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Gary (Sherman) Snyder 1930–
American poet, essayist, and translator.
Snyder's stature as both a counterculture figure and an innovative and important mainstream poet places him in an uncommon position in contemporary literature. Although only briefly involved with the San Francisco Beat movement of the 1950s, Snyder's influence on the Beats was nevertheless significant and he is often linked with them. However, unlike most Beat writers, Snyder has also received extensive serious scholarly attention. Whereas a rejection of literary traditions characterizes much Beat writing, Snyder's work is seen to embody the influence of such literary giants as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is the recipient of several literary honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Turtle Island (1974), and his reputation as a significant author, though not uncontested, is largely secure.
Snyder was raised on small farms, first in Washington and later in Oregon, and held jobs as a logger, seaman, fire lookout, and United States Forest Service trail crew worker. His interest in American Indian culture led him to acquire degrees in literature and anthropology at Reed College. Snyder began graduate work in linguistics at Indian University, and then transferred to University of California at Berkeley, where he pursued his interest in Asian thought and culture by studying Oriental languages. During this time, between 1953 and 1956, Snyder became involved with the Beat community; just as it began gaining national attention, however, he moved to Japan, where he became actively involved in Zen Buddhism. The influence of Eastern literature and philosophy and Snyder's application of Zen Buddhism to Western culture are perhaps the most distinguishing characteristics of his poetry.
Snyder's writing reveals an appreciation for the hard work of rural life and the closeness it affords with nature, an interest in the spiritual link between primitive cultures and nature, and a deep sense of involvement with humanity. As Thomas Parkinson notes in a discussion of Myths & Texts (1960), "Snyder wants to reach a prehuman reality, the wilderness and the cosmos in which man lives as an animal with animals in a happy ecology." Over the course of his career, Snyder has developed and refined his vision, creating a body of work marked by its clarity, depth, and rhythmic beauty. Like the Japanese poetry which he has studied and translated, Snyder's poems are built not on symbol or metaphor but on sharp, clear images created out of precise and immediate language.
Snyder's first collection of poetry, Riprap (1959), is largely based on his experiences as a manual laborer; the title itself is taken from a term which designates the laying of stones for a horse trail in the mountains. Myths & Texts, his next collection, is a long, highly allusive lyrical poem divided into three sections: "Logging," "Hunting," and "Burning." This work is often considered his most accomplished collection. Most critics contend that Myths & Texts far surpasses Riprap in literary merit: it is more tightly constructed, unified, and expansive, while also retaining the clarity and exactness of the shorter poems in Riprap. The Back Country (1967), divided into five sections—"The Far West," "The Far East," "Kali," "Back," and translations of work by the Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji—reveals the influence of East and West on both the style and content of Snyder's poetry. His subsequent major collections—Regarding Wave (1969), Turtle Island, and the recent Axe Handles (1983)—continue to develop the themes and concerns introduced in the early collections. In addition, Snyder has continued to work on Mountains and Rivers without End, an ongoing lyrical series, begun in the 1950s, which explores internal and external landscapes.
He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village (1951), Snyder's recently republished senior thesis at Reed College, explores how the ancient "Swan Maiden" myth reflects and shapes the lives of the Haida Indians. This early work, revealing Snyder's interest in and his commitment to poetry, society, and the natural world, is seen to foreshadow the main concerns developed throughout his career. Snyder's other nonfiction works, most notably Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1979), and The Real Work (1980), are collections of essays which relate to his poetry thematically. Of central concern in both his essays and poems, as Scott McLean notes in his introduction to The Real Work, is Snyder's belief in "the complementary nature of inner and outer realities." Snyder views poetry as "'the seat of the soul'—the area where the inner world and the outer world touch…."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 16.)
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I have three ideas about Snyder's work as a whole that I want to bring up. First, his is essentially a Western imagination. His poems are powerfully located—sown, rooted—in the landscape of the far Western states. He is a Western writer just as, for example, Delmore Schwartz, Anthony Hecht, and Howard Moss are Eastern writers…. These two sets of writers deal with different geographical landscapes but the distinction is deeper and subtler than that. They differ in what might be called the landscape of the imagination—which each in his way tries to discover and explore.
The Western writer feels a need to approach his characters and incidents with an imagination totally, if temporarily, freed from all concern with abstract ideas. The Eastern writer … does not. (p. 34)
One of the most interesting features of Gary Snyder's poetry is that in him we see this "western" imagination in a poet.
The point is worth examining further: it helps to identify Mr. Snyder's originality and it suggests a kind of American poetry that hasn't been very much explored—a kind of poetry which Mr. Snyder has been writing with freshness and dignity, which might be called a poetry of the Western imagination. The term itself doesn't matter much, except for the sake of convenience. It ought to suggest, however, certain features of poetry which are imaginative rather than rhetorical. In such poetry the forms of poems emerge from within the living growth of each particular poem and most definitely not in a set of conventions (such as the classical English iambic, with all its masterpieces of the past and its suffocating influence in the present). This new poetry is also marked by the presence of a powerful intelligence which does its thinking through the imagination itself, and not through repetition of the thoughts of established philosophical authorities or of classical myths which are degenerated through excessive or inaccurate use into obstructions rather than doorways to clear thought. Mr. Snyder does indeed embody certain myths in his poetry, but they are not classical myths, but "bear myths," and myths of the senses.
My second idea is that Mr. Snyder's poetry is very different from "Beat" poetry. Snyder has been associated primarily in magazines with the Black Mountain school and the Beats…. Snyder's poetry is, however, immediately distinct both in imagination and in style from Beat work. A certain gentleness and care for civilization in Snyder is utterly absent in Ginsberg or Orlovsky, who are in favor, as they say, of "cat vommit." Ginsberg and Orlovsky make strong efforts to coarsen themselves, whereas Snyder does the very opposite. The Beat writers are opposed to civilization of all kinds: Snyder is not. Snyder's work everywhere reveals the grave mind of a man who is highly civilized and who, moreover, makes no pretense of denying his own intelligence. (pp. 35-6)
My third idea is the reality of the oriental influence on Snyder. The influence of the orient on Snyder is interior: it is the desire to overcome vanity and ambition…. (p. 37)
The great poets of Japan and, especially, of China, are almost invariably men who pride themselves on being men who devote their entire selves to the life of contemplation and imagination. In their poems they succeed in the struggle against vanity and the desire for power.
Another oriental influence concerns the method of construction of the poem. Chinese poems are formed out of images whose sensory force strikes the mind directly, not as an abstract substitute for an experience, but as an original experience in itself….
[For example, Mr. Snyder's poem "Water"] contains no external reference to China or to Chinese poetry. Somebody once said that the prose of the young Ernest Hemingway resembled clean pebbles shining side by side at the bottom of a clear stream-channel; and that is the way Mr. Snyder has let the images of his poem arrange themselves into lines. There is no forcing of the imagination into external and conventional rhetorical patterns, such as have ruptured a good many poems during recent years in America. And yet Mr. Snyder's poem is not formless. It is exquisitely formed from the inside. It follows the clear rhythm of the poet's run down the hill in the hot sun, turns suddenly when he plunges his head in the cold water, and comes to a delightful close with the poet, his skin alive with the chill, gazing under the surface, face to face with a fish.
I began by noting Mr. Snyder's conscious debt to Chinese poets, and ended by admiring his ability to convey the astonishment of a fish. The two points suggest the importance of Mr. Snyder's study of Chinese. He has bypassed its biographical and historical externals, such as might be flaunted by someone who wanted to impress his readers, and has learned how to form his imagination into poems according to a tradition which is great and vital, and which is wholly distinct from the tradition of British poetry, very great in itself but somewhat inhibiting to American imaginative experience. (pp. 37-9)
But American poets, with a frequency that is dismal in proportion as it seems automatic—that is, conditioned—tend either to give up all hope of imaginative precision and delicacy altogether, as Ginsberg in his "Howl" or Freeman in his Apollonian Poems, or to regard all deviation from the iambic rhetoric of the British tradition as an absurdity when it fails or as a crime akin to parricide when it succeeds. Whitman patiently suggested the exploration of traditions beyond the British; but, as Hart Crane complained with terrible despair in one of his greatest letters, many people won't even read Democratic Vistas.
Perhaps the reading of such a work, endangering as it does the trite and completely false public image of Whitman which still persists in America despite the Beats' attempt to appropriate him, requires a courage which few men are willing to assume—a courage akin to Whitman's own. In any case, Gary Snyder has displayed a courage of similar kind, not in order to face Whitman's devastating and perhaps unsurpassed criticism of America's puritanical materialism; but in order to undertake one of the tasks of the imagination for which Whitman often felt poets in America should prove most capable: the exploration of living traditions which, shunning the British tradition, nonetheless display powers of poetry which equal and sometimes surpass that tradition; and to make this search for the purpose of claiming America itself—by which I mean literally our own lives and the people and places we live among day by day—for the imagination.
I have discussed the Chinese poets at some length … because they mean so much to Mr. Snyder, and because they reveal in their own work the possibility of a further growth in American poetry which has scarcely been considered. My final impression of Mr. Snyder himself, however, does not depend on his debt to this or that writer.
What matters most to me is that Snyder has been able to live his daily life with the full power of his imagination awake to all the details of that life…. (pp. 40-1)
Mr. Snyder has courage and an air of faithful patience. He keeps his voice low, not out of timidity but out of strength. (p. 42)
Crunk (pseudonym of James Wright), 'The Work of Gary Snyder," in The Sixties, No. 6, Spring, 1962, pp. 25-42.
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Snyder has recently mentioned that the direction of his future work after the completion of Mountains and Rivers Without End will be religious and philosophical. He has also stated that after that work has been completed, he may donate his books to the local library and retire to the anonymity of friends and family life in the mountains. This desire and such a life are, of course, in the true Oriental style. However, if Snyder ends his poetic career after this decade, it would even then be premature to make any final pronouncements. Although the figure of Gary Snyder as a man may still overshadow that of Snyder the poet, certain tentative statements can now be made. First of all, Snyder's reputation as a poet rests at present on Myths & Texts, his most complete work; on a few excellent poems from Riprap, The Back Country, and Turtle Island; on the cycle of poems in Regarding Wave …; and especially on the more recent sections where Snyder's work reaches synthesis in his magnum opus, Mountains and Rivers Without End. In these poems, one finds directness and simplicity of statement, clarity and brilliance of mind, and profundity and depth of emotional range. In these instances, Snyder's is a poetry of incredible power and beauty. (pp. 163-64)
Myths & Texts (1960), many readers' favorite work, is, as yet, Snyder's most complete and most unified book. This is not a collection of poems organized around a catchy title, as to a certain extent are Riprap and The Back Country, no matter how perfect some of their individual poems. Myths & Texts coheres perfectly…. [All] three of its sections relate specifically to one another, and there is a definite progression and feeling of completion while reading this book. Like "The Waste Land," which influenced its composition, Myths & Texts makes an over-all comment on our society and will probably stand the test of time. Within this work are individual poems of startling beauty and insight, for example, "Poem 2" from "Logging," in which Snyder relates his own complicity in the destruction of the forests. (p. 164)
Of particular note in The Back Country (1968) is "A Berry Feast," written to commemorate a summer spent with good friends in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It is a saucy poem, filled with zest for life, written by Snyder while in a trickster-like mood. Also significant are the many simple songs of peace and happiness, such as "Marin-an" in which the poet listens to the people of middle America driving their cars to work. The "Kali" poems are also notable … for their frank exploration of the demonic potential in man and in the poet in particular. And the poems in "Far East," inspired by Snyder's travels and studies in Japan are particularly important as well as poignant. "Six Years" adeptly portrays the rhythm of the poet's Zen studies. And "Yase: September" succinctly captures the essence of old Japan…. (p. 165)
Turtle Island (1974) … and Regarding Wave (1970) collect many poems which extend and complete themes and subjects treated in earlier works. For example, both books are concerned with social revolution and the search for alternate sources of energy. The cycle of poems from Regarding Wave concerning the birth of Snyder's first son, Kai, completes the poem "Praise for Sick Women" from Riprap. These four beautiful poems, describing the growth of Kai from conception until after birth move further into the mystical experience that is birth and life…. "Song of the Taste" from Regarding Wave, possibly Snyder's most perfect poem, finishes his development of the idea of eating, first described in the "Hunting" section of Myths & Texts and later in the many "food" poems in The Back Country: "A Berry Feast" and "Oysters," for example. It seems that in "Song of the Taste," in which the reader learns how he draws "on life of living,"… Snyder has reached the farthest extension and expression possible of this experience. The effect of this poem on the reader is startling. (pp. 165-66)
And finally, in Mountains and Rivers Without End, Snyder's continuing work, published periodically in sections, the reader can also see the gradual creation of a book, a collection of long poems, which may last for the same reasons that Whitman's Leaves of Grass lasts. Of particular note in this growing work are the sections titled "Bubbs Creek Haircut," "The Market," "The Blue Sky," and "The Hump-Backed Flute Player." The earlier poems, "Bubbs Creek Haircut" and "The Market," are clever and technically interesting: the poet takes liberties with the time sequence and describes exotic locales with a rapid and effective series of images. But it is in the last two sections mentioned in which this long work begins to achieve its potential. In "The Blue Sky" and "The Hump-Backed Flute Player" both Snyder's philosophic vision and incredibly adept technique coalesce. In these poems, Snyder has reached the pinnacle of his art, acting as poet-shaman, using language in its fullest magical properties—the poem as chant or mantra. Here, especially in "The Blue Sky," the poems not only describe healing, they actually heal. This is truly astonishing writing in which Snyder's poetry nearly transcends art. (p. 166)
Writing, in the main, within the Imagist tradition of Pound, Williams, and the Orient, Snyder's poetry is not solely Imagistic. The gradual development of his work from the crafted to the visionary poem, his interest in primitive oral poetry, and his recent allusions to Whitman, Duncan, and other mystical poets attest to this. Significantly influenced early in his career by the demands of Oriental nature poetry for precision, sharpness, and spontaneity, Snyder's movement into Imagism and later toward the "visionary" was assured when he began his study of Buddhism in college. Its influence on the mind of Gary Snyder is profound, and it is deepening as he matures. From the sometimes "easy" references of Riprap to the basis of his later more mature work, Regarding Wave and the later sections of Mountains and Rivers Without End, one finds this deepening of thought. However, since Buddhist theory is integral to these latter works, their richness and depth may be lost to those who do not have some knowledge of Buddhism. No poet in American literature has made Buddhist psychology so completely his own. Applied to the wilderness locale, found earlier in the work of Kenneth Rexroth, this Buddhist perception of oneness, creates a poetry of immediacy and startling originality.
No one can predict with accuracy how the work of this engaging poet … will be received in a future, different era. Will Myths & Texts be scrutinized by scholars fifty years from now as are Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Pound's The Cantos? Will Riprap and The Back Country, with their flavor of woodsmoke and snow-melt tea, be read and loved as they are now by a generation learning to travel in the wilderness? Will Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End be cherished as is Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a record of a spiritual journey? And will Regarding Wave and Turtle Island, pointing to the "power within," continue to energize, as does Blake's poetry, when no fossil fuel is left? No one can say; it is too early to tell.
Nonetheless, it seems that Snyder's works are secure, even if his reputation is, as yet, in flux. After the biographical comment has ceased and when his work is seen in perspective, the dominant voice of Gary Snyder as a poet will become evident. Essentially mystical, Snyder's pre-scientific and mythological perception, grounded in his studies of Buddhism and primitive consciousness, has created a new kind of poetry that is direct, concrete, non-Romantic, and ecological. More than as follower of Pound and Williams, or as a clever adaptor of Oriental poetic forms, Snyder's work will be remembered in its own right as the example of a new direction taken in American literature. (pp. 167-68)
Snyder's poetry truly influences one who reads him thoroughly to "see" in a startlingly new way. Presenting the vision of an integrated and unified world, this heroic poetic effort cannot but help to create a much needed change of consciousness. (p. 168)
Bob Steuding, in his Gary Snyder, Twayne Publishers, 1976, 189 p.
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["True insight"] to Snyder is "a love-making hovering between the void & the immense worlds of creation,"… and poetry, as its subtlest medium of expression, walks "that edge between what can be said and that which cannot be said … [I]t's going out into emptiness and into the formless" while at the same time resting on "an absolute foundation of human experience and insight."… The "pure inspiration flow" bringing it forth is "not intellect and not—(as romantics and after have confusingly thought) fantasy-dream world or unconsciousness." On the contrary, true poetry "reflects all things and feeds all things but is of itself transparent."…
True to this theory, Snyder's poetry, like that of his Eastern peers, often radiates with an almost unearthly clarity and precision, whereby the sensual concreteness of every detail seems as if suffused with this transparence or awareness of the void. What seems so deceptively simple, is, in fact, a unique, by now widely imitated, yet probably inimitable achievement within Western poetry. Little gaps of silence frequently seem to separate one utterance from the next, and, like the brush strokes of calligraphic paintings, each phrase or remark, like the phenomenon or event it embodies, seems to rest within the energy of its own tension, autonomous, and yet related to all others in the hidden field of force, creating its "complexity far beneath the surface texture."… (p. 96)
[Just] as the Eastern poets he translated cover a wide range of modes and tones, from the mystical luminosity of Chinese Hanshan to the mythopoeic deep imagery or colloquial satire of Japanese Miyazawa Kenji, so [Snyder's] own work is by no means limited to the lyric mode of his "Flowers for the Void" … "going out into emptiness and into the formless which is the nature of pure joy."… Snyder often speaks with a funny, self-ironical, satirical or outspokenly didactic voice, while a work like Myths & Texts (1960), hailed by Robert Bly as "one of the two or three finest books of poetry" of its decade …, presents us with a subtly orchestrated structure, centered around specific symbols and myths that were inspired by "the happy collections Sapir, Boas, Swanton, and others made of American Indian folktales early in this century."… Julian Gitzen, in an extensive interpretation of the poem, has compared Myths & Texts with The Waste Land, though one may add that the "fragmental texture" which in Eliot's poem expresses anguished spiritual chaos in the face of nothingness ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins") serves Snyder as a positive means for apprehending reality in its preconceptual suchness (tathātā) and as a medium for his poetic "re-enactment of [the] timeless dance: here and now, co-creating forever, for no end but now."… (pp. 99-100)
Another major poetic mode, that of his long poem in progress entitled Mountains and Rivers without End, at first seems to invite comparison with the American epic tradition from Leaves of Grass to the Maximus Poems. Yet as Snyder explained in 1959, it in fact emulates further models of Eastern literature and art. Its "dramatic structure follows a certain type of Nō play," while its overall structure (which "threatens to be like its title") was conceived "after a Chinese sidewise scroll painting."… (p. 100)
It would be tantamount to splitting hairs to try to trace these various modes in terms of their successive evolution in the poet's life. Even in his beginnings, Snyder, unlike Robert Lowell or other poets of the "confessional" genre, for instance, displays none of the tormented, self-questioning, and often suicidal spiritual tendencies, so typical of post-Romantic poetry in the West. Instead, he seems to have evolved these several modes almost simultaneously and as from a common basis, and to have deepened, refined and elaborated them ever since. As Snyder points out himself, Mountains and Rivers without End (of which the first Six Sections were published in 1965) was begun as early as 1956, Myths & Texts (1960) "grew" between 1952 and 1956 …, while the poems of the more "lyric order" as he calls them … already dominate his first published collection of 1959 (Riprap). Even earlier, in his diary of the years 1952–3, Snyder had begun to formulate the basic premises of his philosophy and poetics: his experience of "no identity" and "the void," his epistemological "love-making hovering between the void & the immense worlds of creation," his concept of form as "ellipse, is emptiness," the subsequent experience of linguistic disintegration ("my language fades. Images of erosion") and the attempt to reconstitute language after the model of Chinese poetry cross-bred with the primordial potential of the Anglo-Saxon heritage. It was equally early in his career that Snyder assumed his clean-slate stance in favor of Primitive and Eastern mentality ("Let's be animals or buddhas" …) and against the Judaeo-Christian world view…. (p. 101)
To be sure, Snyder's early work shows traces of the confessional ("Bitter memory like vomit / Choked my throat") or romantically subjective mode, at times almost reminiscent of a poet like Matthew Arnold, stoically resigned to the cruelty of life, yet at the same time yearning for human compassion…. But far more forceful and ubiquitous is the impulse to negate all the "pointless wars of the heart" … and to come to terms with human suffering generally. Questioned about his attitude towards the confessional school of poets, Snyder replied: "I'm a Buddhist, which is to say you take suffering and impermanence for granted, as a base fact of the universe, and then proceed on from there."… Again, such an attitude is by no means new to Snyder and was in fact assumed even before the confessional poets made their first appearance in Anglo-American literature. As early as 1956, Snyder, age 26, concluded that there comes
a time when the poet must choose: either to step deep in the stream of his people, history, tradition, folding and folding himself in wealth of persons and pasts; philosophy, humanity, to become richly foundationed and great and sane and ordered. Or, to step beyond the bound onto the way out, into horrors and angels, possible madness or silly Faustian doom, possible utter transcendence, possible enlightened return, possible ignominious wormish perishing….
By his subsequent creativity, personal development and indefatigable involvement in ecological, social, cultural and purely human concerns, Snyder has left no doubt as to which of these two paths he has chosen as his own. (pp. 102-03)
Ekbert Faas, "Gary Snyder: Essay," in Towards a New American Poetics: Essays & Interviews, edited by Ekbert Faas, Black Sparrow Press, 1978, pp. 91-103.
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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was written as an introduction to The Real Work in August 1979.]
In 1969 Gary Snyder published a collection of journal excerpts, reviews, translations, and essays under the title Earth House Hold. (p. xi)
Thematically and structurally the interviews and talks gathered in [The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979] complement and extend the positions taken in Earth House Hold. A line can be traced in the earlier prose collection from Snyder's first statements on poetics in the "Lookout's Journal" to the essay "Suwa-no-se Island and the Banyan Ashram," celebrating a sense of community that has been lost all too long. A similar line can be followed in The Real Work, from Snyder's comments on the complementary nature of inner and outer realities explored in his poetry to the talk "Poetry, Community, & Climax." But whereas the relationship between poetry and community was only sketched out in the later essays of Earth House Hold, it becomes the focal point early in this collection, as poetry is seen more and more by Snyder to be a binding force in the fabric of community life.
Gary Snyder's poetry has continued a tradition first pursued in late eighteenth-century Romantic thought and carried on in American literature most notably by Thoreau: a belief that the "outer and inner life correspond" and that poetry is "the self-consciousness of the universe," the voice of the universe reflecting on itself and on the interdependence of outer and inner nature. Poetry as "the seat of the soul"—the area where the inner world and the outer world touch, where they "interpenetrate" each other.
But if Snyder's work follows this thread in European and American literature, the bases for his poetry lie elsewhere: in oral traditions of transmission, in Chinese and Japanese poetics, and in the ancient and worldwide sense of the Earth Goddess as inspirer of song.
Snyder's early work in Riprap was directed toward getting down to a flat surface reality, to break what William Carlos Williams called the "complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from reality." This attention to phenomena in order to discover poetic form in that reality was sharpened by the meditative teachings of Japanese and Chinese poets leading to mind before language and in what is now more than twenty-five years of Zen practice, a discipline which takes one "to anything direct—rocks or bushes or people."… (pp. xi-xii)
In reaching that "absolute bottom transparency," Snyder's meditative poetry has taken two directions. One is toward a short lyric that pushes up against an edge of silence, an ellipsis where the silence defines the form and substance. In a number of these poems ("Pine Tree Tops" is a good example) the texts represent "arrested phenomena," and the poems become, as Donald Wesling says in a related context, "like the 'objects' of modern physics,… at once product and process." These poems are small "knots," "whorls in the grain," a bit of stored energy that draws the reader/listener at the end of the poem to follow out in his or her mind the pathways marked.
The second form Snyder's meditative poetry takes is the long poem that begins in the everyday world but then spirals up from that area, working on more mythological and archetypal levels. Myths & Texts (1960) has the movement of an elegy, going back and forth between the present and the past, as the poem follows various paths in history, in nature, in the world of work…. Pushed up hard against phenomena, in the smoky burn of the mind that leads up through an area described in the Hopi image of the smokehole that connects the worlds, Snyder's longer meditative poetry functions like a double mirror, showing "multiple reflections in multiple mirrors," in which you "see yourself going this way and you see yourself going that way." The poems in Myths & Texts and in sections of Mountains and Rivers Without End touch on the most basic, deeply felt mythological ground, and they do what myth has always done: they give us some access to the intense instance of our lives in the vast series of interrelationships established by the figures, events, and images of the myth.
All of Gary Snyder's study and work has been directed toward a poetry that would approach phenomena with a disciplined clarity and that would then use the "archaic" and "primitive" as models to once again see this poetry as woven through all parts of our lives. Thus it draws its substance and forms from the broadest range of a people's day-to-day lives, enmeshed in the facts of work, the real trembling in joy and grief, thankfulness for good crops, the health of a child, the warmth of the lover's touch. Further, Snyder seeks to recover a poetry that could sing and thus relate us to: magpie, beaver, a mountain range, binding us to all these other lives, seeing our spiritual lives as bound up in the rounds of nature.
Snyder's concerns are, as Luis Ellicott Yglesias recently noted, "archaic in the primal sense—a going into the deep past not to escape or to weep with loud lamentations, but to see whether with the help of the earth-lore that is 'all forgot' it might be possible to open life to a more livable future." In terms of any future we may have, Snyder's look toward the primitive may vouchsafe one of the only real alternative directions available. (pp. xii-xiii)
Taking up the oldest songs, extending them and sustaining them, is a part then of what Gary Snyder has called "the real work of modern man: to uncover the inner structure and actual boundaries of the mind."…
What then of the interviews and talks collected [in The Real Work] in the context of Snyder's poetry? A lot of what follows is simply good, plain talk with a man who has a lively and very subtle mind and a wide range of experience and knowledge. But there is one important aspect of these texts that I'd like to follow out for a moment: the place of the interview in our literature. (p. xiv)
The interview … has opened a substantial range of possibilities for far-reaching discourse. In collecting a series of his own interviews, the poet Donald Hall noted that since World War II the interview had become "the dominant form by which poets made public their poetics." For Gary Snyder the interview has been much more—although, indeed, some of his most incisive statements on poetics are contained in the interviews that follow. For Snyder the interview has become an occasion to publicly tie together a complex series of interests and concerns and, within the context of the dialogue generated, follow new directions suggested….
The rise of the literary interview has been dependent upon a concern with the individual writer's particular state of mind, a concern that marks the beginnings of modern literature. But if the interview benefits us in the attention it brings to an individual writer's practice, it also shares in the excesses of an extreme and quirky individualism. Interviews with writers often circle constantly about the individual writer's personal life. (p. xv)
I think there is a turn away from this overt personal concern, and that it can be seen in those dialogues where the poetic intelligence is led to make a series of genuinely new connections generated in the talking. The current popularity of the interview reflects, on its most intense level, an exploratory quality in modern American poetic theory and practice, what George Quasha has called the "dialogical" in modern poetics. In those instances where the interview is generated by this kind of participation, it not only provides an open area for critical discussion, it participates directly in a poetics of process, a poetry engaged, seeking to draw the listener/reader into the act of poesis, the active process of speaking and following out the discovery, transformation, and invention that poetry seeks.
Gary Snyder's interviews and talks belong to this line of exploratory dialogue. (p. xvi)
One final note then on a tradition that relates directly to the substance of this book. The question-and-answer (Japanese: mondo) and the recorded saying (Japanese: goroku) are Buddhist texts of what were originally orally transmitted teachings, talks given on a specific occasion or addressing a certain question, spoken freely, spontaneously. The teachings of these texts (the Lin-chi-Lu or Record of Rinzai is perhaps the single most important text for Snyder) inform Snyder's talk, but more than the content material of these texts it is perhaps the direction the dialogue often takes—turning the question back around to the one who asked—that bears on the interviews that follow. There is a web of interestś and concerns that remains constant in these talks, but rather than viewing the texts as representing any final statement on those issues, I think Gary Snyder would like to see the process that initiated the questioning sustained, bringing many of the questions raised back to the individual reader's own life. (pp. xvi-xvii)
Scott McLean, in an introduction to The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979 by Gary Snyder, edited by Wm. Scott McLean, New Directions, 1980, pp. xi-xvii.
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Gary Snyder is one of the very few poets since 1900 to command both a large popular appeal and considerable respect from his peers. The reason for the former is his articulation of a possible religious faith at a time when cultural alienation was pushing many people to experiment with various non-Western metaphysical systems. The reason for the latter is evident if one compares Snyder with other poets responding to the same quest for alternate religious doctrines. On the one hand there are poets like Cid Corman and Philip Whalen who directly translate Zen materials and forms into English, and on the other there are those like Allen Ginsberg or Jerome Rothenberg who achieve the intense and dramatic religious emotion the former lack, but only at the cost of a considerable sacrifice of secular intelligence…. Snyder differs from Corman and Whalen by exercising care to adapt his Eastern meditative habits to concrete dramatic experiences and to make his syntax reflect those habits of vision which justify and give resonance to his religious assertions. And unlike Ginsberg, Snyder tries to limit his affirmations to claims he can support or at least embody within the affective context and attitude created by his dramatic lyrics. When he goes bad, Snyder's work collapses into one or the other of the types I have mentioned, but he normally avoids them by basing his religious vision on dramatic techniques and situations that manifest their relevance to Western culture.
Snyder, in short, repeats the central strategies of Dante and Donne, conceiving his religious vision as a repetition in a finer tone of what the imagination in fact does and discloses when it constructs a set of metaphoric relationships attesting to some ideal unity not readily evident to the discursive logical mind…. By naturalizing the mind and placing it at once within and beyond natural process, Snyder can … easily accept the organic poem as testimony to an organically unified cosmos…. (pp. 131-32)
For the skeptic or half-believer, the real miracle is the skill with which Snyder uses the aesthetic devices of lyrical poetry to sustain his religious claims. His basic achievement is his power to make his readers reflect on the ontological core of the lyrical vision by calling attention to the way it can be things or processes themselves, and not merely the elements of a poem, which mutually create one another's significance and suggest a unifying power producing, sustaining, and giving meaning to these relationships. (p. 132)
[Snyder's] earliest lyrics make clear by their lack of full interrelationships how difficult it has been to achieve the easy, confident sense of interbirth in more recent poems. These early lyrics concentrate more on the moral task of achieving freedom from Western ways than on realizing the goal of a new religious vision. What freedom they achieve from the struggle to escape slavery to "culture" is expressed primarily in the form of naming particulars, not of discovering relationships…. [For example, some poems in Riprap dramatize] a sense of place and a sense of cosmos, but that cosmos is backdrop and not active agent. Similarly, the language is essentially nominal (Olson's hated push to the nominative) and neither active in itself nor alive with interrelationships. Snyder has escaped into the territories, but not yet mapped their ecology.
The opening poems in The Back Country provide the first maps. Interbirth here is not yet a cosmic dance, but one does see its genesis in Snyder's sense of the way particulars require one another if they are to be appreciated fully. The resultant mode of consciousness, in poems like "A Walk," might best be described as an ecological one—bringing the "vast 'jewelled net'" to "conscious knowledge and practice."… (pp. 132-33)
[In "A Walk," Snyder] builds from the fact that the organic poem is a kind of ecological system to make the poem illustrate moral qualities basic to an ecological perspective on experience. First of all, there is the tone that by its quiet casualness denies the traditional assumption (taken to extremes in confessional poetry) that lyric poetry is the expression of unique moments charged with extraordinary intensity. Second, the syntax of the poem supports its ecological intent, for as the speaker becomes more involved in his actions he forgoes any explicit references to himself as subject. The reader gets instead a series of verbs and almost dangling participles that tend to blend actor and action, man and world. Finally, the preponderance of concrete details has two effects. So much pointing asserts the referential power of language and denies the self-reflexive implications that accompany more metaphoric styles. It is not words but things that are being related to one another. And these concrete relations enable Snyder to communicate a non-Western frame of mind without references to occult philosophy or a series of abstractions. Ecology deals not with ideas, but with modes of action and with the unity of interrelationships in nature, and its verification is the fullness of the environment it creates. In a poem that realizes Snyder's ecological perspective, myth and text no longer require separate statement; they are unified in one's quiet reverence at the depth of connection suggested by the poem. (pp. 134-35)
Much of Snyder's work manifests a movement like that of "Burning the Small Dead," a movement out to an awareness of self in cosmos complemented by the perception of cosmos contained within the self. His volumes, for example, tend to expand their frame of awareness—from localized Western contexts and images of the individual in nature, through journeys to the East and exercises in Eastern philosophy, mythology, and meditation, to a synthesis in which these materials all are restored within a simple domestic context. Such a movement is evident in Myths and Texts' gradual union of logging, hunting (with its emphasis on Indian mythology), and burning (with an emphasis on Eastern thought) till a particular fire becomes text for an all-encompassing mythic vision of distances within and without ("the mountains are your mind.")… Earth House Hold begins with Snyder as lonely wanderer in the American west, imaginatively explores several cultures, and concludes with a traditional communal celebration of a marriage between Western man and Eastern woman set in the context of all human time and embodying a relationship with the elements to be developed poetically in The Regarding Wave.
The unified volume exemplifies the metaphoric gathering of otherwise contingent elements and expands lyric states of awareness into a general style of life. Snyder's fullest dramatic achievement of these goals occurs in The Back Country, where the first part of the volume employs poems … in order to represent a state of innocence characterized by Snyder's self-sufficiency in the American wilderness. But a full religious vision must encounter other cultures and come to terms with a sense of loss and evil. Hence the second part of the volume takes Snyder to Japan and confronts him with his own rootlessness (the Robin poems) and, more important, with his differences as an American from other men…. "Six Years," the section's final poem, then moves toward resolving some of these tensions by dramatizing a rhythm of repetition and a gradual absorption of Snyder into his new environment and of the environment into him. The poem's last section compresses Snyder's six years in Japan into the rhythms of a year's seasonal movement and parallels that temporal order to the daily cycle of life in a Zen monastery. The joyful acceptance of discipline (the road to a deeper freedom than he had known in the territories) and the sharpness of detail, especially of the poem's final perception, then summarize what those six years have meant. "A far bell coming closer" literally promises the beginning of a new day exactly like the one recorded, but that coming closer has profound psychological reverberations as Snyder internalizes what this essence of Japanese life can offer him…. The entire six years can be focused in the quality of a moment's inner awareness. Time is recapitulated and extended as the capacity for action in concert with a new, more reflective environment.
In the third section, the fear is that cycles might not have any progression, that the Hindu vision of all as fleeting illusion bound to the wheel of Maya might be a true one (the section is titled for Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction). India provides the landscape of evil previously only glimpsed—both in its religion and in the economic and social conditions of the people…. And this sterility in turn throws Snyder back upon the failed love that is the volume's emblem of the loss one must undergo to be saved. Now, however, that love evokes in Snyder images of his own psychic sterility as a creature too caught in words, self, and memory to love another…. (pp. 138-40)
Having broadened his experience and internalized what knowledge his travels could bring, Snyder in the fourth section can assume a cosmic perspective and a prophetic stance. The universe as illusion becomes the universe as cosmic play within which no loss or failure need be final…. The poet who passively witnesses social evil can now give political advice to both West and East. And the failed lover discovers another whom he can love and who embodies a ground or "field for experiencing the universe as sacramental."… Particulars blend not only with one another but with the infinite energies beyond and "below."… Even the words themselves (through the awkward device of … quotation marks) seek to burst out of their nominal functions to participate in those energies leaping forth to meet the poet's hand as it traces the line where love through desire generates form and gathers all the burning into a collective and expanding "'we.'"
The volume ends, though, with a less triumphant note; for too intense a conclusion would return the reader to the world of individual lyrics and the dialectic of intense presence emerging from a neutral or dead context and thrusting one back there when the visionary force is expanded. To push the lyrical consciousness into nature demands that one also adapt it to continuing process (another reason, perhaps, for a unified volume of lyrics). One must be left with a quiet joyful acceptance, at once open ended and returning the reader to the simplicity and style of the volume's opening poems—now with a cosmic perspective informing the image of eating ("loving what it feeds on"):
First Samish Bay.
then all morning, hunting oysters
A huge feed on white
wood State Park slab-plank bench-
at Birch Bay
where we picked up rocks
And ate oysters, fried—raw—cookt in milk
rolld in crumbs—
all we wanted.
ALL WE WANTED
& got back in our wagon,
Snyder is dealing here in concrete terms with the perennial philosophical and theological problem of reconciling the achievement of plenitude with an acceptance of change. Christianity tends to promise plenitude at the cost of renouncing flux, while Eastern religions often come to terms with flux by an ascetic rejection of all desire for plenitude (hence there can be no Eastern Divine Comedy). In this poem, however, Snyder's dialectical method shows how one can have both plenitude and change. In fact the two conditions are necessary if one is to appreciate either. Full satisfaction with the feast is possible only because the act can be enjoyed entirely on its own terms, as an absolute present unspoiled by desires to prolong or transcend it. The plenitude cannot be imprisoning, cannot "hook" the actors so that they become unwilling to move on…. At the same time, when the present is completely accepted, there is nothing to fear from change. The actors can move on without anxiety and open to future moments of fullness.
Snyder reinforces the affirmative dialectic here by picking up and reversing in the last line one of the symptoms of cultural malaise he had presented earlier in the volume. In [The Back Country's] second poem, he records watching "thousands of cars / driving men to work."… Liberated now, he overcomes the passivity of Western man trapped by his possessions and the culture that supports them. He moves on, content and in control of his own destiny. To have all one wants is the American dream, and Snyder with his innocence, pragmatism, vitality, and perpetual wandering Eastward or into the wilderness belongs in the tradition of American romanticism. But the contrast created by the last line and, more important, the tone of the poem suggest a new way of realizing that dream. All one wants cannot be achieved by the way of self-transcendence, for every triumph depends on another failure and adds a new possibility of failure. Only when one learns to control the desire for plenitude by a sense of the simple necessities whose satisfaction constitutes one mode of that plenitude will one free the dream and the dreamer from the bitter disillusionment that often torments self-consciousness.
Snyder's next volume of lyrics, The Regarding Wave, follows thematically from the last section of The Back Country. The images of cosmic play and the sacramental body of the beloved woman, which embodied Snyder's enlarged perspective, are central to the new volume, but the more recent poems try to enact a vision Snyder only described or projected in The Back Country. Interbirth is no longer the controlled mutual dependency of specific events; rather it is universal intercourse or "Communionism,"… a dance of energy permeating, informing, and transforming all particular phenomena. There is no absence and no contingency. All particulars retain their identity and even find it reinforced through their functioning as dynamic parts of a single whole. "The Way Is Not a Way" (or "away") but the continual presence of all ways within a single process…. (pp. 140-43)
Snyder is trying to create poetically not so much a system of references that will articulate "The Way" as an emotional consciousness of what it feels like to know oneself as a part of such a total system. To achieve his vision he enacts a style considerably different from that of The Back Country, and he creates a carefully unified volume not as dramatic context but rather as an exemplum of the dynamic intercourse of concrete and universal typified in his own sacramental roles as poet, husband, and father within a universe suffused with creative love. The stylistic shift is most readily described as the movement from an essentially dramatic, psychological style to a meditative, religious one. The specific interchanges between a mind localized in time and space and its environment give way to a sense of mind as recording, praising, and gathering energy while only slightly tied to a specific personal context. The goal is to put mind more directly into the impersonal processes of the world and still be true to its powers of encompassing those processes. (These generalizations will be reversed in the volume's climactic central section.) Thus instead of dramatic contexts there are numerous songs gathering various manifestations or "transformations" … of phenomena like seeds or clouds or taste. The mind is a point of focus, not an active agent locked in events. Moreover, attention to mind as a gatherer of being allows Snyder to stand partially outside the particular acts of mind within process and to see them as aspects of a deeper connecting principle. Behind individual acts of perception lie the experiences of the collective mind captured in language and myth and recoverable through etymology. Words are treasure-hoards, records of the mind's sense of the rhythms it shares with nature and of its own active participation in that interchange…. (p. 144)
Snyder's achievement is a considerable one. Judged simply in aesthetic terms, according to norms of precision, intelligence, imaginative play, and moments of deep resonance, he easily ranks among the best poets of his generation. Moreover, he manages to provide a fresh perspective on metaphysical themes, which he makes relevant and often compelling. Yet it is impossible for me, perhaps for most academics, to be completely satisfied with his work. One reason may be his ambition. He wants not only to provide poems but to offer a total vision of a new redeemed man at home with himself and celebrating his place in the cosmos, yet the field of experience in his poems is quite limited and it therefore renders problematic his claims to totality. One requires a more complex sense of human nature, of social reality, and of one's own self-conscious awareness of the gaps between desire and realization, faith and works, before accepting his authority as one offering more than moments of metaphysical insight. Moreover, Snyder's dramatized version of himself, especially before The Regarding Wave, gives readers a hero from the mythic American past who is closer to their fantasy lives than to their practical needs to give sense and significance to specific situations in society.
This last point, I think, gets to the heart of the matter. One cannot judge poets according to strict philosophical canons of truth and falsity. But especially when the poet himself claims the authority of a wisdom tradition, one must ask whether readers can seriously entertain in their imagination the hypothetical relevance of his values and his dramatic situations for their own basic concerns. This is not simply a question of intellectual resonance. It involves the very conditions for a really deep participation in and commitment to the poet's work. I can achieve this with Snyder only by abstracting from his specific dramatic contexts and his social positions to concentrate exclusively on his treatment of epistemological and metaphysical themes and strategies. This clearly would not satisfy Snyder, and it does not satisfy me; nonetheless it does allow me to see him as considerably more than the poetic Marlboro man he is called by Robert Boyers. (pp. 149-50)
Charles Altieri, "Process As Plenitude: The Poetry of Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan," in his Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s, Bucknell University Press, 1979, pp. 128-69.∗
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[He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village] is Gary Snyder's senior thesis done at Reed College, from which he was graduated in 1951 with a dual major in anthropology and English. It is, in a way, a model of all his subsequent work, because it attempts to lead through literature—in this case, a "Swan Maiden" myth among the Haida tribe—to the living roots of cultural practice and psychology. By itself, it is an impressive study, bringing the theories of Graves, Freud, Jung, Campbell, Eliot, and I. A. Richards, among others, to bear upon the Haida. What Snyder is trying to show is that this people was a rooted people, enmeshed in a complex, wild ecology in which animals were tremendously significant, and at the same time a regardful people, self-conscious and artistic to an extraordinarily high degree. (p. 61)
In 1951, Snyder had penetrated to the human meaning of a myth—perhaps helped or motivated by certain personal considerations, which he mentions at the close of his "Foreword." He had "lived into" another time and place, another cultural mind.
The "Foreword" is also interesting because, in almost throwaway fashion, Snyder presents the essence of his (and all) poetic practice.
To go beyond and become what—a seagull on a reef? Why not. Our nature is no particular nature; look out across the beach at the gulls. For an empty moment while their soar and cry enters your heart like sunshaft through water, you are that, totally. We do this every day.
And so did the Haida. What is remarkable is that a "green would-be scholar in Oregon," as Snyder describes his twenty or twenty-one year old self, should have seen into that heart of the matter so clearly. (pp. 61-2)
Thomas J. Lyon, in a review of "He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village," in Western American Literature, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 61-2.
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In an aside to one of his other remarks [in The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979], Gary Snyder implicitly criticizes the "stress on individual names" which characterizes the way we readers respond to our poets; he does so because he writes out of a tradition of self-effacement, and his yearnings are for a communal poetry rooted in place. But without a "name," poets aren't asked to do interviews, and without a big name such interviews are never collected into a book like Snyder's The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979. And, I think, it takes a very big name on such a collection to find readers, and to convince readers to be open enough to engage ideas like Snyder's, which lead, paradoxically, to self-effacement and no names. (p. 113)
In his introduction, Scott McLean suggests a Buddhist model for the nature of this talk: "The question-and-answer (Japanese: mondo) and the recorded saying (Japanese: goroku) are Buddhist texts of what were originally orally transmitted teachings, talks given on a specific occasion or addressing a certain question, spoken freely, spontaneously" [see excerpt above]. While McLean, perhaps, only means to place the book in a tradition, his suggestion seems to me congratulatory and even a little misleading. For while there is a good deal of talk-about-Buddhism in the book (some of it, on the part of the questioners, extremely naive), there is little besides that to make us think of mondo and goroku rather than other books of interviews with authors. The explanation for this is to be found in the mode of Snyder's talk: it remains, with few exceptions, entirely within the confines of conventional logical discourse. This, of course, is not a fault, but for Zen, the Buddhism of most concern to Snyder, it is a little surprising. While listening to Snyder the realm of logical discourse seems to be a very large one, and there seems to be little danger of bumping into anything unspeakable. This is not true of the best interpreters of Zen for the West, not true of those to whom Snyder himself owes a great—and acknowledged—debt: D. T. Suzuki, R. H. Blyth, and Robert Aitken. In their work logical discourse is a box rather than a realm, and the constant recurrence to paradox points the way out.
Snyder's "real work," in this volume at least, is application. This is a "how to" book in many ways, and how to live day by day perhaps admits of less paradox and more exposition that we would like to think. In one interview, Snyder laughs when asked if he had ever considered himself a "hopeless idealist," and then answers that he has always though himself very practical. I, for one, accept his judgment, without laughing. His practicality is everywhere in evidence in The Real Work, and it is what confers on the book its significance, its solidity. (pp. 113-14)
Snyder's knowledge is broad, and he is able to talk with authority on many topics. In the pages of The Real Work he talks extensively about the relation between poetry and community, the primitive, zazen, anthropology, biology, and poetics. He is very interesting in his discussions of regionalism, and the sense of rootedness, of Snyder's involvement in his own region—"the Nevada County west slope of the Sierra, drainage of the Yuba"—is of a quality to generate enthusiasm for one's own place. But Snyder is most interesting when he surprises, and for this reason I found his discourse on the relationship of the primitive's state of mind while hunting to the state of mind engendered by zazen one of the most fascinating in the book. What other contemporary poet could or would take up such a subject?
While The Real Work makes us believe in Snyder as a talker, there are a few passages that are about as pleasant to read as chewing sand. There are leftovers from Snyder's days as a Dharma Bum-like "nation-state bag," and unfortunate infiltrations from biology and anthropology. While St.-John Perse can make the language of science sing in a poem like Oiseaux or in his letters, there is nothing cantabile, indeed speakable, about Snyder's use of it: the earth has become a "biosphere," a translator is characterized as "a valuable switch in an energy exchange flow," there is a "biopoetic," a "biogeography," and so forth. So much life! No doubt we all sin verbatim, but Snyder's "Turtle Island" seems to me to be overpopulated by Buckminster Fullers. But these are blemishes only, Real Work is solid work. (pp. 114-15)
Kevin Oderman, "The Talk of Nevada County, CA," in The Denver Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 113-15.
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Gary Snyder comes to The Real Work having accomplished some very real work himself….
The titles of these interviews hint at some of the directions his work has taken. From "Landscape of Consciousness" through "The Zen of Humanity" and "Tracking Down the Natural Man," on to "The Bioregional Ethic," these talks with Snyder form the author's first non-poetry collection since Earth House Hold (1969).
For those readers who are arriving at Snyder for the first time The Real Work is an ideal introduction; for readers familiar with his poetry and previous prose work it is a refreshing collection of his clear thinking and unique sense of our particular time and place.
Snyder, like a handful of other writers since Carl Jung, has discovered the similarities of myth, religion, and his own personal dream content as well as the product of his meditations and has fashioned that collective material into words that set off little explosions in our thought process and our own deeper memory….
These talks tell us how Snyder has come to perform the details in a life that has had more variety than most. And they let us hear these details in a voice that is Snyder's own unique blend of East and West, Native American and rural White, blue collar and academic.
There is a quality of toughness in Snyder and his writing, a kind of conservatism that cuts across the loose meaning that word has come to carry in our society and gets down to the basics of work, family, and community.
Few poets writing today are more careful with words than Snyder. To hear him read his own poetry is almost like sitting at table with a great lover of good food. The words come out of his mouth as though each one has been thoroughly tasted, tested for quality, and spoken only when the speaker is finally satisfied that it is the best of its kind.
This sense of care comes through in these interviews; so does the sense of humor and the sense of fallibility. Snyder is so sure of the progress of his own ideas, that without these two latter qualities some of the ideas might be hard to take. But as they are presented here we always have that sense of a smile behind the seriousness….
This book is fascinating reading. Each interview has at least one powerful mind-hit that keeps the echoes going for a long time. For those readers interested in an original approach to the rationale behind preserving Native American values as well as some of our own most basic European values, this book presents material that is not the usual fare of conservationists.
Besides, Snyder is as good a talker and storyteller as he is a poet.
Thomas W. Pew, Jr., in a review of "The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979," in The American West, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January-February, 1981, p. 61.
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The tape recorder often gives us wordy ramblings of egocentric writers. Fortunately Gary Snyder is neither wordy nor egocentric, and the interviews and lectures collected in [The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979] show his usual wit and concision. He talks better than most people write. Anyone who wants to know how Snyder's thinking on social and literary issues has evolved since Earth House Hold in 1969 will find much to mull over. The six pieces collected in The Old Ways (1977) were an uneven batch, but these statements are consistently strong. (p. 55)
Much of the book is given over to social and political issues, but poetry is not ignored. The most illuminating remarks pertain to shamanism and poetry. Snyder has been attacked from a native American viewpoint in recent years for appropriating the persona of the shaman. His interview with Michael Helm sets the matter straight. Shamanism, Snyder points out, is a world-wide phenomenon, and its core is learning from the nonhuman, "not a teaching from an Indian medicine man, or a Buddhist master. The question of culture does not enter into it. It's a naked experience some people have out there in the woods." The crucial encounter in western American poetry, and often in the novel (thinking of Rudolfo Anaya and Frank Waters), is a spiritual encounter with the non-human. Snyder has written about the experience in his poetry and his prose has taught a generation where the documents of shamanism can be found. (pp. 55-6)
Snyder places himself at one point of a vast network of American intellectual life that embraces the cities and universities as well as the Allegheny Star Route in northern California. He doesn't speak as a solitary prophet although he does live in the hills. The scope of this network is shown by the sources of these interviews, which include academic journals, a health food magazine, poetry journals, counterculture newspapers—and there is an uncollected interview in a skiing magazine. Eclectic and esoteric as his interests may be, they are shared by a sizable community. (p. 56)
Bert Almon, in a review of "The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979," in Western American Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 55-6.
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Of all poets who have published [books of interviews], Gary Snyder's interviews seem to be most organically harmonious with his poetic practice as a whole, for his work has a social purpose to it that makes his comments about all matters valuable. And besides, Snyder possesses a keen inelligence about a tremendous range of subjects. Accordingly, the fourteen interviews in The Real Work don't have the totally literary tang to them that an academic writer might create in such talks. They present, instead, a poet whose concerns go beyond his poetry into a wide active range of social and spiritual matters. It is interesting, in fact, that so few of Snyder's remarks have to do strictly with poetry or literature. Reading through this book, one realizes that poetry simply serves as the nucleus for Snyder's whole work. Similarly, it is clear that Snyder perceives the poet as a religious figure whose prime duty is shamanistic—acting as a medium for the songs and chants sung to him from the earth. (pp. 246-47)
In an interview with Paul Geneson of the Ohio Review (easily the best interview in the book), Snyder explains: "The real work is what we really do. And what our lives are. And if we can live the work we have to do, knowing that we are real, and it's real, and that the world is real, then it becomes right. And that's the real work: to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are within it."
What keeps us from being "real" within the world, as Snyder makes clear here, is the maze, created by modern technological thought, of abstraction and subservience to our own tools. Accordingly, Snyder's own work seems to be the spiritual dialectic—smashing idealistic, romantic, or intellectual molds that draw the mind into abstraction, out of reality, and thus away from the spiritual realities inherent in Being itself…. In the past twenty years, as can be seen by the chronological sequence of these interviews, Snyder's poetic vision has crystallized because of his timely dedication to ecological and political sanity. As is stressed in many of the interviews, Snyder's view is that inner and outer realities are virtually identical, though artificially muddled by abstraction and modern diversion.
The most interesting remarks in the book, however, deal with poetry…. (p. 247)
Reading through Snyder's interviews, what is most striking is that Snyder is one of the century's healthiest writers. He perceives man as completely situated within the schemes of natural order, and sees as a necessity man's awareness that he is as real and as whole as the world….
[Contrary] to critics who see his work as simply a modern version of the "noble savage," or "back-to-nature" philosophy, these interviews demonstrate that Snyder has taken such concepts one step farther, advocating peaceful stewardship, economy, responsibility with the world's resources, and, most importantly, sanity—all still within the capabilities of modern societies, and bound up in the perception of the world and its life-sources as a glorious whole. (p. 248)
Roger Jones, "On Seeing the Universe Freshly," in Southwest Review, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 246-48.
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Most striking [about the work of Gary Snyder] is the fact that he avoids metaphor of the kind … [wherein] two realms of conjunction, frequently one physical and the other spiritual, mix on the surface in such a way that the depths beneath will beckon, until any surface glancingly has something of depth in it. Contrary to this principle of steady sympathetic evocation, Snyder gives us only the surface and expects us not to expect it to ripple down to the depths beneath:
soaked drooping bamboo groves
swaying heavy in the drizzle,
and perfectly straight lines of rice plants
glittering orderly mirrors of water,
dark grove of straight young Sugi trees
thick at the base of the hill….
Even the title of this poem ["Delicate Criss-Crossing Beetle Trails Left in the Sand"] alerts us to the presence of a devoted nominalist, perhaps of an oriental persuasion—a suggestion made by the details (beetle, bamboo, rice, rain) and corroborated by the implied disciplines of composure, composition, linearity, and crystalline geometric design ("glittering orderly mirrors of water"). But implication is only casual. The rich nominalism of this fine description is not perfected in the service of any larger pattern. There is no sure link between the smooth, wet, attractively rectilinear scene and any answering order in the psyche. Rather, the "heavy" description is uneasily floated in a medium of "light" conversational realism. This happens to be the Japanese village his wife Masa comes from, although even this fact seems to pull the poem away from rather than toward its center:
Walking out on the beach, why I know this!
rode down through these pines once
with Anja and John
And watch bugs in their own tiny dunes.
from memory to memory,
bed to bed and meal to meal,
all on this road in the sand
Beds and meals are of equal weight with memories—in fact they are pretty much all the memory this poet of the present moment manifests. Whoever Anja and John may be, they belong with the troupe of chums named Steve and Mike and Wendell and Tanya and Ron and Bill and Cindy and Rod and Patty who move through Snyder's recitals with their earnest but illusory circumstantiality. These rural cherubim, who have shrugged off their surnames, are also an aspect of the author's new domestication, part of the cultural baggage taken on in an attempt, in middle age, to steal a little back from time, to settle down without compromising the basic orientation of the wanderer, the taster and tryer, the genial and honest vagabond of the spirit….
Whatever is unpleasant in Snyder's work comes about from his refusal to distinguish the poetic from the nonpoetic in his writing. Many of the pieces in [Axe Handles] raise no resistance to the jargon of causes; Snyder does not try to render or place the clichés of ecological activism and California zen ("biome," "biomass," "ecosystem," "petrochemical complex," "joyful interpenetration"), which he has taken into himself as equably as he'd done earlier with the languages of primitive myth, monasticism, logging, and the merchant marine: he simply blurts the phrases out. His poem on breasts is at once offensive and hilarious (his is not a world for women, except in their function as squaws)…. (p. 41)
Gary Snyder's refusal to monitor his style is matched by his inability to extend his thought, either in length or by extending his range to intellectual wit: he is simply not good at working out puzzles with logical mirrors. The title poem of Axe Handles is an awkward attempt to bring into the task of teaching his son a skill the deeper riddle of mind. The two are making a new handle for an axe-head in the same shape as the handle on the hatchet they must wield to carve the new one with. He says to his son, "'Look: We'll shape the handle / By checking the handle / Of the axe we cut with—' / And he sees." The son may indeed have seen, but the lines in which the claim is made are flat and unseeing….
Like Pound, Snyder prefers the sort of maxim … that closes one off, that tends to repel participation and extension. Ideas become runic and dense. The process is one of inscrutable-making whose reverse side is the self-evident and commonplace. But at the same time, it is only fair to observe how close Snyder's verses, quoted earlier, about bamboo groves and glittering orderly mirrors of water come to matching [Howard] Nemerov's exquisite lines, both in precision of view, and in precision of feeling.
Snyder has a real knack for the seasonal, geographical haiku, brief, rapid, spontaneous, and striking in its reticence. On a trip to a large aborigine reservation in central Australia, the speaker of one such "haiku" blends/falls so effortlessly into the land and culture, it would appear he had no shedding of civilized traits to perform. As you read one of the best of the sequence called "Uluru Wild Fig Song," notice how little the author's memory intrudes. He successfully resists any urge to compare what he sees and feels and tastes, now, with feasts and outings closer to home…. Such a poem can work only when mundane consciousness has been excluded and the actor in the piece is entirely but not effusively given over to the habits and emanations round about. It's crucial that the quality of his attention be both flexibly aimless and disciplined by nonverbal awareness. By withholding all responses but the obvious physical ones, feeling clean, getting full, hearing accurately, stepping on thistles, Snyder makes [problematic elements within the poem] factual rather than arbitrary….
Thom Gunn has a perceptive essay in The Occasions of Poetry (1982) on Snyder's method of firing up the merely perceptual into a fully conscious and even celebratory poem. The means of transition is a careful retardation as the items of notice separate themselves out from the myriad-teeming visual field. Yet the poems move not from sleep to vision, or from dullness to sparkle; the descriptive poem at which Snyder is adept is an always open general field in which perceptions "overtake each other and accrete" by virtue of a sensibility already, and throughout his work, "imbedded in time." This may be the most American of all of Snyder's characteristics, to dig in rather than transcend, though of course the digging-in matters most when the experience is of more than polemical or procedural significance.
Gary Snyder's gift still shows in poems of coolly excited physical well-being, in his strange combination of country ease and monastic stubbornness, in restraint of ego that is like and unlike T. S. Eliot's doctrine of impersonality, because Snyder's impersonality does not bring with it the mannerisms of restraint, only the clarities of openness and humility. This poetry is the product of control that yet does not suppress or reject what is produced by energies and motives unlike its own. And this is the difference between real impersonality and Eliot's kind of decorum. Snyder's identity is not bound up with style. The logical and experiential upshot of this state of mind is that the poem dims while the experience grows. At its most logical (or most extreme) this attitude sidesteps art and subsides into a state of soul. At times, however, by no means consistently, the poem that dims out into life can present sounds, contours of phrase, and aptness of image and illustration that move and delight. (p. 42)
Mary Kinzie, "Pictures from Borges," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 12, No. 6, November-December, 1983, pp. 40-6.∗
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[Hannah] Arendt's main point [in The Human Condition, her critical reassessment of the main tradition of European political philosophy,] is that the modern world is most hampered by its elevation of action over contemplation, with the concomitant devaluation of thought itself within the realm of action. To restore to political vision the awareness of the value and necessity of thought, not only as a form of activity but also as its most fully human form: this is Arendt's central project, and it is close to [Gary Snyder's] as well. From the objectivist poetics of Riprap and Myths & Texts, on to the personal doubt of The Back Country, and then through to the new senses of community and selfhood in Earth House Hold and Turtle Island, the curve of Snyder's career has been from the factlike density of perceptual intensity to the harmonious patternmaking of the immanently mythic imagination. Such a course of development has taken Snyder deeper and deeper into the workings of the political imagination as well.
At the same time, Snyder's artistic development has been equally deepened and yet balanced. I think that at his best Snyder is a moral visionary who is neither a scourge nor a satirist; that he has spoken as a prophet whose "tribe" is without definite national or cultural boundaries; and that he is a writer with deep allegiances to modernism who yet is not overridingly obsessed with verbal perfectionism for its own sake. In each of these balanced stances can be located his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Another way of stating this paradox at the heart of Snyder's work is to say that he wants more than most to overcome the alienation and isolation of the poet in the modern world, but the terms of his vision have, by their very extravagance, made him often seem a party of one. In this sense Snyder is a quintessential American artist, torn by an idealizing vision between opposing hungers for both a new sense of community and a new sense of radical individuality.
But rather than concentrate too much … on the tensions and contradictions in Snyder's work, I would like to [stress] … that he is above all a poet of celebration and ecstasy. As such, his vision must terminate with, or open out into, a utopian vista where the rightness of the political realm finally produces a world of plenitude. For me the best statement of Snyder's celebratory completion comes in one of the interviews in The Real Work, where he formulates an Archimedean point of his own. He has been talking about the limits of his own system of things, and how his stress on local awareness and regional consciousness may limit one's ability to respond to people who live in other places and with other cultural ties. Snyder's solution is to imagine the universal dimension of all human experience that is fully informed about its relation to both the earth and the world, a fullness "where all natures intersect." The healing he speaks of is the healing of the breach that physical and cultural separation might cause. What follows is a marvelous metaphoric interweaving of both human and natural fullness:
This level of healing is a kind of poetic work that is forever "just begun." When we bring together our awareness of the worldwide network of folktale and myth imagery that has been the "classical tradition"—the lore-bearer—of everyone for ten thousand and more years, and the new (but always there) knowledge of the worldwide interdependence of natural systems, we have the biopoetic beginning of a new level of world poetry and myth. That's the beginning for this age, the age of knowing the planet as one ecosystem, our own little watershed, a community of people and beings, a place to sing and meditate, a place to pick berries, a place to be picked in.
The communities of creatures in forests, ponds, oceans, or grasslands seem to tend toward a condition called climax, "virgin forest"—many species, old bones, lots of rotten leaves, complex energy pathways, woodpeckers living in snags, and conies harvesting tiny piles of grass. This condition has considerable stability and holds much energy in its web—energy that in simpler systems (a field of weeds just after a bulldozer) is lost back into the sky or down the drain. All of evolution may have been as much shaped by this pull toward climax as it has by simple competition between individuals or species. If human beings have any place in this scheme it might well have to do with their most striking characteristic—a large brain, and language. And a consciousness of a peculiarly self-conscious order. Our human awareness and eager poking, probing, and studying is our beginning contribution to planet-system energy-conserving; another level of climax!
One way to appreciate fully the deeply human richness of this vision of plenitude is to see it as a liminal utopia, poised between fullness and yet more growth. Another way to see it is as a modern apocalypse that features woodpeckers and berry-picking. Either way, assuming the real work always includes some formulation of an ideal world, I would offer this vision as sufficient proof that Snyder has built a place for the mind to stay and to imagine more far-reaching harmonies while preserving all the wealth of the past. This, of course, is the world of his books where he is willing and even eager to give us another world both more ideal and more real than our own. The rest of the work is ours. (pp. 126-28)
Charles Molesworth, in his Gary Snyder's Vision; Poetry and the Real Work, University of Missouri Press, 1983, 128 p.
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[Axe Handles is] Snyder's first book of poems in almost ten years…. How have the years treated Snyder? Pretty well, I'd say. Despite a few limp efforts (included are throwaway poems about Jerry Brown's visits to Snyder's yurt, nature and trivia, and Snyder's role on the California Arts Council), some of these poems rank with Snyder's best. There is a quieter, mellower tone throughout than we find in much of the earlier work; and he now writes of what he scrutinizes before him, without much reminiscing. It's as if the passing years have made the immediate experience more valuable than ever—a deeper delving in the earth itself as a means to awareness.
"Getting in the Wood" is vintage Snyder. His trademarks are all here: 1), the effortless, nonsentimental beginning. The phrases, shorn of their definite articles, are subtle ink-strokes on the page. They possess an odd, marvellous tactile quality. Here is the event of the poem: Snyder gathers wood-rounds which have lain aging on the forest-floor, and splits them with an iron wedge driven by a sledge-hammer. The poem opens as easily as a greeting, evoking a quick mix of smell, color, and the kineticism of spurting water…. (p. 180)
2). Argot from the trades, from the survival arts. These ("peened," "wedge," "axe," "peavey," "maul," etc) he employs with a zest like that of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sonnets to Welsh laborers…. What Hopkins and Snyder say … seems to be something like this: if you aren't meticulously observant of physical details, you miss important signs for spiritual growth. Details become symbols. In such namings Snyder fuses both his Zen Buddhism and his American pragmatism. Tu Fu and Thoreau.
3). The concentrated evocations of the senses: how the skin feels as sweat drips, the smell of "crushed ants," the sounds of wood tumbling, the cantering sledge emitting the ring of "high-pitched bells." Snyder is a poet of the synaesthetic effect; he is as often as esoteric, I feel, as Baudelaire or Swinburne charging poems with highly orchestrated dynamic sense-fusions. On one level, Snyder is a pure art-for-art's sake poet. And I love him for that.
4). The incredibly compact music created as Snyder joyously names tools, or details of flora and fauna. These moments create exciting verse music. (p. 181)
5). The celebration of human effort as intense energy spent towards both survival and spiritual growth (what I call the John Muir Syndrome: see Snyder's poem to Muir in Rip-Rap). (pp. 181-82)
In lesser hands, Snyder's triumphs over the physical worlds of forest and machine, rendered almost with eyelids peeled, might seem silly, a phony primitivism engendering a Grease-Can School of Poetry, or, as I have called it elsewhere, Ugh-Poetry. This verse Snyder himself avoids through his zestful music, which at times almost serves to make the meanings of his words superfluous. We must struggle against enjoying these pure effects too esoterically—we would miss the didactic intentions beneath nearly all that Snyder writes. Isn't such purity of effect, though, what most good poets aim for? an avoidance of sermonizing? a transcendence of raw materials? (p. 182)
Brilliant techniques in themselves do not, of course, constitute a whole poetry. Tone matters too, as does theme. The pragmatic, self-reliant voice so characteristic of Snyder never appears as a pushing or a bullying of the reader—in his best poems, he never overtly urges us to march, axes in hand, out to enroll in woods-survival courses, or to build our personal leantos, saunas, yurts, and field-kitchens. Like John Muir and Thoreau, his mentors, his experiments are his own (Thoreau never intended that anyone else live his experiment, to stake a claim at Walden Pond, plant beans, or eat woodchuck raw). Snyder's experiments in living are uniquely his. Yet, while he does not propagandize, the life he creates, evokes, and describes is so appealing that we also feel welcomed to join in, creating the ecosystem he envisions. He plants his own apple-seeds. And his self-reliance is one of his most attractive strengths. His awe/respect for nature, for spirituality, for each human life, drops almost casually, at times with touches of humor and gentle ironies, often at his own expense. Those who choose to pick his apples may. Feel free, he seems to say. But you'll have to use your own ladders and pails, and your own hands, not his.
Another dimension is thematic. A lesser poet would be content merely to record their quests after the mythic omphaloses of the universe. Snyder's framework is far more ambitious; he is always a mere breath away from universals. There's a poignant continuity, he feels, in all human experience, from the remotest primitive ancestor to the squalling, puking infant emerging from the uterus at this very second. His efforts to create a self-sustaining ground-earth-house for his family echo the efforts of an ancient Oriental grubbing for his existence, physical and metaphysical…. Snyder's tenacity, his faith in his immediate time-locked experiences as their smoke flows towards the transcendental, his love for the earth (one ecosystem for all) provide inspiration for those of us lacking his gifts and his trenchancies. All this, of course, is quite other than the beauty of his writing; his themes and techniques are a rare fusion for these times. By imagining Nature as a "sweet old woman" who gathers her firewood (the Heraclitean fire?) in the moonlight, he celebrates his life and reassures us about our own. (pp. 183-84)
Robert Peters, in a review of "Axe Handles," in Sulfur 10, Vol. IV, No. 1, 1984, pp. 179-84.
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Snyder is not interested in fad, fashion, or convention: he is interested in tradition, and he is concerned with constructing a valid culture from the debris that years of exploitation have scattered around the Pacific Basin.
RIPRAP is Snyder's first book. The title means "a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock / to make a trail for horses in the mountains." In the last poem in the book he wrote of Poetry as a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics, the reality of perceived surface that grants men staying power and a gripping point…. The body of the mind—this is the province of poetry, a riprap on the abstractions of the soul that keeps men in tune with carnal eloquence. Snyder's equation is one of proportions: poetry is to metaphysics as riprap is to slick rock. Things and thoughts are not then in opposition but in parallel…. The aim is not to achieve harmony with nature but to create an inner harmony that equals to the natural external harmony. There is not then an allegorical relation between man and natural reality but an analogical one: a man does not identify with a tree nor does he take the tree to be an emblem of his own psychic condition; he establishes within himself a condition that is equivalent to that of the tree, and there metaphysics rushes in. Only poetry can take us through such slippery territory, and after RIPRAP Snyder tries to find a guide in his Myths & Texts. RIPRAP was an engaging uneven first book of poems. It is still in print and deserves to be so, but it lacks unity of impact and style, however proper its intentions.
Myths & Texts is a different matter. Although some of the poems were printed as early as 1952 and Snyder gives its date of completion as 1956, it is a world away from the first book. It has a genuine informing principle and coherence of purposeful movement, and the line has a life that is particular to its subject. The first two sections of the book are on Logging and Hunting, what men do to the earth; the third on Fire, why they do it. In this book appear in complex form the issues that compel the verse at its base. Snyder wants to reach a prehuman reality, the wilderness and the cosmos in which man lives as an animal with animals in a happy ecology. This precivilized reality he finds embodied in Amerindian lore, especially of the Pacific Northwest and of California, and in Buddhist myth. He occupies the uneasy position of understanding this mode of perception and of acting, as logger and hunter, against its grain. This realization is the dramatic core of the book and holds it from sentimentality, granting it a kind of tension and prophetic force (evident in the pro-wobbly poems) that RIPRAP and much of his later work lacks. Myths & Texts is an elegy of involvement…. In these poems action and contemplation become identical states of being, and both states of secular grace. From this fusion wisdom emerges, and it is not useless but timed to the event. The result is a terrible sanity, a literal clairvoyance, an innate decorum. (pp. 50-1)
One of the touchstone lines for modern poetry is Pound's "Quick eyes gone under earth's lid." It holds its unity partly through the internal rhyme of the first and final word, partly through the unstrained conceit of random association between eyelid and coffin lid, and the earth as dead eye and graveyard. Mainly, though, it has no waste, no void spaces, none of the flab that English invites through the prepositional phrase designs of a noninflected language. Solid poetry in English manages compressions that keep up the stress, and relaxations from that motive have their justification in the larger poetic unit of poem or book. The temptation of composition in serial form, the method of Myths & Texts, is vindicating the relaxed line in the name of a higher motive, the world view of the poet, the personal relevance. Snyder doesn't fall back on such flimsy supports. Sometimes, straining to maintain the stress, he loses control: "… fighting flies fixed phone line." This is not only pointlessly elliptical but meaninglessly ambiguous and far too clogged. But in its excesses it demonstrates the basic prosodic motive, full use of consonant and vowel tone as organizing devices, reduction of connective words having merely grammatical function and no gravity. (p. 52)
I talk at such length of prosody because it is the main factor ignored in most recent discussion of poetry…. New criticism (old style) placed heavy weight on suggestion and symbolic reference; now as our poetry stresses drama and syntactic movement, vocality, it seems necessary to supplement the notion, and a pernicious one, that poetry functions through symbol mainly. Language functions symbolically and metaphorically, but poetry makes more precise and delimiting use of syntax through its prosodic measure. This is after all what Pound and Williams were agitated about: the dance of language. I don't want to hang everything on syntactic and metric effects and take a plunge into providing new mechanical vocabulary that will deaden poetic study from yet another perspective. What poets like Snyder, Duncan, and Creeley ask is that readers take the poem as indicator of physical weight. Until the day, not far off, when poems are related to taped performances as musical scores now are, the poem on the page is evidence of a voice and the poetic struggle is to note the movement of that voice so that it can be, as is music, followed…. (pp. 52-3)
[Myths & Texts] creates and denies one of the greatest of American experiences, that of a wild ecology. But it is not merely American; the human race really is on the way to destroying the planet, if not by some mad outrageous single explosion then by steady careless greedy attrition of all those qualities that have over the centuries kept men as sane as they have been. Curiously, although this has been the overriding historical fact of the past generation, only one extensive book of poetry has tried to tackle this problem as subject and come to some prophetic stance. Yet there is nothing pompous or portentous about Myths & Texts; it is genuinely contemplative….
In 1965, Snyder published Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End, part of a very long sequence of poems. The book has some fine matter in it, but much of it is taken up by poems that are not sufficiently concentrated, though they may serve a function in the whole sequence once completed….
Snyder has spoken often of the importance of the rhythms of various kinds of work for his poetry, and his sense of experience is largely a sense of work, of measured force exerted on the world…. His world is a world of energy constantly reformulating itself, and most often a world of human energy, exploited, misdirected, and full of pathos—he can't take it for granted but sees at its base the wilderness and fundamental man, and the products generated through history. This is why "The Market," full of dangers of sentimentality in tone, and mere cataloguing in technique, has an inner vigor that the hitchhiker poem lacks. This is not entirely a matter of mood but of conviction and of consequent drive. Technical considerations aside, poetry like all art comes out of courage, the capacity to keep going when reason breaks down. (p. 54)
Snyder's The Back Country [is] an inclusive collection, the longest and in many ways most representative book of Snyder's poetry. It includes poems written after the publication of Myths & Texts in 1960 and some earlier poems that did not fit the design of the three earlier collections. The book is carefully structured, with sections treating Far West, Far East, Kali (goddess of creation and destruction), Back (return) and translations of Miyazawa Kenji…. The Back Country has the advantage both of variety and secure control of the medium of poetry. If it lacks the unified impact of Myths & Texts, it covers even more ground. The point of view remains constant, the wilderness as repository of possibilities and reminder of psychological richnesses that cities, notably "This Tokyo," pervert or destroy, the reality and importance of work, what a simpler age called the dignity of labor, while recognizing the horror of exploitation both of nature and of the working man.
Many of these poems are, like the hitch-hiking poem of Mountains and Rivers, the poems of a wandering man, wandering in his travels, wayfaring in his sexuality, solitary, exploratory, inconstant, seaman and bindlestiff, finding his true Penelope only in the world of poetry and thought. Like much of Snyder's work, these poems have the quality of a very good Bildungsroman. In fact, as narrative and description and characterization, they are far superior to the novels of the 1960s in this country. They are not tricked up, contrived, and in spite of their autobiographical content, they are not egotistical. They are articulations, not mere expressions. Their motivation is perhaps best expressed in essays written contemporaneously with the poetry: "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution," "Passage to More than India," and "Poetry and the Primitive," printed in Earth House Hold…. The prose in Earth House Hold, parts of Turtle Island, The Old Ways and The Real Work should be read not only as partial explanation of the poetry but as the record of an evolving mind with extreme good sense in treating the problems of the world.
Regarding Wave is best thought of as two books. Regarding Wave is both the title of the book and the first thirty-five pages of text. It is a unified work of art with some of Snyder's best poems, for instance, "Not Leaving the House."… Unlike some of the poems in the sections that succeed "Regarding Wave," this poem shows Snyder in the grip of a major principle, so that he becomes the agent of a voice, that of common experience, and the personal and superficially exotic change to the general and present.
Snyder's … recent books, Turtle Island (poetry with some essays, notably "Four Changes") and The Old Ways reiterate his chosen themes and methods. Some critics complain that Snyder does not develop or change in any major way. Why should he? He has chosen a substantial body of thought and experience to explore. Poets change not through fad and fashion but through a realization that their idiom no longer fits their experience. When that occurs, change is valid, but Snyder's wide and varied idiom is adequate to his intense and rich experience. (pp. 56-9)
[Snyder] is distinguished not only as poet but as prose expositor—he has a gift for quiet, untroubled, accurate observation with occasional leaps to genuine eloquence. He has taken to himself a subject matter, complex, vast, and permanently interesting, a subject so compelling that it is not unreasonable to assert that he has become a center for a new set of cultural possibilities. There are two kinds of trouble that readers experience with this impressive accomplishment.
The first is the Gary Snyder poem. I have already described this short, anecdotal, erotic, concrete poem set in the wilderness with Zen masters and Amerindian mythological creatures commenting on each other and on nature. There comes a time when tedium sets in, when the personal style seems to be carrying along for no particular reason except to carry along, keep busy in the act of writing. The poems then exist all at exactly the same level and seem to have interchangeable parts. Objects from one could be moved to another without loss or gain. The prosody retains the same tone. The surfaces are attractive and monotonous. Even though there are variations from high rhetoric to self-deprecating humor, the unanimity of the poems is restrictive. Too much goes along the surface, gliding. And often I get the impression that Snyder doesn't care about the art, that poetry for him is only one of a set of instruments in a spiritual quest, that the act of construction is not something that requires its own special resolutions. Like most writers with a coherent world view, he sometimes refuses to let his material be intractable; there is no sense of contention between subject and object, no dramatic struggle toward a new form. Then the poems do not seem forms but shapes.
I don't think this happens often or that it is a totally crippling defect…. The complaints here registered could have been made against Blake, Whitman, and Lawrence. The second complaint … is that Snyder does not face the problems of modern life. In this view, the great bulk of Americans live in cities and in an age of anxiety verging on total panic. The wilderness exists only in a mythical past or in the lives of those privileged by money (for pack animals and guides) or skills based on specialized work in areas remote from normal experience. Hence Snyder's poetry doesn't answer to the tensions of modern life and depends on a life no longer accessible or even desirable for men. A mystique of the wilderness based on the humane naturalism of the highly limited Zen Buddhism sect and the primitive insights of American savages can't satisfy the existential Angst of modern man. Everything is too simple, too easy, too glib, a boy's book in verse, Huck Finn on the Skagit, Innocents in Japan. The poetry is archaic, not in the sense that all poetry is, but out of tune with life in the current era.
But the argument that a poet must speak to the problems of the bulk of the people seems to me to support rather than undermine Snyder's work. Properly understood, Snyder's poetry does speak to basic current problems, but it does not simply embody them. (pp. 59-60)
[Snyder] is calling upon the total resources of man's moral and religious being. There is no point in decrying this as primitivism; it is merely good sense, for the ability to hold history and wilderness in the mind at once may be the only way to make valid measures of human conduct. A larger and more humble vision of man and cosmos is our only hope, and the major work of any serious person. In that work, Snyder's verse and prose compose a set of new cultural possibilities that only ignorance and unbalance can ignore. (p. 61)
Thomas Parkinson, "The Poetry of Gary Snyder," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 46-61.
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[Gary Snyder] occasionally makes his ideas too obvious. His new collection, Axe Handles, ends with a painfully clear commitment to North American ecology: "I pledge allegiance to the soil / of Turtle Island, / one ecosystem / in diversity / under the sun / With joyful interpenetration for all." The new book hops along the ground instead of flying in the upper ether of Buddhist poetry. A good many poems are relatively disconnected I-do-this-I-do-that Zen diaries, which get wearisome. But in other moments, Snyder does remind us of his strengths: his strange tunefulness, as if he were strumming some kind of weird Japanese instrument, his ability to embrace the wild or the savage, as if he were a peasant in closer touch with real life than the rest of us.
Paul Berman, in a review of "Axe Handles," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIX. No. 18, May 1, 1984, p. 44.
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Gary Snyder's last book was his Pulitzer prize-winning Turtle Island (1974), whose title, as he explained in an introductory note, was "the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths [in which the earth is seen as resting on a turtle's back] of the people who have been living here for millennia, and reapplied by some of them to 'North America' in recent years." Like Turtle Island, Axe Handles is about North America, in particular about the underpopulated, still unspoiled regions of the American West which Snyder has made his home. (pp. 346-47)
The title of the present book signals Snyder's heightened interest in tradition, culture, and family. The title poem begins with Snyder helping his son Kai (who, with his other son Gen, plays an important part in this book) to make an axe handle. They carve the handle with Snyder's axe, and the poet remembers Pound's words: "'When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off.'" The carving of the boy's axe handle with his father's axe comes to represent, for Snyder, the passing on of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next—which is, in fact, the dominant theme of the book. Snyder derives great strength and security from the recognition that his sons are his "gifts to the future / to remember us." Because of this strength and security, Snyder is more successful in Axe Handles than in most of his earlier works at avoiding the temptation to deal in the angry abstractions ("Freedom," "Nature," "the People") which filled Turtle Island, or to beat the drum for his Zen-Amerindian-Marxist philosophy. He reads like a man who has found tranquility: the form of his poems has grown more regular, the language more conventional, the tone more pensive, less self-conscious, and never hysterical or pretentiously nutty or shrill. He is still a man of convictions, but they are for the most part (the relatively blunt "For/From Lew" is an exception) communicated implicitly through simple, significant dramatic episodes. (p. 347)
Indeed, so tranquil is Snyder that even when he makes a point of noticing the various computer-age (or even industrial-age) phenomena which do intrude into his world from time to time, he perceives them not as symbols of evil (as was his practice in Turtle Island) but as exotic manifestations of his revered natural order. Snyder does, however, come upon a few phenomena which he has trouble fitting into the natural universe as he has come to understand it. One such phenomenon is a Strategic Air Command jet. Yet even this emblem of destruction does not incite his wrath toward the "Amerika" which he described in his previous book as a nation of "invaders" who stole Turtle Island from the Indians and "who wage war around the world."…
Quietly, gently, Axe Handles conveys a luminous, poignant vision of a life afforded joy and strength by recognition of the essential things which give it meaning. It is, to my tastes, Snyder's finest book. (p. 348)
Bruce Bawer, in a review of "Axe Handles," in Poetry, Vol. CXLIV, No. 6, September, 1984, pp. 346-48.
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