Review: Anthony Domestico on Gary Snyder
Mt. Shasta from Red Mountain II, by printmaker Tom Killion, who collaborated with poet Gary Snyder on a series of books about wild places in California. Like Snyder’s, Killion’s work draws on a study of traditional Japanese forms.
The critic Kenneth Burke once described poetry as “equipment for living … a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.” I love this claim, large enough to see poetry as both craft and vision. It’s equipment and ritual, science and magic at the same time.
The poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder knows his equipment (read his Collected Poems, recently published by the Library of America, and you’ll encounter chainsaws, log trucks, 2 x 4s, and oil pumps), and he knows his rituals (Snyder, who is ninety-two, lived in Kyoto for much of the 1950s and 1960s, training as a Zen monk). In one essay, he describes poetry as “a tool, a net or trap to catch and present.” In another, he describes the shaman who, like a poet, “speaks for wild animals, the spirits of plants, the spirits of mountains, of watersheds. He or she sings for them. They sing through him.” Snyder’s poems aspire to the “solidity of bark, leaf, or wall” even while they channel the Mountain Spirit and chant sutras. For him, poetry is both practical and mystical—“a riprap,” or assisting stone ledge, “on the slick rock of metaphysics.”
Snyder has been described as a Beat poet (he took part, with Allen Ginsberg and others, in the famous 1955 Six Gallery reading in San Francisco and was fictionalized as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums). He’s been described as a nature poet (the first items listed in “What You Should Know to Be a Poet” are “all you can about animals as persons. / the names of trees and flowers and weeds”). He’s been described as a Western poet (his poems traverse the highways and riverways and mountain ranges of California, where he’s lived for decades, as well as Oregon and Washington State), and as an American poet (he has made a lifelong study of Native American culture and refers to North America by the “old/new name” of Turtle Island), and as a Pacific Rim poet (like Ezra Pound, he is deeply interested in Eastern languages and cultures; unlike Pound, he has seriously studied them).
Reading the more than one thousand pages of his Collected Poems, though, I’m most struck by how, for Snyder, poetry isn’t just equipment for living. It is living. His loose-limbed life—relentlessly social even while it attends to, and imagines its way into, the non-human—ambles through his loose-limbed poetry. He fords the flooded Goldie River, and he writes a poem about it, preserving both the danger (“Footholds wash out, felt / My body give way”) and the beauty (“Sunlight in fir-boughs, / Midges in a sunpatch, a bird breaking up, / Cloud on the ridge”). He sees a log truck on Route 80, and he writes “Log Truck on the 80.” His poems introduce us to the places he’s lived and the jobs he’s worked: logger, fire lookout, seaman. We meet his children. (In “The Bath,” his first son, Kai, is seen from “head-hair” to “little scrotum”). We meet his three wives and his many friends: “Jack Kerouac in smoky flame,” “naked Allen” Ginsberg, the artist Will Petersen, with whom he hikes Mt. Hiei in “khaki breeches, / split-toed rubber workshoes, / singing and whistling.”
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“I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,” Snyder writes, “Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.” To drift, to take whatever comes, is a poetic and spiritual discipline that he has mastered. He hikes and chants, bakes bread and goes out drinking, not because these are particularly good poetic subjects but because, for him, any activity done with care is a sacred activity; because writing poems is a way of recognizing this sacredness. “There are poets who claim that their poems are made to show the world through the prism of language,” he has written. “There is also the work of seeing the world without any prism of language, and to bring that seeing into language.” Snyder is the second kind of poet and, in his best work, seeing and writing, attention and creation, become one. His poems often take the form of lists: “Halving of the night / frogs croaking / cock crowing / morning and night together / crow cawing / bright horizon.” To name the rocks and trees and birds of his beloved Sierra Nevada is enough. The poem’s “I” disappears into the world around it—or, rather, recognizes that such a separation is false: “This living flowing land / is all there is, forever // We are it / it sings through us.”
“Living” and “flowing” are present participles—a form that best captures Snyder’s vision. All things—humans and animals, plants and planets—are in motion, flowing and fading and being reborn. Three hundred million years ago, the North American seafloor was “loading, compressing, heating, crumpling, / crushing, recrystallizing, infiltrating.” Right now, the rocks at Sourdough Mountain are “twisting, splintering scree,” with the “slight weight of trees, / quick creatures / Flickering, soil and water, / Alive on each other.” It’s flux—or, in Buddhist terms, impermanence—all the way down.
Snyder writes at a great pace. This can lead to some not great poetry: “I pledge allegiance to the soil / of Turtle Island, / and to the beings who thereon dwell / one ecosystem / in diversity / under the sun / With joyful interpenetration for all.” But, as he writes elsewhere, “it doesn’t work / To always make a point of getting the best.” The world is fluid, not flawless, and so is Snyder’s poetry.
“But what do you know of minerals and stone,” the Mountain Spirit demands of Snyder in the 1996 poem cycle Mountains and Rivers Without End. “For a creature to speak of all that scale of time—what for?” This is the impossible, essential task that Snyder has set himself: to know and to speak of the immense, particular, and impermanent world; to see and, finally, to bring that seeing into language.
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the book critic for Commonweal. He is the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.
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