The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 451 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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