Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

The Counter Culture
Gary Snyder was always one to make his own way. From his youth growing up on a scrub farm whose farmhouse walls were composed of tarpaper, Snyder entered maturity well outside the main stream. Solitary hiker and mountaineer, he came into his own once he entered Reed College in Portland, Oregon, an institution noted for its radical professors and creative students and its experimental approach towards scholarship. In fact, Snyder early on discovered that both the United States Forestry Service and the Coast Guard had marked him as an undesirable subversive because of his links to a Communist-led maritime union and his study under blacklisted professors. Snyder found himself blacklisted just when America was entering into the red-baiting paranoia of the so-called “Cold War.” His later encounter with the “Beats” of the East Coast who had migrated to the San Francisco area set him firmly into the so-called “Counter Culture,” a community of people much like him. Snyder also had once described himself as an “anarcho-pacifist” to his draft board during the Korean War.

Because of the mass media’s historical distortions, most young people today associate the term “Counter Culture” with hedonist experimentation with drugs and sex in the 1960s and 1970s. However, as a historical tendency, the counter culture can be traced back in western civilization to the French Revolution and perhaps even earlier. The thrust of this trend is to set oneself free from the constraints of the ruling class’s “mind-forged manacles” (to borrow a phrase from an early counter culture hero, the English poet William Blake). In other words, the counter culture has always set itself against the prevailing culture’s...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

As a “poetic school,” imagism was primarily the idea of Ezra Pound developed to promote, at first, the poetical work of Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”). “The Movement,” however, took on a life of its own and critically and stylistically created a base from which much of twentieth century poetry has subsequently risen. On the theoretical level, imagism limited the poet to the impression made on consciousness by the outside world. Although Snyder’s work grew far beyond Ezra Pound’s early influence upon him, the dependence on concrete surfaces of objects to convey inward states of consciousness is everywhere evident in this poem.

Alliteration and Assonance
Assonance, the repetition of similar vowel sounds, and alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants, are poetic devices that use sound to communicate a physical picture of and an emotional response to that which is described. Notice how the long “e” vowels in the paired words “Sheath of sleep” that begin the poem convey an aural depiction of deep sleep. The effect is heightened by the sibilant alliteration of the “s” sounds that stand at the beginning of each word. “Black” and “bed,” with their vocalized hard plosives, convey the blunt numbness of the sleeper’s state of consciousness.

Onomatopoeia is the use of words whose sounds express or suggest their meaning. In its simplest sense, onomatopoeia...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

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

Gage, John T., In the Arresting Eye: The Rhetoric of Imagism, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Heine, Stephen, The Zen Poems of Dôgen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace, Boston, MA: Tuttle, 1997.

Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry, London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1931.

Kern, Robert, “Silence in Prosody: The Poem as Silent Form,” Ohio Review, 26, 1981, pp. 34—52.

Murphy, Patrick D., Understanding Gary Snyder, Columbia, S.C.:...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1945: World War II comes to end, but not before the Allies firebomb Tokyo and various German cities and drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, specifically targeting women and children.

1953: The “police action” in Korea ends in stalemate and ceasefire with both sides still poised for a resumption of hostilities even now; only at this moment North Korea possesses nuclear arms of its own and increasingly more sophisticated missiles to deliver them.

1962: The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis nearly brings the world’s two superpowers into a nuclear exchange. If hydrogen bombs and warheads had been used, experts agree, it is problematic whether the human race would have survived, much less modern civilization.

1975: The Vietnam War is declared to be over. The war leaves behind serious ecological damage to Vietnam with Agent Orange and other defoliants causing a lasting drastic falling off in fish, timber, and rice production and leaving behind children who even now continue to suffer from birth defects. More than 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese die in the war, despite the fact the United States government had long known it could not win.

1983: The United States invades the island nation of Grenada and overthrows its government because it was pro-Communist and pro-Castro in its political orientation.

1997: In Kyoto, Japan, 160 nations...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Research the theoretical basis of “ecology” and the main tenets of the Buddhist religion and compare ecology with the Buddhist concept of “interbeing.” Are the two concepts similar, the same, not at all related? How? If all beings are indeed interrelated, what do you think holds them together? Why?

Sit in a pleasant place and see everything around you without focusing on any one thing. Sketch out your impressions without paying attention to grammatical conventions or logic. The point is to let the words flow on to the page without thinking too much; just let the words express what you see. Once finished, examine what you have written. Can it be edited into an imagistic poem?

Gary Snyder wrote in “Tawny Grammar”, an essay in his book The Practice of the Wild, that literature was a tradition of texts passed down through the generations and that for most of human existence, most of our culture was orally passed down from the “grandmothers.” In a world fast becoming “post-literate,” where will our texts about ourselves come from; who will be our “axe handles” for the mediation of culture from one generation to the next?

Research the history of the “Beat Generation” and decide whether Gary Snyder actually fits with the rest of the movement. Compare his work and thought with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac. How is his work similar or different?

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Turtle Island, National Public Radio, The Inner Ear Series (No. 6).
Reading excerpts from his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Snyder converses with poet, EE Cummings, on this cassette recording.

Gary Snyder, Lannan Literary Videos (No. 8), 1989.
Gary Snyder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, reads at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, converses with Lewis MacAdams, and speaks with high school students at Harvard School on two hour-long videos.

This is Our Body, Watershed Tapes, Signature Series, 1989.
On this cassette tape, Snyder reads selections from his book of poems, This is Our Body, as well as from Axe Handles, including “True Night”.

Turtle Island: Poems from Turtle Island & Other Collections, Earth Music Productions, 1991.
Recorded live, this cassette tape features Snyder teamed up with the Paul Winter consort in dramatic readings with eerie, beautiful music. “True Night” is one of the featured poems.

What happened to Kerouac? WinStar Home Entertainment, 1998.
Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder, among others, this video tape film biography investigates the personal history and creative process of Jack Kerouac, father of the “Beat Generation,” author of the seminal novel of the movement, On the Road, and a pivotal figure of the fifties countercultural revolution.


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