Smokey the Bear Sutra

by Gary Snyder

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

At the center of the poem’s meaning is Smokey’s “great Mantra,” which is a vow of loyalty to the environment and against those who would destroy it: “I DEDICATE MYSELF TO THE UNIVERSAL DIAMOND—/ BE THIS RAGING FURY DESTROYED.” The sky, mountains, wilderness, rivers, and wildlife all must be protected. Under this protection are also “Gods and animals, hoboes and madmen, prisoners and sick people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children.” To be opposed are “wasteful freeways and needless suburbs.” The threat of “advertising, air pollution, or the police,” the blight of “cars, houses, canned food, universities, and shoes” must also be counteracted. “Smokey the Bear Sutra” is a declaration of opposition between the high-minded people believing in enlightened, harmonious inhabitation of the planet and “the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism.” Nevertheless, the opposition is not vicious or mean-spirited. The humor of the poem suggests the buoyant good spirit that can prevail in the protection of the environment.

Beyond this theme about the defense of the planet and an enlightened way of life, Snyder also makes several artistic statements in “Smokey the Bear Sutra.” By writing in an open form that resembles prose, he challenges the idea that poems must include standard poetic features, such as rhyme, meter, and figurative language. He further questions the doctrine that a poem should stand only as an aesthetic object to be admired for its beauty; Snyder presents his poem as an instrument for social change and urges that the poem’s truths be put into practice. Finally, Snyder offers a commentary on authorship. Do authors write because of their dedication to the combination of form and theme, or do authors seek out personal recognition and gratification? Since the Buddha is the real author of “Smokey the Bear Sutra” and Snyder assumes anonymity and renounces profit, the poem has independence and integrity not possible in signed and copyrighted poems.

The importance of “Smokey the Bear Sutra” is partly that it corresponds strongly to the central ideas of Snyder’s literary career and partly that it presents themes that become more urgent with each passing decade. Ecology, Buddhism, and open form are central concerns in “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” as they are in Snyder’s other works, especially Turtle Island (1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. As society confronts the problems of pollution, overpopulation, and restrictions on artistic expression, Snyder’s work must be acknowledged as an important part of the ongoing debate.

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