The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“For Plants” is a meditation on the mythical and magical properties of certain psychoactive plants. The poem is written in free verse consisting of forty-two lines in roughly seven sections. Poets sometimes make lists of persons or places or things in poems. Gary Snyder uses this catalog form in “For Plants” to present several plants known since ancient times to possess medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. The effect of the rhythmic repetition of strange or exotic plant names in Snyder’s catalog is often like an incantation.

The poem begins with a four-line stanza that describes the gathering of psychedelic mushrooms. The stanza simply and effectively conveys the sense of mystery and power that surrounds the fungus. The image of an “ancient virgin” (perhaps a goddess or priestess) gathering magic mushrooms in a dark forest casts a meditative spell and draws the reader into the poem.

The next stanza is about peyote. In this stanza, there is no human involvement other than via the poet’s observation. The poet instead focuses on the cactus plant, which, like some natural gift or “dream-child bud,” is found “glowing in hollow desert.” The image of the peyote as childlike confers the qualities of innocence, purity, and even holiness upon this hallucinogenic substance. In fact, the poet refers to the peyote as “the holy baby.”

The following stanza addresses the thorn apple or datura in four short lines....

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“For Plants” was published in Back Country (1967), a collection of poems that dealt with nature and the wilderness. Gary Snyder’s poetry has often been compared to that of Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, two poets who wrote poems inspired by what has been called a “Western literary imagination.” Such poetry takes the wilderness as its main subject and stresses a reverence for its personal and social value. The poet (who is usually alone in this type of poem) is barely present. The poet’s voice is that of an impersonal, solitary observer in meditation. It is a voice that speaks for the vitalizing and essential sacredness of nature.

Though Snyder had read and absorbed much from Henry David Thoreau and Jeffers, it was Rexroth and Asian Buddhist nature poetry that influenced him the most. In the 1920’s, Rexroth began to write poems about his backpacking trips into the wild and unspoiled far West. He rejected traditional Romantic nature poetry and instead embraced a direct, nonintellectual approach to his subject.

Therefore, the form of “For Plants” is derived from both Asian nature poetry (specifically Buddhist) and sensibilities explored by Rexroth in his mountain poetry. The poem has, first, a wilderness setting, though in this case the exact location is unspecified. This lack of a definite sense of place results from the fact that each of the plants described is physically rooted to a different landscape in...

(The entire section is 471 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Almon, Bert. Gary Snyder. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1979.

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Dean, Tim. Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Halper, Jon. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder’s Vision: Poetry and the Real Work. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Steubing, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks. New York: Counterpoint, 2002.