/ the pattern is not far off.’” He paraphrases the quotation to his son, relating it to their own task of using a hatchet to make a handle for a hatchet.
The speaker, meditating again, associates the wisdom of the phrase first with Lu Ji, a Chinese poet and essayist who died early in the fourth century c.e., and then with a former teacher of his own who translated Lu Ji’s work. Then the speaker has a revelation that leads him to compare Lu Ji; Pound; his teacher, Shih-hsiang Chen; and himself to axes, simultaneously models and tools in the ongoing handing-down of cultural patterns, particularly poetry, from generation to generation. The speaker predicts that Kai, as yet just a “handle,” is also slated “soon/ To be shaping again” for generations yet unborn. The poem ends with a simple understated phrase expressing the speaker’s awe at the continuity of human culture expressed by people in tools as well as in books: “How we go on.”