The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

“The Real Work” consists of a title, an italicized epigraph, and three stanzas: one of six lines, one of five lines, and one of three lines. The poem introduces the reader to citizenship in the environment, its ecosystems, its landscapes, and its water systems. This citizenship is to the continent, not to the political state, and the reader is shown that humans can live in harmony with the world and its creatures, even if some humans abuse the environment and its natural inhabitants.

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The title calls attention to the choice that citizens of the world face. They can dedicate themselves to the work that is not the real work, losing themselves in the distractions of activities that offer money, fame, or power but afford no satisfaction to the soul and spirit. A life spent in this way is foolish and often abusive to the environment. However, the citizens of the world may also choose “the real work,” in which humans explore the landscapes of their minds, reflect on relationships between the components of the landscapes, and discover an outlet, whether in art or labor, that protects and perpetuates nature’s harmony and satisfies the human heart.

The epigraph, muted by being enclosed in editorial brackets, sets the poem in the present: “Today.” The speaker is with his friends, Zach and Dan, and they are engaged in rowing on the San Francisco Bay, passing Alcatraz and circling Angel Island. They are small figures in a vast and powerful natural scene, and they pose no threat to the territory they explore.

The first stanza subtly reveals the threat that the environment faces. There are “sea-lions and birds,” which seem friendly and appropriate, but the sun must force its way “through fog.” Its light is “sun haze.” This sun “looks” at the humans on the bay, staring at them “dead in the eye.” The ominous image of “a long tanker” concludes the stanza, and this tanker is “riding light and high” because it has already discharged its cargo. The tanker is much larger than the rowboat, and the tanker’s mission—very likely the delivery of a massive quantity of petroleum—makes some humans rich while the environment is exposed to the danger of catastrophic accidents and the consequences that follow from the use of fossil fuels.

Despite the danger posed in the first stanza, the next stanza presents the environment in its natural harmony. Along a “choppy line” two “tide-flows” combine, offering a location that provides abundant food for “seagulls.” The rowers “slide” on the smooth water, appreciating “white-stained cliffs.” In this stanza, humans, wildlife, water systems, and the massive features of the mainland are joined in peace, beauty, and harmony.

The final stanza—powerful yet mysterious in its brevity—reiterates the words of the title: “the real work.” Referring to “washing and sighing,/ sliding by,” Snyder explained in an interview that he is describing “the wash of waves on the island out in San Francisco Bay with the seabirds, and the feeding and schooling of the little fish.” Snyder insists that “the real work” is “always here.” One takes on the real work “without the least hope of doing any good.” One aims to “check the destruction of the interesting and necessary diversity of life on the planet so that the dance can go on a little better for a little longer.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

The poem seems to be open in form, with no capitalization, no metrical pattern, and no rhyme scheme. Nevertheless, the poem does consist of fourteen lines and appears to stand between the eight-and-six line division of the Italian sonnet and the twelve-and-two line division of the English sonnet. The first six lines function as a sestet, which in an Italian sonnet is usually the concluding portion of the poem. Taken together, the last two stanzas are an octet, but the separation of the last three lines gives them special weight. Like the concluding couplet of an English sonnet, the concluding three lines stand in opposition to the foregoing eleven lines, asserting the importance of “the real work.” The concluding three lines comment on the contrast between the first two stanzas, favoring a gentle, cooperative, and appreciative engagement with nature. The form of the poem captures the seriousness and antiquity of the sonnet, yet Snyder’s modification of the form keeps the poem fresh and light.

Snyder helps to create a connection among humans, natural phenomena, and wildlife through personification. The sun is made human because it is given the capacity to “look” with intensity into a person’s eyes, as if the sun were another person. The seagulls are made human because they can “sit” at their meal, as if they were people. Conversely, Snyder makes the people in the rowboat similar to water as they “slide by.”

At the center of Snyder’s poem is the image. Borrowing from Chinese and Japanese writers, who compose poetry with epigrams or render ideas with the photo-flash impressions of haiku, Snyder stacks phrase upon phrase in “The Real Work,” creating a series of visual effects. Snyder also borrows from the Imagists, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, who abandon the rhythm of the metronome and present vivid mental pictures. The reader who demands that the images be perfectly explained is missing the point of the method, which is to allow things to express their inherent ideas. One does not need to say that the bay, birds, and cliffs are sources of beauty worthy of love; such an idea emerges from the environmental features themselves.

Reading “The Real Work” as an isolated poem is possible, but Snyder’s method relies significantly on the interconnection of poems made possible through the series of poems that surround “The Real Work” in Turtle Island, as well as in the body of Snyder’s collected works. Without a sense of Snyder’s overall ecological outlook, the reader may not get the full impact of “a long tanker riding light and high.” Similarly, one may not appreciate the mythic associations activated by the power of the sun.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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