Earth House Hold by Gary Snyder

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Earth House Hold Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Snyder derived the title for his first book of collected prose from wordplay on the root of the word “ecology.” As he points out in the key essay in the book, “Poetry and the Primitive,” “eco” comes from the Greek work oikos, meaning “house.” Thus Snyder playfully renders “ecology” as “earth house hold”—as a perspective that compels humans to consider the entire “earth” as a “house” that they must “hold” with more tenderness and reverence.

The book gathers journals, essays, and translations from 1952 to 1969, a period of many changes in Snyder’s life. Some of these pieces, such as reviews of two books of Native American folktales and a translation of the biography of a Buddhist master, are of interest mainly to serious Snyder scholars. For the general student and reader, however, the main interest of the book lies in the personal journals and the later essays, which show important transitions in Snyder’s life, philosophy, and conception of poetry. In the course of Earth House Hold, Snyder evolves from a wandering, questing individualist to a man firmly rooted in specific commitments to wife, community, and a communal notion of poetry.

Three chapters drawn from Snyder’s journals show his developing sense of commitment to family and community. In “Lookout’s Journal” (1952), notes from his two summers as a ranger and forest lookout in the Washington Cascades, Snyder writes an entry that is surprisingly prophetic of his later marriage to Masa and their life at the Banyan Ashram. On the other hand, his prevailing attitude is expressed in a quotation from a friend: “’Should I marry? It would mean a house; and the next thirty years teaching school.’ LOOKOUT!” Similarly, in “Tanker Notes” (1957), journals from his period as a merchant seaman, Snyder’s references to women express the exploitative attitude of sailors. By contrast, in the final chapter of the book, “Suwa-no-se Island and the Banyan Ashram,” Snyder treats his relationship with Masa, and his marriage to her, as part of a communal life in close connection with nature. Snyder includes no description of Masa, or of their meeting and courtship, but describes in considerable detail the setting and rituals of their marriage ceremony and the ensuing community celebration.

Snyder’s journals and essays in Earth House Hold show his conceptions of religion and poetry also developing more of a community orientation. Snyder’s 1951 undergraduate dissertation shows that he had long understood, on an intellectual level, the role that he believed a poet should ideally play in the aesthetic and religious life of a community. The writings in Earth House Hold show that before Snyder was able to enact such a role, he needed to work through other conceptions involving self, poetry, religion, and nature.

A 1952 entry from “Lookout’s Journal” considers poetry as a solitary activity, with primary emphasis on the poet’s attempt to express a mystical relationship with nature that is, in Asian religions, considered essentially inexpressible: “If one wished to write poetry of nature, where an audience? Must come from the very conflict of an attempt to articulate the vision.” On the other hand, in the early 1960’s essay “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” Snyder argues that Buddhism must move beyond its traditional focus on “liberating...

(The entire section is 808 words.)