SOURCE: "The Ecological Vision of Gary Snyder," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 117-24.
[In the following essay, Lyon places Snyder's work at the forefront of the new naturalist movement.]
There are some positive signs—more than straws in the wind—that a significant number of Western minds are forsaking the progress-domination theory inherent in the political view which has ruled and conquered for so long, in favor of a more relaxed and open way with the world founded on ecological sensitivity. The political mind, based ultimately on bossmanship in theology and bent on converting world matter into exclusively human use with efficient if violent technology, seems to be giving way to a gentler feeling of mutuality. We are coming, many think, to a great verge: Pisces then, now Aquarius … or Vico's fourth stage in cyclical history, returning to awe of the supernatural … or Yeats's "Second Coming." Whatever it is called, the apparently dawning age seems not to give its allegiance to hierarchies of dominance and power, nor to profane Growthmanship, but to a steady-state interdependence with all the world, its trees, rocks, rivers, and animals. The enormous expansion and deepening of the conservation movement, the new interest in the ecological sciences, and the wide search for cooperative, sacral, communal forms are all evidence that we seem to be trying to raise our sights to a holy vision of the world as a unity.
The eternal dream of the peaceable kingdom, if it can be called a dream now and not the only sane hope for survival—escape from the self-doom of ecological sin—is also emerging as a force in contemporary writing. Not as outright prophecy, Jeremiad, or prescription, but as theme growing from massive contact with natural particulars—viz., Ginsberg's important "Wales Visitation"—this kind of writing gives promise of transcending conventional romanticism to the same degree that Wordsworthian ecstasy transcended the rational optimism that went before it.
The literature of the new ecology has apparent roots in Romantic writing, certainly, as well as in Oriental thinking and in the contemporary subculture's opening of the "doors of perception" to the realization of endless interrelatedness. But perhaps the most important roots—direct apprehension of wild nature and perception of the primitive reference point in human (Indian) terms—are not so obvious, and it is here that the student of Western American literature can draw on the traditions of his regional field for insights.
Before the West had produced a great writer on its own ground, Henry David Thoreau had mapped it out as the great mother-center of wilderness and the place to learn ecological truth—"The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World"—and most of the best Western writers from later years have lived on Thoreau's map. John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Frank Waters, just to name four, have built on direct experience of elemental and often violent Western nature, working toward a post-humanist, post-technological world-view in which man fits into natural patterns rather than simply following his greed into the city of ecological imbalance and poisoning. This is not really to be wondered at; nature in the West has been primary, sometimes even overwhelming. It is not, except for the tourist industry, leisure-time beauty; garden-variety, escapist romantics have not grown well here. Jeffers wrote of the California coast as "crying out for tragedy," speaking of the great forms and space and immense changes in sea and sky that became his poetic...
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world; one of the dimensions of his total work is the tragedy of Western civilization's drive to render the wild world tame … leaving finally only "introverted man," "taken up / Like a maniac with self love." Jeffers said he stood "west of the west"; his "Inhumanism" is nothing more shocking than the ecological vision looking back on the strictly "humanist" westward movement of plunder and destruction.
The limitations of White/Western thought have also been limned, for serious Western writers, by the presence of the Indian, who lasted long enough in the West to be the model of primitive ecology and religious responsibility to earth. But the critique has not been simple-minded. Frank Waters, to name perhaps the deepest student of the Indian among writers, has long been recommending a supra-rational, supra-emotional synthesis between cultures, making finally an ecologically responsible civilization and psychically whole persons; the Western writer's ability to take the Indian seriously has resulted in real trailbreaking.
It may be—I almost believe it—that the West's great contribution to American culture will be in codifying and directing the natural drive toward ecological thought: a flowering of regional literature into literally world-wide attention and relevance. Now, after all this prologue, I come to my subject, the poet Gary Snyder, for as Snyder begins to emerge as an important force in the ideas and art of America, he shows signs of embodying the Western ecological vision in a culturally viable form. His writing is popular, certainly, and as I hope to show, it is valid in deeper, permanent ways.
The first thing that strikes one about Snyder's poetry is the terse, phrase-light and article-light diction, the sense of direct thing-ness. In common with most of the poetic generation that has rebelled against the formulaic Eliot rhetoric and intellectual abstraction, Snyder writes a solid line, but the special quality in his diction, the personal voice, lies in his knowledgeable selection of objects. They are things he has worked with and felt the grain of, and thus known better than good-sounding "poet's" catalogs:
Rucksack braced on a board, lashed tight on back. sleeping bags, map case, tied on the gas tank sunglasses, tennis shoes, your long tan in shorts north on the west side of Lake Biwa Fukui highway still being built, crankcase bangd on rocks— pusht to the very edge by a blinded truck I saw the sea below beside my knee: you hung on and never knew how close.
Experience is not elaborately prepared for, in the Snyder poetics, just handed over: "Woke once in the night, pissed, / checkt the coming winter's stars / built up the fire" opens a poem and puts the reader in the mountains without any pastoral-tradition framing. This is the "near view" of the Sierra that John Muir wanted so much and knew that conventional art didn't give. Snyder's open directness moves toward solving one of Muir's and other transcendentalists' great dilemmas: how to talk about things, especially wild ones, without harming their integrity by language; how to preserve and communicate sauciness without falling into an arch aesthetic distance between subject and object, a romantic decoration that destroys the very wholeness, which is wildness, one loved and wanted to convey somehow. The thin line of poetic truth between overstatement and private code requires first of all respect for things, letting them stand free instead of being marshaled into line for a mental performance. Snyder apparently recognizes the lover's paradox in writing ("each man kills the thing he loves"), and turns back on his own mind with good humor:
foxtail pine with a clipped curve-back cluster of tight five-needle bunches the rough red bark scale and jigsaw pieces sloughed off scattered on the ground. —what am I doing saying "foxtail pine"?
The comment might be on alliteration and rolling rhythm, as well as on the general deceit of naming: the poem moves beyond nature love to a focus on relation, among Snyder and his poem and the tree, and the ironic mode of the final question enters dimensions of richness quite beyond simple appreciation, if such a thing is simple. The openness of Snyder's seemingly casual presentation of objects, then, should not be mistaken for naïvete. The freshness of youth in his perceptions seems to be the result of having passed through a midstage of poeticizing and returned to the primal, simultaneous brotherhood-in-separateness of all objects. This is the wild world which Thoreau intuitively saw great poetry aiming at. Leaving it in integrity requires only pointing, and here Snyder's long Zen training provides the exact discipline needed. But the poet can also bring himself in and show the paradoxical nature of knowledge (and the poignant human consciousness of separateness) by levels of irony. So we have Snyder writing,
When Snow melts back from the trees Bare branches knobbed pine twigs hot sun on wet flowers Green shoots of huckleberry Breaking through the snow. on the one hand, and A clear, attentive mind Has no meaning but that Which sees is truly seen. No one loves rock, yet we are here.
on the other. The inclusiveness resulting is literally "part" and "parcel" of the ecological vision. Tingeing the Zen core with irony, though it is far from his only technique, is one of Snyder's singular contributions to modern poetry, a byproduct of the connection he has knitted in his life between East and West. In a sense, Snyder is moving westward in the way that Whitman meant for us to do, the total effect of his final synthesis being, to use one of his essay titles, a "Passage to More than India."
Snyder shows his naturalness and American-West roots most obviously in his colloquial, object-laden language, but another and perhaps more important consonance with the wilderness world can be felt in his verse rhythms. "I've just recently come to realize that the rhythms of my poems follow the rhythms of the physical work I'm doing and the life I'm leading at any given time," he wrote in 1959, and many of his poems are tuned so closely to muscular and breath paces that they seem quite as spontaneous as his analysis implies. A bit of "Riprap," which grew out of building trails on slick granite in the Sierra, will illustrate this:
Lay down these words Before your mind like rocks, placed solid, by hands In choice of place, set Before the body of the mind in space and time: Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall riprap of things: Cobble of milky way, straying planets, These poems, people, lost ponies with Dragging saddles— and rocky sure-foot trails.
There are some fine rhythms starting from non-human wilderness, too, where the birds and other animals seem almost to have written the poem by themselves.
Birds in a whirl, drift to the rooftops Kite dip, swing to the seabank fogroll ........... The whole sky whips in the wind Vaux Swifts Flying before the storm Arcing close hear sharp wing-whistle Sickle-bird
Snyder flirts with meter and with internal rhyme and alliteration, clearly, but the forming principle is not external. He once described formal poetry as "the game of inventing an abstract structure and then finding things in experience which can be forced into it," identifying this kind of writing with the rationalistic philosophy-culture of the West—of civilization—and then stated his preference for wilderness: "the swallow's dip and swoop, 'without east or west.'" The basic direction of his prosody is that of his image-selection: to go beyond the midstage to the consciously primitive, where there is no "east or west." Since we are both an unconscious, animal process and a conscious intellect, Snyder's poetics can be seen as an attempt at continuous self-transcendence, a leading through ego-borders into the wild. Self, ego, is at work in nature-love, as it is more obviously in nature-hate, as it is also in cultural typologies and forms for poetry. The ultimate meanings in Snyder's poetry, deeply revolutionary meanings in the sense of consciousness-changers, putting man in a different place from where he thought he was all these years, can be sensed very clearly in his formal poetics alone. His work is therefore organic rather than contrived, and although this can be said of many contemporary poets and indeed marks the fundamental direction of modern American poetry, the special virtue in Snyder's work is that he has created or allowed to develop a form that grows so rightly out of wild things, and which leads the reader uncannily ahead to a wild point of view. This is the technique of the ecological sense which goes past both the primitive and primitivism, into something else, in certain poems the ecstatic ecology of wholeness. Then to keep the sense of mind—"all the junk that goes with being human," as Snyder wrote once—alive along with the transparent eyeball, is art. Snyder's best poems, in my opinion, are the ones that move through these levels of apprehension, keeping the whole thing alive and total, finally conveying the great molecular interrelatedness, yet not as a static "thing," not even as a "poem," sweated out, but with the rhythmic feel of the unworded wild truth. "Wave," a recent poem, simultaneously perceives, creates, and leaps over form in this way:
Grooving clam shell, streakt through marble, sweeping down ponderosa pine bark-scale rip-cut tree grain sand-dunes, lava flow Wave wife. woman—wyfman— "veiled; vibrating; vague" sawtooth ranges pulsing; veins on the back of the hand. Fork out: birdsfoot-alluvium wash great dunes rolling Each inch rippld, every grain a wave. Leaning against sand cornices til they blow away —wind, shake stiff thorns of cholla, ocotillo sometimes I get stuck in thickets— Ah, trembling spreading radiating wyf racing zebra catch me and fling me wide To the dancing grain of things of my mind!
The solidity in Snyder's writing, which is often commented on, results from the fact that his ideas, like the verse rhythms, flow from close attention to wilderness, unmediated perception of grain and wave. The total structure appears in startling systematic clarity, once one gets used to the point of view. Thing/rhythm/idea, over and over, so that the meanings are inextricable from the settings. The contrasting point of view, where there is always the anthropocentric splitting which prevents things from expressing completely their innate rhythms, and which keeps things from entering our heads in fullness, should immediately be more familiar in our unpoetic culture. We tend to mark everything according to its vulnerability. But this grasping approach seals itself off from authentic experience by refusing the integrity or self-nature of things: rocks, trees, people … anything. This integrity is what is meant by wildness; according to Snyder, it takes a consciously primitive sensibility to know it and respect it, that is, one not overlaid with the programmed covetousness our culture seems to demand. Poets have to deal from authentic experience in order to communicate the wild truth of the matter, which is, Snyder holds, "at deep levels common to all who listen." He describes the moment of connection between feeling and making, in Earth House Hold:
The phenomenal world experienced at certain pitches is totally living, exciting, mysterious, filling one with a trembling awe, leaving one grateful and humble. The wonder of the mystery returns direct to one's own senses and consciousness: inside and outside, the voice breathes, "Ah!"
So far, our culture has managed to include this untamed poetic mind as a kind of occasional delight or relief, thus blotting up its power. As Herbert Marcuse and many others since One-Dimensional Man have commented, it has been the peculiar strength of the instrumental, technological culture to be able to make tame commodities out of potentially revolutionary states of consciousness. The taming of the mind has kept even pace with the taming of the outer wilderness; conventional-romantic nostalgia is a good example of the parallelism I am suggesting. It is perfectly powerless to regain its lost paradise, its noble savage or gentle woods-bowers, because its civilized formulations are only half real. There have been writers from Blake onward, to be sure, who have seen that we stand to lose immensely by conquering the world; but very few—Thoreau, Jeffers, Snyder, perhaps alone—have made the connection between outer and inner wilderness, and have dared to suggest that a primitive mind can understand it most clearly. The direct link between the two sides of wild integrity is the ground of the ecological values. Perceiving the link enables one to stand with and among, yet retaining and developing the consciousness of membership—or the ironies of mental separateness. Either way, this sort of perception calls into question the major assumptions of Western civilization. By going beyond both technohumanist instrumentalism and cutely impotent romanticism, this approach builds a whole new mind. "Poets," Snyder writes, "as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in … "and poetry itself, in this world, becomes "an ecological survival technique."
It is perhaps expectable that Snyder contrasts the primitive/poetic mind with the world of "nationalism, warfare, heavy industry and consumership," which are "already outdated and useless," but what is not so expectable is that he has developed a forthrightly revolutionary system of ideas on his poetic perceptions. With the exceptions again of Thoreau, and possibly. Jeffers, most of our wilderness poets have been rather passive regretters of the destruction closing in on them. But Snyder speaks, almost millenially, of healing. There are ways to the ecological mind, and they can be shown; people are more ready than ever. "The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious [our inner side of the vast pool of wilderness], through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspect of our archaic past."
It might be argued that this progressivism, reversed as it is, shows Snyder's American heritage. In an outward, ideological sense, yes; but the core of it is the ecological understanding, the primitive (primal) sense of things. In turn, the chief ingredients of the ecological understanding seem to me to be Snyder's American West wilderness experience—he has worked as a logger, fire lookout, and trail crew-man, and has backpacked and climbed extensively in California, Oregon, and Washington, working on the actual skills of primitive ecology and developing close ties to several Indian tribes—on the one side, and his formal, disciplined study of Buddhism on the other, beginning in 1956 in Kyoto.
Although it is somewhat tempting to read Snyder's going to the Zen temple in Kyoto as a resolution for tensions generated during 1952–56, when he worked part of the time as a tool of the anthropocentric culture (as a logger), and when he came to the end of conventional graduate-school climbing, I think Snyder's intellectual history is not a simple move from West to East. On the early end, he had been disenchanted with Christianity since childhood. "Animals don't have souls," he had been told as a child; making the connection between this pronouncement and the general Western ethos had been his intellectual work for years before 1956. This, along with positive motivations, resulted in a kind of textual Buddhism, especially when Snyder became reasonably expert in Chinese while at Berkeley, and one can see the going to Kyoto as merely putting theory into practice. On the other end, after the Zen training, Snyder has repeatedly shown his independence of traditional structures. His Buddhism is not programmatic. "Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under," he wrote in 1961, showing that left-anarchist, IWW ideas from working in the logging industry were not abandoned in favor of quietism. And the wild, original reference point, the special Snyder flavor, is shown in comments like this one from Earth House Hold:
The Far Eastern love of nature has become fear of nature: gardens and pine trees are tormented and controlled. Chinese nature poets were too often retired bureaucrats living on two or three acres trimmed by hired gardeners. The professional nature-aesthetes of modern Japan, tea-teachers and flower-arrangers, are amazed to hear that only a century ago dozens of species of birds passed through Kyoto where today only swallows and sparrows can be seen: and the aesthetes can scarcely distinguish those.
My point is that Snyder has not been susceptible to either gross cultural influences or temporary currents, but has always seemed to measure things according to a primal standard of wild ecology. The basic materials of this he learned in the West. The Buddhist training has been extremely important, I do not doubt, and the steeping in Oriental writing, particularly Chinese poetry, has helped Snyder as a poet; but I am suggesting that he is now into something like a world-relevant fusion, a planetary consciousness, both in ideas and techniques. Berkeley Professor Thomas Parkinson writes, "He has effectively done something that for an individual is extremely difficult: he has created a new culture, and I think this may very well be the case. At the least, Snyder has provided the articulation, both in his poems and now in Earth House Hold, that can shape the generalized, inchoate desire for an ecological life.
As a cultural figure, his durability is evidenced by his fame having outlasted all three of the major movements in the American West since World War II—the Beat Generation, the Zen interest of the 50's, and the Hippies of the 60's. The strong points of these currents—creative alienation from robotlife, purified mind, and gentle community, respectively—had been present in Snyder's work from the start, and his steady focus on wilderness clarity helped him avoid the well-publicized pitfalls along the way. Thus he has always seemed ahead of the times, which is essential for a popular American bard-seer. Another, more fundamental requirement for such a figure is that his work, thought, and life be of a piece; as I hope I have shown, it is almost inevitable that this be true of the ecological vision. In our accelerating re-examination of civilization in the light of enduring perceptions and longings, it is not too much to suggest that Gary Snyder's insights can be extremely valuable.
Gary Snyder 1930–
(Full name Gary Sherman Snyder) American poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Snyder's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 9, and 32.
Known for his writing and philosophies on environmental subjects, Snyder is considered one of the most important American poets of his generation. Throughout his career, he has been at the forefront of American literary and cultural developments such as the Beat movement of the 1950s, the popularization of Oriental thought and religion in the 1960s, and the growth of environmental consciousness. Despite his association with these popular movements, critics note that he has pursued his own agendas without concern for his popularity. His poetry, which fuses Oriental and Native American myth with a strong and personal connection between man and nature, has been compared with the work of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Snyder is the recipient of several literary honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Turtle Island (1974).
Snyder was born on May 8, 1930 and was raised on small farms in Washington and Oregon. His family was poor, but freethinking, advocating socialism and atheism, thus encouraging Snyder to question the dominant culture. Throughout his life he has held jobs as a logger, merchant marine, fire lookout and United States Forest Service trail crew worker. He earned undergraduate degrees in literature and anthropology at Reed College, where he pursued his interest in Native American Culture. Snyder began graduate work at the University of Indiana before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley, where he pursued his emerging interest in Buddhism and Asian languages. Between 1953 and 1956, Snyder became involved with the Beatnik movement in Northern California, writing poetry and attending the famous reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." He was featured in Jack Kerouac's book The Dharma Bums. Just as the beatnik movement was gaining national attention, Snyder moved to Japan where he studied Zen Buddhism. He remained in Japan until the late 1960s when he returned to the United States. He and his third wife and two sons made their home on a farm he called Kitkitdizze, on the San Juan Ridge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He continues to live there, writing poetry and essays on environmentalism, both subjects he teaches at the University of California at Davis.
Snyder's writing reveals an appreciation for the hard work of rural life and the nearness it affords with nature. His work also focuses on an interest in the spiritual link between primitive cultures and nature, and contains a deep sense of involvement with humanity. In his poetry and his nonfiction writing, Snyder has advocated a close association and a mutual respect between humans and the natural world. He has emphasized the interconnectedness of life, using and manipulating Native American folklore, Asian myths, and Buddhist thought, creating an unique blend of Eastern and Western philosophies. 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 to create a horse trail in the mountains. Myths and Texts (1960), his next collection, is a long highly allusive lyrical poem divided into three sections: "Logging," "Hunting," and "Burning." This poem is considered to be among his best work. 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. Building on his success and years of study, Snyder achieved greater public acclaim with the Pulitzer Prize winning Turtle Island, an intensive contemplation of his life and its connection with the Sierra Nevada landscape. The title is an allegory to North America and in it he extends the metaphor of his life in California to human existence in American and the world. In Axe Handles (1983) he focuses on domesticity and his relationship with his family. After more than forty years of work, Snyder completed and published Mountains and Rivers without End in 1996. In addition, Snyder has published numerous collections of essays, articles and speeches about the environment, Native American and Asian mythology, and his life experiences.
Scholars acknowledge Snyder's profound influence on the development of American poetry in the postwar period. Critics note that from Beat to mystic to bioregional poetry, Snyder has shaped both content and form. Critics have lauded Snyder's blending of Western and Eastern philosophies; his imaginative use of Native American and Asian mythology; his unique and evocative treatment of landscape; his competent handling of sound, phrasing, and rhythm; and the sureness of his imagery. Consistently, throughout his career, scholars have noted his importance in "reimaging the landscape," or, the conceptualizing of new ways in which to interpret nature and man's relationship to it. Thomas J. Lyon argues that Snyder's' success comes from eliminating the distance between man and nature in his writing, in keeping his poetry direct. And Christopher Benfey calls him "… the unofficial poet laureate of the environmentalist movement." However, reviewers agree that the quality of Snyder's' work is uneven. They state that, while individual poems in his other collections are outstanding, only Myths & Texts is consistently and collectively successful. In addition, critics have become dissatisfied with Snyder's increasing focus on environmental-political issues in his poetry. Scholars such as David A. Carpenter argue that the poetic has suffered at the hand of the political. Despite these short-falls, commentators agree that Snyder's reputation as an unique, pathbreaking poet remains strong.
SOURCE: "Ecologies of the Finite and the Infinite," in New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1975, p. 2.
[In the following review of Turtle Island, Leibowitz argues that Snyder has failed to adequately transform stray thoughts into powerful poetry.]
When Walt Whitman advised his countrymen in 1871 to book passage to India he was not dreaming of extending the American empire to Asia, though he was enough of a chauvinist to view the restless migration to the Pacific complacently. Before the Civil War, American mercantile interests, New Englanders prominent among them, had discovered the lucrative China trade. Thoreau had carried the "Bhagavad-Gita" in his bag to Walden Pond, and Emerson's Transcendentalism had taken much from Hindu, Buddhist and other Oriental philosophies. For Whitman, as for Emerson and Thoreau, the allure of the East was that it was not tainted by the allegedly worn out forms and methods of Europe. The enterprising American artist might draw on new sources of inspiration, uncover new-old versions of the self, acquire a new lingo of spiritual ecstasy and enlightenment.
This fascination with Oriental script and scripture ("the elder religions," Whitman called them) continued unabated into the 20th century. By his own testimony, Pound's stumbling on Ernest Fenollosa's work with the Chinese ideogram decisively changed Pound's thinking about—and writing of—poems. And even William Carlos Williams, that stubborn champion of local idiom, remarked in 1950 that poets living in West Coast cities, facing the Orient, had the grand opportunity of "crossing cultures," of being less confined by the "debased precedent" of Europe than their Atlantic or inland peers.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Allen Ginsberg chants hare krishnas, mantras, and oms at his poetry readings or that Gary Snyder, having spent several years in a Zen monastery in Japan, should look to the East for literary and religious models. For both poets, the West, with its crazed technology and its stress on the exploitative ego, is a threat to the "planetary biological welfare." The East, by contrast, schools the will to go beyond the acquisitive self and to concentrate on "the power within."
"The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple," Snyder quotes the Chinese poet Tu Fu. It is an accurate motto of his purposes in Turtle Island, his seventh book. Like Thoreau, he wants a "broad margin" to his life and believes that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." The virtues of simplicity are the lesson he has learned from Chinese and Japanese poetry.
Snyder's poems fall roughly into three categories: lyrical precepts (prayers, spells, charms) designed to instill an "ecological conscience" so that we will respect the otherness of nature, frequently personified as the tender, generative mother, and use her wisely. (Linked with these poems are a group that register his disgust at the heedless wasters, interlopers and marauders, the suburban developers for whom if you treat nature right, "it will make a billion board feet a year.") Several poems celebrate domesticity and the family, the poet as doting father and husband bestowing benedictions on his wife and sons. By far the largest segment of his work records quiet moments when he observes the "whoosh of birds," cloud movements, a volcanic crater, the coyote's wail, the Douglas fir or a red leaf. These imagistic poems employ a spare notation.
Snyder's subjects are often appealing: walks, mountains, children, the skinning of a deer, love-making, communion with friends on a camping trip—all the ceremonies of innocence. But the poems themselves are thin, scattered, forgettable, their rhythmical pulse sluggish, as in "Pine Tree Tops," a standard Snyder poem:
in the blue night frost haze, the sky glows with the moon pine tree tops bend snow-blue, fade into sky, frost, starlight. the creak of boots. rabbit tracks, deer tracks,what do we know.
The reader feels he is watching home movies, leafing through snapshots of an exotic trip. What stays afterwards are silhouettes of experience: a bare breasted woman stooping to pick a shell while her children play nearby, or this:
my friend broke open a dried coyote scat removed a ground squirrel tooth pierced it, hung it from the gold ringin his ear
Despite a few lovely poems—"The Egg," "Straight-Creek-Great Burn," and "The Hudsonian Curlew"—Turtle Island is flat, humorless and uneventful. (Snyder's prose is vigorous and persuasive.) The poems are also oddly egotistical. Any random scrap jotted into a journal, the miscellaneous thoughts and images that are the seeds of shaped poems and that most poets discard, are transferred into the poems without the imagination's critical intervention. Turtle Island is a textbook example of the limits of Imagism.
I am reluctant to mention these doubts since as the bulldozers stand poised to despoil the wilderness by strip-mining the West for the sake of more dreck and civilized trumpery. Snyder's sane housekeeping principles desperately need to become Government and corporate policy. He is on the side of the gods. But as Snyder remarks, "Poetry is the vehicle of the mystery of voice," and the voice of Turtle Island, for all its sincerity and moral urgency, lacks that mystery and "inspired use of language" we call style….
Riprap (poetry) 1959Myths & Texts (poetry) 1960Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (poetry) 1965The Back Country (poetry) 1968Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries for Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries (essays) 1970Regrading Wave (poetry) 1972Turtle Island (poetry) 1974Axe Handles (poetry) 1983Left Out in the Rain: New Poems 1947–1985 (poetry) 1986No Nature: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1992A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (prose) 1995Mountains and Rivers without End (poetry) 1996
SOURCE: "Gary Snyder's Han-Shan," in Sagetreib, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 105-110.
[In the following essay, Bartlett discusses Snyder's translations of the works of seventh-century Buddhist poet Hanshan.]
Kenneth Rexroth, whose fourteen books of translations include many poems from the Chinese, has argued recently that Chinese poetry probably began to influence a few English speaking writers when Three Hundred Poems of T'ang was translated into French free verse in the mid-19th Century. Certainly the English translations of early sinologist Herbert A. Giles, collected in his Gems of Chinese Literature, marked in their archaic and doggerel renderings no advance in verse, as Giles' short reworking of Wei Ying-Wu's "Spring Joys" makes evident:
When freshlets cease in early spring and the river dwindles low, I take my staff and wander by the banks where the wild flowers grow. I watch the willow-catkins wildly whirled on every side; I watch the falling peach-bloom lightly floating down the tide.
Non-readers of French, Rexroth continues, of course had to wait until the turn of the century for first Arthur Waley's translations, then Ezra Pound's (and he finds the work of both Waley and Pound in this area lacking, as it gives the appearance that Chinese poetry is "as dependent on quantitative rhythms as on accentual"). Still, the effect of Chinese poetry (and [Ernest Francisco] Fenollosa's theoretical substructure, "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry") on verse in English was of course profound, entering "the American and to a much less degree, English poetic consciousness at exactly the right moment to purge the rhetoric and moralizing of 19th Century Romantic poetry and even more moralistic, preachy poetry of the 90's." Pretty much across the board—from Imagism to Objectivism, from H. D. to Oppen—its influence was felt.
Gary Snyder dates his own interest in Chinese art from about the time he was "eleven or twelve":
I went into the Chinese room at the Seattle art museum and saw Chinese landscape paintings; they blew my mind. My shock of recognition was very simple: "It looks just like the Cascades." The waterfalls, the pines, the clouds, the mist looked a lot like the northwest United States. The Chinese had an eye for the world that I saw as real. In the next room were the English and European landscapes, and they meant nothing. It was no great lesson except for an instantaneous, deep respect for something in Chinese culture that always stuck in my mind and that I would come back to again years later.
In fact, years later, he did. While an undergraduate anthropology major at Reed College, he discovered both Waley's and Pound's translations, Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and many works of Chinese and Indian Buddhist literature. While Snyder admits that he valued Pound highly "as a teacher in poetic technology" (this influence can be seen most readily in Myths & Texts), his own interest in Chinese poetry came as much from inspiration of the figure of the Chinese "hermit poet / nature poet" as from an interest in technique.
Snyder's first "collection" of poems to see print actually appeared a year before Riprap, when in 1958 in its sixth issue Evergreen Review published his translations from the 7th Century Chinese poet Han-shan, along with a short introduction and a few notes on the text. Snyder discovered Hanshan while doing graduate work in the Department of Oriental Languages at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1955. He had been taking seminars in Chinese poetry, and had done a few translations of T'ang poems, when his interest in Buddhism in particular prompted him to ask Professor Ch'en Shih-hsiang to direct him in a tutorial on a Chinese Buddhist poet. Dr. Shin-hsiang suggested Han-shan, whose work at that time had been rendered into English only sparsely (Arthur Waley's "27 Poems by Han-shan" had appeared in Encounter in 1954). Snyder remembers that his teacher was "not a Buddhist, as indeed all contemporary Chinese intellectuals are not Buddhist, and I think he had a certain amount of anti-Buddhist feeling as all contemporary Chinese do," but that the Han-shan project changed his mind a bit, "partly in seeing the excitement with which I put it into English; it made him see the possible freshness in it as before he had seen it as a kind of stale set of ideas."
We know almost nothing of the facts of Han-shan's life, save that he was a reclusive poet who lived during the T'ang Dynasty. Lu-ch'iu Yin, an official of the Dynasty, wrote a short preface to Han-shan's three hundred-plus poems, in which he explained that he caught sight of the poet (and his friend Shih-te) only once:
I saw two men standing in front of the stove warming themselves and laughing loudly. I bowed to them, whereupon the two raised their voices in chorus and began to hoot at me. The joined hands and, shrieking with laughter, called out to me, "Blabbermouth, blabbermouth Feng-kan! You wouldn't know the Buddha Amitabha if you saw him! What do you mean by bowing to us?"
And the two strange men ran off and disappeared into the mountains. According to Lu-ch'iu Yin, he then organized a group of monks to collect Han-shan's poems, which the poet had written on "trees and rocks or the walls of the houses and offices in the nearby village." It is this collection of poems we have come to call "Cold Mountain," after the vivid mountain landscape Han-shan describes. But as Arthur Waley has noted, Cold Mountain is more than a place—it is also a state of mind. "It is on this conception," Waley wrote in his introduction, "as well as on that of the 'hidden treasure,' the Buddha who is to be sought not somewhere outside us, but 'at home' in the heart, that the mysticism of the poem is based."
Snyder was certainly familiar with Waley's translations, and he was obviously drawn to Han-shan's work as both a circumstance of place and a state of mind. Snyder's short preface to his translations presents Han-shan as a kind of archetypal Beat wanderer and holy man, a "mountain man in an Old Chinese line of ragged hermits," not unlike Jack Kerouac's sense of Snyder himself in The Dharma Bums. In fact, Snyder carries the identification even further, as he feels his own experience in the mountains of the northwest helped him capture the ethos of the originals in a way other translators could not:
I was able to do fresh, accurate translations of Han-shan because I was able to envision Han-shan's world because I had much experience in the mountains and there are many images in Han-shan which are directly images of mountain scenery and mountain terrain and mountain weather that if a person had not felt those himself physically he would not be able to get the same feel into the translation—it would be more abstract. I think that was part of the success of those translations—a meeting of sensations.
By "accurate translations" Snyder does not mean, of course, literal ones, but rather "imitations" in Robert Lowell's sense—to "keep something equivalent to the fire and the finish" of the originals. Pound's Cathay and "The Seafarer" really established the modern idea of translation for American poets, that is the privileging of sense or tone over literal accuracy. If the translator proceeds as a scientist, Ben Belitt argues, if "a simplistic semantics and a misguided analogy with scientific method" leads him "to identify the truth of a poem substantially with its 'words' and its 'intent,' "he will end up with a "science fiction of translation." Rather, he must give a "pulse to his language," must "make a poet's demands on the emerging English rather than a pedant's or a proctor in" some Intermediate Original. The point is that when a literal translation has been accomplished, the translator's real work then begins.
Thus Snyder's translations of Han-shan (like Lowell's Imitations and Robert Bly's more recent renderings from Rilke) attempt to bring over the experience of the poems as poems into English. In a letter to the linguist Dell Hymes, Snyder explains his method of translation with explicit reference to his versions from the Chinese. "I get the verbal meaning into mind as clearly as I can," he writes,
but then make an enormous effort of visualization, to "see" what the poem says, nonlinguistically, like a movie in my mind, and to feel it. If I can do this (and much of the time the poem eludes this effort) then I write the scene down in English. It is not a translation of the words, it is the same poem in a different language, allowing for the peculiar distortions of my own vision—but keeping it straight as possible. If I can do this to a poem the translation is uniformly successful, and is generally well received by scholars and critics. If I can't do this, I can still translate the words, and it may be well received, but it doesn't feel like it should.
In addition to capturing the ethos of the original, then, this notion of translation also means that the English poem becomes—in its language, its imagery, and, even to an extent, its rhythm—finally as much a product of Snyder's poetic imagination as of Han-shan's. And indeed as readers when we study the versions of Pound, Lowell, Snyder, Bly, Kinnell, and other poets, we look to those poems to tell us as much about the interests, influences, and techniques of the translator-poets as anything else.
While there is not quite the same sense of compression or ellipsis in Snyder's versions of Han-shan's poems as in a poem like "Praise for Sick Women," still the poems are obviously of a piece with Snyder's other early work; in fact, in 1969 he collected the early books together as Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation), as if to signify a unity of style and subject between his early original poems and the translations. Certainly it is difficult to detect much difference between "Mid-August on Sourdough Mountain Lookout" (the lead poem in Riprap) and, for example, "I settled at Cold Mountain long ago" (number 7 of the sequence). The language of both poems is simple and direct, and in each we encounter a similar situation—the poet in seclusion, and his exhilaration in nature.
Perhaps an even more interesting exercise is to set one of Snyder's translations alongside one of Waley's. In 1954, Waley published the following reworking of a Han-shan poem as "XVI" in his Encounter series:
The people of the world when they see Han-shan All regard him as not in his right mind. His appearance, they say, is far from being attractive Tied up as he is in bits of tattered cloth. "What we say, he cannot understand; What he says, we do not say." You who spend all your time in coming and going, Why not try for once coming to the Han-shan?
In his collection, Snyder translated the same poem as the last in the sequence, "24":
When men see Han-shan They all say he's crazy And not much to look at— Dressed in rags and hides. They don't get what I say & I don't talk their language. All I can say to those I meet: "Try and make it to Cold Mountain."
Compared to Herbert Giles' "Spring Joys," Waley's translation is certainly less stilted; his language seems almost casual in tone. Yet beside Snyder's version. Waley's is more wordy and privileges the "poetic." Snyder has obviously tried to strip the poem to its bare essentials ("people of the world" becomes "men"; "not in his right mind" becomes "crazy"), and to give Han-shan not only a language that approximates speech, but a truly contemporary language. Where "What we say, he cannot understand; / What he says, we do not say" still retains a hint of a certain traditional poetic resonance, Snyder transforms the lines to everyman speaking: "They don't get what I say / & I don't talk their language."
In an interview, Snyder's close friend Lew Welch explained,
Poi-Chui was a very great poet that used to have a peasant lady who was illiterate yet very smart. She ran a garden down the road and he would go and engage her in conversation. And then he would dump the poem on her and if she didn't recognize that he had just said a poem, he figured that he had written it right. If she had gone "huh?" or something, if it seemed awkward to her or wrong, somehow ungraceful, then Poi-Chui would go back and fix it. He tested his stuff against a lady who had never read a poem in her life and never wanted to. That's a standard, and that's the way I feel about that standard.
And Snyder would, I think, agree. Of course Poi-Chui's peasant lady would not have chased Waley down the street with a trowel, as his language is fairly idiomatic; but we can be sure that on hearing Snyder's poem, she wouldn't have even looked up from her weeding, for the language is purely contemporary, purely conversational.
Additionally, Snyder's translation seems to tie the importance of the wilderness more closely to one's psychological state. As I mentioned earlier, Waley's notion of Cold Mountain is that it is "not somewhere outside us, but 'at home' in the heart." Thus in the last line of his version of the poem, travellers are admonished to "try for once coming to the Hanshan," that is, the Buddha inside themselves. There is no distinction made between place ("Cold Mountain") and poet (Han-shan). Snyder would have no quarrel with this identification, and it is one both evident in his own poem and central to Zen thought. Yet in his translation, the poet seems more directly part of the natural world. Where Waley's Hanshan wears "bits of tattered cloth," Snyder's is "dressed in rags and hides" (italics mine), which thus links him more explicitly with the animal realm. And more important, Snyder's rendering of the last line underscores a crucial separation between individual and environment as the poet advises passers-by to "try and make it to Cold Mountain." As in the Riprap poems, it is only when an individual has placed himself back in nature that he can properly look into himself and hope to find some sort of understanding and psychic quiet.
Burt, Stephen. A Review of Mountains and Rivers Without End, by Gary Snyder. Yale Review 85, No. 3 (July 1987): 150-54.
Mixed review of Mountains and Rivers Without End.
Carpenter, David A. "Gary Snyder's Inhumanism, from Riprap to Axe Handles." South Dakota Review 26, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 110-38.
Argues that Snyder has allowed political messages to overshadow the creative voice of his poetry.
Costello, Bonnie. "The Soil and Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary Literature 30, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 412-33.
Explores the varying conceptualizations of landscape in the poetry of A. R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and Snyder.
Denney, Reuel. "The Portable Pagoda: Asia and America in the Work of Gary Snyder." In Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, pp. 115-36, edited by Guy Amirthanayagam. London: Macmillan Press, 1982.
Considers the American and Asian influences on Snyder's poetry.
Duane, Daniel. "A Poem, 40 Years Long." New York Times Magazine (6 October 1996): 62.
Reviews Mountains and Rivers Without End and explains the collection's forty-year history.
Howard, Richard. "Three Found Poets." Poetry CXXVI, No. 6 (September 1975): 346-51.
Praises the style and themes of the poetry in Turtle Island.
Howes, Victor. "Poets on Different Borders." Christian Science Monitor (29 May 1968): 11.
Reviews The Back Country and describes Snyder's poetry as plain and spare.
Klien, Michael. "Stay Together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light." The Kenyon Review XVI, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 198-205.
Reviews No Nature and compares Snyder's earlier and more recent poetry.
Lavazzi, Tom. "Pattern of Flux: Sex, Buddhism, and Ecology in Gary Snyder's Poetry." Sagetrieb 8, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 1989): 41-68.
Considers the unique methods Snyder employs to evoke his subject matter.
Leed, Jacob. "Gary Snyder: An Unpublished Preface." Journal of Modern Literature 13, No. 1 (March 1986): 177-79.
Considers Snyder's work as a translator of Japanese poetry.
Martin, Julia. "The Pattern Which Connects: Metaphor in Gary Snyder's Later Poetry." Western American Literature 22, No. 2 (Summer 1987): 99-123.
Argues that Snyder employs metaphor to address the interconnectedness of life.
McNally, Dennis. "Prophets on the Burning Shore: Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and San Francisco." In A Literary History of the American West, pp. 482-95. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.
Compares the life and works of Snyder and Jack Kerouac.
Murphy, Patrick D. "Penance or Perception: Spirituality and Land in the Poetry of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry." In Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers, pp. 237-49, edited by John Cooley. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Considers the work of Wendell Berry and Snyder in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Murphy, Patrick D. "Two Different Paths in the Quest for Place: Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry." American Poetry 2, No. 1 (Fall 1984): 60-8.
Explores the similarities and differences in the environmental thinking of Wendell Berry and Snyder.
Nichols, William. "Environmentalism and the Legitimacy of Hope." The Kenyon Review XVIII, Nos. 3-4 (Summer-Fall 1996): 206-13.
Places Snyder's A Place in Space in the context of other contemporary environmental writing.
Parkinson, Thomas. "The Poetry of Gary Snyder." In American Writing Today, pp. 376-87, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Company, 1991.
Considers Snyder's use of prosody, meter, and rhythm.
Schultz, Robert and David Wyatt. "Gary Snyder and the Curve of Return." Virginia Quarterly Review 62, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 681-94.
Considers the recurring themes in Snyder's works.
SOURCE: "A Note on Japanese Allusions in Gary Snyder's Poetry," in Western American Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 143-48.
[In the essay below, Yamazato traces Snyder's use of Japanese folktales and culture in his poetry.]
Recent criticism of the poetry of Gary Snyder has focused on the poet's use of allusions. While Buddhist and Chinese allusions have gradually been identified and explicated, the equally important Japanese allusions in Snyder's poetry have attracted little attention. Reflecting the poet's Japanese years (1956–1968), these allusions range widely over such subjects as classical Japanese literature, folklore, religion, and the Japanese way of life in general. The allusions to the Japanese subjects indeed are so varied that a coherent discussion of them would require a much longer study than the present one. Instead of attempting an exhaustive discussion of Snyder's Japanese allusions, then, I would like to narrow my focus and discuss a few representative examples.
In poem 4 in the "Logging" section in Myths & Texts, Snyder alludes to a Noh play, Takasago, written by Zeami (or Seami) Motokiyo (1363–1443). Snyder juxtaposes the allusion to the play with scenes from "logging," the mindless destruction of nature the poet has witnessed at the early stage of his poetic career:
Pines, under pines, Seami Motokiyo The Doer stamps his foot. A thousand board-feet Bucked, skidded, loaded— (Takasago, Ise) float in a mill pond; A thousand years dancing Flies in the saw kerf.
The first three lines in the passage cited allude to the stage setting and the author of Takasago. In the Noh play, two pine trees appear on the stage, symbolizing both prosperity and longevity. "The Doer" (or the principal actor: shite in Japanese) is the spirit of one of the pine trees who in the shape of an old man engages in a conversation with a travelling priest. The characteristic Noh movement of the Doer ("The Doer stamps his foot") triggers an ironic shift to the next three lines, a metonymic representation of the destruction of nature. The embedded flashback to Takasago and Ise suggests that even the sacred pine trees at these places are not totally free from the destructive attitude toward nature. "A thousand years dancing" alludes to the celebrated longevity of the pine tree at Takasago:
Among them all, this pine Surpasses all other trees, Attired in the princely robe Of green of [a] thousand autumns, Timeless fresh forever. By Shiko a court rank Bestowed, the superb tree, Overseas and in the land alike By all is loved and admired.
Takasago ends with the pine god's dance, kamimai, which gives blessing to the land; and the whole play is usually construed as a hymn to the sacred pines which are the symbols of prosperity and longevity. Instead of celebrating nature, however, Snyder shows us its destruction in our time: "A thousand years dancing / Flies in the saw kerf." The dramatic vision in Takasago presents a harmonious interaction between the gods of the sacred pine trees and the travellers, and, needless to say, the world view that informs Zeami's dramatic vision forms a sharp contrast with that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which Snyder regards as responsible for nurturing the destructive attitude toward nature depicted especially in the "Logging" section of Myths & Texts.
Poem 4 in the "Logging" section is the first poem in which Snyder extensively alludes to Japanese subjects, but it is typical of the kind of Japanese materials and world view which attracted Snyder's attention at the early stage of his poetic career. As is implied in the poet's allusion to Zeami's play, Snyder has always been interested in obliterating the line which differentiates between man and nature. An allusion to a Japanese folktale entered in his early journal is another example: "Sparrows entertained me singing and dancing, I've never had such a good time as today." The allusion is to "The Tongue-Cut Sparrow," a famous Japanese folktale which has been frequently translated into English. The tale tells of a kind-hearted old man who helps a sparrow after its tongue is cut by his greedy and cruel wife. The old man eventually visits the sparrow's home built of bamboo, and the "tongue-cut" sparrow and his fellows entertain the old man with food, drink, and the sparrow dance. The tale has a didactic ending, but Snyder seems more interested in the attitude toward nature expressed in the tale than its didactic import. The quotation in the journal highlights the joyful interaction between man and nature; it is not the cruelty of the wife that catches Snyder's attention but the subsequent harmony of man and bird.
"Kyoto Born in Spring Song" in Regarding Wave is a poem in which Snyder's profound veneration for nature's buddhahood is expressed. Man and nature coexist harmoniously in this poetic cosmos. By calling those born in spring "children" and "babies," man and animal alike, the poet obliterates the differentiating line.
The first stanza presents an ambiguity as to the identity of the "Beautiful little children":
Beautiful little children found in melons, in bamboo, in a "strangely glowing warbler egg" a perfect baby girl—
As we read through line 4, we feel that the speaker in the poem perhaps is speaking of "wild babies" (1. 30) rather than "human" babies. Yet the diction in line 5, "a perfect baby girl," is ambiguous enough to call our attention to the identities of the "children." Who and what are they? The ambiguity is uniquely Snyderian, and it arises from the poet's use of three ancient Japanese folktales.
"Melons" in line 2 cited above alludes to "Urikohime," a tale of a girl who is found inside a melon. (Uri in Japanese means melon). The tale has recently been retold by Yanagita Kunio, a renowned Japanese folklorist whose works Snyder read during the Japanese years. A quotation from the opening passage of the tale will help us see clearly Snyder's allusion to this tale:
Long ago there was an old man and an old woman. The old man went to the mountains to cut wood and the old woman went to the river to wash clothes.
One day when the old woman went washing as usual at the river, a melon came floating down the stream. She picked it up and took it home to divide with the old man. When she cut it open, a very beautiful little girl was born. Because she was born from a melon, they named her Urikohime or Princess Melon. Little by little she grew up and at last she was a good daughter who wove at the loom day after day.
The "bamboo" in Snyder's line 3 alludes to one of the most famous Japanese folktales, "Kaguyahime," which tells of a beautiful tiny girl discovered inside a bamboo. The tale seems to have been Snyder's favorite, and he also alludes to it in "Foxtail Pine" in The Back Country: "baby girl born from the split crotch / of a plum / daughter of the moon—". "A plum" is apparently Snyder's creative adaptation of "Kaguyahime," and like Kaguyahime Snyder's "baby girl" is a "daughter of the moon." Line 4 of "Kyoto Born in Spring Song" alludes to "Uguisuhime," uguisu meaning a bush warbler. "Uguisuhime" is a variant of "Kaguyahime," and there is little difference in plot between the two tales. Again a quotation from Yanagita will illuminate Snyder's allusion to the tale:
Long, long ago there was an old man in Sugaru province. He made his way in life by going into the mountains to cut bamboo and making it into all kinds of trays and things which he sold. In old books he is called Takctori-no-Okina and Mizukuri-no-Okina.
This Mizukuri-no-Okina went into a bamboo grove one day, and there he found an especially radiant egg in a nightingale's nest [italics mine]. When he carried it home carefully and set it down, it broke open by itself. From inside there was born a very tiny, lovely princess. Because she was born from a nightingale's egg, the old man named her Uguisuhime or Princess Nightingale. He brought her up as his own child.
We can perhaps appreciate the poem without knowing the folktales alluded to in the first stanza of the poem, but Snyder's vision of the inseparability of man and nature will be seen more vividly when we learn the identities of the "Beautiful little children." For the children in the folktales and Snyder's poem, there is no differentiating line between man and nature.
"Kyoto Born in Spring Song" expresses Snyder's profound Buddhist vision of life:
O sing born in spring the weavers swallows babies in Nishijin nests below the eaves glinting mothers wings swoop to the sound of looms and three fat babies with three human mothers every morning doing laundry "good morning how's your baby?" Tomoharu, Itsuko, and Kenji—
"Nishijin" district in Kyoto is well known for textile fabrics it produces; one can actually hear "the sound of looms" as he walks through the district. In the passage cited above, Snyder emphasizes the harmonious coexistence of man and nature. The juxtaposition of the sentient beings in "the weavers swallows babies in Nishijin" (significantly without commas) and the internal rhymes resounding in the whole passage cited above subtly suggest the harmony achieved in spring.
When discussing Snyder it is almost a cliché to quote passages from scholars of Zen Buddhism to support or clarify one's argument, but the following statement nevertheless clearly illustrates the basic Zen Buddhist notion of nature which has informed Snyder's Japanese allusions: "… Nature not as an object to conquer and turn wantonly to our human service, but as a fellow being, who is destined like ourselves for Buddahood."
SOURCE: "Mythic and Fantastic: Gary Snyder's 'Mountains and Rivers without End,'" in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 290-99.
[In the following essay, Murphy analyzes Snyders' poem "Mountains and Rivers without End" in terms of Tzetvan Todorov's theories on the fantastic.]
Critics of the Fantastic tend to ignore poetry, overlooking poems from the mainstream of poetic tradition and dismissing, usually as facile, poetry appearing in science fiction and fantasy magazines. Serious work has been and is being done in the area of fantasy-oriented poetry, but this work rarely receives critical attention as Fantastic literature or as poetry using fantastic techniques for its effects. I do not claim that modern poets are turning to the Fantastic in some marked degree, but I do claim that they use the Fantastic, particularly mythic fantasy, for their artistic purposes and that such elements deserve serious critical attention. One reason that relatively little use of the Fantastic appears in current American poetry is that contemporary poetry still remains to some extent within a turning away from narrative forms. Some poets, such as Robinson Jeffers, who did manage to cling to narrative forms through the first half of the century certainly used the Fantastic, in its broad generic sense. After the war, Ginsberg's nightmares also produced some narrative fantasy, while other Beats used fantasy to express spiritual moments beyond rational description and invoked myth to enlighten readers to principles drawn from Taoism, Tantrism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Gary Snyder was part of the Beat movement as well as being influenced by Jeffers and such major figures as Lawrence and Pound. He was also influenced, through anthropological studies, by native American kiva rituals, shamanism, and myths which he saw linked with Eastern mystical philosophy. This mixture encouraged him to see religious visions and mythic fantasies as spiritual forces in a modern world without philosophical grounding. From primitivism, Snyder begins to see the poem as shaman chant, power vision, and healing prayer. From Zen Buddhism and its Hindu precursors, he begins to see poetry as harmonious sacred song and köan training. Focusing on Zen philosophy, Snyder has come to emphasize not Eastern teleology but the presence of the world, its tathata, or suchness, in which life is a wandering path through which one travels breaking down illusions and opening the mind to satori, the instant of spiritual enlightenment when the ego drops away and the individual recognizes the interdependence of the spiritual energy pathways of the universe. Snyder's poetry from the first has expressed his developing philosophical system and his belief that America needs a new guiding myth as the foundation for creating a new culture based on harmony rather than conflict with the universal life flow.
Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End," a long sequential poem on which he is still working, provides the most striking example of his efforts in this direction of opening the reader's mind to the possibility of spiritual enlightenment and his use of mythic fantasy and fantastic hesitation to achieve that purpose. Snyder draws deeply on Hindu-Buddhist and native American mythology to present his spiritual vision. Without the uses of mythic fantasy and dream narratives, a number of these poem sequences could not have been written. Narrating instances of inward vision, Snyder wields myth and fantasy in an effort to replicate moments of religious revelation; attempting to describe experiences beyond rational consciousness, he draws the reader into fantasy episodes which produce feelings of spiritual immanence and emotive response to the ineffable—"epiphanies" of enlightenment. He attempts through these to inculcate in readers a new consciousness opening a way for modern man to reestablish himself in balance with Earth.
Before turning to a brief close reading, it is necessary first to discuss some aspects of Tzetvan Todorov's definition of the fantastic. In The Fantastic, Todorov defines the heart of his genre as an event occurring which cannot be explained by the laws of the world familiar to the reader and/or the character." The reader must opt for one of two possibilities: he is a victim of an illusion with a rational explanation, in which case the world remains as he knows it; or, the event is real, in which case the world does not remain as he knows it, but a new reality opens up which functions by laws unknown to him. He argues: "The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event." I believe that such hesitation occurs not only in fiction but also in poetry. Poets use techniques of the Fantastic, in the broad generic sense, including those of the fantastic, as Todorov narrowly defines the term. A complication exists, though, in poetry which Todorov uses to dismiss it entirely from the fantastic genre. He states:
If as we read a text we reject all representation, considering each sentence as a pure semantic combination, the fantastic could not appear: for the fantastic requires, it will be recalled, a reaction to events as they occur in the world evoked. For this reason, the fantastic can subsist only within fiction; poetry cannot be fantastic.
Yet, earlier in his book Todorov admitted: "Poetry too includes certain representative elements, and fiction properties which render the text opaque, intransitive." To the degree that it does this, Jeffers' "The Double Axe" and Dorn's Slinger being two twentieth-century examples, poetry can also present an event which requires the reader to choose between a logical explanation and a supernatural one, and fantastic hesitation may appear in the process of that choosing, as it does in Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End." Not surprisingly, such a hesitation may be of far shorter duration in a poem than in a novel, but nevertheless it occurs. In poetry, however, the hesitation may result from three possibilities rather than two, the third being that the strange event is neither natural nor supernatural, but is solely a figurative device not intended to be representational. Though Todorov devotes some attention to categorizing the fantastic as exclusively fictive prose, his arguments leave room in which to introduce certain modern poems.
Besides the opacity of poetic narrative, Todorov's discussion of Freud can also be turned to use for criticism of poetry. Todorov states: "According to Freud, the sense of the uncanny is linked to the appearance of an image which originates in the childhood of the individual or the race." Taken a step further, one can argue that through the functioning of the collective unconscious the invocation of myths and archetypes in poems transports the reader toward the uncanny and then beyond it into a period of fantastic hesitation. The reader wonders whether the character's mythic dream or spiritual vision is a psychologically reducible event and thus merely uncanny, or if the character's experience occurs in a truly spiritual realm in which the myth reveals itself as truth. The latter suggests that the reader himself could enter such a realm. In this case, the reader passes from hesitation into the marvelous when myth-turned-truth reveals universal laws and causes which function beyond the scope of man's familiar world. This occurs whether or not the laws validate the mythic characters associated with them or if, instead, the myths serve solely to reveal the laws themselves.
In poems in which myth is not merely alluded to but integral to the story, the reader will have difficulty from the outset in ascribing this use of myth to the figurative and thereby avoid any hesitation, quite simply because people recognize that dreams are real, and the dimensions of myth and dream frequently overlap. Deciding to which reality the myths belong may cause hesitation: the reality of the native American kiva with its smoke hole to the world above, the reality of the shaman with the power of animal spirits, or the reality of the world in which dreams are representations of a collective unconscious residing within and struggling up out of an interior psyche. In other words, the myths belong to a series of imaginary beliefs based on religious idealism and are, therefore, marvelous, that is supernatural; or, the myths belong to the natural processes of the human mind and are, therefore, uncanny, arising from physical rather than spiritual origins. Todorov's dismissal of poetry from his study of the fantastic (based on linguistic theories of poetic language as essentially non-narrative and self-referential), if critics were to heed it, would deny them valuable insights into the experience of the reader encountering the use of the Fantastic in poetry.
Todorov's chapter "Themes of the Self" provides an opening for a particular kind of poetry: mythic fantasy and spiritual vision, poetry which Snyder writes. Todorov claims: "Pan-determinism signifies that the limit between the physical and the mental, between matter and spirit, between word and thing, ceases to be impervious"; "The physical world and the spiritual world interpenetrate; their fundamental categories are modified as a result." Such an interpenetration stands as a fundamental starting point for shamanist and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs, beliefs which Snyder poetically demonstrates in "Mountains and Rivers without End."
In "Bubbs Creek Haircut," the opening poem of the sequence, Snyder begins with a first-person narrator preparing for a journey. The first stanza seems straightforward enough. The narrator gets a haircut in preparation for entering the mountains and it turns out the barber has been where the narrator intends to go. But in the next stanza, reality unravels a bit in the Goodwill Store. Discarded items are described as having lives of their own, and the proprietor is referred to as "The Master of the limbo drag-legged," invoking the mythic image of a limping god. A mood is established indicating that this journey represents a crucial quest to resolve some unstated crisis.
The next few stanzas begin the actual journey and initiate a process of interweaving memories and present events in a collapsing of time and space, a process foreshadowed in the Goodwill Store and begun in earnest with the memories of an earlier haircut and a past friendship. Attachments are being dropped away by the narrator in the same way that he sheds his hair—the implication that the haircut was a preparatory rite is here reinforced, it being akin to the shaving of Buddhist monks' heads at the beginning of their training in imitation of Guatama Buddha. Quickly the narrator brings the reader to a different land:
a half-iced over lake, twelve thousand feet its sterile boulder bank but filled with leaping trout: reflections wobble in the mingling circles always spreading out the crazy web of wavelets makes sense seen from high above. the realm of fallen rock a deva world of sorts—
The narrator warns the reader that he has reached a world of spirits in which the laws of the city no longer apply. Not only is it named a "deva world," but also the web formed by spreading circles implies the net of universal energy which is symbolized by water in Hindu mythology. There water symbolizes both the continuous flow of energy and the vastness of the cosmic ocean in which one may lose individual consciousness. The lake and its flowing waters are both representational and symbolic, but whether they are symbolic of a supernatural truth or only a semantic abstraction remains unresolved at this point.
The next section of the poem casts the reader into the midst of a strange meditation, first referring back to the Goodwill proprietor as "King of Hell" and then moving into a celebration of the dance of "moon breast Parvati," who is both Shiva's consort and an earth goddess figure. The real world of the lake and its life-brimming water has become a mythic fantasy world—what Manlove might term a metaphoric fantasy—of Hindu gods celebrating the belief that all things have their "deva" nature, or spiritual essence, and that all these natures interpenetrate. The Goodwill proprietor is "King of Hell" because he seeks to chain the items in the store to lives solely limited to the uses of man. The reader can interpret this episode as a figurative series of allusions, a dream vision, a hallucination, or a religious experience. Before he can really decide, the narrator returns to descriptions of a seemingly normal world, memories again of other trips and friends reinforcing the poem's representational character; but this ends with a revealing parenthetical: "on Whitney hair on end / hail stinging bare legs in the blast of wind / but yodel off the summit echoes clean." The narrator has undergone a spiritual experience involving purification. Hunt comments: "One has the feeling that Maya's mirror of illusion has been wiped clean in the moment of interpenetrating conjunction with the Nature Goddess." The poem then moves into its conclusion:
all this came after: Purity of the mountains and goodwills. The diamond drill of racing icemelt waters and bumming trucks and watching Buildings raze the garbage acres burning at the Bay the girl who was the skid-row Cripple's daughter—
All that the reader has been told came after the haircut. This statement claims that all that has been told has really occurred. "Purity of the mountains and goodwills" suggests a link between his purification and the realization of inter-dependence of all things in life, the wilderness and the cities, man and artifacts, rock and water, gods and world. The "diamond drill" reinforces the spiritual vision as true experience and as a source of purification because it is an oblique reference to the "Diamond Sutra," a key Buddhist text. There the Buddha teaches that "a body-form is not a body-form" and that "all that has form is illusory." The real is the energy flow represented by the water in which the ego may be dissolved, while the unreal is the appearance of material forms whereby the ego defines itself. Hunt explains the conclusion in this way:
If we perceive a universe of objects, with identity, solidity, and a fixed nature, we only continue to delude ourselves and our consciousness will remain willful and ego-centered. If, however, we see the ever-changing, interconnecting, fleeting character of things we will at least recognize the universe for what it really is: a mirage, or, as Zimmer puts it, "Mäyä-maya, 'of the stuff of Mäyä.'"
What then is the reader's response to this strange, rapturous story? After the narrator looks into the lake he sings a celebration of the flowing waters of Parvati's dance, enacting the continuous energizing of the universe with its cosmic contradiction of the endless life-death cycle represented by a half-frozen lake with sterile banks but filled with living trout. Is he in the realm of figurative poetic discourse, and so should interpret the poem as merely metaphor for an invigorating weekend in the mountains; is he in the realm of the uncanny and so should interpret the spiritual visions and feelings of purification as neurotic guilt displacement; or, is he in the realm of the marvelous and so should interpret the spiritual vision as relating a new set of universal laws by which the world operates? As Todorov summarizes themes of the self: "We may further characterize these themes by saying that they essentially concern the structuring of the relations between man and the world. We are, in Freudian terms, within the perception-consciousness system." The narrator would say that we are in the system of the Buddha, in which one can recognize the tathata (suchness) of the world, that mind is matter, matter mind, and the distinction between object and subject an illusion of Western logocentrism.
"Bubbs Creek Haircut" opens up to the reader a new way of perceiving the world around him, suggesting a different set of laws from the one by which he normally operates. The poem does not seek to convert, but rather to surprise the reader, causing him to hesitate and reassess his perceptions. He will thereby become more open to different perceptions of reality continuously unfolded throughout "Mountains and Rivers without End." Depending on his resolution of hesitation, the reader will either accept or reject this new world he is offered.
"Journeys," another poem in the sequence, takes the reader through several worlds, both to break down his normal channels of rational thought and to tap into his unconscious through archetypes and myths. This poem begins with the narrative "I" again, but Part One is a dream sequence. There a bird becomes a woman who leads the narrator on a subterranean journey through a maze. When he is about to lose his way she gives him a slice of apple and he awakes. Evidently a dream, but whether a figurative one or a real one experienced by an autobiographical narrator remains unclear as the literary and the symbolic mix with the narrative representation because of the heavy presence of archetypal material.
Parts Two and Three, with no indication of being dreams, describe the narrator as travelling with others in a strange land. As primitive hunters they reach a plateau where they flee the sun in awe of its power while shooting arrows at it. Again archetypes and myths appear: ancient hunters enter northwestern America; they attempt to shoot the sun; they view it as another being, perhaps a god. The story can also be interpreted as primitive ritual for gaining power and knowledge. The reader may not hesitate here, but quickly conclude that such a story is purely figurative. Still, the mythic archetypes have affected him and his sureness of decision making. The following two parts of the poem narrate experiences in the familiar world and their quotidian reality calls into question the extraordinary reality of the previous parts. Perhaps the primitive ritual is a memory resurrected from the collective unconscious of the race or handed down through oral tradition, such as stories found in native American legend. If so, it is no longer simply figurative or self-referential in this poem. Instead, it becomes the written record of a historical event and a testimony to the diachronic continuity of human community identity.
The reader of the poem is probably confused at this point. Part Six heightens the confusion. The narrator describes a journey through high mountains, ending "now I have come to the LOWLANDS." Nothing, though, is done to resolve the confusion over whether or not the earlier sections of the poem are all dreams retold. Perhaps they are different forms of the mind: dreams, archetypal images, oral history, and personal memories—all forms of mental experiences of the world, but experiences in which time and space are twisted around and shifted back and forth through the activity of the psyche.
The last three parts of the poem are crucial to unravelling the mystery that tends to make the reader suspend judgment until the poem's end. Section Seven returns to a dream format, an archetypal one, again with an underground maze. It is destroyed city, an urban nightmare:
Movies going, men milling round the posters in shreds the movies always running —we all head in here somewhere; —years just looking for the bathrooms. Huge and filthy, with strange-shaped toilets full of shit. Dried shit all around, smeared across the walls of the adjoining rooms, and a vast hat rack.
Surely a Freudian nightmare, but one that contains the modern-day equivalent of oral legend and primitive myth, the cinema. Here the narrator is alone, but the distinction between figurative language and real dream remains unclear.
Section Eight returns to a narrative of a bus ride, a world of daylight and friends, but the distinction between dream narratives and travel narratives has blurred—both are journeys. The reader may become suspicious of seemingly simple descriptions. In the final section the narrator is also travelling with a friend; it begins: "We were following a long river into the mountains." The spiritual components are present: water as energy and mountains as form. It starts out like the preceding travel narrative, but then:
Ko grabbed me and pulled me over the cliff—both of us falling. I hit and I was dead. I saw my body for a while, then it was gone. Ko was there too. We were at the bottom of the gorge. We started drifting up the canyon, "This is the way to the back country."
The reader must decide, not only for the final section but also for the poem as a whole, whether or not it is another dream, a figurative device of self-referential language, or a spiritual vision of a reality in which "all form is illusory."
Placement of the narrator's fall and death at the end of the poem becomes comprehensible if interpreted as an experience of sudden enlightenment, similar to that in "Bubbs Creek Haircut." Zen, as well as shamanism, would be able to explain what has died, as well as to agree with the accuracy of the claim, "I saw my body for a while, then it was gone." The narrator has shed his ego and with it his sense of body as separate from the rest of the world. The object and subject interpenetrate, and as they do, each disappears; the body dies as the spirit awakes.
There is more here than Zen symbolism, though, as suggested by the poem's final phrase. That is to say, the poem cannot be reduced to an explication of symbols merely to detect a religious doctrine as a literary source. It needs to be read as one always reads Fantastic literature the first time through: in terms of the psychological and emotional elements of the reader's response. Within that framework major questions suddenly arise at poem's end: where does this back country lie? Have all these journeys occurred within a spiritual back country hidden by the illusion of form which Western thought teaches as the only reality? Are spiritual visions symbolic or real?
The power and success of Snyder's mythic fantasies reside in the immediacy with which this final question confronts the reader. In the end, whether he opts for psychological interpretations of the poems, placing them in the uncanny; considers them attempts to render in inadequate language a spiritual experience, placing them in the marvelous; or, consigns all of the journeys to figurative language, he is confronted by the need to resolve any hesitation. He must decide if spiritual visions are real. If so, then do the worlds of shamanism and Zen offer laws by which the universe functions beyond those known to Western man's familiar world? Some might argue that by referring to the texts as mythic fantasies I have already resolved this question, since myths are fictions designed to interpret something a culture does not understand. The opposite is the case. One does not have to believe in Parvati or Satan to be affected by myths and dream archetypes to the point of questioning his own theory of how the world works. If those myths have proven unsatisfactory, perhaps new myths are needed to bring man closer to the source of life's mystery.
In my own case, Snyder has produced a hesitation still resonating. While I reject the old myths, I am not sure that invalidates their purpose; new myths may be needed to open up a spiritual realm in which, as Todorov observes, there is the "effacement of the limit between subject and object." Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End" undertakes what Todorov terms a theme of vision: "The 'themes of vision' are based on a breakdown of the limit between psychic and physical," a task undertaken by all myth, and one at which Snyder succeeds. Snyder's wielding of the mythic and fantastic demonstrates the existence of a genre category in poetry which Todorov attempts to reserve for prose, a category with farther-reaching critical application than his structural and historical strictures would originally admit.
SOURCE: "The Shaman Songs of Gary Snyder," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 162-69.
[In the essay below, Rehanek focuses on Axe Handles and considers Snyders' philosophy of the interconnections between man and nature.]
Shamanism relates to the most archaic of human religious practices … It informs the fundamental lore of the planet, that is to say, all of the worldwide body of folktale that we all share. The folk motifs of Native America are scattered all across Europe and Asia. We are all in the same boat, stemming from ten to thirteen thousand years back in the Pleistocene. We are all sharing the same information and the same religious disciplines. It is to the credit of some peoples, like the Native North Americans, that they kept it going longer, and I think they were right. We must all work to help them keep their lands and cultures together.
Axe Handles is Gary Snyder's first book of poetry since the emergence of Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island eight years ago. Here we see an elaboration and expansion of themes which have run like tributaries through the mainstream of his body of work. Axe Handles is grounded in essentials—knowing our local watershed, how we relate to the earth/Mother Gaia and to each other. He brings to bear craftsmanship, precision, and tradition as a master carpenter knows the woods, tools, and designs of his craft.
Like transparent overlays in a medical textbook, where circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems overlap the skeleton and musculature to form a coherent whole, Gary Snyder's themes overlap layer on layer, taking us from upper Paleolithic times to the bioregional future. Central is the concept of basic "human-ness" being formed 40,000 years ago: "Our human experience and all our cultures have not been formed within the context of civilization in cities or large numbers of people. Our self—biophysically, biopsychically, as an animal of great complexity—was already well formed and shaped by the experience of bands of people living in relatively small populations in a world in which there was lots of company: other life forms, such as whales, birds, animals." This unconventional interpretation of history opens doors to a rich body of analogies, parallels, and correlations which are woven through the simple/complex fabric of his work.
Gary Snyder was raised on his father's small dairy farm in Kitsap County, Washington, "on the edge of logging country." His father "was a smart man, a very handy man, but he only knew about 15 different trees and after that he was lost. I wanted more precision; I wanted to look deeper into the underbrush." Young Gary went to work in the woods, logging and manning fire lookouts in the Skagit country.
He developed a dry, precise, descriptive journal form which is excerpted in Earth House Hold. Add to this a degree in anthropology at Reed College in Portland, mix with the leavening of Buddhist/Hindu studies, sift in several years of Zen Buddhist discipline in Japan. Add a stout dash of San Francisco poetry readings in lofts and livingrooms during the Fifties, plus the famous public poetry forum where "Beat" poetry sprouted as a media event. Spice with homesteading on San Juan Ridge near the South Fork of the Yuba River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Preheat in an atmosphere of poetry readings, zazen (sitting meditation), and beating the planet drum for Mother Gaia long before it came into vogue, and you have the beginnings, the basic loaf, the elemental staff of Gary Snyder's life.
He has lived on San Juan Ridge for a decade, deepening his "sense of place," of belonging to the land. Both Turtle Island and Axe Handles probe the richness of family/community/watershed interface. The poems are distilled from direct experience, allowed to simmer and percolate as fragments in card files, then synthesized and polished into finished form. Like the high, almost imperceptible whang! of an axe as it splits woodgrain, these poems hum with the authenticity of direct experience.
In the Australian interior desert, which by some peculiarity of the language is called the Outback, aboriginal peoples literally "sing the land." That is, the entire myth/lore of the race is embodied in songs which are sung while walking. You would learn who did what and where, the great epics of your people. You would also, in learning the songs, be learning a specific map of the terrain: where a hidden spring can be dug for, a cache of food, a shrine, a power spot, a clump of herbs, perhaps a stand of white gum trees among the mulga bush and mallee scrub, a red kangaroo run, perentie lizard abode, a roost for galah birds, a wild fig tree.
So in "singing the land" you would be learning precise information about the physical landscape while simultaneously exploring what Alan McGlashan calls "the savage and beautiful country" of the mind. You would, in short, be singing both internal and external terrains synchronously: the epics of your people and the physical contours of the land.
"Singing the land," then, is a very exalted and sophisticated means of orally transmitting an entire cultural matrix. In "Uluru Wild Fig Song," Gary Snyder tells of
clacking the boomerang beat, a long walk singing the land.
As he describes the desert, you can feel the sacred, arid land open up before you. The poem's prime symbol is a wild fig tree, a natural shrine which still feeds its people. Gary Snyder expands this theme in Coevolution Quarterly No. 39, an article titled, "Good, Wild, Sacred." The history of natural shrines in Australian aborigine, Japanese Ainu, Paleolithic European, and contemporary American contexts is sketched. He also gives five ways to visualize your local watershed (Ainu "iworu":field) as teacher.
An African tribe calls the written language "word-trapping." Gary Snyder's work forms an important cross-cultural link between oral tradition ("singing the land") and written tradition ("word-trapping"). We'll probe how the poet, in Snyder's view, aspires to healing in his songs in the ancient function of shaman/brujo/medicine man/healer. Ultimately, it's in the singing of healing songs, songs which enlarge and refine the listener's vision, that Gary Snyder brings to fruition the deep and complex array of connections in his works.
Besides forming a cross-cultural link between oral and written traditions, his work forms parallel bonds between Oriental thought (especially Tibetan and Zen Buddhism) and Western culture (cowboys seen as priests of protein-conversion), between human and nonhuman realms (in a Corn Maiden Dance, the dancer becomes the corn), between local people rooted in a sense of place and the interlocking global village (as in the poem, "For All"), and between upper Paleolithic modes of perception and possible bioregional scenarios of the future ("What's Meant by 'Here'").
Gary Snyder stands as human spokesman for Mother Gaia, a living Being. He links macrocosm and microcosm, reaching across time/space continuums for old and new affinities, rooting out a 40,000 year continuity in human culture, a much longer and deeper range than is generally accepted by historians. His symbol for this range is embodied in the term "loops."
The 71 poems in Axe Handles are structurally divided into three sections: "Loops," "Little Songs for Gaia," and "Nets."
The Japanese word bushi or fushi means "a whorl in the grain … like a knot in a board." They are also "… specific turbulence patterns of the energy flow that manifest themselves temporarily as discrete items, playing specific roles and then flowing back in again." Loops, in other words: whorls, knots. The 25 poems in this section loop back to the upper Paleolithic era, in time. They probe unadorned human nature, without its civilized accoutrements: "the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe."
"The out-of-time function of poetry is to return us to our own true original nature at this instant forever." It loops us back to Original Mind, "The Back Country," the intersection of one's inner nature and Mother Nature, and beyond the wilderness of the unconscious to the eternal Now. Gary Snyder likens Original Mind to "the old image of the mirror without any dust on it…."
"I think that poetry is a social and traditional art that is linked to its past and particularly its language, that loops and draws on its past and that serves as a vehicle for contact with the depths of our own unconscious"
Gary Snyder demonstrates through his poetry that this looping is indeed rich ground. Take the title poem, "Axe Handles." It is the simple story of making an axe handle with his son, Kai. They use an axe to carve a new handle, and the poet recalls both Ezra Pound and Chinese poet Lu Ji in a work entitled Wen Fu (4th c. A.D.) saying that "the pattern is near" when doing this. He then draws an analogy that he is an axe and his son an axe handle, and that his son will become the axe, passing culture on down the line. This analogy describes very precisely the transmission of culture on several levels at once—by showing, by being the model, and by being the tool that carves the new. Like a Zen riddle, it grows on you!
In the second poem, "For/From Lew," the dead poet Lew Welch urges Snyder to "teach the children about the cycles. The life cycles…." Again, we loop back to early man and the pure perception (minus thought/word/static) of Original Mind. In "True Night," the poet graphically describes himself waking and chasing two young racoons into the night where he is transformed: "I am all alive to the night." An ancient experience—men have been chasing animals from their firesides since time immemorial. The poet loops back to a satori-like state of transcendence and union with the night.
"So Old—" provides another loop/link, describing a local creek, its canyons and a town perched on a slope; spending "a good day, we know one more part of our watershed." This is a vital and recurring theme in his work—"this bioregional ethic," developing "a sense of place," of belonging to the local ecosystem, of knowing the drainage, the lay of the land, soil, plants and animals, winds, clouds, myriad microclimates, shrines—just as Australian aborigines know these things in "singing the land," or native American Indians in their songs and rituals, myths and lore. "By being in place, we get the largest sense of community. We learn that community is of spiritual benefit and of health for everyone, that ongoing working relationships and shared concerns, music, poetry, and stories all evolve into the shared practice of a set of values, visions, and quests. That's what the spiritual path really is."
The poem "Soy Sauce" suggests another kind of loop: man identifying with, representing, and finally becoming a totem animal. This experience transcends intellectual rapport and becomes a total affinity with the nonhuman. Gary Snyder is helping friends build their house when he notices the smell of aged soy sauce on a windowframe. He's told that deer lick the frames at night; the framewood came from a giant redwood soy sauce tank in San Jose. The smell kindles a richness of association in the poet's memory—days past in Japan! It also transforms him into a voice for the nonhuman, as he puts himself in place of the deer licking windowframes.
A vital aspect of shamanism is this ability to become one with the animal: "The practice of shamanism in itself has at its very center a teaching 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 that some people have out there in the woods."
The ancient theme of honoring one's ancestors surfaces in "At the Ibaru Family Tomb." A sense of continuity between past and future is established in "Eastward Across Texas": in Snyder, Texas, the poet speaks ironically about being remembered by the future. The timeloop is enlarged to include both distant past and future, ranging from ancient ancestors to future descendants.
"Working on the '58 Willys Pickup" deals with time parallels between Gary Snyder's own life and objects from his surroundings. The year the truck was made, he was studying sutras in Kyoto; he gathers sawdust from a mill abandoned about the time he was born. He hauls gravel from old placer diggings and reads about old Chinese farmers of the past. We begin to sense time, not as a linear sequence of moments, but as an ever-present reservoir, a reservoir which can be tapped for depth and richness of meaning as a vehicle for entering the eternal Now.
Gaia—Earth Mother—is a living Being, "alive to her very recesses," to quote Don Juan. These short songs are further explorations of nature and provide a voice for nonhuman realms. The poems illustrate Snyder's adherence to describing the "flat, concrete surface of 'things,' without bringing anything of imagination or intellect to bear on it." The images are spare taut and dry, almost "flat"; their bare-bones leanness is intended, and the analogies here work quite well in their elegant and voluntary simplicity.
Gary Snyder concerns himself with what is, thereby linking himself with certain Western Romantic traditions hearkening back to Wordsworth. "I don't invent things out of my head unless it is an actual experience—like seeking a bear in a dream, this is a true mode of seeing a bear." This focus on what is directly perceived, without attaching excess baggage to it, creates a purity of perception in his work which is very rare, undoubtedly aided by 30 years of zazen. Poems range from the dry and prosaic ("Dead doe lying in the rain") to the ethereal ("As the crickets' soft autumn hum").
"Little Songs …" displays Snyder's virtuosity with the precision of language. Precision is a key word in his talks and interviews; one of his functions as poet is to hone and sharpen the meanings of words, to refine and distill the language so that nuance and subtlety are matters of shades of meaning without vagueness. "In the flow of linguistic utterance … the poem or the song manifests itself as a special concentration of the capacities of the language and rises up into its own shape." He also follows the trajectories of seed syllables of language in his work, i.e., magical constructs such as OM or HUM which originate from Sanskrit but are not used in language except in special contexts. Etymology, the origin and historical development of words—their semantic derivation and evolution—is an integral part of his poetry. Regarding Wave and Turtle Island are particularly rich in word origin/derivations.
"Nets" is the third part of Axe Handles. The word "net" derives from Indo-European ned, to bind or tie; from the Germanic natilo, nettles or hemp plants; and from the Latin nodus, a knot, node, or nodule. This part of Axe Handles deals with networks, connections, the organic web of life—all in the specific context of poems as healing/shaman songs. In Earth House Hold Gary Snyder speaks of "the glittering nets of language." He also describes Indra's net in Hindu cosmology—"the vast jewelled net" where each of us shines as a node illumined by the pure light of Brahma.
The four parts of "Nets" are roughly equivalent to four layers of healing songs defined in "Poetry, Community & Climax," the final chapter of The Real Work. "That specialized variety of poetry which is the most sophisticated … is the 'healing songs' type … The poet as healer is asserting several layers of larger realms of wholeness." Oneness with nature is the first level of the healing song. "Walked Two Days in Snow, Then It Cleared for Five" paints the appearance and habits of seven animals without naming them (except for a hawk). In "Three Deer One Coyote Running in the Snow," he observes how animal activity becomes transcribed into snowtracks. These poems are a sturdy lesson in conciseness, precision, and compressed language. "Here the poet is a voice for the nonhuman, for the natural world."
Another layer of healing songs "asserts a level of humanity with other people outside your own group." Here, the poet extends his range of songs to embrace rodeos, his work on the California Arts Council, & Governor Jerry Brown. "What Have I Learned," like the poem "Axe Handles," deals with cultural transmission, "passing it on." These poems constitute a conscious "biopoetic beginning of a new level of 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."
In the third layer of healing songs, "the poet as myth/handler/healer is also speaking as a voice for another place, the deep unconscious, and working toward integration of interior unknown realms of mind with present moment immediate self-interest consciousness." "Uluru Wild Fig Song" becomes a haunting lyric which echoes with graphic intensity and associative richness because it touches long-standing veins in our unconscious. "Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar" presents the dark side of the unconscious mind (and of civilization) where men are engaged in "the pain/of the work/of wrecking the world."
A crescendo is reached in the fourth level of healing songs. Here the poems deal with a condition/state of mind called climax. "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, & 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." Gary Snyder also defines climax as a state of mind: "When we deepen or enrich ourselves, looking within, understanding ourselves, we come closer to being like a climax system."
It is in the singing of healing songs—songs which enlarge and refine the listener's vision—that Gary Snyder brings to fruition the deep and complex array of connections in his works.
This is the shaman song in full bloom—healing songs encoded with all the intricacies, density and diversity of a climax forest. Because we're dealing with layers, they can be superimposed on each other like transparencies, each level adding a dimension of richness and complexity. "Money Goes Upstream" evokes the poet's power to be indoors, yet directly experience a sunlit weedpatch outside the window. "Old Rotting Treetrunk Down," like "On Top" in "Loops," sings a resonant song of compost, turnover, decay. "Old Woman Nature" is a humorous litany centered around bones. In "The Canyon Wren," a bird song is heard above the roaring rapids as men run the Stanislaus River. The canyon wren's song represents the healing quality of all song, its power "to purify our ears." In "For All," the poet celebrates a September morn with a "singing inside/creek music, heart music" and pledges allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, our continent.
If we be true to the spirit of challenge and the web of life, perhaps we can sing such songs. Perhaps we can live such songs. Perhaps we can seek out a condition of climax in our hearts and minds, seeking simultaneously to heal the earth and the "savage and beautiful country" within ourselves.
SOURCE: "Pattern of Flux: The 'Torsion Form' in Gary Snyder's Poetry," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, July-August, 1989, pp. 41-7.
[In the essay below, Lavazzi documents the connection between Snyder's cosmology and his poetic structure.]
It would be best to consider this a continuing "revolution of consciousness" which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy's side.
Snyder's view of social reform is the inevitable consequence of a poetics that pushes beyond the margins of the page and asserts itself as a psychosocial mode of existence. To change a culture is not to overthrow its social-political institutions, but to change its mind, its world view. The dialogue among text, self, and the world—both the public world and the non-human, other world of nature—permeates Snyder's poetry. Poetry becomes a means of expanding the consciousness, of mentally channeling us into the "transforming energy" and exploding our field of awareness in order to make such a "revolution of consciousness"—which is also a revolution of spirit—possible.
One way this expanded, "liminal consciousness," as Charles Molesworth phrases it, "this in-between awareness" is achieved is through an image-symbol nexus that mobilizes an intricate network of relationships, blending sexual, ecological, spiritual, and social concerns. The touchstone image is a spiral, whorl, or knot. Its distancing effect as a figure of speech is lessened, if not eliminated, by incorporating it in the poems as a verbal (twisting, turning, folding writhing, whirling, swooping, curving, circling, intertwining, tangling), as an object (seashell, animal horn, tree trunk, nebula, wave, sex organ), and sometimes by embedding it in the structure of an entire poem. Thus the spiral is more than a "symbol" of unity, of a sexual/ecological/spiritual complex—it is a re-presentation, a reenactment of it. As "torsion form," to borrow Jerome Rothenberg's term, or vector, the spiral functions as energy graph, mapping forces both in the external world and the unconscious. Because of this, it is continually transforming; the symbol-making hand of the poet is kept in the background, allowing free play of the archetypal motion to find its own forms in any given situation.
The poems, then, not only accept their referentiality, as Robert Kern points out, but are actual means, as seed syllables in chants are means, of breaking ego boundaries and imaginatively penetrating to the sources of being. The poems are not "imitations" of the things presented, but linguistic interpretations of and interpenetrations with them. "Nature's way and mind's way rhyme," says Hugh Kenner, speaking of the relationship between nature and language structure. By refusing to view the poem from a modernist, new-critical perspective as autonomous art object, Snyder establishes the poem as the only available voice for the things or states of being presented. The subject and object become, in this sense, one, and the poem exchanges beings with the objects it encounters. Charles Altieri points out that a major achievement of Snyder's poetry is its "development of an ontological function for aesthetic structure." The poems create a mind space where the "other" and "self" meet to conceive the whole.
As "The Bath" demonstrates, an important step in getting beyond the self, beyond the boundaries of the ego, is becoming aware of the body—not as an entity or personal identity, but as an outgrowth or branch of a larger continuum. Though the poem begins familiarly and straightforwardly, the speaker "washing Kai in the sauna," toward the end of the first stanza, we get a taste of what is to come: the speaker is "washing-tickling out the scrotum, little anus," Kai's "penis curving up and getting hard," the sexual contact producing a spontaneous delight in Kai who begins "laughing and jumping, flinging arms around." From the start, the boundary-breaching, destabilizing verbals are there, embedded in the poem: "curve," "curving," and "flinging" in stanza one and, in later stanzas, "winding," "turning," "flow," "curling," and "boiling." When Masa enters, in the second stanza, the sexual joy deepens; the poem becomes slippery, lubricous, and begins its graceful acrobatics. Snyder reaches out to "cup" Masa's "curving vulva from behind," and the contact sends a current of awareness through him, a mute, pre-verbal message: the vulva becomes "a hand of grail" (not "like" one—the identification is immediate and actual), which evokes the visionary image of a
… turning double-mirror world ofwombs in wombs, in rings,that start in music,is this our body?
Snyder's contact with the sexual organ brings him to a greater comprehension, a deeper awareness of the essential forces, essential rhythms of life. The real-world vulva appears to be in motion, "curving," and is collocated with the more abstract "turning" image; both are expressed as verbals, as participle phrases, to stress ongoingness and their inter-relatedness as diverse expressions of the same energy. "Double-mirror" suggests the reflection of a reflection, the elusiveness of identity as it is gradually dematerialized in the poem. As soon as Snyder makes physical contact with the vulva, the poem drops away from its narrative structure and the syntax begins to leap. In the line "a soapy tickle a hand of grail," for example, white space, a thought/breath pause, forms the only bridge between the juxtapositions of pure sense imagery and more metaphoric (and ultimately visionary) modes of perception/expression. The vulva feels like an indistinct braille, but its sound double, "grail," is what appears on the page. The seen and felt guide the speaker's quest into the trans-sensual and ultimately unsayable. As soon as the sense/mind juncture is achieved, the poem's imagery implodes, penetrating into the heart of creation, the generative life force. Visually, the image "wombs in wombs, in rings" shifts almost instantaneously from representational to abstract, with only a brief caesura between, while phonically the end of the line "rings," concretely and percusively, into the next line—an undefined music, rhythm, and sound, which must carry on where language, even as stripped of particular literal context as these last images are, cannot go. As Snyder says in "Poetry and the Primitive," the poet is always "steering a course between crystal clouds of utterly incommunicable nonverbal states—and the gleaming daggers and glittering nets of language."
At the end of the second stanza, the mind leaps once again, this time back to the immediate context of self/body, but with an expanded consciousness of the latter's significance. It is not just the speaker's body but "our" body; not just the personal body—his, his wife's, his child's, all naked, close, and touching—but the human body; not the body as biological entity, but as a "way": It has brought him, imaginatively, to "the gates of awe," the brink of creation; it is formally inevitable, then, that "this our body" becomes the refrain line for the poem, a touchstone for the interconnectedness of the personal/familiar, physical/sexual, and spiritual/visionary that the poem's imagery and movement enact.
Snyder's poetry is full of such sudden plunges. At any moment, the omission of a connective, the creation of a white space, the break of a line, plummet us or send us imaginatively soaring into bottomless, boundless, timeless being. In "Song of the Slip," for example, the first line, "SLEPT," in bold type, resounds with a Jungian suggestion of sleep/unconscious as a medium for slipping beyond the self; from the start, we are propelled into a world of dream time and dreamscape. The second line, "folded in girls," interweaves the masculine self with the feminine other and necessitates the ritualistic "feeling their folds":
SLEPTfolded in girlsfeeling their folds; whorls;the lips, leafs,of the curling soft-slidingserpent-sleep dream.roaring and faringto beach high on the dark shoalseed-prowmoves in and makes home in the whole.
As in "The Bath," contact with the sexual organ precipitates syntactical and imaginative leaps: After a brief internal caesura following "folds"—the semicolon, which is also a connective—we are hurled into relationship with an abstract, essential motion-form, "whorls." The collage technique and pared down syntax eliminate grammatical lapses between the two images, and "folds" speaks directly to "whorls." Starting off on that note, the poem is a hop-scotch integration of body, nature and the unconscious—"lips, leafs,/curling soft-sliding/serpent-sleep dreams." The fold-whorl-curl-serpent image cluster cross-syntactically transports us "roaring and faring" into the depths of the collective unconscious, and the phallic seed-prow speeds us the rest of the way onto the "dark shoal" of origins, the life force itself. The poem's closing line slips back out of the unconscious and integrates it with the conscious by resolving the fragmented activity of nouns and verbals—objects in motion—into the key concept of wholeness.
Ontologically, Snyder's poetry presents patterns and figures of flux. In "Re-inhabitation," Snyder defines men as "composite beings whose sole identifying feature is a particular form or structure changing constantly in time." As "The Bath" and "The Song of the Slip" show, this sense of participating in a larger continuum, of acknowledging our relationship to a being much greater than the ego-centered self in its particular historical pocket, can be explored both in the realms of the visionary and of the everyday. Often, as in "The Bath," the diurnal is a way into the former realm; in "Night," however, the sense of the vastness of being is latent in images that, though highly resonant, remain in the daily realm. In all three poems, sex is both symbol of and key to the merging of self with what lies beyond. In "Night," the sleeping lovers lying with "Twined legs" and "hair all tangled together" unconsciously mimic what Wilhelm Reich called "orgonomic functional thinking … frozen motion": form as movement, which was often expressed, for Reich, in the "basic form" of the "sexual embrace." In the poem, this interlocked state is only temporary; the sum is soon "hitting the shades"; a record has been left "soundlessly spinning," suggesting that beneath any particular melody or tune, beneath any formalized musical expression, is the essential mandala rhythm of movement and change, combinations and recombinations, like legs crossed and recrossed as lovers turn in sleep. The music stops, but the movement, the rhythm continues. The voice of the poem, which slips out of the individual consciousness of the sleeping poet-lover, holds both images in mind—the intertwined bodies and the spinning record—and threads through the whole scene and series of events (the night of lovemaking, the house left in disarray, the first strands of morning light), pushing toward a larger synthesis: the knowledge that we are only temporary gatherings of energy (the sex/love continuum is only one of its manifestations) and that at every moment we are part of a larger entity that flows through us and that we ultimately flow back into.
The interdependency of the sexual and spiritual and the comprehension of sex as a "way," a path toward an enlightened, holistic consciousness is more obviously the theme of "Song of the Tangle":
Two thigh hills hold us at the fork round mount centerwe sit all foldedon the dusty planed planks of a shrinedrinking top class sake that was leftfor the god.calm tree hallsthe sun past the summitheat sunk through the vines,twisted sasacicada singing,swirling in the tanglethe tangle of the thighthe brushthrough which we push
Bob Steuding claims that the poem describes the meditative/erotic "yab-yum," a type of Tibetan "sitting coitus," and points to the importance of love, for Snyder, as "an act of communion" and of worship. Quoting Snyder: "'To follow the ancient path in company with a lover means both must have practiced the lonely yogas and wanderings, and then seek the center of the individual-body and group-body mandala; dedicating their two bodies to the whole network'" ("Dharma Queries"). As in "The Bath," image and structure actualize the poem's ontological stance. The nature/sex nexus is established in the first line "Two thigh hills…." "High" (height of the natural object; spiritual elevation) is contained in "thigh"—literally and as a ghost rhyme—and the hills "hold" the "us," the poet and his presumably feminine companion, establishing a sympathetic connection among them. The nature/sex/enlightenment formula is completed by the second line, physically centered below the first to visually suggest the poem's imagistic and spiritual center—the Buddhist shrine. The poet and his companion sit "all folded" before the shrine, sharing food that was meant "for the god." Though ego-centered consciousness is left behind almost from the start, imbibing the food of the god (which is also a product of nature) is, ritualistically, the jumping off point: in the rest of the poem, the identity of the human worshippers, the "we" of the poem, is merged with nature; the shrine becomes the scene of ritualistic self-annihilation. As in "The Bath," the poem opens with a relatively stable situation, clearly locating the speaker and his companion in time and space. In the third stanza, however, human identity begins to dissolve into the surrounding sounds and motions, only partially resurfacing in the "we" of the last line. Structurally, this merging of self and other is emphasized by indenting and aligning key images—the shrine, the worshippers, and the images of nature (trees, sun, vines, cicadas, and brush). But worship, here, is not a matter of bowing before icons; no image of Buddha is mentioned; in fact, the worshippers are the Buddha, and the interpenetration of god-worshippers-nature is established not only imaginatively, but biologically, through eating, thus weaving an ecological strand into the nexus.
The cicada's song, the sound center of the poem, whirls together the sexual, spiritual, and biological; it is the undifferentiated voice, the seed syllable expressing an undefinable, illimitable wholeness. The song of the tangle is at once a physical and an imaginative interpenetration, both sexual intercourse and metaphysical quest—"the brush/through which we push."
Buddhism, especially Tantrism, is a strong current in Snyder's aesthetic. Tantrism provides a path out of "ego-driven anxieties" and into the diversity of life. The key is tensionless harmony, being able to see all aspects of life—suffering and joy, birth and death—as part of the whole network, of the fabric of life. Altieri claims that the purpose of the dialectic in Snyder's poetry is to "reduce tension by affirming the opposites' need for one another"; they mutually support each other to present a dynamic, holistic moment of consciousness, like wind eddies stirring up leaf fall on a bright, clear fall day: they just happen together; the day is not less bright because dead leaves swirl at our feet, but we should be aware of them.
Delight is the innocent joy arisingwith the perception and realization ofthe wonderful, empty, intricate,inter-penetrating,mutually-embracing, shiningsingle world beyond all discriminationof opposites ("On 'As for Poets'")
Clarity in Snyder's poems often reveals darkness: darkness=depth, both geologically—into the earth's evolutionary past—and psychologically—into the "wilderness" of the unconscious. Tantrism's emphasis on comprehending birth and death, or the "womb tomb" as Snyder refers to it, means that, aesthetically, the "poet holds the dark and the light in the mind, together" ("The Real Work"). The enlightened dialectic moment irradiates several of Snyder's best poems, kindling a warm hum in the imagination of a reader as the energies are released through syntactic fluidity, image collocations and collage structuring. The poems are reifications, Metonymic whirlpools; by responding to the poem, the thing on the page, we also respond to the inspired, intense mind-in-action it presents.
In "Rainbow Body," dark and light are imagistically presented without conflict, and the lack of "ego interference" (Snyder's term)—the mind's transparency—is achieved through the poem's dialectical structure and through a voice that originates in nature and the unconscious and only temporarily locates itself in the personal "we." For Snyder, the "real work" of mankind today is to "uncover the inner structure and actual boundaries of the mind," which requires a certain amount of boundary breaking: "We all live within skin, ego, society, and species boundaries" ("Poetry and the Primitive"). "Rainbow Body" jostles our sense of self in just such a deconstructive way. "The goal of revolution is transformation."
The poem opens with night sounds and images. A "wall of twanging shadow," not a man-made wall but a nature-made one of "bamboo thickets," is alive, in all its "dark joints and leaves," with the chanting of cicadas. The imagery is free floating; the voice is not connected to a particular speaker; it is not until the third stanza that a "we" half surfaces—they "half-wake" and then flow quickly back into the natural imagery. In Altieri's words, "the role of the lyrical ego or creative synthetic imagination" is lessened "by treating place as the poet and the human writer as (merely) an attentive mediator." In the second stanza, the voice takes on the ancientness of a volcano "rumbling down wind"; as "ash and steam" rise from the volcano to mix with "salt clouds" that brush its summit, an illusion of "breathing the Milky Way" is produced. But who or what is breathing? The night, the volcano, or the voice? The syntax, stripped of all personal and relative pronouns, simultaneously makes all three possible; the confusion is functional, carrying the imagistic effect beyond optical illusion to a mind/body interchange of being—voice = breath = steam and ash rising from the rumbling gut of a millennia-old geological formation = an astrophysical rhythm:.
Salt clouds skim the volcanomixed with ash and steamrumbles downwindfrom the night gleamsummit, near Algol,breathing the Milky Way.
The Milky Way is comprehended in the breath/thought of a single line; as the vision's scope and the voice's range expand, the lines work their way back out to the margins of the page. The effect of interrelatedness, of seamless bonding is heightened as the stanza's imagery merges into the final touchstone image of the torsion form, this time a galactic whorl of stars.
In the third stanza the volcano's voice, now become a chant, a "great drone / in the throat of the hill," joins with an almost ritualistic beat—"The waves drum." The aural image cluster of cicadas-volcano-waves unites the natural surroundings into a single, pulsing rhythm, empty of human speech and significance. The movement of the poem corresponds to natural cycles, so the rhythm of night/day rolls the dark imagery over into light as the poet and his wife wake "in the east light/fresh." The dark/light structure of the poem, then, evolves naturally. The fourth stanza is filled with light, clarity, and identification with the nonhuman. The human couple literally flow into nature as they "swim out through a path in the coral"—not a human but a sea made path:
& into the land of the sea-people:rainbows under the foam of the breakerssurge and streamingfrom the southern beach.the lips, where you floatclear, wavewith the subtle currentssea-tangle tendrilsoutward roil of lava….
The ocean has "lips," suggesting a sexual/biological exchange of being, as if the humans were being swallowed or, by osmosis, ingested by the nonhuman. The sixth line isolates the words "clear, wave," feeding the concept of enlightenment into that of wave forms. In Snyder's poetry, waves, to use Sherman Paul's phrase, express "contours of feeling." Paul calls the wave Snyder's "Ur phenomenon"; it is the "current of the universal being." The syntactical collocation of "clear" and "wave" makes the ocean a medium, a natural analogue to meditation. In "Tanker Notes," Snyder describes the mind as a "clear spring—it reflects all things and feeds all things but is itself transparent"; it is "the hidden water underground." To enter the ocean is to enter an other world, a world simultaneously of nature and the unconscious, a world of "subtle currents" and "sea-tangles," of mergings and flowings and transformations that deny stasis and categorical definition and alter the nature of perception.
Through the daylight clarity of water, which acts like a lens for the empty consciousness, the dark is still evident, but the "outward roil of lava," solidified evidence of the island's cataclysmic origins, is not exaggerated or dramatized as a symbol of "evil." It is simply there, part of the seascape. Of course it is a reminder of the temporariness of any state of being, of the great earth processes that precede and outlast all life, of the inevitability and naturalness of change. But the image itself diffuses any "moral" we might try to attach to it. As Molesworth puts it, "Snyder's unconscious is amoral, or premoral, and the laws of identity and contrariety do not apply to it." The lava is cool and solid; it has a still life; it is a "frozen motion" melding a geologically remote past with the present into a single living instant, "into the eternal now of geological time" ("The Incredible Survival of Coyote"). And "roil," as a motion, speaks to tangling sea grasses and to the continual spiral breakings of waves into billions of tiny stars.
In "Rainbow Body," opposing categories of animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman, alive and dead cannot be applied with certainty. The language of the last two lines of stanza four, pared down to naming and essential movements and modifiers, brings us face to face—almost lip to lip—with a "cobalt speckled curling / mouth of a shako clam." The meeting is matter of fact—no attempt to evaluate or interpret or turn the clam into symbol—and yet the clam's relevance to the poem and to Snyder's aesthetic is apparent in the unconscious gesture of its body's evolution, the biologically determined "curling" of the mouth, the sign of its interrelatedness. The entire poem performs like a living, breathing organism; throats, lips, and mouths suggest an internalizing process that ranges from a single clam of a particular species to the entire galaxy. The "bamboo thickets," the "sea-tangle tendrils," the "roil of lava"—all are involved and all carry, in the very nature of their structure, the sign and sense of the whole.
In the poem's last stanza, the poet and his wife enjoy a simple meal of "melon and steamed sweet potato / from this ground." Though the image, like the action it describes, is simple, it comes in the wake of the knowledge mimed by the previous image clusters. The emphasis of the stanza is on human involvement, on man's place and responsibility in this vast body of being. Here the human couple live quietly and cooperatively with the land: "We hoed and fished—/ grubbing out bamboo runners…." And now, relaxed and nourished, they "nap in the bamboo thicket / eyes closed, / dazzled ears." The poem's emotional ambiguity, however, is not resolved but sustained in the closing stanza; flowing naturally out of the event of napping, the last two lines drop off into darkness and thoughtless profundity, keyed to the indecipherable sounds of the surf, inevitably involving the poem's final, peaceful moment with the bulk of its pluralistic image structure.
The final stanza is fulfilling in two ways. First, it realizes the non-dualistic awareness of Tantrism and Mahayana Buddhism's emphasis not just on zazen (meditation), but also on active involvement in the world. Second, Snyder tells us in "Re-inhabitation" that "knowing who and where [we are] are intimately linked." The plants, animals, and geology of a region are the "ground of our own mind" ("The East West Interview"); maintaining contact with our bio-energy sources, the food we intake and transform, helps keep us sane and in touch with our own bodies, and through them with the body of nature. The goals of Buddhism and ecology unite in the manual labor and relinquishment of consciousness of the last stanza; the poem is not brought to a closure but cadenced, keeping its dialectic ever open.
In "Re-inhabitation," Snyder describes a satellite photo of the earth as showing "the whole blue orb with spirals and whorls of cloud," and paraphrases Stewart Brand in calling this photograph a "landmark of human consciousness." The clouds tell us: one world, one nature. In "Poetry and the Primitive," Snyder quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "'Now this Self is the state of being of all contingent beings.'" Buddhism merged with ecology means our own bodies and minds are also the body and "mind" of nature. The connection with the primitive is clear. The shaman poet, or "poet as healer … is asserting several layers of larger realms of wholeness" ("Poetry, Community & Climax"). They include identifying with nature, integrating the unconscious and conscious, and identifying with the "other" outside our group—humanity at large. "This is the kind of healing that makes whole, heals by making whole." From the primitive perspective there is, literally, no separation between man and nature. In Black Elk Speaks, according to Snyder, Black Elk describes all living things as "individualized turbulence patterns," temporary interruptions and shapings of a universal energy flow ("Knots in the Grain"); this "primitive" ontological theory is directly relevant to Snyder's aesthetic: "I like to think of poetry as that … as the knot of the turbulence, whorl …" and "the poem or the song manifests itself as a special concentration of the capacities of the language and rises up into its own shape." Snyder also compares the structure, the phenomenon of his poems to "bushi or fushi" (Japanese words for song) "which means a whorl in the grain … an intensification of the flow [of energy] at a certain point that creates a turbulence of its own which then as now sends out an energy of its own, but then the flow continues again." The torsion form, as knot, whorl, spiral, or more generically as "turbulence pattern," with its origins in Buddhism, ecology, and primitive ontology, means to Snyder what the gyre meant to Yeats: it is a key image, a pivotal point for his entire aesthetic. Buckminster Fuller's definition of man as a knot of metabolic processes—processes that occur everywhere in nature and come together in a certain way and for a certain period of time to compose the biological entity called "man"—may be another intellectual source for the ecological twist in the spiral. At any rate, the concatenation of biology, ecology, Buddhism, and the primitive in Snyder's aesthetic is evident. In "Poetry and the Primitive," Snyder says:
The Australian aborigines live in a world of ongoing recurrence—comradeship with the landscape and continual exchanges of being and form and position; every person, animals, forces, all are related via a web of reincarnation—or rather, they are "interborn." It may well be that rebirth (or interbirth, for we are actually mutually creating each other and all things while living) is the objective fact of existence which we have not yet brought into conscious knowledge and practice.
It is clear that the empirically observable interconnectedness of nature is but a corner of the vast "jewelled net" which moves from without to within. The spiral (think of nebulae) and spiral conch (vulva/womb) is a symbol of the Great Goddess. It is charming to note that physical properties of spiral conches approximate the Indian notion of the world-creating dance, "expanding form" … "each whorl or part of a whorl [quoting D'Arcy Thompson] … constitutes a gnomon to the whole previously existing structure."
"Comradeship with the landscape" is not just a "primitive" feeling—it is an ecological principle; "jewelled net" is a Buddhist image of interconnectedness ("om mani padma [jewel in the lotus] hum"). The language and imagery of the above passage fuse the three perspectives, all of which stress the same fundamental values—unself-consciousness, transformation, totality, and self-fulfillment through absence of self. And, as several of Snyder's poems demonstrate, sexual contact with the male or female "other" is a way of penetrating into the life-generating secrets of the "jewelled net," of immersing the self in the universal flow of transforming energy. For Western culture, as Snyder points out in "Poetry and the Primitive," woman became the dominant symbol of nature and "The Other," intertwining notions of the "Muse" with "Romantic Love" and making the lovers' bed "the sole place to enact dances and ritual dramas that link primitive people to their geology and the Milky Way." Thus the telescoping of vulva/womb into spiral conch: the former is a means of self-expansion through physical penetration, and the latter is not merely a symbol but a physical product of the "world-creating" forces, a living torsion form. Each whorl of the conch grows out of the previous to form the whole, just as we develop as individuals from former selves; as present cultures evolve out of previous ones; as the spiritual world blossoms out of the physical; and just as all physical objects—human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate—enter into and become each other (are "interborn"), physiologically and spiritually, by slipping into and reemerging from the transforming stream of energy through growth, death, or intense meditative/ imaginative effort.
To Snyder, the primitive, biology, and ecology are, like Buddhism, not simply sources for poetic imagery. They stratify an aesthetic program that can deepen our consciousness of the range and responsibilities of the self. This is fundamental revolution:
The biological-ecological sciences have been laying out (implicitly) a spiritual dimension. We must find our way to seeing the mineral cycles, the water cycles, air cycles, nutrient cycles, as sacramental—and we must incorporate that insight into our own personal spiritual quest and integrate it with all the wisdom teachings we have received from the nearest past. The expression of it is simple; gratitude to it all, taking responsibility for your own acts; keeping contact with the sources of the energy that flow into your own life (i.e., dirt, water, flesh). ("Re-inhabitation")
And in "Poetry and the Primitive":
The primitive world view, far-out scientific knowledge and the poetic imagination are related forces which may help if not to save the world or humanity, at least to save the Redwoods.
The artist, then, though not a "moralist" in conventional, Judeo-Christian terms, has an ethical responsibility. He delves "into personal depths for nutrients hidden there" and gives them "back to the community. The community and its poetry are not two" ("Poetry, Community & Climax"). Art puts us back in the mainstream. It does this through looping—from present to past and back again, from conscious to unconscious and back again, from self to other and back again. Art is the "recycling of neglected inner potential … an assimilator of unfelt experience, perception, sensation, and memory for the whole society."
The interdependency and moral value of science, the primitive, and the poetic imagination are clearly presented in "Toward Climax." Within ninety-eight lines, the poem takes us on a journey from life's elemental beginnings—"salt seas, mountains, deserts"—to the present (late 1960s)—"Forestry. 'How / Many people / Were harvested / In VietNam?'" From pre-human beginnings we quickly pass through a state of preverbal, unself-conscious, physical oneness with the environment; we then move on to the beginnings of language and an awareness of our difference from, but also kinship with nature and our effects on nature ("big herds dwindle / —did we kill them?") and, consequently, the need for ritual to preserve unity and fertility; nature-worshipping rituals lose their potency, however, (we "lose dream-time") as agriculture and city-building—the beginnings of modern civilization—take over; "Reason" and law further bracket our perceptions and only in the present do we begin to remember ancient knowledge, to respiritualize nature, to internalize natural phenomena as a mode of consciousness. The irony of this poem's final section is intensified by the depth of human life, history, and prehistory; the "unfelt experience" and "sense-detritus," behind it.
The imagery of the first stanza is pre-human—a heterogeneous rhythm of "Cell mandala," "nerve network," and primate body parts. Man evolves in the second stanza and the next few stanzas are a collage of interactions and identifications with nature:
scavenge, gather, rise up on rear legs.running—grasping—hand and eye;hunting. ..........Bison, bear skimmed and split;opening animals chests and bellies, skulls, bodies just like ours—pictures in caves.
Then, man begins to learn more about his world: he learns plants; he learns how to "send sound off the mouth and lips" to form a language that unites "inner structures," the subconscious, with the "daily world"; through language he becomes "kin to grubs and trees and wolves"; he learns to "dance and sing," to celebrate his world, and to go "'beyond'" into myth and dream-time. Then, with the beginnings of agricultural society, he begins to think about getting "better off"; he begins to "make lists" and to "forget wild plants, their virtues / lose dream-time." He turns his back on nature and becomes self-involved—"get safer, tighter, wrapped in, / winding smaller, spreading wider"—the counter motion / image of the outward evolving, looping, all-encompassing torsion form. He starts laying out towns, draining swamp lands and, in the poem's second section, making laws, but eventually, in section three, discovers that "science walks in beauty." Biology and ecology try to reconnect us with our environment:
nets are many knots. ..........maturity, stop and think, draw on the mind'sstored richness, memory, dream, half-digestedimage of your life.
The knot, as torsion form, as Buckminster Fuller describes it, is a design of intersecting forces or energies. From this perspective, it is not one specific thing—a double coil of rope; it can also be a plant transforming solar energy into oxygen, the intertwined bodies and passions of two lovers, the merging of conscious and unconscious, or loops of time—in this poem, the intersecting loops of pre-history and the present. The abbreviated, elliptical syntax of the poem collages essential traits from various geological/evolutionary periods to enact great time leaps within a few inches on the page:
fins legs wings—teeth, all-purpose little early mammal molars.primate flat-foot. ..........catch fire, move on.eurasia tundra reindeer herdssewn hide clothing, mammoth-rib-framework tent. ..........squash blossom in the garbage heap, start farming.cows won't stay away, start herding.
The syntactical compression creates an effect of poetic density and diversity analogous to the mental and geological pressure of the poem's ecological, time-warping, and ultimately moral vision.
As we have seen, the torsion form in Gary Snyder's poems, as symbol/energy graph, whirls together Buddhist, ecological, and primitive perspectives, and not just for artistic effect. The polysemous texture of the poetry is a vital expression of the density and diversity of consciousness, and a sense of moral responsibility follows in the wake of such an expanded awareness. In Snyder's poetics, too, the per-spectives are fused so thoroughly that the sense of the whole of his aesthetic program can be adequately expressed only through a hyphenated word group: "jeweled-net-interpenetration-ecological-systems-emptiness-consciousness" ("Re-inhabitation"). Seven individual words here function as a unit; no word can be extracted without altering the meaning of the whole. The hyphenated word group is perhaps the only semantic unit in modern English that approaches the indefinableness of the seed syllable, the "om" of Buddhism, the "wha, wha, wha" of Raven and Magpie in a Hopi ritual ("Through the Smoke Hole") or, as Gen, Snyder's young son, put it ("The Bath"):
Bao! Bao! Bao! Bao! Bao!
SOURCE: "Echoes of Eliot in Snyder's 'A Stone Garden,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, Summer, 1990, pp. 172-77.
[In the following essay, Schork speculates on the influence of T. S. Eliot's poem "Preludes" on Snyder's "A Stone Garden."]
When Gary Snyder in a 1954 letter to Kenneth Rexroth utterly dismissed the imitators of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, he indicated his lack of respect for poets who derive from the Modernist Masters:
Very well: high compression, complexity, linguistic involutions are all virtues in poetry—but in the hands of the mediocre, just so much frillery. Which disposes of the imitators of Ezra & Eliot.
Samuel Johnson said that no man became great by imitation, and Snyder doubts that such a poet can even be good. It is surprising, then, to find Snyder himself closely tracking Eliot's "Preludes" in "A Stone Garden," imitating its four-part structure and echoing specific phrases. Published in Snyder's collection Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (1959), "A Stone Garden" encounters Eliot's pessimism but weaves in Japanese materials to suggest alternatives to Eliot's decline of the West. As a variation on Eliot's poem, "A Stone Garden" demonstrates that Snyder did not merely ignore his High Modernist predecessor—it is often supposed that the "Beat" poets merely ignored tradition—but, instead, that he considered Eliot's achievement and answered him poem for poem.
Both poems are divided into four sections, and in the first section of each poem an energetic vision of the street gives way to a depressed reality in which, in "Preludes," "morning comes to consciousness." The tones differ markedly: Eliot's vision, with its windblown garbage and stale beer, expresses Swiftian disgust:
And now a gusty shower wraps The grimy scraps Of withered leaves about your feet …
In contrast, "A Stone Garden" registers sounds of good work, bright sun, and worthy materials:
Stone-cutter's chisel and a whanging saw, Leafy sunshine rustling on a man Chipping a foot-square rough hinoki beam …
Eliot's pessimism in the close of his first section takes the form of ironic epiphany, for, after the energetic stirrings,
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. And then the lighting of the lamps.
That "lamps"—all the enlightenment that Eliot's street will receive—rhymes with "stamps" underscores the poet's belief that spiritual yearnings will fail for those trapped within bestial natures; again, Eliot resembles Swift in his emphasis on the painful limitations of the flesh.
Snyder's poem follows Eliot's with the substitution of a bear for Eliot's cabhorse:
And I that night prowled Tokyo like a bear Tracking the human future Of intelligence and despair.
Both poets close their first sections with images of suffering animals, but Snyder reverses the significance of Eliot's animal image. For Eliot, the animal incarnation satirizes the limitations of human spirituality, whereas Snyder's bear-self is an implicit criticism of anthropocentrism, the worldview in which man is central in the universe. As in Faulkner's short story "The Bear," Snyder's bear tracks human arrogance from the periphery. In turning away from man-as-the-center, Snyder works in the tradition of Robinson Jeffers' "Inhumanism." Poets such as Snyder and Jeffers contrast the Mind of Europe as discussed in Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" with the Mind of Nature as witnessed by the non-human.
Echoes of Eliot intensify in the second section of "A Stone Garden." The water scattered "on the dusty morning street" recalls similar images from "Preludes." Eliot's image points to a civilization literally being run into the muddied ground, but Snyder's image retains hope. The Japanese children, contrasting in their youth to Eliot's old women, are responsible stewards of their world:
Little black-haired bobcut children Scatter water on the dusty morning street—.
The second section of "A Stone Garden" reverses the image concluding the second section of "Preludes." Eliot's stanza proceeds through images of hangover and ennui to an ironic epiphany in which hands (cut off, like "muddy feet," from bodies) grudgingly negotiate with sunlight:
One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms.
Eliot funnels the sordidness and disappointments of human life into a Noh-like gesture. His image of a dreary morning-after becomes, in Snyder's poem, an image which expresses compassionate acceptance of the aging process:
Seeing in open doors and screens The thousand postures of all human fond Touches and gestures, glidings, nude, The oldest and nakedest women more the sweet….
In Eliot's poem, thousands of others are trapped in dingy lives; in Snyder's poem, the thousand gestures signify human warmth and contact. These women, "more the sweet," ripen with age. Snyder reverses the significance of Eliot's image in order to include Eliot's subject matter (aging, decline), while rejecting Eliot's conclusions about that subject matter.
The Japanese prostitutes differ sharply from Eliot's women. They appear in Snyder's poem as people with levels of feeling rather than merely as indices to cultural degradation. The fact that women scavenge for fuel signals, for Eliot, a spiritually bankrupt universe—"The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots." Snyder takes issue with Eliot's cosmology:
And saw there first old withered breasts Without an inward wail of sorrow and dismay Because impermanence and destructiveness of time In truth means only, lovely women age—.
By expressing cheerful acceptance through the Japanese women, the poem leaves pessimism behind. The Japanese context, evoking the Buddhist tenet that we must value all aspects of existence, becomes especially significant in Snyder's poem, in which even the leveled cities from World War II continue to express the fullness of existence:
The cities rise and fall and rise again From storm and quake and fire and bomb, The glittering smelly ricefields bloom, And all that growing up and burning down Hangs in the void a little knot of sound.
The void which Snyder refers to is surely an Eastern Buddhist void rather than, say, the Western Existentialist void of Sartre's Nausea. As the lines on fires, storms, and falling cities show, it is possible to see Ground Zero as a prelude to growth.
The "little knot of sound" looks forward to Snyder's third section, which is filled with human music, birds, and "The noise of living families," but little if anything that can be traced to T.S. Eliot. Instead, Snyder replaces Eliot's images of psychological breakdown with images of imaginative creation. The musical voice of this section stands in contrast to the bed-ridden visionary of Eliot's poem, who
… clasped the yellow soles of feet in the palms of both soiled hands.
Eliot's lines, again, show the degraded search for spirituality in "soles," whereas the lines in Snyder's third section express no such frustration:
Grope and stutter for the words, invent a tune, In any tongue, this moment one time true Be wine or blood or rhythm drives it through—.
Snyder's lines, in counterpoint to Eliot's, have a Yeatsian ring as Snyder moves increasingly towards a philosophy of acceptance. Rather than being clothes upon a stick or a projector of sordid images, a man should sing and louder sing.
No reader quickly forgets the strikingly divided consciousness that Eliot captures in the two final stanzas of "Preludes," wherein the hopeful "I am moved by fancies" is followed by the spiteful peroration, "Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh." Eliot presents us with a tense confrontation between the hunger for spiritual fulfillment and its worldly denial. The poem leaves to the reader the corollary that this is our tension.
In the fourth section of "A Stone Garden," however, we are given no verbal echoes, no sordid images or "vision of the street / As the street hardly understands," Snyder denies Eliot's grim dualities, and so he leaves behind the divided Mind of Europe for the mind, especially the aesthetic sensibility, of Japan. Still, non-dualism is an elusive quality: it is important to note that he establishes Eliot as a Western model against whom he may react. Snyder's "emptiness" imagery escapes the dualistic morality of "Preludes," but, at the same time, his Eastern non-dualism defines itself against Eliot's (Western) experience of modern emptiness. Or, one might argue, Snyder's poem complements rather than opposes Eliot's: "A Stone Garden" shapes presumably useless materials such as those found in Eliot's grimy streets into a poetic equivalent of the Japanese stone garden.
"A Stone Garden" begins Snyder's lifelong dialogue with Eliot. Myths and Texts (1960) is, with its cycles of waste and rejuvenation, an answer to The Wasteland (1922), and in The Real Work (1980) Snyder gives his mature appreciation of Eliot:
What's really fun about Eliot is his intelligence and his highly selective and charming use of Occidental symbols which point you in a certain direction…. Eliot is a ritualist, a very elegant ritualist of key Occidental myth-symbols with considerable grasp of what they were about.
In this interview Snyder goes on to say that Four Quartets is his favorite work by Eliot, and readers of Snyder may anticipate the completion of Mountains and Rivers Without End to see how Snyder responds, in poetic terms, to Eliot as a "very elegant ritualist."
SOURCE: "The Mountain Hedonist," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 7, April 11, 1991, pp. 29-31, 34.
[In the following review of The Practice of the Wild, McKibben argues that Snyder believes as environmentalists we must bridge our estrangement from nature.]
We talk in a lazy shorthand when we speak about "the environment" and "the environmental movement" as if there were a single, obvious program for the planet's protection. But the environmental movement is far broader and more diverse than any of the "progressive" campaigns that preceded it, since no single policy can deal with problems as diverse in scale and scope as the greenhouse effect and the extinction of the spotted owl, the pollution along Louisiana's Cancer Alley and the destruction of the tropical rain forests. No one expects economists to put together programs, or even philosophies, that simultaneously increase the market share of Remington razors and redress the global balance of trade. Yet the environment is a far more complex subject than the economy.
One of the pressing questions raised by Gary Snyder's new collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild, is: How much room for nature is there in the environmental movement? In the Earth Day speeches last spring there was little talk about trees or animals or wilderness; the discussion Jargely centered on air pollution, on solid waste, on global threats like ozone destruction. The concerns expressed were mostly for ourselves, and for future generations of our species, and even those who talked about such problems as the preservation of the rain forest tended to focus on the great supply of drugs that might be found among its plants, or its calming effect on climatic oscillations. The mainstream of the environmental movement tends to look pragmatically at the problems we face, and to try to fix them technologically or with the least possible change in the way we live, in the belief, rightly, that this is the best way to make a difference quickly.
Another, smaller, band of environmentalists, however, is still inspired by Thoreau and by the work that John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and other naturalists have left behind. Though not generally opposed to the pragmatists (indeed they are often in coalition with them), these environmentalists tend to think that environmental problems are much more deeply rooted in our ways of life, in our thinking, and in our estrangement from nature. This is the tradition to which the new book by the poet Gary Snyder—his best prose work so far—makes an impressive contribution. Whether Snyder, who lives in the California woods, can help the problem of the ozone layer is a question to which I'll return.
His publisher claims that Snyder is a "counterculture hero," and in a way this description is accurate. The model for Japhy Ryder in Kerouac's Dharma Bums, Snyder read his poem "The Berry Feast" at San Francisco's Six Gallery the night that Allen Ginsberg first read "Howl," an event that is often said to have launched the Beat movement. Snyder soon after left for Japan where he spent much of the Sixties meditating in a Zen monastery. He returned to San Francisco in time to act as host, with Ginsberg, of 1967's First Great Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. For all that, though, in his life and writing he has scrupulously avoided alienated rebellion and claims of saccharine bliss, seeking instead to be in touch with his immediate surroundings.
The Practice of the Wild draws its strength from the theme that unites Snyder's odd life—his love for and understanding of the mountains, woods, and native peoples of the northern half of the Pacific Coast. Born in 1930, he grew up on a farm near Puget Sound, and for the last twenty years he has lived in a house he built for himself "on the western slope of the northern Sierra Nevada, in the Yuba River watershed, north of the south fork at the three-thousand-foot elevation, in a community of black oak, incense cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine." He has, at various times, cut down the trees of this region, climbed its highest peaks, built Park Service trails across its ridges, watched from fire towers for signs of its smoke. Because of his daily physical contact with this world—he lives beyond the power lines, past the place where the oil truck goes—he has never succumbed to the strain of dippy environmentalism that is endemic in parts of California. "It is not enough," he writes, "just to 'love nature' or to want to be in harmony with Gaia.' Our relation to the actual world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience." Place is a given of his poetry (on occasion he will even tell us its longitude and latitude). Consider "So Old—" from the collection Axe Handles:
Oregon Creek reaches far back into the hills. Burned over twice, the pines are returning again. Old roads twist deep into the canyons, hours from one ridge to the next The new road goes straight on the side of the mountain, high, and with curves ironed out. A single hawk flies leisurely up, disturbed by our truck Down the middle fork-south fork opening, fog silver gleams in the valley. Camptonville houses are old and small, a sunny perch on a ridge, Was it gold or logs brought people to this spot? a teenage mother with her baby stands by a pickup. A stuffed life-size doll of a Santa Claus climbs over the porch-rail. Our old truck too, slow down the street, out of the past— It's all so old—the hawk, the houses, the trucks, the view of the fog— Midwinter late sun flashes through hilltops and trees a good day, we know one more part of our watershed….
Snyder has emerged as perhaps the most eloquent American champion of what is called "bioregionalism," the idea that political boundaries should reflect the land we live on, and that decisions within those boundaries should respect that land. Alaska and Mexico, he writes, meet "somewhere on the north coast of California, where Canada jay and Sitka spruce lace together with manzanita and blue oak." If you follow the Douglas fir region, where Snyder started his life and where he has returned, you know "what your agriculture might be, how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you'd need." The fir trees outlive "the boundary of a larger natural region that runs across three states and one international border." Everyone lives in a region, defined by its trees and rainfalls and climate and the movement of animals, by the effects of "cirrus clouds to leaf mold," Snyder wrote fifteen years ago in The Old Ways. To address our ecological crises, therefore,
a worldwide purification of mind is called for: the exercise of seeing the surface of the planet for what it is—by nature. With this kind of consciousness people turn up at hearings and in front of trucks and bulldozers to defend the land of trees. Showing solidarity with a region! What an odd idea at first. Bioregionalism is the entry of place into the dialectic of history.
A problem with this vision is that, in practice, it only sometimes holds. When the US Forest Service holds its hearings about logging in Grants Pass, Oregon, many local people turn out to argue for the destruction of old-growth forests, driving there in trucks that carry signs that say "Save a Job—Kill a Spotted Owl." Snyder recognizes this limitation, I think. He recognizes that it's not simply our boundaries that must be changed but our desires as well, since they drive the economy that is destroying the wilderness. The possibilities for this radical change of heart, as radical as any religious conversion or the change in our souls that Martin Luther King sought, dominate The Practice of the Wild:
Native Americans to be sure have a prior claim to the term native. But as they love this land they will welcome the conversion of the millions of immigrant psyches into fellow "Native Americans." For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent….
Snyder has spent much of his life studying Native American culture. His undergraduate thesis, at Reed College in 1951, was on a Haida Indian version of a nearly universal myth about a swan that changes into a woman and is loved by a man, who then loses her. In the thesis, which was published nearly thirty years later, in 1979, he discusses literature based on myth and ritual, with the priest-shaman-storyteller-writer as the central figure.
This scholarly interest has long since grown into something more urgent. The Practice of the Wild includes a marvelous essay about a folktale of a woman who wedded a bear: her brothers kill the bear and she kills them. "That was a very long time ago. After that time," he writes, "human beings had good relations with bears…. Bears and people have shared the berryfields and salmon streams without much trouble summer after summer." But this period
is over now. The bears are being killed, the humans are everywhere, and the green world is being unraveled and shredded and burned by the spreading of a gray world that seems to have no end. If it weren't for a few old people from the time before, we wouldn't even know this tale.
Snyder's experience—his feel for his region, the skills that make him at home in the outdoors, the humility and discipline of his Buddhism, the tribal sense of his hippie past and present—unite in this goal: to teach people to live in an easy harmony with the land, much as the Indians once did.
One feature of Native American life that is absent from our time, Snyder says, is physical contact with the world we live on, especially physical work. "If there is any one thing that's unhealthy in America," he told an interviewer in 1977, "it's that it is a whole civilization trying to get out of work." There is, he insisted, "a triple alienation when you try to avoid work: first, you're trying to get energy sources … to do it for you; second, you no longer know what your body can do, where your food or water come from; third, you lose the capacity to discover the unity of mind and body via your work." Snyder has the pride of a self-sufficient man. Only once in all the interviews with him that I've read does he turn prickly, and that is when an interviewer suggests that he no longer did physical work. "I not only built my own house, I do everything around it continually. I'm farming all the time: cutting six cords of firewood for the winter, planting fruit trees, putting in fencing, taking care of the chickens."
But Snyder does not believe that hard work is good because it helps you to get ahead, or because it prepares you for "the real world" or teaches you the value of a dollar. It is important for just the opposite reason: it brings us down from the soft clouds of whatever modern life we're leading, and back into contact with the world that every other generation of human beings has ever known, and that is the source of our instinct, our myth, our art. "That's the real work: to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are in it."
Snyder's conception of work as a sacrament closely resembles the ideas of the Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry (Axe Handles includes an affectionate poem about Berry, his wife, Tanya, and a fox). But if Berry is a half-Amish, Jeffersonian farmer. Snyder is a latter-day hunter-gatherer. Largely, I think, their differences have to do with climate and geography. With wise stewardship Berry's rich Kentucky-soil can bear crops in abundance; Snyder can grow beans, but
the tendency of that whole area is to go into forest; old farms are abandoned and are turning back into woods. Consequently, nowadays any of us who think about any gardening or farming think about it in very limited terms as something which is possible in special areas but not desirable in the region as a whole (since the region produces a great deal of life without human interference, enough life to support human beings in small numbers, in reasonable numbers).
This support traditionally came in part from eating the flesh of dead creatures. In later times these deaths have been removed to slaughterhouses, and their flesh wrapped in plastic and made into a commodity. Or the killing has been circumvented by vegetarianism, which is more or less what you might expect an aging hippie to advocate. Snyder, a life-long archer, has considered the complicated fact that the civilizations that lived in closest harmony with their natural surroundings spent many of their working hours in pursuit of fish and game. The position he arrives at is morally more ambiguous than either that of many animal rights activists or that of the Beef Industry Council (whose egregious current slogan is "Real Food for Real People"). "Other beings (the instructors from the old ways tell us) do not mind being killed and eaten as food, but they expect us to say please, and thank you, and they hate to see themselves wasted," he writes. "There is no death that is not somebody's food, no life that is not somebody's death." But instead of taking this as a sign that "the universe is fundamentally flawed," we should participate in the web as a sacrament.
The archaic religion is to kill god and eat him. Or her. The shimmering food-chain, the food-web, is the scary, beautiful condition of the biosphere. Subsistence people live without excuses. The blood is on your own hand as you divide the liver from the gallbladder. A subsistence economy is a sacramental economy because it has faced up to one of the critical problems of life and death—the taking of life for food.
This is not a prosaic argument about biological determinism. Just the opposite.
If we do eat meat, it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with foursquare feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.
In practice his view would mean not eating meat you hadn't raised yourself or seen raised, without cruelty; it would mean hunting, if you hunted, with a solemnity not found in most American sportsmen: it would mean welcoming other predators back to the woods, instead of fighting (as hunters across America have fought) against wolves and coyotes and other competition: it would mean singing for your supper. In older times, in older legends, Snyder says, animals
liked the human people and enjoyed being near them for their funny ways … They still wanted to be seen by people, to surprise them sometimes, even to be caught or killed by them, so they might go inside their houses and hear their music.
It would mean, finally, admitting that you too are an animal, and even welcoming your eventual inclusion in the food chain. "We are all edible. And if we are not devoured quickly, we are big enough (like the old down trees) to provide a long slow meal to the smaller critters."
What sort of animal are we exactly? "What sucks our lineage into form?" We are larger than a wolf, smaller than an elk … not such huge figures in the landscape…. Berries, acorns, grass-seeds, apples, and yams all call for dextrous creatures something like us to come forward." But it's not pure function. If we are
here for any good purpose at all (other than collating texts, running rivers, and learning the stars), I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A going of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.
We are wild creatures, not in some metaphorical sense, but quite literally.
The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo of looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting—all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class [of animals].
And the danger in denying this, besides the destruction of the planet, is that we'll miss out on certain pleasures that are our due as animals. "The truly experienced person, the refined person, delights in the ordinary," just as animals delight in sun, softness, warmth, exercise, the commonplaces of their day. Once, working on a trail crew in Yosemite, Snyder tried to spend each day with his mind engaged in Milton, whom he was reading at night.
Finally, I gave up trying to carry on an intellectually interior life separate from work, and I said the hell with it. I'll just work. And instead of losing something, I got something much greater. By just working I found myself being completely there, having the whole mountain inside of me, and finally having a whole language inside of me that became one with the rocks and the trees.
The evidence that he found such a language is in Riprap, the book of poems that grew out of that summer job. The seamlessness of observation in "Water" accounts for its power.
Pressure of sun on the rockslide Whirled me in a dizzy hop-and-step descent, Pool of pebbles buzzed in a Juniper shadow, Tiny tongue of a this-year rattle-snake flicked, I leaped, laughing for little boulder-colored coil— Pounded by heat raced down the slabs to the creek Deep tumbling under arching walls and stuck Whole head and shoulders in the water: Stretched full on cobble—ears roaring Eyes open aching from the cold and faced a trout.
Searching for delight, Snyder does not ignore sex and drugs and loud music. He is part mountain hedonist, a wine jug hooked on his forefinger and resting on a muscled arm. But instead of treating them as commodities for private consumption, he wants to see them as part of a community's activity. "In South India," he writes in Practice of the Wild,
the adolescents are charged with keeping parrots out of the ripening crops. The birdchasing work is known as an occasion for trysting. The dancer sings and strolls forward and back through the gardens, waving a stick, startling up flocks of birds…. The crops, the soil, the parrots, the work, the dance, and young love all come together.
This is both less and more enlightenment than most of those at The Great Human Be-In imagined, I think. "In our present over-speeded and somewhat abnormal historical situation, the long stability of traditional peasant culture of primitive hunting and gathering cultures seems maybe dull," he told an interviewer once.
What looks like dull centuries of simple cultures are intense meditations on one level in which inner discoveries are gradually being made. When we steer toward living harmoniously and righteously on the earth, we're also steering toward a condition of long-term stability in which the excitement, the glamour will not be in technology and changing fads. But it will be in a steady enactment and reenactment of basic psychological inner spiritual dramas.
This is, more or less, the kind of community he's found, and helped to create, in the northern Sierras, where there are "a friendly number of people, diverse as they are, who have a lot of the same spirit," and who expect their descendants will be in place together there for "the next two or three thousand years."
Though he would no doubt live as he does even if the air and sea and land were not despoiled, Snyder constantly returns in his writing to the need to save not just the wilderness but also the human environment. His 1974 collection of poems, Turtle Island, for instance, includes "Four Changes," an "environmental manifesto" that begins (with an uncharacteristically tired image), "Man is but a part of the fabric of life—dependent on the whole fabric for his very existence." The Practice of the Wild contains many references to overpopulation, atmospheric change, the ozone layer, and so on. The question arises, even if you grant (as I do) the beauty of his vision and life: Is it also useful as a response to our environmental woes?
The answer depends on how you conceive the problem of pollution. We are used to thinking of pollution as something gone wrong—a factory with a primitive smokestack or water filter, a badly tuned car without the latest control equipment, a drunken sea captain in a single-hulled ship. If these are the enemies, then neither Thoreau nor Snyder has much to say about dealing with them. All that is needed is somewhat better management and technology, and much better regulation of greed. But there is an emerging, quite different category of pollution, which is caused by things working essentially as they should, but on much too large a scale. The expansion of humans into the few remaining wilderness areas is such a case, of course, but not the only one. Consider the exhaust pipe of a car, for instance. Out of it pours carbon monoxide, a deadly pollutant, which a better-designed, better-tuned engine will all but eliminate. But carbon dioxide, the source of the greenhouse effect, pours out of the exhaust too, and the engine can't be redesigned to reduce it. It is an inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel combustion. Perhaps we'll develop hydrogen cars instead, or perhaps we'll learn to drive less, and change our lives.
Much of the environmental damage scientists anticipate is of the same sort, the result not of technical flaws but of too many people whose material standard of living is too high. If you subscribe to that diagnosis, and especially if you give weight to the fortunes of other species, then how you live matters. Snyder's views on how one might live a simpler life begin to sound more practical, as "realistic" as recycling and smokestack scrubbing. One can then forgive him his occasional excesses (his earlier prose, though not the more controlled and mature Practice of the Wild, makes semiparanoid reference to "liquid metal fast-breeder reactors" as harbingers of the police state, and so on) and agree on the urgency and the sad precision of his central view:
Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed as their habitat—and the old habitat of humans—falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economies. If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the great heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down. And if the secret heart stays secret and our work is made no easier, I for one will keep working for wildness day by day.
We can't all live the way Snyder does, of course, not in this crowded generation. He remarkably overstated the situation in his earlier book, Earth House Hold (1969). He wrote that "industrial society appears to be finished," but everyone can learn from his notion of responsible work: walking, not riding; composting or recycling, not throwing things out. Even in the middle of the city, everyone can practice his fellowship with other species. In the first place, wilderness is everywhere: "ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts, and such … deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corner." But if you want something a little grander, an outpouring of letters to Washington on behalf of Oregon's spotted owl is a decent equivalent of the Native American's personal identification with one creature or another.
Everyone, except the poor, can consciously lower his or her standard of living. And most important, everyone can try to find pleasure not so much in the acquisition of things, but in the body, in friendship, in dance and music, in an effort to create a community. We can start to make deep changes now, and someday, generations hence, if we haven't already gone too far, we might slowly subside into some equilibrium with the earth. I have no illusion that we will do these things in great numbers, but this is an interesting moment when the long-held aesthetic arguments for a simpler life are suddenly being seen to coincide neatly with the hard-headed calculations of the atmospheric chemists. Snyder is among the first to sense this conjunction.
I read The Practice of the Wild this summer while traveling through the Buryat region of Siberia on the banks of Lake Baikal. The Buryat people, ancestors of many Native American peoples who came across the land bridge when it still linked the continents, are shamanistic in practice to this day. We were greeted, healed, blessed by any number of shamans whose authority, though lessened, has outlasted that of the various commissars. But, like Snyder, the Buryats are also Buddhists, converted by the flow of that idea north from Mongolia. It is a syncretic and relaxed Buddhism, co-existing happily with what went before. We came to a holy place on the shore of Lake Baikal (even the Communist officials call this vast freshwater sea "sacred Baikal"), and found a Buddhist monk chanting a long prayer. When he was done I asked for a translation, and it turned out he was reciting the name of every tributary and mountain that surrounds the lake. That world may be slowly dying, but Snyder's life and work show that it may be slowly reviving too.
SOURCE: "Speaking for the Green of the Leaf: Gary Snyder Writes Nature's Literature," in CEA Critic, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 98-109.
[In the following excerpt, Martin explores Snyder's environmental writings and the ways in which Snyder challenges the dominant Western discourse.]
… As early as 1969 and even before, Snyder described what he considered to be the repressive thrust of the dominant Western culture in terms of sexual politics, identifying its origins within the "patriarchal, patrilineal family." In attacking this value system, his poetry becomes polemical and angry. Whereas much of Snyder's work is characterized by its attention to minute particulars, his most overtly political writing depends to some extent on generalization and caricature. Like some radical feminist rhetoric, his critique of the dominant discourse is strategically useful, if somewhat reactive and philosophically dubious. Here is a characteristic example from the poem "Mother Earth: Her Whales:"
How can the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist Government two-world Capitalist-Imperialist Third-world Communist paper-shuffling male non-farmer jet-set bureaucrats Speak for the green of the leaf? Speak for the soil?
The invective is sharp, the attack directed toward an agency that is clearly androcentric. Earlier in the same poem, the familiar oppositions are reversed in a similar way. Human beings become Other, robot-like; nature is alive and sentient:
The living actual people of the jungle sold and tortured And a robot in a suit who peddles a delusion called "Brazil" can speak for them?
If the dominant discourse (and economic and political practice) has no language for "the green of the leaf," for Snyder this lack is due in part to a religious model that tends to give primacy to the transcendental Word, effectively silencing Other voices. Although in recent years there has been some critique of this silencing from within the Church, the mainstream Judaeo-Christian world view has, historically, assumed that a feminized "nature" is something from which we are (or should be) distinct: "Man" names the animals, keeps the land. Snyder describes this attempt to raise man above his (sic) environment, somewhat rhetorically, as follows: "men are seen working out their ultimate destinies (paradise? perdition?) with planet earth as the stage for their drama—trees and animals mere props, nature a vast supply depot." Several early poems (for example in Myths & Texts) identify in this system of values the origins of the present ecological crisis. In Turtle Island, the conflation of nature and "the feminine" that the paradigm implies appears in the poem "Front Lines." The effect is a strong polemic against capitalist America's acquisitive devastation of the wilderness: "Landseekers, lookers, they say / To the land / Spread your legs." Later in the poem, the metaphor of rape is extended in the depiction of a disgustingly destructive bulldozer ("grinding and slobbering / sideslipping and belching on top of / the skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes") in the pay of "a man from town."
As these extracts suggest, Snyder reads the patriarchal construction of nature as feminine Other as being linked to the idea that nature is something hostile and dangerous, and adversary. The corollary is the view that the "natural" desires (particularly sexual) are fallen and dangerous: "To make 'human nature' suspect is also to make Nature—the Wilderness—The adversary." In an early poem, "Logging 15," Snyder identifies the repression this involves as follows:
Men who hire men to cut groves Kill snakes, build cities, pave fields Believe in god, but can't Believe their own senses Let alone Guatama. Let them lie.
The view that one is "above nature" implies that one can't afford to believe the senses. This attitude is seen here to be symptomatic of a culture that has denigrated the value of the senses in favor of the bliss of a supra naturalistic heaven, where all experience is incorporeal. A poem called "The Call of the Wild," for example, examines the connotations of "wildness" for a culture founded in dualistic metaphysics. The poem describes "a war against earth" that corresponds to a war against (or repression of) the "natural" self. Ironically, certain members of the so-called counterculture (dreaming of India, of "forever blissful sexless highs") are shown to be as alienated from wild systems as is the dominant (specifically American) culture that they superficially oppose. The outcome of the transcendental metaphysics that they share is horrible destruction, launched from a position that is, like that of all sky gods, high above the earth. Once airborne, the Americans never come down
for they found the ground is pro-Communist. And dirty. And the insects side with the Vet Cong
Once having enlisted the mentality that identifies the Other as enemy, any destruction can be sanctioned:
So they bomb and they bomb Day after day, across the planet blinding sparrows breaking the ear-drums of owls splintering trunks of cherries twining and looping deer intestines in the shaken, dusty, rocks.
In an early essay, Snyder refers to a marginal tradition that has existed alongside the dominant, historically antifeminist, religion of Jehovah. Much of the poetry seeks to revive the subversive potential of this counter-tradition, which celebrates "woman as nature the field for experiencing the universe as sacramental." To speak of "woman" and "nature" in this way means to identify with that which the dominant culture constructs as Other. This reversal of value has historical analogues in, for example, the black consciousness movement, and it corresponds closely with those women writers who, as Julia Kristeva puts it, seek to "give a language to the intrasubjective and corporeal experiences left mute by culture in the past." In Snyder's case, this involves giving expression to the "voice from the wilderness, my constituency." Two important features are the use of metaphors of descent and a revaluation of the quotidian.
Like many women writers (I think of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Margaret Atwood), Snyder often uses metaphors of descent to indicate an attempt to recover what has been drowned, buried, marginalized, and silenced by the dominant discourse. The metaphor works at several levels, as the poem "Anasazi," a description of an imaginative descent into Native America's so-called primitive past, illustrates. The speaker's reconstruction of the social system of the Anasazi reveals mysteries inherent in their daily activities: growing, watching, giving birth. The close spiritual identification with nature that this involves contrasts strongly with the supranaturalistic emphasis of patriarchal monotheism. In an experience of shamanistic identification, the human person is drenched and absorbed in the nonhuman. The gods are encountered through descent into the material, rather than through spiritual transcendence:
sinking deeper and deeper in earth up to your hips in Gods your head all turned to eagle-down and lightning for knees and elbows your eyes full of pollen the smell of bats the flavor of sandstone grit on the tongue women birthing at the foot of ladders in the dark.
In this account, the speaker's immersion in the holy involves a progressive absorption into the maternal earth. Engaging the "lower" part of the body ("hips" rather than heart or mind), this experience is sensual—physical—as much as it is spiritual or mental. Descending deep enough into the ground reveals the continued presence of women who are giving birth. Their place in the "dark" reinforces the effect of "down" and "earth," contrasting strongly with the "light," "ascent," and "sky" of patriarchal religion. Similarly, in foregrounding women's labor, in identifying it as being, precisely in its physicality, simultaneously a spiritual experience, the poem reverses the dominant view of both "woman" and bodily functions. Syntactically, the use of indefinite participles suggests that this is not an isolated moment on history's timeline. Instead, such sacramental experience is part of a continuous process, and therefore always accessible.
To emphasize descent in this way implies for Snyder an orientation that is repeated in numerous other poems about wilderness, women, bodies, animals, and the so-called primitive. In proposing an alternative to the tendency in patriarchal monotheism to stress transcendence of the material world, such poetry recalls traditions that model this very world as being sacramental. One consequence of this emphasis is a revaluation of what Adrienne Rich has called "the enormity of the simplest things," those unobtrusive, hidden, everyday activities that facilitate the progress of the dominant culture. In place of a focus on achieving spiritual transcendence of material limits, the poetry repeatedly proposes the importance of mindful attention to ordinary daily activities. Many of the poems therefore celebrate activities that are often viewed as either trivial, or mundane, or insignificant: doing housework, eating and preparing food, gardening, making love, caring for children, looking at animals and plants, fixing machinery.
This view of the quotidian is partly informed by Snyder's involvement with Zen Buddhism, a discipline stressing attention to simple particulars—no activity is intrinsically more valuable than another, and all activities are interconnected. But for Snyder, as for many feminist writers, to write poetry celebrating ordinary activities is also a political choice. If patriarchal discourse silences not only woman and nature but also the sort of work habitually done by women and subject peoples, then it becomes important to assert the value of such silenced work.
To foreground and defend marginalized Other in the ways I have described may be a necessary response to exploitative mastery. But for Snyder, as Buddhist and ecologist, such reversal of value is useful only to the extent that it makes possible a conceptual model not founded in binary oppositions. The function of Snyder's treatment of "nature" and "woman" is, paradoxically, to approach such a model.
As I noted at the beginning, what we call "nature" is, from an ecological viewpoint, not an aggregate of competing, autonomous entities but a cybernetic system in which organism and environment are interdependent. To see this relation in terms of binary oppositions (Self-Other, Nature-Culture) is to misinterpret the necessary exchange of information and energy between constituent participants. In representing this understanding of the natural ecosystem, Snyder's poetry from the period under discussion draws metaphors from those versions of goddess mythology and Buddhism that emphasize the arbitrariness of binary dichotomies. For example, the Buddhist term Prajan-paramita denotes wisdom that has gone beyond all dualisms. But it is also, simultaneously, the name of a goddess. Paradoxical symbolism of this kind is particularly clear in Snyder's account of the goddesses Gaia ("the great biosphere being") and Vak ("the Voice through all"). In each case, the use of the goddess as metaphor of ecological interdependence suggests a basis for a nonbinary conceptual model.
Snyder uses "Gaia" to refer to the planetary ecosystem, the biosphere, the whole earth. This allusion to the primal earth mother suggests a view of "nature" as interdependent system. In Axe Handles, one of the "Little Songs for Gaia" describes it as follows:
ah, this slow-paced system of systems, whirling and turning a five-thousand-year span about all that a human can figure, grasshopper man in his car driving through.
Like a Chinese landscape painting in which human beings are depicted as diminutive figures in a vast natural environment, the poem provides a setting for (and so defamiliarizes) the impact of human agency. In contrast to the hawk's free flight, the insectlike "man in his car" follows a linear track through "nature" as though he is separable from it. But his point of view, which foregrounds the human in opposition to the environment and limits history to five thousand "civilized" years, is qualified by the rest of the poem. By attending to the world that his view marginalizes, the poem evokes an image of the whole biosphere, Gaia, that ancient "system of systems," within whose rhythmic "whirling and turning" each individual is necessarily a participant.
Snyder frequently uses the related metaphors of the net, the woven fabric or web, and the family to evoke this yiew of the biosphere. Like Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology, Snyder associates the traditionally feminine activity of weaving this network of correspondences with a mother goddess, specifically "Mother Gaia." Appropriately, then, in place of the nuclear family as isolated unit, the speaker is located as a member of the family of all beings. The poem "On San Gabriel Ridges" is a characteristic example. Seeing the designs of twigs and seeds that have impressed themselves on his skin, the speaker recognizes his participation in the fabric of interconnection. Old friends and lovers, children, squirrel, and fox are all woven in its pattern, and the present moment is similarly informed by the past, to which it is still connected:
O loves of long ago hello again. and all of us together with all our other loves and children twining and knotting through each other— intricate, chaotic, done.
Family relationships are shown to be part of the same process that links squirrel and fox in the food chain:
woven into the dark. squirrel hairs, squirrel bones crunched tight and dry in scats of fox.
The poem suggests that the life of each is, often quite literally, bound up with that of the others—dissolved, rotten, and reconstituted in a new form. This evidence of the food chain is, then, for Snyder probably the clearest sign of our interdependence in the "family" of Gaia, and many poems deal with this exchange of energies, what he calls "eating each other." Here, as before, the metaphors work to subvert the habitual view of the individual (self, family, class, nation, gender, species) as something separable from the environment.
In Regarding Wave, the goddess Vak is the focusing metaphor for a similar perception of the interdependence of self and ecosystem. Looking at the texture of the phenomenal world, the speaker finds that all things (including himself) are wave-patterned, various expressions of an energy he calls "a shimmering bell / through all." As Vak, or "Voice," this omnipresent energy is metaphorically depicted as a lover. But, as with the image of Gaia as mother, the feminine symbolism refers to the ecosystem as a whole rather than to something outside of and separate from the self. The poems "Wave" and "Regarding Wave" convey the role (simultaneously observer and participant) that this concept implies for the speaker.
If the dominant discourse cannot speak for "the green of the leaf," then Snyder's work seeks a language for what has been silenced. In response to the dualistic model that structures experience in terms of binary oppositions, and so legitimizes the repression and exploitation of the Other, this poetry offers a view of the universe as an interpenetrating network of correspondences. By foregrounding what the dominant culture has marginalized, much of Snyder's writing finds in a metaphorically feminized ecosystem a model of interconnection and relationship that attempts to resist binary division and the exploitation such division implies. Snyder's view, which he has called "a spiritual ecology," is not dependent on belief in a metaphysical "other realm." Instead, it is based on the observation that individual and environment are interdependent, that social formations and psychic relations are inextricable.
Of course, there are contradictions. First, there is the problem any oppositional discourse has in attempting to "talk back": One's own voice takes shape as another text, to be encoded as yet another part of the dominant discourse. Partly for this reason, Zen Buddhist texts characteristically avoid assertions of belief, seeking rather, through paradoxical and illogical expression, to disrupt the sequential, dualistic thinking encoded in language. Julia Kristeva argues similarly that "Once it is represented, even by the form of a woman, the 'truth' of the unconscious passes into the symbolic order," and the Tao Te Ching opens with the words, "The Way which can be spoken is not the Way." And yet we must go on speaking.
A second problem concerns Snyder's tendency to caricature the Western tradition, his consequent identification with its repressed Other, and his use of a gendered image (a goddess) as metaphor for a nondualistic view. Does this not involve a mere reversal of the current model, generating an inverted image of the combatted power, preparing the way for another pattern of dominance, another totalizing ideology? If the simultaneous exploitation of women and the natural biosphere has derived ideological support from the supposed association between "woman" and "nature," is the attempt to renew this association in the metaphors of Gaia and Vak not harmful and regressive? Why use an anthropomorphic metaphor anyway, when its purpose is to evoke a world in which humans are only part of the picture?
For Snyder as Zen poet, all such metaphors, like any linguistic articulation of a nondualistic perspective, are provisional and tentative. Any given metaphor can be valuable as long as it is strategically useful and emotionally compelling. When I interviewed Snyder in 1988, he conceded that gendered metaphors for nature are potentially problematic and suggested that Gaia was "a theatrical device" to be used only "as long as it plays" ("Coyote-Mind"). In his recent contributions to nature's literature, the network of interdependence is evoked in descriptions of what he calls "the wild." There is little mention of goddesses.
It should be clear that my reading of Snyder's position is generally sympathetic. I make my own position explicit because no reading is neutral. Our situation demands that readers, writers, and teachers of literature engage with issues that concern us deeply. From deconstruction and Buddhist teaching, we know about the relativity of all propositions of belief and the fiction of a grounding truth, a transcendental signified. And yet, in these uncertain times, there are some things we can be sure of: The earth is one system, and our lives are interdependent; we live in a suffering world, and there is nowhere else to go. Whatever else may be said, the planetary biosphere, "nature" if you like, is the ground of all our meanings. Snyder calls it "our only sacred spot":
This small blue-green planet is the only one with comfortable temperatures, good air and water, a wealth of animals and plants, for millions (or quadrillions) of miles. A little waterhole in Vast Space, a nesting place, a place of singing and practice, a place of dreaming. It's on the verge of being totally trashed—there's a slow way and a fast way. We are all natives here, and this is our only sacred spot. We must know that we've been jumped, and fight like a raccoon in a pack of hounds, for our own and all other lives. ("Wild")
Certainly, neither textual revolution nor engaged criticism can substitute for social and political transformation. For Snyder, writing poetry is only part of a much wider practice. Poems can't feed the hungry or heal the ozone layer or liberate women or bring justice in South Africa. But sometimes they can disturb our old opinions, enter our dreams, and help us to find new words.
SOURCE: "How to Be in This Crisis: Gary Snyder's Cross-Cultural Vision in Turtle Island," in Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 230-47.
[In the following essay, Yamazato discusses the way in which Snyder's unique interpretation of Buddhism shapes his poetry.]
For Gary Snyder, Buddhism was and is not merely a system of faith and worship; as he succinctly summarizes, "Buddhism is about existence." Buddhism teaches one how to be in this "impermanent" world, and this is one of the aspects of Buddhism that Snyder especially deepened and solidified during his Japanese years (1956–68). Despite persistent skepticism toward traditional, institutionalized Buddhism, he gained valuable insights into its strengths and weaknesses during his stay in Japan, and these insights grew into an ontological vision. "How to be" is the central question that Snyder asks and tries to answer throughout Turtle Island, as in "What Happened Here Before":
now, we sit here near the diggings in the forest, by our fire, and watch the moon and planets and the shooting stars— my sons ask, who are we? drying apples picked from homestead trees drying berries, curing meat, shooting arrows at a bale of straw. military jets head northeast, roaring, every dawn. my sons ask, who are they? WE SHALL SEE WHO KNOWS HOW TO BE Bluejay screeches from a pine.
As he states in his essay "Energy is Eternal Delight," the question of "how to be" is closely related to his vision of an alternative culture: "The return to marginal farmland on the part of longhairs is not some nostalgic replay of the nineteenth century. Here is a generation of white people finally ready to learn from the Elders. How to live on the continent as though our children, and on down, for many ages, will still be here (not on the moon). Loving and protecting this soil, these trees, these wolves. Natives of Turtle Island." In 1970, two years after his return from Japan, Snyder and his family moved to Kitkitdizze—a name he gave the wild land that he bought in 1967. They were joined by others settling roots on the San Juan Ridge, Nevada City, California, and a community began to emerge, a group of people determined to live as "natives of Turtle Island," seeking ways of "how to be." The answer to his sons' question, "who are we?" cannot be separated from the answer to the question of "how to be," and one of many things that makes Gary Snyder a distinguished poet and thinker is that he seeks answers to this perennial compound question by actually experimenting in the heart of Turtle Island, Snyder's mythic, alternative name for North America. He rejects an easy answer, for the question is based on his quest for an alternative culture. In the heart of Turtle Island, he has tested his conviction that "Buddhism is about existence," and Buddhism has been effective in finding an answer to his radical question.
To understand fully Snyder's cross-cultural vision in Turtle Island we need to explore the Buddhist elements that pervade the book. Among the teachings of Buddhist sects that he studied in Japan, Zen Buddhism naturally constitutes his basic attitude, as he suggested in a 1979 interview. In that interview, Snyder laughs away conventional and stereotypic images of Zen Buddhism, and the laughter is indicative of the depth and sophistication that he attained during his rigorous training at the Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. Zen became fundamental for the poet—a way of seeing and working through life—and as such, it manifests itself in such unlikely places as "Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen." At this point, Zen has become so fundamentally embodied in his works that it is difficult to pinpoint particular "Zen aspects" in the poems collected in Turtle Island—as difficult, in fact, as isolating water from the cells of a plant. Zen has become the basis of Snyder's everyday life.
Moreover, it is dangerous to discuss Turtle Island and other works written after the poet's return to the United States solely in terms of Zen, for Snyder also studied and incorporated teachings of other Buddhist schools in Japan, bringing these into play in his work. In Turtle Island, he uses some teachings of other Buddhist sects in his attempt at a "cross-fertilization of ecological thought with Buddhist ideas of interpenetration." Since the Buddhist ideas that Snyder drew on to "cross-fertilize" with ecological ideas have received little critical analysis, a discussion of the Buddhist concept of interpenetration, a key metaphor in Turtle Island, is well in order.
Buddhism holds that every being in this universe is interrelated. According to Junjiro Takakusu, "The universe is not homocentric; it is a co-creation of all beings." In the Buddhist universe, nothing can exist separately from other beings, and "everything is inevitably created out of more than two causes." This is called "Dependent Production or Chain of Causation," or, in Japanese, engisetsu, and, as Takakusu explains it: "From the existence of this, that becomes: from the happening of this, that happens. From the non-existence of this, that does not happen. Everything in the universe is mutually related, and, as Takakusu succinctly puts it, "all is … a product of interdependence."
In Buddhism, there are two ways of explaining the universe. Seen in terms of time, all things contained in the universe are depicted as "impermanent"; but in terms of space, the things in the universe become "interrelated." Snyder occasionally refers to the impermanence of life in this world, yet we should note that he tends increasingly to emphasize the spatial aspect in Buddhism, that is, the interpenetration of all things.
The theory of causation or the idea of universal interpenetration has been developed by various schools of Buddhism. Among these, the Kegon school, which upholds the Avatamsaka sutra, is said to have developed the idea of interpenetration to its climax. The idea of interpenetration, according to D. T. Suzuki, is "the ruling topic of the sutra," and the central image in the sutra is "the world of all realities or practical facts interwoven or identified in perfect harmony." This word is called, in Japanese, jijimuge-hokkai, and the sutra introduces "Indra's net" to illustrate the magnificent image of interpenetration. As Takakusu puts it, it is "a net decorated with bright stone on each knot of the mesh," and the jewels reflect each other endlessly, reflecting "the real facts of the world" mutually interpenetrating. Interpenetration is the fundamental insight of the Avatamsaka sutra, and, by using the image of "Indra's net," the sutra illustrates, in D. T. Suzuki's words, a "perfect network of mutual relations."
From the beginning of his career, Snyder has repeatedly referred to the Avatamsaka sutra and its key image. In "Lookout's Journal," for instance, he writes: "—shifting of light & cloud, perfection of chaos, magnificent jijimu-ge / interlacing interaction." In "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution," an essay first published in 1961, he points out that "Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated." And in "Poetry and the Primitive" an essay later published in Earth House Hold, Snyder sketches the idea of interpenetration in a more elaborate context, foreshadowing its full development in Turtle Island: "… every person, animals, forces, all are related via a web of reincarnation—or rather, they are 'interborn.' It may well be that rebirth (or interbirth, for we are actually mutually creating each other and all things while living) is the objective fact of existence which we have not yet brought into conscious knowledge and practice. "It is clear that the empirically observable interconnectedness of nature is but a corner of the vast 'jewelled net' which moves from without to within."
Continuing in the same vein in a 1973 interview given in New York, Snyder refers again to the fundamental Buddhist idea of interpenetration: "I find it always exciting to me, beautiful, to experience the interdependencies of things, the complex webs and networks by which everything moves, which I think are the most beautiful awarenesses that we can have of ourselves and of our planet." In his lecture, "Reinhabitation," delivered at the Reinhabitation Conference held at San Juan Ridge County School in August of 1976, Snyder continues: "The Avatamsaka ('Flower Wreath') jewelled-net-interpenetration-ecological-systems-emptiness-consciousness tells us, no self-realization without the Whole Self, and the whole self is the whole thing." Even a cursory survey of the poet's references to the nets and webs imagery in the Avatamsaka sutra tells us that Snyder gradually developed and incorporated the key image of this sutra into his own system. We also notice how the idea of interpenetration becomes deepened, refined, and finally solidified as a vital element in the poet's consciousness—as seen in the growth of his ontological vision.
Buddhism and ecology "cross-fertilize" each other well. Coined by the German biologist Ernest Haeckel in 1869, the term ecology has since gained a wide popularity only a century later, and its key concept has been a common assumption of nature-conscious people in the second half of the twentieth century: "All units of the ecosystem are mutually dependent. This is a good point to keep in mind when we are tempted to extol the importance of some group of organisms in which we happen to be especially interested." Humankind is "a part of 'complex' biological cycles" dependent on the food web of eating and being eaten. Snyder was well aware of this key concept of ecology in his early stage, as in "Japan First Time Around," in which he sketches the link in the chain: "salts—diatoms—copepods—herring—fishermen—us, eating."
It is clear, then, that Snyder in Japan deeply realized that Buddhism and ecology shared a vision of the world in terms of the interrelatedness of all beings. The former is a picture of a spiritual world caught in the Eastern religious vision, and the latter a model of the natural world presented by the rational thinking of Western science. During his first sojourn in Japan (1956–57), he discovered the connection between Zen and the Avatamsaka teachings: "So, Zen being founded on Avatamsaka, and the net-network of things," and three short months later, the shared imagery of the Avatamsaka sutra and the principles of ecology were fused in his mind: "Indra's net is not merely two-dimensional …—two days contemplating ecology, foodchains and sex."
Science, for Snyder, does not "murder to dissect." Ecology with its ethical and spiritual dimension is "divine," and he writes that "science walks in beauty" ("Toward Climax"). Unlike many visionaries, he does not reject rational thought, and he is attempting to fuse science and religious teachings to create a guiding principle by which to live on Turtle Island. This is a daring new American synthesis, perhaps not feasible in the vision of traditional Buddhists, as Snyder himself is aware: "Traditional orthodox Buddhists are not concerned with building new cultures any more than they are interested in natural religion or girls. Poets must try to get them together—playing a funny kind of role, today, as pivot-man, between the upheavals of culture-change and the persistence of the Single Eye of Knowledge. In Snyder's continuing synthesis, ecology helps him see his position clearly and concretely in exploring the heart of Turtle Island, and his life there is given a spiritual depth by his acute awareness of the interrelated existence of all beings in the universe. As I shall show, this double structure serves as the basis for most poems in Turtle Island.
Further, the Mahayana belief in bussho, which teaches that all beings are endowed with "Buddha-nature" (the inherent capacity to become a Buddha), demands—along with ecology—that people treat other beings responsibly. The human, in Snyder's words, is "an animal that was brought into being on this biosphere by these processes of sun and water and leaf." Endowed with "Buddha-nature," other beings demand a radically different treatment. Snyder writes that "as the most highly developed tool-using animal, [people] must recognize that the unknown evolutionary destinies of other life forms are to be respected, and act as gentle steward of the earth's community of being" ("Four Changes"). Thus, the insights from the Avatamsaka sutra and other Buddhist teachings merged with an ecological consciousness, to become a guiding principle in living on Turtle Island.
This guiding principle, moreover, involves an attempt to restore "life" to other beings that modern civilization has tended to regard as "dead matter." In his criticism of modern civilization, Snyder writes that "at the root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into account" ("The Wilderness"). Writing in "Four Changes," he goes further, aiming at "transforming" a civilization that he has long found destructive: "We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our 'selves' but to change our culture. If man is to remain on earth he must transform the five-millennia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture." His quest in Japan reaches a climax here, and we understand that his is a vision that, by combining East and West, deeply urges the reader to reconsider the validity of traditional cultural paradigms.
To support and guide one's behavior by a religious vision provided by Buddhism, and to be deeply aware of the ecological reality of Turtle Island, and to learn at the same time from the Native American cultures, all these have offered parts of the answer for the poet's question of "how to be." The poems in Turtle Island reflect Snyder's exploratory life and his pursuit of the perennial question in the heart of the mythic American land. The Buddhist concept of interpenetration, "cross-fertilized" with classical Western ecology, runs beneath the poems collected in Turtle Island and enriches the poetic world depicted there. Solidified in the poet's consciousness during his years in Japan, the Buddhist-ecological matrix manifests itself in various modes in his poems. Some poems in Turtle Island are candidly satiric and political, and Snyder's attack on problems inherent in modern civilization is based on his conviction of the interrelatedness of all beings. In "Front Lines," for instance, the poet depicts the destructiveness in contemporary society. When rain continues and the log trucks are unable to work, "The trees breathe." But the destruction of nature continues: "Every pulse of the rot at the heart / In the sick fat veins of Amerika / Pushes the edge up closer—." A bulldozer is "grinding and slobbering / Sideslipping and belching on top of / The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes." The trees and bushes, depicted thus, are not just dead matter. For Snyder, they share "Buddha-nature" with human beings, all belonging to "the great community of living creatures," and their lives must equally be respected ("Four Changes"). Yet, for the greediness of "a man / From town," trees are suffocated and bushes are destroyed.
Snyder's attitude is not merely that of "a nature lover"; he is indicting a civilization, devoid of sensibility of and respect for other life forms, mindlessly engulfed in its own destructiveness. He goes a step further. As he concludes, we perceive clearly that the interplay of Mahayana Buddhism and his ecological consciousness implies, perhaps even demands, social activism:
Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic And a desert that still belongs to the Piute And here we must draw Our line
The poet's criticism of a destructive civilization and his compassion for "all other members of the life-network" are sometimes expressed as "spells" against destructive forces, incantations that will arrest and convert negative energy ("Four Changes"). "Spel against Demons" (first printed in The Fudo Trilogy, 1973) is a poem that attempts to exorcise the demonic forces inside the civilization by introducing a powerful figure from Buddhism. "ACHALA the Immovable" (Fudomyo-o, in Japanese). Fudomyo-o is a deity that belongs to the Shingon school (also known as Mikkyo; literally, the secret teachings), a branch of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan. The Shingon teachings are said to have originated in second-century India, and, after transmission to China, were systematized in Japan by the Japanese Buddhist Priest Kukai (774-835). According to Shökö Watanabe, Fudomyo-o in Shingon is regarded as an incarnation of the Mahavairocana Buddha or the Great Sun Buddha, whom Snyder also refers to in "On 'As for Poets.'" Originally a Hindu deity, Fudomyo-o became an object of popular worship in Japan after its incorporation into the Shingon teachings.
Shingon or Mikkyo comes into the poet's work through his interest in the Shugendo (or Yamabushi) tradition in Japan (Yamabushi is a Japanese term for those priests who discipline themselves in the mountains). Shugendo originally was a nature-worship religion that borrowed its theoretical basis from Shingon; Fudomyo-o, a deity originally belonging to Shingon, also became a powerful deity for the Shugendo tradition. Snyder's penchant for the tradition manifested itself earlier in his essay, "Anyone with Yama-bushi Tendencies," printed in Zen Notes in 1954. His interest in the tradition persisted throughout the Japanese years, and he did a pilgrimage to Mt. ömine, a sacred mountain for the Yamabushi tradition, and was initiated as a Yamabushi ("a mountain priest") in 1961.
In "Spel against Demons," the poet introduces Fudömyö-ö, hoping to exorcise "demonic energies" in society:
Down with demonic killers who mouth revolutionary slogans and muddy the flow of change, may they be Bound by the Noose, and Instructed by the Diamond Sword of ACHALA the Immovable, Lord of Wisdom, Lord of Heat, who is squint-eyed and whose face is terrible with bare fangs, who wears on his crown a garland of severed heads, clad in a tiger skin, he who turns Wrath to Purified Accomplishment, whose powers are of lava of magma, of deep rock strata, of gunpowder, and the Sun. He who saves tortured intelligent demons and filth-eating hungry ghosts, his spel is, NAMAH SAMANTAH VAJRANAM CHANDA MAHAROSHANA SPHATAYA HUM TRAKA HAM MAM
As we see above, Fudomyo-o (Fudo meaning "Immovable" in Japanese) always holds a sharp sword in his right hand, which subdues devils or evil spirits. The rope, "the Noose," held in the diety's left hand, is used to capture, bind, and lead evil spirits into enlightenment. The facial expression of the deity is fierce and contorted with bare fangs, and his halo is aflame. According to Watanabe, the word achala originally means "something immovable, that is, "mountain," and hence it also represents "nature in general." The mantra, "his spel," that Snyder quotes, is called jikunoshu in Japanese, and it is the most famous among the mantras attributed to Fudomyo-o.
"Spel against Demons" clearly shows that Snyder's studies in Buddhism enlarged beyond Zen, and in the comic and now-famous "Smokey the Bear Sutra" (not included in Turtle Island), he again incorporates Fudomyo-o's mantra, comfortable enough in his Buddhist work to be at once playful and serious:
Wrathful but Calm, Austere but Comic, Smokey the Bear will illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him, HE WILL PUT THEM OUT. Thus his great Mantra: Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana Sphataya hum traka ham mam "I DEDICATE MYSELF TO THE UNIVERSAL DIAMOND BE THIS RAGING FURY DESTROYED"
"Smokey the Bear" unfolds with a discourse given "about 150 million years ago" by "the Great Sun Buddha," in which the Buddha predicts he will enter a new form in America of the future "to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger; and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it. "The Great Sun Buddha then reveals himself "in his true form of SMOKEY THE BEAR." A Fudo figure, Smokey the Bear holds a shovel in his right paw "that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war." The left paw, continuing the Shingon symbology, is "in the Mudra of Comradely Display—indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of Dharma." Thus, for the poet, Smokey the Bear is an American incarnation of Fudomyo-o, an earlier incarnation of the Great Sun Buddha. "Smokey the Bear Sutra" is both a spell against destructive forces and an invocation for, among others, "the age of harmony of man and nature." The "official" image of Smokey the Bear is transformed, and, in Snyder's alternative vision, becomes a guardian deity, protecting not only the oppressed human beings but also the interpenetrating beings from "a civilization that claims to save but only destroys."
While Turtle Island introduces a strong political and satirical tone to Snyder's work, it contains compassionate and sometimes elegiac elements as well. "The Uses of Light," for example, extends his compassion for other beings to include inanimate "stones," and, contrary to its surface simplicity, reflects a deeper harmony:
It warms my bones say the stones I take it into me and grow Say the trees Leaves above Roots below A vast vague white Draws me out of the night Says the moth in his flight— Some things I smell Some things I hear And I see things move Says the deer— A high tower on a wide plain. If you climb up One floor You'll see a thousand miles more.
As the source of energy in the solar system, the sun draws out various reactions from the beings in the poem, and the second stanza is fundamentally ecological. The solar light is pervasive in the world, giving each being energy to live by. But how do people react to this world of light? Unlike other beings given only a limited sight (or no sight, as in the cases of "the stones" and "the trees"), humans climb "a high tower" of vision and wisdom. Their awareness of the idea of interpenetration renders them compassionate, not exploitative, toward other beings—sentient and nonsentient—and the poet implicitly advises readers to use their superior sight both for a harmonious whole and for their function as a "gentle steward of the earth's community of beings." People need "to always look one step farther along" to gain a deeper and clearer vision for "the life-network"—an attitude that Snyder sharpened during his rigorous training in Zen in Japan.
"The Uses of Light" also reflects Snyder's respects for the "Buddha-nature" in other beings, and, in this context, the "light" takes on a spiritual dimension. The principal Buddha in the Avatamsaka sutra is Vairocana (the Sun Buddha), who is depicted in that sutra as the center of the universe. Takakusu explains both the causation theory and the world depicted in the Avatamsaka sutra: "The causation theories particular to this school mean general interdependence, universal relativity, causes and effects being interwoven everywhere. Thus it makes from the beginning one perfect whole without any single independent thing—all comprehensive mandala (circle) and the Cycle of Permanent Waves illumined throughout by the great Sun-Buddha (Vairocana)."
Thus, at a deeper level, "stones," "trees" "moth," "deer," and people in this world are all interrelated and constitute a harmonious whole while illumined by the spiritual light that emanates from the Sun Buddha. The stanzaic arrangement gives the impression that both the sentient and nonsentient beings depicted are separate and independent, and yet one must say that the spiritual light pervades the space between the stanzas, connecting at a deeper level humans and other beings into "one perfect whole."
"Light"—spiritual and ecological—is one of the dominant images in Turtle Island, and another poem, "Two Fawns That Didn't See the Light This Spring," shares a spiritual dimension with "The Uses of Light." The poem consists of two anecdotes told by the poet's friends. First, "a friend in a tipi in the / Northern Rockies" hunting whitetail shoots by mistake a doe carrying a fawn. The friend is not wasteful, and he expiates his mistake by performing a "ritual": "He cured the meat without / salt; sliced it following the grain." The second anecdote is told by a woman in the Northern Sierra. She hits a doe with her car, and the poet's friends perform an impromptu "ritual" of death and birth. Butchering the doe, they discover a fawn:
"—about so long— so tiny—but all formed and right. It had spots. And the little hooves were soft and white."
In Snyder's Buddhist-ecological vision, to be born permeated with "light" is basically joyful; we do not "wawl and cry" coming into this world. As he suggests in the Buddhist detachment in "Night Heron," the joy of birth and death arises from the fact that one becomes interrelated with and serviceable to other beings in the network illumined by the spiritual-ecological "light":
the joy of all the beings is in being older and tougher and eaten up.
In "Two Fawns That Didn't See the Light This Spring," Snyder expresses his controlled sorrow for the two fawns that missed being part of the joyful, interdependent world permeated by the "light" that emanates from one compassionate Buddha. Snyder does not explicitly lament, and yet his sorrow and sense of loss take on an elegiac tone.
"The Hudsonian Curlew" is one of the most successful poems in Turtle Island in depicting interdependency between humans and other animals. It involves "killing" birds, but is an affirmative poem based on the poet's idea of the Buddhist-ecological interpenetration of beings in this world. What we see in the poem is the ritual of the food web, of eating and being eaten. The eating has a spiritual significance arising from Snyder's veneration for the life of other beings.
The poem unfolds with an image of "the Mandala of Birds." Amid the gathering of various birds, the human being is simply another animal engaged in hunting for food:
we gather driftwood for firewood for camping get four shells to serve up steamed snail.
The hunters then shoot two curlews, and the poet dwells on the concrete preparation of the birds for eating. It is a long passage, but the whole is worth quoting:
The down i pluck from the neck of the curlew eddies and whirls at my knees in the twilight wind from sea. kneeling in sand warm in the hand. "Do you want to do it right? I'll tell you." he tells me. at the edge of the water on the stones. a transverse cut just below the sternum the forefinger and middle finger forced in and up, following the curve of the ribcage. then fingers arched, drawn slowly down and back, forcing all the insides up and out, toward the palm and heel of the hand. firm organs, well-placed, hot. save the liver; finally scouring back, toward the vent, the last of the large intestine. the insides string out, begin to wave, in the lapping waters of the bay. the bird has no features, head, or feet; he is empty inside. the rich body muscle that he moved by, the wingbeating muscle anchored to the blade-like high breast bone, is what you eat.
The "i" in this poem is drastically different from the dwarfed, passive "i" seen, for instance, in the works of e. e. cummings. Snyder's humble but joyfully monistic "i" is aware of his place in the interpenetrating web, and the "i" recognizes the potentialities of other beings and their "Buddha-nature." This perhaps is a radically new "i" in modern poetry written in English. The traditional, "anthropocentric" modern "I" cannot assert its superiority in the world of this poem, and gratitude, not guilt or aggressiveness, is the central attitude in this food web of eating and being eaten. Moreover, the minute and concrete depiction of the preparation and cooking of the bird, combined with the poet's neatness, accuracy, and reverential attitude—"kneeling in sand"—in the process suggests a spiritual depth; depicted thus, eating finally becomes a joyful ritual of the food web. In "Japan First Time Around," the poet asks: "just where am I in this food-chain?" This is 1956, and Snyder, in a sense, disciplined himself in Japan to find an answer for this ontological question. By combining Buddhism and ecology (and perhaps through a Native American model for bunting), he found an answer for the question, offering it to his reader.
As I mentioned earlier, Zen is pervasive in Turtle Island, and, in addition to the underlying Kegon (Avatamsaka) philosophy, we detect an unmistakable Zen attitude in this poem. It reflects the poet's ritualistic neatness and attention to small details sharpened in his Zen training; as Snyder records in "Japan First Time Around," "the Zen Master's presence is to help one keep attention undivided." Further, the Zen attitude is reflected in the central act of this poem, that is, eating. As Snyder points out in The Wooden Fish (a manual of Zen that Snyder and Kanetsuki Gutetsu, a Japanese colleague, compiled), "Eating is a sacrament in Zen training. No other aspect of ordinary human daily life is treated with quite such formality or reverence in the Sodo la training hall for monks]." That eating is a sacrament is also evidenced in the verses that monks recite before meals. I quote below a representative verse from The Wooden Fish:
First, let us reflect on your own work, let us see whence this comes; Secondly, let us reflect how imperfect our virtue is, whether we deserve this offerings [sic]. Thirdly, what is most essential is to hold our minds in control and be detached from the various faults, greed, etc. Fourthly, that this is taken as medicinal to keep our bodies in good health; Fifthly, in order to accomplish the task of enlightenment we accept this food.
This verse is called, in Japanese, Shokuji gokan ("The Five Reflections"), and it clearly shows the Zen attitude toward eating. Although the passage quoted from "The Hudsonian Curlew" does not show metaphysical elaboration, its reverential and sacramental attitude toward the birds is convincing and renders the poem one of the most successful in Turtle Island.
Since the Buddhist-ecological interpenetration is best rendered concretely and specifically, a number of poems focus on home life at Kitkitdizze. These poems directly reflect the poet's earliest exploration of the literal land and a quest for its mythical element, essential parts of his attempt to establish a sense of place, and—ultimately—to find answers for the question of "how to be." To develop a sense of place means to live as a native of the land, not as a sojourner, and the life of the land at the same time is a quest for a vision of a new, alternative culture as it flowers.
Snyder's life at Kitkitdizze as reflected in Turtle Island is exploratory; he wants to know accurately where he is, and, as he states in a 1974 lecture, it is "a work to be done," and essentially "the old American quest … for an identity." He had envisioned such a life during his long sojourn in Japan—he bought the land in 1967, a year before his permanent return—and, with his vision for an alternative culture, his life at Kitkitdizze reflects the work of exploration in the forest of North America.
"The Wild Mushroom," for instance, shows the poet exploring the forest at Kitkitdizze. He and his son Kai go mushrooming with "A basket and a trowel / And a book with all the rules," and the father gives the following instruction:
Don't ever eat Boletus If the tube-mouths they are red Stay away from the Amanitas Or brother you are dead.
These instructions are directed not only to his son but also to the reader and the poet himself, and thus, mushrooming is a way of knowing Turtle Island. This exploration is full of joy, and the poem becomes a praise for the interpenetrating web, acknowledging the identity of a mushroom family that, "Shining through the woodland gloom," coexists with the poet's family in this place in North America.
The exploration of Turtle Island continues, bringing in the process the poet and his family closer to the land. "The Bath" depicts the love and harmony in the family, and the poem ultimately becomes a praise for our body and the earth on which we live, perhaps Snyder's most ecstatic vision of harmony. We see the family settling deeper into the land, and the familial harmony depicted in the simple act of bathing reflects the larger web of beings:
Clean, and rinsed, and sweating more, we stretch out on the redwood benches hearts all beating Quiet to the simmer of the stove, the scent of cedar And then turn over, murmuring gossip of the grasses, talking firewood, Wondering how Gen's napping, how to bring him in soon wash him too— These boys who love their mother Who loves men, who passes on her sons to other women; The cloud across the sky. The windy pines. the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadowthis is our body Fire inside and boiling water on the stove We sigh and slide ourselves down from the benches Wrap the babies, step outside, black night & all the stars.
Instead of depicting a tension between human and nature, the passage arrests and asserts a harmonious moment in which every being in this cosmos contributes tenderly to sustain each other. The sky, winds, trees, waters, grasses, animals, children, men, and women are the members of "great / earth / sangha" ("O Waters.") The poem implies an answer for the question of "how to be," and the poet affirms, laughing with his family on "the Great Earth," the life that he and his family are creating on Turtle Island.
The knowledge gained in living everyday life on the land and the spiritual attitudes that underlie such a life must be transmitted, as Snyder in "Energy Is Eternal Delight" implies, to community, to society, and to posterity as a legacy if one is to continue fruitfully to live in a place as a native of it. In this sense, Snyder increasingly becomes a "teacher" in his poetry and essays; his is not only one person's vision but is directed to humanity at large. By his reverential and attentive attitude toward nature, and by actually living close to a devastated territory—an aftermath of hydraulic gold mining and logging—he seeks a way of healing it, which in turn teaches his reader and audience how to live in this world of ecological crisis.
In "Pine Tree Tops," Snyder depicts the interpenetrating natural world that is almost mythic and sacred beyond people's meager knowledge:
in the blue night frost haze, the sky glows with the moon pine tree tops bend snow-blue, fade into sky, frost, starlight. the creak of boots. rabbit tracks, deer tracks, what do we know.
The beauty of the interpenetrating nature that the poet captures this night is awesome, and he characteristically avoids asserting his presence in the world—a typical Snyder poem that places "human tracks" next to "rabbit tracks" and "deer tracks." The last line is almost an ecstatic statement, telling the reader that dissecting, dichotomizing knowledge is unnecessary and that this holistic nocturnal beauty arising from the interpenetration of all beings is just enough.
Continuing in the same vein, in "By Frazier Creek Falls," Snyder shows that people are not separate from nature, that finally "We are it":
This living flowing land is all there is, forever We are it it sings through us— We could live on this Earth without clothes or tools!
Earlier in his career, Snyder referred to Japanese literature to show human inseparability from nature; by this stage of his development, however, such literary allusions are no longer necessary. He finds new values through his direct contact with the interpenetrating land on Turtle Island, and those values are offered, along with his discoveries, to the reader, to the larger society, and to posterity. Thus, the merging of Buddhism and ecology has become an essential element in Snyder's exploratory poems on Turtle Island, and, beyond enriching the poetic world, these poems are didactic, directing poet and reader to answers for the question of "how to be."
Snyder believes that, in its anthropocentric view of the world, modern industrial civilization—East and West—has tended to ignore the lives of other beings that coexist with humanity. From this general tendency, it has earned the ecological crisis that we witness today. Turtle Island offers the reader not only a sense of "how to be" in a world with just such an ecological crisis but also, in Charles Molesworth's words, "a new sense of what it means to be human." Gary Snyder blends the insights gained in his cross-cultural quest in Japan and Western traditions (including the indigenous American cultures) to create a vision that transcends the mythic American land. By creating the myth of Turtle Island and unfolding it to the reader in his poetry and prose, he urges the reader to reconsider the validity of the old myths on which modern civilization is based. His cross-cultural quest begun in the mid-1950s thus results in a new ontological vision.
SOURCE: Review of The Practice of the Wild, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 382-83.
[In the following review, Strickland praises Snyder's wisdom and attention to craftsmanship in the essays from The Practice of the Wild.]
Reading the essays in The Practice of the Wild one can almost see Gary Snyder, the new-age hunter-gatherer so enamored of "good tools" and "high quality information," pecking away at his Macintosh computer (to which he has written a celebratory poem)—the consummate Zen craftsman of words. None of the 1960's rhetoric sometimes found in his earlier essays is here, only eloquence and an "ecology of language." Whether the subject is the history of communal lands and the development of wilderness areas, or the implications of an imposed Western-culture curriculum for the education of twenty-first-century Alaskan Inupiaq children, Snyder's tone is always careful and driven by a pinpoint focus of thought. Such focus was already there in the earlier work, with its even-handed weighing of alternatives in favor of "the old ways," but what makes his new collection of essays so riveting is its exquisite craftsmanship and new maturity in style.
The Practice of the Wild offers a series of deeply entwined discourses on geography, ecology, history, ecofeminism, linguistics, and Native American culture. In the tradition of Montaigne and Thoreau, Snyder refuses to follow a prescriptive formula; instead, we are invited to follow the consciousness of the author as he explores his subject, to participate in learning rather than observe a performance. This is the essay as meditation, what William Covino calls "the art of wondering."
One of Snyder's most effective devices is the personal anecdote, which he uses throughout these essays as metaphor—rather like the discursive Zen koan. One of my favorites has Snyder standing with a climbing partner on the peak of a glacier, observing the vast beauty of the wilderness around them, and the partner saying, "You mean there's a senator for all this?" Such are the gemstones of these essays, scattered throughout, as when we are reminded that we too are wild: "Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart in the throat in a moment of danger … all universal responses of this mammalian body. They can be seen throughout the class."
Snyder has been one of our most ardent spokespersons for the bioregionalism movement, and he describes himself as "foremost a person of the Yuba River country in the Sierra Nevada of northern California." Bioregionalism is the concept that political borders should not be arbitrarily imposed, but should reflect natural boundaries of geography, flora, and fauna. For instance, the Douglas fir is the definitive flora of Snyder's "Shasta bioregion" of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. As he points out, "[t]he presence of this tree signifies a rainfall and a temperature range and will indicate what your agriculture might be, how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you'd need."
To understand one's bioregion in Snyder's terms is to know "the spirit of a place." At a conference of Native American leaders and activists, Snyder hears a Crow elder say, "You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough—even white people—the spirits will begin to speak to them…. [T]he spirits and the old powers aren't lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them."
Critics have sometimes complained about a surface simplicity in Snyder's work, particularly in his poetry. Yet what seems to be simplicity is nearly always the reflection and influence of his Zen and Native American roots. There is a deep wellspring of wisdom and tradition that runs throughout his writing and urges us to "make a world-scale 'Natural Contract' with the oceans, the air, the birds in the sky." Any serious consideration of Snyder's work, whether critical text or classroom study, now must include The Practice of the Wild.
SOURCE: "Chants and Chainsaws," in New York Times Book Review, December 27, 1992, p. 2.
[In the following excerpt, Tillinghast praises No Nature for uniting a lifetime of Snyder's work.]
Only in our age could a poem have been written that gives an account of life in California's Sierra Nevada from the perspective of 300 million years of natural and human history. And only Gary Snyder, with a command of geology, anthropology and evolutionary biology unmatched among contemporary poets, could have written that poem, "What Happened Here Before."
"First a sea: soft sands, muds, and marls," the poem begins, "loading, compressing, heating, crumpling." Then 220 million years along the evolutionary trail, "warm quiet centuries of rains." There is an understated majesty about the ease with which Mr. Snyder puts the present into perspective. He sketches the life of California Indians: And human people came with basket hats and nets winter-houses underground yew bows painted green, feasts and dances for the boys and girls songs and stories in the smoky dark.
And when the European settlers appear in search of gold, their life is evoked with a quick brushstroke: "horses, apple-orchards, card-games, / pistol-shooting, churches, county jail."
Mr. Snyder writes in an allusive journal-entry style that owes something to Ezra Pound's later poetry, and he also follows in the lineage of Pound as the type of self-taught, extramural American scholar who follows his own compass into uncharted territory. Born in San Francisco in 1930 to working-class parents, Mr. Snyder grew up in Oregon. He worked as a logger and laborer, then manned a Forest Service lookout tower and worked on a trail-building crew in the Sierras, where he developed a love for wilderness that would later lead him into environmental politics. Somewhere along the line he found time to graduate from Reed College and to study Oriental languages at the University of California, Berkeley.
In the 1950's, he shipped out as a merchant seaman and then sojourned for 10 years in Japan, where he lived in a Buddhist monastery and learned the practice of Zen before Zen became a household word in the United States. He made a pilgrimage to the Indian subcontinent with Allen Ginsberg and others. Jack Kerouac wrote a fictional portrait of him as Japhy Ryder in the novel The Dharma Bums. Mr. Snyder has had the knack of anticipating trends such as environmentalism, Eastern spirituality and communal living that have later become influential in the culture at large.
Having participated in the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco that marked the first public impact of the Beat Generation as a literary phenomenon, Mr. Snyder had the staying power to play an important role in the 60's counterculture, when the environment became a political issue at the time of the People's Park demonstrations in Berkeley. His essay "Why Tribe" was influential among commune dwellers. He may have been the first American poet to use the word "ecology": the title of his book of prose writings Earth House Hold is a free rendering into plain English of what was then an unfamiliar word.
Longtime readers of Gary Snyder's poetry will have on their shelves his classic New Directions paperbacks with their austere black-and-white covers, their pages dogeared and stained from hard traveling on the overland trek to India and Nepal, rained on during camping trips to Yosemite. His new book, No Nature, brings together a generous sampling of the poetry and allows one to read it as one consistent lifetime's work.
Work is something this poet, who has combined a number of jobs, most of them outdoors, with his studies and his writing, evokes uncommonly well. In his poems we hear the sound of "a ringing tire iron / dropped on the pavement" and the "whang of a saw / brusht on limbs" (from "Some Good Things to Be Said for the Iron Age"). In "What You Should Know to Be a Poet," he praises "work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted / and livd with and finally lovd." Technology, particularly old technology, fascinates him. Here, in its entirety, is "Removing the Plate of the Pump on the Hydraulic System of the Backhoe": Through mud, fouled nuts, black grime it opens, a gleam of spotless steel machined-fit perfect swirl of intake and output relentless clarity at the heart of work.
At the same time, no one has written so forcefully against urban sprawl, pollution and mechanization, the "thousands / and thousands of cars / driving men to work." Somehow he has managed to stay outside what used to be called the System and to remain a free man….
SOURCE: Review of No Nature, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. 164, No. 3, June, 1997, pp. 167-71.
[In the following review of No Nature, Barber argues that Snyder's work has lost an element of vitality and urgency.]
With the appearance of Riprap in 1959, Gary Snyder added contour and credence to the emerging claims of a Pound-Williams line of descent in midcentury American poetry, a poetics of open forms and seemingly limitless prescriptive dictums. Snyder's poems looked the part and fit the bill: they were "fields of action," they were "composed in the sequence of the musical phrase," they had a sinewy, backcountry specificity that seemed manifestly in the spirit of "no ideas but in things." They were also suggestibly radical in outlook and orientation, informed by ecology, anthropology, and regional folklore, responsive to the gravitational pull of what would later be coined the "Pacific Rim," altogether aloof to the anxieties of influence afflicting so many metrically baptized poets of Snyder's generation.
In hindsight it's easier to see that the "poetics of the new American poetry," as one widely noted anthology called it, was more of a loose amalgamation of experimental energies and polemical attitudes than any kind of true school or unified crusade. What's clearer too is that Snyder's most enduring work stands some considerable distance apart from these much-documented countercultural agitations and affiliations. Alone among his cohort, Snyder staked himself to a prosody of disciplined contemplative acuity and distilled perceptual awareness, a poetry of mindfulness rather than intellect, a tradition of Asian quietism and concision, craft so well-tempered and translucent that it borders on artlessness:
Down valley a smoke haze Three days heat, after five days rain Pitch glows on the fir-cones Across rocks and meadows Swarms of new flies. I cannot remember the things I once read A few friends, but they are in cities. Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup Looking down for miles Through high still air."Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout"
What made this poem original and disarming—genuinely radical, even—in the late '50s remains largely undiminished: lines governed by pulse and cadence as opposed to regular stresses, phrasing that's at once telegraphic and meticulously scored, emotion and significance entrusted to the inner workings of rhythm, measure, and syntax rather than given over to the self-dramatizing dynamics of tone, style, or "voice." Here on the opening page of No Nature, we can see that Snyder has already advanced well beyond an ideogramic method a la Pound, has already transformed technique into temperament. Nor is this limpid mastery mainly a paradigmatic instance of an "Oriental" manner smoothly assumed. The form and demeanor may point us to Far Eastern models of thought and expression, but the ear that parses this poem's measure is cannily attuned to the grain of English, to the patterns and tolerances of sound that run beneath the surface of the poet's native tongue. It's the same knowing counter-balance that's evident in a later Snyder poem that's rightfully become a favorite anthology piece, "Pine Tree Tops":
in the blue night frost haze, the sky glows with the moon pine tree tops bend snow-bluè, fade into sky, frost, starlight. the creak of boots. rabbit tracks, deer tracks, what do we know.
Snyder's seductive offhandedness has had many imitators, but he really has no peer when it comes to this spare mode of spacious utterance. Part of the secret lies in how coolly Snyder sheds the overfamiliar first-person singular that dominates the vast share of American lyric poetry: in effacing himself to the point where all that remains is "the creak of boots," he also liberates himself from a vision of the natural world overshadowed by the Egotistical Sublime of the English Romantics. The linguistic torque of "bend snow-blue, fade / into sky" is worth a fortnight of "craft" workshops; the vernacular inscrutability of those closing three lines epitomizes the comingling of naturalism and mysticism that has been one of Snyder's most singular contributions to the poetic sensibility of his day.
Snyder has also excelled through the years at writing a quite different kind of meditative poem, so-called poems of "process" in which the rhythmic and verbal cast aims at embodying not charged stillness but the apprehended experience of recurrence and flux. The conception is clearly an outgrowth of Snyder's deep and abiding immersion in Buddhism and his preoccupation with what he refers to in one essay as "the mythological present," but in practice these philosophical trappings are neither as abstruse or ethereal as a generalized description makes them sound. On the contrary, this attention to the interconnectedness of matter and spirit has prompted Snyder to write a handful of stirring homages to human labor and rugged toil—celebrations of "Wedge and sledge, peavey and maul / little axe, canteen, piggyback can / of saw-mix gas and oil for the chain, / knapsack of files and goggles and rags" ("Getting in the Wood") or of the arduous chore of stowing away "Hay for the Horses": "With winch and ropes and hooks / We stacked the bales up clean / To splintery redwood rafters / High in the dark … / Itch of haydust in the / sweaty shirt and shoes." These poems help remind us that Snyder has never been a "nature poet" in the conventional sense of the term, any more than he's presumed to be a Zen master or a modern shaman. Few contemporary poets have written with such authentic incisiveness about the particulars of work and the rhythms of subsistence, and done so without succumbing to class-rooted righteousness or rural nostalgia.
Snyder's most realized work holds up so well precisely because its intrinsic precepts stem from sources and traditions other than the strictly literary. It's also earned Snyder a wider readership and broader cultural relevance than most serious poets ever come close to mustering, especially those who deliberately swim clear of the mainstream. No Nature suggests, however, that all this has been something of a mixed blessing: the vigor and output of Snyder's poetry has clearly been on the wane over the last 20 years, even as his social and ethical insights have gained stronger currency. Combing through these forty-odd years of work, one is struck by how even the more obscure and diffuse efforts from his early to mid career—the totemic, incantatory sequences from Myths and Texts, the oracular songs and Japanese settings of Regarding Wave—exude an urgency and restlessness that's all but dissolved in the poems Snyder's published since his Pulitzer-winning 1974 collection Turtle Island. The younger Snyder wouldn't have abided the looseness, not to mention the unexamined sentiment, of the opening lines from "For All" ("Ah to be alive / on a mid-September morn / fording a stream / barefoot") and would have found a way to keep the truths articulated in a poem like "Axe Handles" from shading off into truisms: "And I see: Pound was an axe, / Chen was an axe, I am an axe / And my son a handle, soon / To be shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on." The poet who was formerly adept at elucidating intimations now seems to be content with simply espousing positions.
It would be churlish to point out that the younger Snyder also wasn't university professor, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, or an official California poet laureate (so named during the tenure of former governor Jerry Brown, who makes suitably offbeat appearances in a couple of Snyder's later poems here). Only avowed detractors will want to claim that worldly success has softened the man or left him overly fond of playing the sage. The best of Snyder's newer poems are leavened with a humor and self-deprecation that some readers may find a refreshing departure from the hermetic portentousness that runs through his best-known books; a mildness and crinkle-eyed autumnal serenity has replaced the old avid thirst for enlightenment. In "The Sweat" he says as much: "Older is smarter and more tasty. / Minds tough and funny—many lovers—/ At the end of days of talking / Science, writing, values, spirit, politics, poems—." And while it's true that Snyder's mellowness is often indistinguishable from an easiness, an absence of animating drive, it also strengthens one's conviction that he's resisted the temptation from the beginning to write programmatically or to fall back on the tried-and-true for the sake of generating material. Snyder's essential poems would make for a far more slender volume than the bulky assemblage in No Nature, yet they would more than clinch the case that Snyder ranks among the small company of figures who have vitally altered the way American poetry moves and breathes.
SOURCE: "The Critter Poet," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 12, March 24, 1997, pp. 38-42.
[In the following review, Benfey reconsiders Snyder's career from the 1950s to the present.]
Gary Snyder was a character in a novel before he published his own first book. In Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, that vivid account of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and the Beat movement, there is a biographical sketch of Japhy Ryder, "the number one Dharma Bum of them all":
Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later in Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology. Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China and Japan. At the same time, being a Northwest boy with idealistic tendencies, he got interested in oldfashioned I.W.W. anarchism and learned to play the guitar and sing old worker songs to go with his Indian songs and general folksong interests.
This is the beginning of the Snyder myth. For all I know, and for all that I can glean from Snyder's autobiographical writings, it is entirely true.
What makes The Dharma Bums a pleasure to read, forty years after its publication, is the way Kerouac, in the guise of his ordinary-Joe narrator, undercuts Japhy Ryder's humorless, self-satisfied ethos. Ray, the writer's stand-in, walks into Japhy's shack, and there is Japhy "sitting cross-legged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, 'Ray come in,' and bent his eyes again to the script." "What you doing?" "Translating Han Shan's great poem called 'Cold Mountain' written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings." "Wow." Japhy proceeds to teach Ray all about Asian poetry and culture, including the proper way to have sex. When Ray walks in on Japhy, in the lotus position, making meditative love ("yabyum") to a woman called Princess, Japhy explains that "This is what they do in the temples of Tibet. It's a holy ceremony, it's done just like this in front of chanting priests. People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void. I'm the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see."
A part of Gary Snyder's considerable prestige in the small world of American poetry is owed to the impression that he has put in the time and done the work: graduate study in anthropology at Berkeley; summers on lookout duty in national forests and parks ("The prolonged stay in mountain huts … gave me my first opportunity to seriously sit cross-legged"); ten years in Japan, mainly in the 1960s, doing Zen and studying Japanese aesthetics; his current roughhewn life with his family on a hundred acres in the Sierra foothills, with a teaching appointment in English and ecology at the University of California at Davis. All this experience has gone into Snyder's poetry, the best of which manages to suppress his didactic side.
Snyder at his most moving is an elegiac poet, mourning the loss of forests, "critters" (as he calls animals), lovers, places. Snyder at his most annoying is the pedantic guv on the Paisley pillow who says, "I'm the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see." To those of us in whose early intellectual lives Snyder was a significant chapter, a return to his work after long absence can have its own embarrassments. When I was 17, spending a year in Japan, Snyder's The Back Country (1968) was one of the books that I carried everywhere with me. My favorite poem in it, which I still know by heart, was "December at Yase," the last of the "Four Poems for Robin." It begins:
You said, that October, In the tall dry grass by the orchard When you chose to be free, "Again someday, maybe ten years." After college I saw you One time. You were strange. And I was obsessed with a plan.
Ten years and more go by, in which the poet considers trying to win the woman's love back. "I didn't. / I thought I must make it alone. I / Have done that." The poem concludes:
Only in dream, like this dawn. Does the grave, awed intensity Of our young love Return to my mind, to my flesh. We had what the others All crave and seek for; We left it behind at nineteen. I feel ancient, as though I had Lived many lives. And may never now know If I am a fool Or have done what my karma demands.
I can't say whether this poem is any good. It's too close to me, and it too perfectly captures some of my own feelings from those days. I can see now how the poem uses little clumps of Imagist detail, drawn from Pound's translations from the Chinese: "in the tall dry grass by the orchard," and how the enjambment is rather arch: "After college I saw you / One time." But, even when I was young, I knew that those last two lines about karma were a disaster. (They're crossed out in my battered copy of the book.) What they show is that Snyder, as he looks back on his early obsession "with a plan," still subscribes to one, a higher one, which he now calls "karma." All the uncertainty and the wistfulness and the delicacy of the rest of the poem is caught in the harsh headlights of "what my karma demands."
Something similar happens toward the end of what may be Snyder's best and most enduring poem, "I Went into the Maverick Bar" (from Turtle Island, 1974):
I went into the Maverick Bar In Farmington, New Mexico. And drank double shots of bourbon backed with beer. My long hair was tucked up under a cap I'd left the earning in the car. Two cowboys did horseplay by the pool tables, A waitress asked us where are you from? a country-and-western band began to play "We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie" And with the next song, a couple began to dance. They held each other like in High School dances in the fifties; I recalled when I worked in the woods and the bars of Madras, Oregon. That short-haired joy and roughness—America— your stupidity. I could almost love you again. We left—onto the freeway shoulders—under the tough old stars— In the shadow of bluffs I came back to myself, To the real work, to "What is to be done."
Snyder's pleasure in being able to "pass" for a macho man is nicely rendered here, and the temptations of that life are palpable in the poem. But the rejection of "that short-haired joy and roughness" is too pat in those final two lines. One wishes this guy weren't quite so certain about the nature of the "real work," a favorite phrase of Snyder's. The revolutionary readiness of Lenin's old phrase, "what is to be done," sends a chain-saw through all that romance in the bar. Snyder knows that the dancing couples are part of the problem, and that he has the solutions. He's like the wistful revolutionary who muses, "What a beautiful church. I was baptized here. Too bad I have to blow it up."
Prescriptions for "the real work" and lists of "what is to be done" dominate Snyder's prose, much of which is collected in A Place in Space. On reducing world population, for example:
Try to correct traditional cultural attitudes that tend to force women into childbearing; remove income-tax deductions for more than two children above a specified income level, and scale it so that lower income families are forced to be careful, too…. Explore other social structures and marriage forms, such as group marriage and polyandrous marriage, which provide family life but many less children.
The decisive verbs here are "correct" and "force." Correct those wrongheaded cultural attitudes and force those poor families to be careful.
In recent years, Snyder has become a popular speaker on the Green circuit. He is the unofficial poet laureate of the environmentalist movement. A few years ago, he exhorted the graduating class of Reed College, his alma mater: "Let's go on into the twenty-first century lean, mean, and green." (No quibble with lean and green, but why mean?) In his recent prose, Snyder is particularly attentive to the link between "endangered cultures and species." He insists that "the destruction of cultural diversity goes hand in hand with ecological destruction." So he's a strong proponent of ethnopoetics, "the study of the poetries and poetics of non-literary peoples," which he compares to "some field of zoology that is studying disappearing species."
But, while Snyder loves nonliterary poetry, he seems to have little fondness for the literary kind, especially if it comes from the West. As he sees it, Western poetry is dominated by "the Judeo-Christian-Cartesian view of nature (by which complex views all developed nations excuse themselves for their drastically destructive treatment of the landscape)." That's quite a three-headed monster, the Cerberus of Western culture, but I don't see what critters have to fear from it. Why should Jews or Christians or Descartes be held as prime suspects in crimes of ecological disaster? I'm sure Snyder has in mind some vague notion of a sinister "dualism," as against the "holistic" conceptions of nature and humanity presumably found everywhere else on the globe. He evidently assumes that such arguments and objections no longer need to be spelled out.
Snyder's prose is laced with American Indian sayings and Zen proverbs and Chinese epigrams, but he almost never quotes a "Western" poet. In a talk on "Unnatural Writing," he does pause to take a swipe at two lines by Howard Nemerov: "Civilization, mirrored in language, is the garden where relations grow," wrote Nemerov, "outside the garden is the wild abyss." While Nemerov may be, as Snyder patronizingly calls him, "a good poet and a decent man," he is, judging from these lines, an enemy of nature, and in need of correction:
The unexamined assumptions here are fascinating. They are, at worst, crystallizations of the erroneous views that enable the developed world to displace Third and Fourth World peoples and over-exploit nature globally. Nemerov here proposes that language is somehow implicitly civilized or civilizing, that civilization is orderly, that intrahuman relations are the pinnacle of experience (as though all of us, and all life on the planet, were not interrelated), and that "wild" means "abyssal," disorderly, and chaotic.
Poor Nemerov, displacer of Third and Fourth World peoples, all because he suggested that language is better equipped for gardens than for wilderness. But even Whitman, whom one might have expected to garner some praise from Snyder, is chastised for his errors of thought, in a talk that Snyder delivered in Spain on the hundredth anniversary of Whitman's death:
Whitman is unexcelled in his attribution of a kind of divinity to ordinary (white) men and women. However, the respect and authenticity he gives to human beings is not extended to nonhuman creatures.
But is this true? Here's the fourteenth section of "Song of Myself" (1891–92):
The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation, The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listening close, Find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.
This is the Whitman who said, "I think I could turn and live with animals…. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins"; the Whitman who said, when his tread scared the wood-drake and the wood-duck, "I believe in those wing'd purposes"; who said, "And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me."
But Snyder has not been reading Leaves of Grass. His dismissal of Whitman, it turns out, is based on a cursory reading of Democratic Vistas, in which, according to Snyder, "we miss the presence of people of color, of Native Americans, of wilderness, or even the plain landscape." Well, then, one feels like shouting at Snyder, why don't you read Whitman's damn poetry, in which you will find all these things, and in richer and more convincing profusion than in any other American poet of his time or after?
Snyder's prose is too often chastising, moralizing, didactic. His best essay by far is called "Crawling," a three-page description of what it feels like to navigate on one's stomach through the Sierra underbrush:
No way to travel off the trail but to dive in: down on your hands and knees on the crunchy manzanita leaf cover and crawl around between the trunks. Leather work gloves, a tight-fitting hat, long-sleeved denim work jacket, and old Filson tin pants make a proper crawler's outfit. Along the ridge a ways, and then down a steep slope through the brush, belly-sliding on snow and leaves like an otter—you get limber at it…. To go where bears, deer, raccoons, foxes—all our other neighbors—go, you have to be willing to crawl.
This is fresh and exhilarating. It reads like a poet's prose. "You can smell the fall mushrooms when crawling." There are perhaps a dozen pages like this in A Place in Space.
Already in that Berkeley shack, on April 8, 1956, Snyder had begun Mountains and Rivers Without End, a title that—as sections were published across forty years—came to seem predictive. Now Snyder has declared the poem finished, and published it in a handsome volume, with the twelfth-century Chinese scroll painting that inspired it reproduced on the endpapers. He has appended a helpful essay on the making of the poem, as well as explanatory notes and a publication record of where the many parts of the long poem first appeared.
Do the many sections of Mountains and Rivers comprise a single long poem? If so, it's a pretty loose and baggy one. The guiding metaphor of the structure of the poem is the gradual unfolding of the painted scroll, with the reading and viewing eye following the progress of a journey through a landscape of mountains and rivers. The book opens with a masterly description—in the tradition of ekphrasis, or writing inspired by a painting—of the painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art that serves as Snyder's muse.
Rider and walker cross a bridge above a frothy braided torrent that descends from a flurry of roofs like flowers temples tucked between cliffs, a side trail goes there….
Snyder doesn't ignore the seals and the writings at the end of the scroll, added by owners and connoisseurs. One of these jottings says: "… Most people can get along with the noise of dogs and chickens; / Everybody cheerful in these peaceful times. / But I—why are my tastes so odd? I love the company of streams and boulders." It's clear that Snyder conceives of his poem as another such tribute, added to the scroll by a poet-connoisseur many centuries later.
Mountains and Rivers is best read as a sort of autobiographical journey in verse and verbal collage. Some of the earliest written sections have a distinctly period feel, with Bob Dylan rhymes—"Fat man in a Chevrolet / wants to go back to L.A."—and hitchhiking lyricism—"Caught a ride the only car come by / at seven in the morning / chewing froze salami / riding with a passed-out L.A. whore / glove compartment full of booze, / the driver a rider, / nobody cowboy, / sometime hood, / Like me picked up to drive / & drive the blues away. / We drank to Portland / and we treated that girl good." The more recently written sections arise from Snyder's current preoccupations with species loss and "cultural genocide." To my ear, the most rewarding passages are those in which Snyder imagines a world of wild nature beneath the structures of civilization, as in "Walking the New York Bedrock / Alive in the Sea of Information":
Squalls From the steps leading down to the subway. Blue-chested runner, a female, on car streets, Red lights block traffic but she like the Beam of a streetlight in the whine of the Skilsaw, She runs right through. A cross street leads toward a river North goes to the woods South takes you fishing Peregrines nest at the thirty-fifth floor …
Snyder's populist take on the "cliffdwellers" in their high-rises reads like something out of an updated Dreiser: "Towers, up there the / Clean crisp white dress white skin / women and men / who occupy sunnier niches, / Higher up on the layered stratigraphy cliffs, get / More photosynthesis, flow by more ostracods, / get more sushi, / Gather more flesh, have delightful / Cascading laughs…." But when Snyder attempts to merge entirely with the world of "nature," his poetry can descend into bathos, as in his sub-Whitmanian love song to a river, "The Flowing" (1974): "The root of me / hardens and lifts to you, / thick flowing river, / my skin shivers. I quit / making this poem." Better the pithy, no-ideas-but-in-things observations of "Old Woodrat's Stinky House": "A venerable desert woodrat nest of twigs and shreds / plastered down with ambered urine / a family house in use eight thousand years."
Snyder discerns a tension between the mountains and rivers of his title, between "the tough spirit of willed self-discipline and the generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings." There is a similar split in Snyder as well. His less savory side is the disciplined commissar of "what is to be done," with his endless lists of "corrections," and his self-satisfied certainty that he is living the good life while most of us are going to the dogs. But the Snyder I treasure is the wry and grizzled wilderness dweller, generously at ease in both the garden and the wild, who can cheerfully admit: "My wife Carole and I are now using computers, the writer's equivalent of a nice little chainsaw," and then add, "Chainsaws and computers increase both macho productivity and nerdy stress." That sounds to me like the Snyder who goes into the Maverick Bar and feels at home there, and can almost love America's stupidity.