Mountains and Rivers Without End
Ezra Pound’s complaint in Canto CXVI of his epic poetic sequence that “I cannot make it cohere” exemplifies the task of those modernist (or postmodernist) artists who intend to grasp the strands of the historical processes of their time and interweave them within an extended poetic vision. The contemporary reluctance to even acknowledge the possibility of a heroic conception of existence removes the possibility of an Odysseus, a Roland, or a Beowulf whose actions epitomize the values and virtues of an age or cultural community, leaving the poet in search of some other organizing principle. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself drew on the nineteenth century romantic belief in the creating artist as a social arbiter and central narrative consciousness of an evolving body of work to suggest a viable structuring device that stands behind the efforts of Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems), William Carlos Williams (Paterson) and Pound’s Cantos. Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End is located within this tradition but depends on additional specific devices and techniques to achieve the “coherent splendor” Pound sought.
Snyder’s title for the long poem which he began in 1956, the year he participated in the historic reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco where his friend Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl,” is an indication of his initial source of inspiration for the project and a summary of his primary method of organization. In an afterword of sorts to the poem which he calls “The Making of Mountains and Rivers Without End,” Snyder recalls his first acquaintance with a reference to a hand scroll with the poem’s title when he signed up for a class in East Asian brush painting (sumi) while he was engaged in a “brief spell” of graduate study in anthropological linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. “The name stuck in my mind,” he notes, and in conjunction with his own inclination toward mountain exploration and his two summers spent working as a fire watcher and trail builder in national forests in the Pacific Northwest, he found himself contemplating a “poem of process.” In this poem, the vast landscapes of earth and sky infinitely varying which enthralled him could be used as a basis for a meditation on the Buddhist thought which had become an increasingly central aspect of a personal and poetic vision of existence. In Kyoto during the ten-year span from 1956 to 1966 when he was living and studying in Japan, Snyder discovered that “walking the landscape can become both ritual and meditation” and he had the opportunity to see the Japanese and Chinese scrolls which replicate the terrain as they extend onward into time and space.
The poem’s actual genesis occurred when Snyder took part in a tea ceremony on the Buddha’s birthday, April 8, 1956. There he began to see what he calls the “yogic implications” of mountains as representation of “a tough spirit or willed self-discipline” and rivers as a projection of a “generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings.” The interplay between these elemental forces generated the energy for the narrative progression of the poem, while the things of his life—his practice of Zen Buddhism, his abiding concern for the “ark of biodiversity” and its fragile ecosystems, his love and care for his friends and family, his interest in the previous inhabitants of Turtle Island (a Native American name for the North American continent) and his sense of himself as an artist whose poetry is an extension of the patterns of his working world—provide the subjects for the separately composed poems that constitute the sections written (as he notes in his signatory final line) from “Marin-an 1956” to “Kitkitdizze 1996.” The last word is his name for his home in the Sierra Nevada and a characteristically comic comment on his life since the word means “mountain misery” in the local vernacular.
Like Pound (whom Snyder calls “my direct teacher in these matters”), Snyder wanted to include in Mountains and Rivers Without End what he considers to be the most important intellectual, mythological, and cultural aspects of his time, but in a very revealing discussion with Ekbert Faas in 1974—the midpoint in the history of the poem’s composition—he observed, “big sections of the Cantos aren’t interesting. There are some very dry Cantos in the mid sections. . . . Pound dug a hole for himself there. I think I’m avoiding that, I think that the level of meaning, content, interest and music is going to be strong enough in Mountains and Rivers to sustain the reader through it.” Snyder did say that he might write a final poem that would be “footnotes and glossary all as one poem” (which became his “The Making of Mountains and Rivers Without End,” five pages of endnotes, and a publication record that functions as a chronology) and that he does not “put any prime value on obscurity.” Nevertheless, the technical strategies he employs are fairly intricate and are designed to maintain the rigorous structure which contributes to the cohesion of the poetic parts. The larger dimensions of the poem depend on Snyder’s conviction that, as he put it in an afterword in Riprap (1958) which he wrote in 1990, the whole universe can be seen as “interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.” Therefore, although some individual parts may contain names, references, and ideas that appear esoteric or strictly personal, “there will be enough reverberations and echoes from various sections so that it will be self- informing.” Snyder maintains that individual poems may take different forms and different strategies, but that in the process of composing or reading the entire work, the “strategy [will] work itself out.” Since he wrote many of the...
(The entire section is 2428 words.)