Gary Snyder | Critical Essay by Thomas J. Lyon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
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(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Thomas J. Lyon

SOURCE: "The Ecological Vision of Gary Snyder," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 117-24.

In the following essay, Lyon places Snyder's work at the forefront of the new naturalist movement.

There are some positive signs—more than straws in the wind—that a significant number of Western minds are forsaking the progress-domination theory inherent in the political view which has ruled and conquered for so long, in favor of a more relaxed and open way with the world founded on ecological sensitivity. The political mind, based ultimately on bossmanship in theology and bent on converting world matter into exclusively human use with efficient if violent technology, seems to be giving way to a gentler feeling of mutuality. We are coming, many think, to a great verge: Pisces then, now Aquarius … or Vico's fourth stage in cyclical history, returning to awe of the supernatural … or Yeats's "Second Coming." Whatever it is called, the apparently dawning age seems not to give its allegiance to hierarchies of dominance and power, nor to profane Growthmanship, but to a steady-state interdependence with all the world, its trees, rocks, rivers, and animals. The enormous expansion and deepening of the conservation movement, the new interest in the ecological sciences, and the wide search for cooperative, sacral, communal forms are all evidence that we seem to be trying to raise our sights to a holy vision of the world as a unity.

The eternal dream of the peaceable kingdom, if it can be called a dream now and not the only sane hope for survival—escape from the self-doom of ecological sin—is also emerging as a force in contemporary writing. Not as outright prophecy, Jeremiad, or prescription, but as theme growing from massive contact with natural particulars—viz., Ginsberg's important "Wales Visitation"—this kind of writing gives promise of transcending conventional romanticism to the same degree that Wordsworthian ecstasy transcended the rational optimism that went before it.

The literature of the new ecology has apparent roots in Romantic writing, certainly, as well as in Oriental thinking and in the contemporary subculture's opening of the "doors of perception" to the realization of endless interrelatedness. But perhaps the most important roots—direct apprehension of wild nature and perception of the primitive reference point in human (Indian) terms—are not so obvious, and it is here that the student of Western American literature can draw on the traditions of his regional field for insights.

Before the West had produced a great writer on its own ground, Henry David Thoreau had mapped it out as the great mother-center of wilderness and the place to learn ecological truth—"The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World"—and most of the best Western writers from later years have lived on Thoreau's map. John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Frank Waters, just to name four, have built on direct experience of elemental and often violent Western nature, working toward a post-humanist, post-technological world-view in which man fits into natural patterns rather than simply following his greed into the city of ecological imbalance and poisoning. This is not really to be wondered at; nature in the West has been primary, sometimes even overwhelming. It is not, except for the tourist industry, leisure-time beauty; garden-variety, escapist romantics have not grown well here. Jeffers wrote of the California coast as "crying out for tragedy," speaking of the great forms and space and immense changes in sea and sky that became his poetic world; one of the dimensions of his total work is the tragedy of Western civilization's drive to render the wild world tame … leaving finally only "introverted man," "taken up / Like a maniac with self love." Jeffers said he stood "west of the west"; his "Inhumanism" is nothing more shocking than the ecological vision looking back on the strictly "humanist" westward movement of plunder and destruction.

The limitations of White/Western thought have also been limned, for serious Western writers, by the presence of the Indian, who lasted long enough in the West to be the model of primitive ecology and religious responsibility to earth. But the critique has not been simple-minded. Frank Waters, to name perhaps the deepest student of the Indian among writers, has long been recommending a supra-rational, supra-emotional synthesis between cultures, making finally an ecologically responsible civilization and psychically whole persons; the Western writer's ability to take the Indian seriously has resulted in real trailbreaking.

It may be—I almost believe it—that the West's great contribution to American culture will be in codifying and directing the natural drive toward ecological thought: a flowering of regional literature into literally world-wide attention and relevance. Now, after all this prologue, I come to my subject, the poet Gary Snyder, for as Snyder begins to emerge as an important force in the ideas and art of America, he shows signs of embodying the Western ecological vision in a culturally viable form. His writing is popular, certainly, and as I hope to show, it is valid in deeper, permanent ways.

The first thing that strikes one about Snyder's poetry is the terse, phrase-light and article-light diction, the sense of direct thing-ness. In common with most of the poetic generation that has rebelled against the formulaic Eliot rhetoric and intellectual abstraction, Snyder writes a solid line, but the special quality in his diction, the personal voice, lies in his knowledgeable selection of objects. They are things he has worked with and felt the grain of, and thus known better than good-sounding "poet's" catalogs:

         Rucksack braced on a board,
         lashed tight on back.
    sleeping bags, map case, tied on the gas tank
    sunglasses, tennis shoes, your long tan in shorts
    north on the west side of Lake Biwa
    Fukui highway still being built,
       crankcase bangd on rocks—
        pusht to the very edge by a
         blinded truck
      I saw the sea below beside my knee:
    you hung on and never knew how close.

Experience is not elaborately prepared for, in the Snyder poetics, just handed over: "Woke once in the night, pissed, / checkt the coming winter's stars / built up the fire" opens a poem and puts the reader in the mountains without any pastoral-tradition framing. This is the "near view" of the Sierra that John Muir wanted so much and knew that conventional art didn't give. Snyder's open directness moves toward solving one of Muir's and other transcendentalists' great dilemmas: how to talk about things, especially wild ones, without harming their integrity by language; how to preserve and communicate sauciness without falling into an arch aesthetic distance between subject and object, a romantic decoration that destroys the very wholeness, which is wildness, one loved and wanted to convey somehow. The thin line of poetic truth between overstatement and private code requires first of all respect for things, letting them stand free instead of being marshaled into line for a mental performance. Snyder apparently recognizes the lover's paradox in writing ("each man kills the thing he loves"), and turns back on his own mind with good humor:

    foxtail pine with a
    clipped curve-back cluster of tight
       five-needle bunches
     the rough red bark scale
    and jigsaw pieces sloughed off
       scattered on the ground.
    —what am I doing saying "foxtail pine"?

The comment might be on alliteration and rolling rhythm, as well as on the general deceit of naming: the poem moves beyond nature love to a focus on relation, among Snyder and his poem and the tree, and the ironic mode of the final question enters dimensions of richness quite beyond simple appreciation, if such a thing is simple. The openness of Snyder's seemingly casual presentation of objects, then, should not be mistaken for naïvete. The freshness of youth in his perceptions seems to be the result of having passed through a midstage of poeticizing and returned to the primal, simultaneous brotherhood-in-separateness of all objects. This is the wild world which Thoreau intuitively saw great poetry aiming at. Leaving it in integrity requires only pointing, and here Snyder's long Zen training provides the exact discipline needed. But the poet can also bring himself in and show the paradoxical nature of knowledge (and the poignant human consciousness of separateness) by levels of irony. So we have Snyder writing,

     When
     Snow melts back
         from the trees
     Bare branches   knobbed pine twigs
        hot sun on wet flowers
     Green shoots of huckleberry
     Breaking through the snow.
 
    on the one hand, and
 
     A clear, attentive mind
     Has no meaning but that
     Which sees is truly seen.
     No one loves rock, yet we are here.

on the other. The inclusiveness resulting is literally "part" and "parcel" of the ecological vision. Tingeing the Zen core with irony, though it is far from his only technique, is one of Snyder's singular contributions to modern poetry, a byproduct of the connection he has knitted in his life between East and West. In a sense, Snyder is moving westward in the way that Whitman meant for us to do, the total effect of his final synthesis being, to use one of his essay titles, a "Passage to More than India."

Snyder shows his naturalness and American-West roots most obviously in his colloquial, object-laden language, but another and perhaps more important consonance with the wilderness world can be felt in his verse rhythms. "I've just recently come to realize that the rhythms of my poems follow the rhythms of the physical work I'm doing and the life I'm leading at any given time," he wrote in 1959, and many of his poems are tuned so closely to muscular and breath paces that they seem quite as spontaneous as his analysis implies. A bit of "Riprap," which grew out of building trails on slick granite in the Sierra, will illustrate this:

      Lay down these words
      Before your mind like rocks,
           placed solid, by hands
      In choice of place, set
      Before the body of the mind
           in space and time:
      Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
            riprap of things:
      Cobble of milky way,
           straying planets,
      These poems, people,
           lost ponies with
      Dragging saddles—
           and rocky sure-foot trails.

There are some fine rhythms starting from non-human wilderness, too, where the birds and other animals seem almost to have written the poem by themselves.

     Birds in a whirl, drift to the rooftops
     Kite dip, swing to the seabank fogroll
     ...........
     The whole sky whips in the wind
     Vaux Swifts
     Flying before the storm
     Arcing close hear sharp wing-whistle
     Sickle-bird

Snyder flirts with meter and with internal rhyme and alliteration, clearly, but the forming principle is not external. He once described formal poetry as "the game of inventing an abstract structure and then finding things in experience which can be forced into it," identifying this kind of writing with the rationalistic philosophy-culture of the West—of civilization—and then stated his preference for wilderness: "the swallow's dip and swoop, 'without east or west.'" The basic direction of his prosody is that of his image-selection: to go beyond the midstage to the consciously primitive, where there is no "east or west." Since we are both an unconscious, animal process and a conscious intellect, Snyder's poetics can be seen as an attempt at continuous self-transcendence, a leading through ego-borders into the wild. Self, ego, is at work in nature-love, as it is more obviously in nature-hate, as it is also in cultural typologies and forms for poetry. The ultimate meanings in Snyder's poetry, deeply revolutionary meanings in the sense of consciousness-changers, putting man in a different place from where he thought he was all these years, can be sensed very clearly in his formal poetics alone. His work is therefore organic rather than contrived, and although this can be said of many contemporary poets and indeed marks the fundamental direction of modern American poetry, the special virtue in Snyder's work is that he has created or allowed to develop a form that grows so rightly out of wild things, and which leads the reader uncannily ahead to a wild point of view. This is the technique of the ecological sense which goes past both the primitive and primitivism, into something else, in certain poems the ecstatic ecology of wholeness. Then to keep the sense of mind—"all the junk that goes with being human," as Snyder wrote once—alive along with the transparent eyeball, is art. Snyder's best poems, in my opinion, are the ones that move through these levels of apprehension, keeping the whole thing alive and total, finally conveying the great molecular interrelatedness, yet not as a static "thing," not even as a "poem," sweated out, but with the rhythmic feel of the unworded wild truth. "Wave," a recent poem, simultaneously perceives, creates, and leaps over form in this way:

     Grooving clam shell,
       streakt through marble,
     sweeping down ponderosa pine
     bark-scale
     rip-cut tree grain
         sand-dunes, lava
           flow
 
     Wave wife.
     woman—wyfman—
     "veiled; vibrating; vague"
     sawtooth ranges pulsing;
         veins on the back of the hand.
 
     Fork out: birdsfoot-alluvium
             wash
      great dunes rolling
     Each inch rippld, every grain a wave.
 
     Leaning against sand cornices til they blow away
      —wind, shake
      stiff thorns of cholla, ocotillo
      sometimes I get stuck in thickets—
 
     Ah, trembling spreading radiating  wyf
           racing zebra
     catch me and fling me wide
     To the dancing grain of things
                    of my mind!

The solidity in Snyder's writing, which is often commented on, results from the fact that his ideas, like the verse rhythms, flow from close attention to wilderness, unmediated perception of grain and wave. The total structure appears in startling systematic clarity, once one gets used to the point of view. Thing/rhythm/idea, over and over, so that the meanings are inextricable from the settings. The contrasting point of view, where there is always the anthropocentric splitting which prevents things from expressing completely their innate rhythms, and which keeps things from entering our heads in fullness, should immediately be more familiar in our unpoetic culture. We tend to mark everything according to its vulnerability. But this grasping approach seals itself off from authentic experience by refusing the integrity or self-nature of things: rocks, trees, people … anything. This integrity is what is meant by wildness; according to Snyder, it takes a consciously primitive sensibility to know it and respect it, that is, one not overlaid with the programmed covetousness our culture seems to demand. Poets have to deal from authentic experience in order to communicate the wild truth of the matter, which is, Snyder holds, "at deep levels common to all who listen." He describes the moment of connection between feeling and making, in Earth House Hold:

The phenomenal world experienced at certain pitches is totally living, exciting, mysterious, filling one with a trembling awe, leaving one grateful and humble. The wonder of the mystery returns direct to one's own senses and consciousness: inside and outside, the voice breathes, "Ah!"

So far, our culture has managed to include this untamed poetic mind as a kind of occasional delight or relief, thus blotting up its power. As Herbert Marcuse and many others since One-Dimensional Man have commented, it has been the peculiar strength of the instrumental, technological culture to be able to make tame commodities out of potentially revolutionary states of consciousness. The taming of the mind has kept even pace with the taming of the outer wilderness; conventional-romantic nostalgia is a good example of the parallelism I am suggesting. It is perfectly powerless to regain its lost paradise, its noble savage or gentle woods-bowers, because its civilized formulations are only half real. There have been writers from Blake onward, to be sure, who have seen that we stand to lose immensely by conquering the world; but very few—Thoreau, Jeffers, Snyder, perhaps alone—have made the connection between outer and inner wilderness, and have dared to suggest that a primitive mind can understand it most clearly. The direct link between the two sides of wild integrity is the ground of the ecological values. Perceiving the link enables one to stand with and among, yet retaining and developing the consciousness of membership—or the ironies of mental separateness. Either way, this sort of perception calls into question the major assumptions of Western civilization. By going beyond both technohumanist instrumentalism and cutely impotent romanticism, this approach builds a whole new mind. "Poets," Snyder writes, "as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in … "and poetry itself, in this world, becomes "an ecological survival technique."

It is perhaps expectable that Snyder contrasts the primitive/poetic mind with the world of "nationalism, warfare, heavy industry and consumership," which are "already outdated and useless," but what is not so expectable is that he has developed a forthrightly revolutionary system of ideas on his poetic perceptions. With the exceptions again of Thoreau, and possibly. Jeffers, most of our wilderness poets have been rather passive regretters of the destruction closing in on them. But Snyder speaks, almost millenially, of healing. There are ways to the ecological mind, and they can be shown; people are more ready than ever. "The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious [our inner side of the vast pool of wilderness], through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspect of our archaic past."

It might be argued that this progressivism, reversed as it is, shows Snyder's American heritage. In an outward, ideological sense, yes; but the core of it is the ecological understanding, the primitive (primal) sense of things. In turn, the chief ingredients of the ecological understanding seem to me to be Snyder's American West wilderness experience—he has worked as a logger, fire lookout, and trail crew-man, and has backpacked and climbed extensively in California, Oregon, and Washington, working on the actual skills of primitive ecology and developing close ties to several Indian tribes—on the one side, and his formal, disciplined study of Buddhism on the other, beginning in 1956 in Kyoto.

Although it is somewhat tempting to read Snyder's going to the Zen temple in Kyoto as a resolution for tensions generated during 1952–56, when he worked part of the time as a tool of the anthropocentric culture (as a logger), and when he came to the end of conventional graduate-school climbing, I think Snyder's intellectual history is not a simple move from West to East. On the early end, he had been disenchanted with Christianity since childhood. "Animals don't have souls," he had been told as a child; making the connection between this pronouncement and the general Western ethos had been his intellectual work for years before 1956. This, along with positive motivations, resulted in a kind of textual Buddhism, especially when Snyder became reasonably expert in Chinese while at Berkeley, and one can see the going to Kyoto as merely putting theory into practice. On the other end, after the Zen training, Snyder has repeatedly shown his independence of traditional structures. His Buddhism is not programmatic. "Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under," he wrote in 1961, showing that left-anarchist, IWW ideas from working in the logging industry were not abandoned in favor of quietism. And the wild, original reference point, the special Snyder flavor, is shown in comments like this one from Earth House Hold:

The Far Eastern love of nature has become fear of nature: gardens and pine trees are tormented and controlled. Chinese nature poets were too often retired bureaucrats living on two or three acres trimmed by hired gardeners. The professional nature-aesthetes of modern Japan, tea-teachers and flower-arrangers, are amazed to hear that only a century ago dozens of species of birds passed through Kyoto where today only swallows and sparrows can be seen: and the aesthetes can scarcely distinguish those.

My point is that Snyder has not been susceptible to either gross cultural influences or temporary currents, but has always seemed to measure things according to a primal standard of wild ecology. The basic materials of this he learned in the West. The Buddhist training has been extremely important, I do not doubt, and the steeping in Oriental writing, particularly Chinese poetry, has helped Snyder as a poet; but I am suggesting that he is now into something like a world-relevant fusion, a planetary consciousness, both in ideas and techniques. Berkeley Professor Thomas Parkinson writes, "He has effectively done something that for an individual is extremely difficult: he has created a new culture, and I think this may very well be the case. At the least, Snyder has provided the articulation, both in his poems and now in Earth House Hold, that can shape the generalized, inchoate desire for an ecological life.

As a cultural figure, his durability is evidenced by his fame having outlasted all three of the major movements in the American West since World War II—the Beat Generation, the Zen interest of the 50's, and the Hippies of the 60's. The strong points of these currents—creative alienation from robotlife, purified mind, and gentle community, respectively—had been present in Snyder's work from the start, and his steady focus on wilderness clarity helped him avoid the well-publicized pitfalls along the way. Thus he has always seemed ahead of the times, which is essential for a popular American bard-seer. Another, more fundamental requirement for such a figure is that his work, thought, and life be of a piece; as I hope I have shown, it is almost inevitable that this be true of the ecological vision. In our accelerating re-examination of civilization in the light of enduring perceptions and longings, it is not too much to suggest that Gary Snyder's insights can be extremely valuable.

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