The Poem

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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.”

Forms and Devices

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Snyder is known for the plainness of his diction and the accessibility of his style. “Axe Handles” is written in unrhymed free-verse lines of from three to ten syllables, resulting in a long and narrow shape on the page and a forward propulsion. Words at the beginning of phrases echo one another in randomly placed half rhymes and with alliteration, giving supple shape and musicality to the poem: “show,” “how,” “throw”; “sticks,” “stump,” “shop”; “gets it,” “wants it,” “hatchet,” “cut it,” “take it”; “long,” “length.” These sonic pleasures add to the genial tone of the poem, the sense that the speaker and his son enjoy each other’s company, that the atmosphere is bright and relaxed, and that what one initiates, the other will follow.

The first half of the poem is laced with verbs as two male members of one family work and play during an afternoon in early spring. There is something mimetic of the arch and thudding fall of a flying hatchet in the consonant clusters and rhythm of “One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.” All the lines are phrase-length, ending cleanly without disconcerting enjambments; the verse proceeds with balance and grace, with an almost kind, storytelling tone of voice.

Snyder emphasizes the surprise and serendipity of “the phrase/ First learned from Ezra Pound” occurring to him right on cue by cutting the poem in half with it. He marks it off with quotation marks and indents its second line dramatically from the left-hand margin. He does not say that he remembers, or calls to mind, Pound’s phrase, but instead, he seems to hear it, clear as a clarion: It “Rings in [his] ears!”—a stunning use of the only exclamation mark in the poem. The sudden route that opens...

(This entire section contains 903 words.)

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up to him between the real and the literary is not an abstraction but a sensuous experience; not a conscious thought but an unbidden spoken sound. So should his reading function in his life, Snyder seems to imply, as coterminous with his work and play with tools, as a seamless part of his afternoons with his growing son, a “natural” bolstering of everything he does.

“Axe Handles” is a poem of many and varied repetitions, loving its own vocabulary for its usefulness in the here and now, and over long, long centuries. In a poem that stresses how much of language and culture is inherited, it is appropriate that Snyder does not strain for synonyms but instead lovingly repeats again and again the same words: the word “hatchet” six times in the first thirteen lines, the word “axe” seven times in the last half of the poem, the word “handle” eight times, weaving through the lines from beginning to end. These words, and the tools they refer to, belong to the Snyders and are used casually by them, but they have been handed down over centuries, burnished by use, and remade according to pattern.

The wisdom first quoted in the poem as derived from Ezra Pound is repeated in the poem twice again, once in his own words, as if the speaker could not relish it enough. What was taught to him by Pound, by Lu, and by Shih-hsiang, he seizes to teach to Kai in this providential moment. He is a disciple of archaic wisdom, a practitioner of it, and a teacher in his own right, using the tools in his hands to demonstrate how “we’ll shape the handle/ by checking the handle/ Of the axe we cut with.” This is a lesson at once in tool-making, in philosophy, and in aesthetics.

It is part of the casual anecdotal feel of the poem that it is held together by “ands,” each development in its small drama introduced by this humble conjunction. Although this is a rudimentary method of plot advancement, the word “and” can be read as profoundly connective, as well as casually so. When Snyder turns, in the middle of the poem, to paraphrase Pound’s phrase to his son, he begins with an “And” that teaches the reader the connection between the two halves of the poem, between action and contemplation, between the past and the present, between the external order of things and the imaginative order of things, between parenting and poetry.

Also, the word “and” is followed twice by epiphany, by an expansion of the horizon of understanding. In line 22 the poet says, “And he sees” and in line 31, “And I see.” That Kai “sees” so swiftly the elegance and comedy of using a tool to make a tool of the same kind justifies the speaker’s understated pride in him.

Snyder himself takes the second epiphany, expressed in terms of metaphor, casting himself simultaneously as late learner and mature teacher among teachers: “And I see: Pound was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle.” Part of what Snyder “sees” here is that he has earned his space among the masters, those who actively craft the culture, by receiving it, using it, and passing it on. It is typical of Snyder that he should announce this profound connection with mingled confidence and humility, in language without a hint of grandiosity: “How we go on.” Without ado, the “we” of that phrase acknowledges a familial lineage of makers from the fourth century c.e. to the present, from Lu Ji to Kai, and beyond.

Axe Handles

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Gary Snyder’s new volume of poems, Axe Handles, is the first he has published since Turtle Island, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. This beautifully crafted book of seventy-one poems includes brief, haiku-like lyrics; riddles; and free-verse narratives. Snyder’s publisher, North Point Press, has quickly acquired a reputation as one of the finest small presses in the country, and their craftsmanship is evident throughout this book, from the cover design to the handsome layout and the poet’s careful arrangement of his material. The dust jacket features an exquisite illustration of Gaia, the Earth Goddess, depicted as a goddess of snow by artist Mayumi Oda. Taken from the artist’s collection, Goddesses, the jacket illustration is entitled “Treasure Ship, Goddess of Snow.” The delicate Oriental quality of the cover design complements the series of haiku poems in the second part of the collection, “Little Songs for Gaia.”

West Coast poet Snyder has been associated with the Beat movement—notably with his longtime friend Allen Ginsberg—and the San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who encouraged the young Snyder in his study of Oriental languages and culture. Snyder has always been distinguished from the Beats, however, by his disciplined imagination, tempered by his long study of Buddhism in Japan, where he lived for some years. In his early poems of the 1950’s, he anticipated many of the concerns of the counterculture, blending Eastern thought with environmentalism, and he has not swerved from those commitments. In his poetry, Snyder has tried to articulate this sensibility, one based on a rejection of technology and affluence, a harmony with nature, and a Buddhist inner discipline and tranquility. Snyder’s mastery of his form is evident in the firm, clean lines of verse, reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s Rock-Drill cantos (1955). Pound’s ideogramic technique stands behind Snyder’s work, though Snyder’s extensive familiarity with Oriental languages and thought has permitted him to surpass Pound in his fidelity to the values that inform his Japanese and Chinese models. The poems in Axe Handles are marked by simplicity and understatement, sharpness of image and syntactical spareness, discipline and restraint.

The collection is unified by Snyder’s awareness of the resources of language as a tool for shaping and crafting his verse, a theme suggested by the epigraph, a fifth century B.C. Chinese folk song about shaping axe handles from the pattern of an already existing handle. As he implies in his title poem, “Axe Handles,” poetry is language used as a tool to make other tools. Like the axe handle, poetry is both a tool and a model for shaping other tools. Snyder borrows his metaphor from Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, a fourth century A.D. “Essay on Literature,” which begins, “In making the handle/ Of an axe/ By cutting wood with an axe/ The model is indeed near at hand.” The theme of cultural continuity, present in many of the poems in this collection, appears in the title poem as a wonderful parable of the transmission of culture implicit in the poet’s simple act of showing his son Kai how to shape a new hatchet handle from a broken-off axe handle. Teaching and learning, from master to pupil, father to son, is like shaping a new handle to the form of the old handle in one’s hand. The pleasure Snyder takes in his work reminds him of a phrase first learned from Ezra Pound, who in turn borrowed it from its Chinese original. Thus, in the cycle of renewal, “Pound was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again, model/ And tool, craft of culture,/ How we go on.”

Many of the poems describe the daily life of Snyder and his family at their homestead in the foothills of the California Sierra Nevadas, where he lives with his Japanese wife, Masa, and their two sons, Kai and Gen. The deep and abiding pleasure he finds in the details of ordinary life are registered in these poems, which together evoke a sense of a healthy, harmonious, and productive life-style in which rearing children and bringing the soil back into production through composting and recycling are part of the same caring, nurturing concern.

The poems in Axe Handles are divided into three sections: “Loops,” “Little Songs for Gaia,” and “Nets.” They range outward from family, to community, to national government, to a global environmental concern of the kind that Snyder first articulated in Turtle Island. Judging from the subject matter of many of his poems, Snyder likes tools and uses them well. He values honest labor and the things of the earth as self-disciplines that provide serenity and repose.

These poems record a wonderfully vivid and exact sense of a man’s life rich in ordinary moments—gardening, cutting firewood, painting a school-house, repairing an old Willys pickup truck, putting in fenceposts, enjoying time spent with his two sons, and noticing what is in bloom as the seasons progress. These experiences are the Tao, or “given” of life. Although a deep imprint of Eastern sensibility is evident in Snyder’s work, he is no recluse, as the poems describing his work with the California Arts Council and his conversations with then Governor Jerry Brown testify. Rather, Snyder represents a unique blend of American environmentalism and love of the wilderness with an Oriental serenity, self-discipline, and restraint. This melding of East and West is what accounts for the distinctiveness of his poetic voice, though Snyder resists thinking in these dualistic cultural terms. “Better,” he has said, quoting a Zen saying, “the perfect easy discipline of the swallow’s dip and swoop, ’without east or west.’”

The poems in part 1, “Loops,” emphasize the natural cycles and continuity of family, community, and land. In an obliquely personal poem, “For/From Lew,” a dead friend advises the poet to “teach children about the cycles./ The life cycles. All the other cycles./ That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.” This respect for the balance of nature is evident throughout this section, as Snyder celebrates natural events such as the nesting of swallows and the flow of rivers. “Where do rivers start?” his son asks in the poem, “Rivers in the Valley,” and the answer comes in the form of a verse meditation on the cycles of water. Another poem, “Among,” describes West Coast forest succession, as the tiny Douglas firs, the climax tree, reseed themselves among a stand of ponderosa pine. What rescues these poems from banality is the remarkable discipline and control that Snyder exercises over his material. The craft of writing good free verse is as demanding as writing traditional verse, and Snyder makes effective use of variable line and stress and elliptical syntax. “On Top,” a poem about composting, uses the metaphor of building soil to suggest how the poet works over his materials for creative inspiration.

Many of Snyder’s poems are meditations inspired by the physical work of homesteading. Throughout this collection, he emphasizes the dignity and value of manual work as a means of getting back in touch with oneself. “Bows to Drouth,” for instance, was inspired by a summer drought in 1974 that kept the poet busy pumping water to his apple trees. Throughout these poems, Snyder’s outdoor work helps him to keep in touch with the physical world around him—the land, weather, seasons, moods of nature. As a young man, Snyder worked summers with the Forestry Service, and he retains his love of the high country of the Sierras and Sawtooth Ranges. Many of his poems were inspired by camping trips and his time spent outdoors. He feels little but contempt for the great urban sprawl of coastal California, preferring the small communities and relative isolation of the foothills.

Like the California poet Robinson Jeffers before him, Snyder perceives the reckless transiency of white American settlement in contrast to the permanence of the land itself. His poems yearn for the serenity and order of a Native American or Oriental outlook in place of the waste and heedlessness of modern American life. There is, however, little of Jeffers’ stark “inhumanism” in Snyder’s outlook. Instead, his work celebrates a mellowed and matured counterculture, still critical of prevailing American values but offering its own alternative set of values in communal cooperation, conservation, and a nonexploitative way of life that shows respect for the land. The military serves as a particular object for Snyder’s scorn, whether it be the futile display of American and Soviet jet maneuvers and aerial confrontations that waste millions of gallons of kerosene or the satellites and jet vapor trails seen at night during a Sierra camping trip. The vanity and futility of these cultural gestures contrast sharply with the serenity and repose of the natural world.

Perhaps the best poem in part 1 is “Working on the ’58 Willys Pickup,” a free-verse manifesto of Snyder’s hard-won values and wisdom. This personal narrative, occasioned by the poet’s need to rebuild an old pickup truck that he hopes to use to haul rotten sawdust for his garden, encompasses both the poet’s personal development and a cultural confrontation between East and West. As he repairs the truck’s brakes, Snyder recalls that he was studying Chinese and Japanese the year this truck was built, but in his education he learned nothing of practical matters such as truck repair. Now, some twenty years later, the cycles of his life have brought him back to a California homestead where he works to restore the abandoned truck. As he works, he admires its compact utility, thinking that “. . . a truck like this/ would please Chairman Mao.” Now Snyder and his other formerly academic friends attempt to recycle what their culture has discarded so wastefully. Snyder puts the truck back into use. Thus in his labor, theoretical and practical knowledge are united, and the pleasure of working with his hands and doing something useful complements his academic background. East meets West in the practical agrarian utility of the poet and his associates, who use what their culture has discarded in order to bring the land back into fruitful production. Other poems such as “Getting in the Wood” also celebrate the satisfactions of hard work done cooperatively among good friends as a means of building community and living the values in which they believe.

The second part, “Little Songs for Gaia,” is a set of twenty-one exquisite haiku-like lyrics that record glimpses of the natural world in a manner as elegant and stylized as an Oriental landscape painting. Snyder uses words as gracefully as brush strokes to evoke, in an act of poetic meditation, strong, clear images of the natural world. These sharp pieces remind the reader of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams at their best and demonstrate how thoroughly Snyder has assimilated the techniques of Oriental poetry and made them part of his own voice and style. Lyric grace and movement abound in these glimpses of hawks circling over marshes, the ouzel diving in a stream, the call of the red-shafted flicker, the rattle of buck antlers, or the dream of Corn Maidens dancing. All of these visions are part of the seamless web of the ever-changing natural cycles of nature. These brief verse meditations bespeak a mind trained to look beyond the temporary, transient world of man to the permanence of the natural world.

Part of the discipline of Zen is knowing the proper place and use of things, so that they serve people instead of dominate them. That discipline is sometimes depicted in the metaphor of the archer and the bow, in the effortless fusion of arrow and flight. Snyder demonstrates such discipline and detachment in part 3, “Nets,” a more eclectic selection of verse about the human and natural worlds. Divided into four sections, “Nets” opens with several poems based on Snyder’s numerous camping trips into Yellowstone National Park and Montana, which offer vivid glimpses of the pristine wilderness. “Geese Gone Beyond” describes an experience of spotting a flock of Canada geese while the poet and his companion are canoeing on a mountain lake. Their experience of kneeling and watching from the canoe is likened to a Japanese tea ceremony or watching a N play, as the poet and his friend stop to gaze in rapt admiration as the geese take off and fly honking overhead. In another short piece with a title longer than the text, a sudden Nevada snowstorm inspires the poet to bow to Mother Gaia (the Earth Goddess) in the roadside gravel. Snyder’s act of veneration serves as the perfect tribute to the austere beauty of the Western American landscape.

The second part of “Nets” shifts to the Western American cultural landscape with a varied series of poems, one describing the commercial vulgarity of a Nevada county fair rodeo contrasting with several more dignified pieces dedicated to then California Governor Jerry Brown. The concluding poem, “What I Have Learned,” is the strongest in the section, an ode to the discipline of the proper use of hand tools.

The third part of “Nets” opens with an occasional poem, “A Maul for Bill and Cindy’s Wedding,” which offers the wish that the newlyweds may never be divided as easily as the poet’s maul splits his rounds of oak. Following are two Alaska poems about the desecration of the natural environment by the crude-oil pipelines and the stampede for development, as Snyder depicts redneck construction workers brawling in bars when they are not out wrecking the natural world. These Alaskan scenes of environmental vandalism remind the poet of a Native American legend of a greedy one who failed to “master his Ally correctly” when he was young but instead became greedy and imitated the white man’s ways, so that he became a threat to his tribe and his people. Such behavior was “crazy” from the Indians’ perspective and the renegade among them should have been killed, but instead he lived and prospered at the expense of others. That Zen of the proper mastery of things is best illustrated by a short lyric about the hydraulic system of a backhoe, in which the poet takes delight in machinery that is designed well and works well to serve its function.

Finally, in the fourth part of “Nets,” the poet turns to themes of illusion and aging. The illusory lure of money and power is treated metaphorically in “Breasts,” the organs of nourishment which concentrate the environmental toxins (the metaphorical equivalent of cultural illusions) that the mother takes in with her own food. The work of life is to “burn the poison away” to reveal the gaiety of parents in old age. In the memorable poem “Old Rotting Tree Trunk Down,” human aging is contrasted with other cycles of death and decay in the natural world. The poem traces the process of decay and disintegration of a massive tree trunk, which serves as a host to fungi, beetles, and larvae, and as a food source for woodpeckers, as life passes to death and then to myriad other forms of life as the natural cycles perpetuate themselves. There follow in this last section a poetic tribute to a mummified Bäckaskog woman in a Stockholm museum, who is likened to “Old Woman Nature”; and “The Canyon Wren,” a moving tribute to the soon-to-be dammed Stanislaus River, on which Snyder rafted with several friends in April of 1981, shortly before the river was scheduled to be impounded by the New Mellones Dam. The song of the Canyon Wren stayed with them during the entire voyage. The collection concludes with “For All,” a facetious ecological parody of the Pledge of Allegiance, in the form of an ecological pledge to all forms of life in the ecosystem of “Turtle Island,” the Native American mythological concept of the world.

The careful selection and arrangement of the poems collected in Axe Handles demonstrates Gary Snyder’s steady development and maturity as one of America’s foremost contemporary poets. This fine new collection shows that there has been no decline in Snyder’s art since the publication of Turtle Island; rather, the poet has used the intervening years to strengthen and deepen his poetic vision. Axe Handles offers a sensible and coherent vision of a poet engaged not with the cultivation of a private personal vision but with the hard and earnest business of crafting a life and community for himself, his family, and friends. Snyder’s poetry offers a healthy antidote to the stultified irrelevance of most contemporary American poetry. The poems in Axe Handles demonstrate Snyder’s ability to whet and hone the tools of language to shape and craft his poems with fine precision. He is a poet well worth reading.


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Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXX, October 15, 1983, p. 324.

Nation. CCXXXVII, November 19, 1983, pp. 501.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, September 16, 1983, p. 123.