Gary Snyder | Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
This section contains 766 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast

Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast

SOURCE: "Chants and Chainsaws," in New York Times Book Review, December 27, 1992, p. 2.

In the following excerpt, Tillinghast praises No Nature for uniting a lifetime of Snyder's work.

Only in our age could a poem have been written that gives an account of life in California's Sierra Nevada from the perspective of 300 million years of natural and human history. And only Gary Snyder, with a command of geology, anthropology and evolutionary biology unmatched among contemporary poets, could have written that poem, "What Happened Here Before."

"First a sea: soft sands, muds, and marls," the poem begins, "loading, compressing, heating, crumpling." Then 220 million years along the evolutionary trail, "warm quiet centuries of rains." There is an understated majesty about the ease with which Mr. Snyder puts the present into perspective. He sketches the life of California Indians: And human people came with basket hats and nets winter-houses underground yew bows painted green, feasts and dances for the boys and girls songs and stories in the smoky dark.

And when the European settlers appear in search of gold, their life is evoked with a quick brushstroke: "horses, apple-orchards, card-games, / pistol-shooting, churches, county jail."

Mr. Snyder writes in an allusive journal-entry style that owes something to Ezra Pound's later poetry, and he also follows in the lineage of Pound as the type of self-taught, extramural American scholar who follows his own compass into uncharted territory. Born in San Francisco in 1930 to working-class parents, Mr. Snyder grew up in Oregon. He worked as a logger and laborer, then manned a Forest Service lookout tower and worked on a trail-building crew in the Sierras, where he developed a love for wilderness that would later lead him into environmental politics. Somewhere along the line he found time to graduate from Reed College and to study Oriental languages at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the 1950's, he shipped out as a merchant seaman and then sojourned for 10 years in Japan, where he lived in a Buddhist monastery and learned the practice of Zen before Zen became a household word in the United States. He made a pilgrimage to the Indian subcontinent with Allen Ginsberg and others. Jack Kerouac wrote a fictional portrait of him as Japhy Ryder in the novel The Dharma Bums. Mr. Snyder has had the knack of anticipating trends such as environmentalism, Eastern spirituality and communal living that have later become influential in the culture at large.

Having participated in the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco that marked the first public impact of the Beat Generation as a literary phenomenon, Mr. Snyder had the staying power to play an important role in the 60's counterculture, when the environment became a political issue at the time of the People's Park demonstrations in Berkeley. His essay "Why Tribe" was influential among commune dwellers. He may have been the first American poet to use the word "ecology": the title of his book of prose writings Earth House Hold is a free rendering into plain English of what was then an unfamiliar word.

Longtime readers of Gary Snyder's poetry will have on their shelves his classic New Directions paperbacks with their austere black-and-white covers, their pages dogeared and stained from hard traveling on the overland trek to India and Nepal, rained on during camping trips to Yosemite. His new book, No Nature, brings together a generous sampling of the poetry and allows one to read it as one consistent lifetime's work.

Work is something this poet, who has combined a number of jobs, most of them outdoors, with his studies and his writing, evokes uncommonly well. In his poems we hear the sound of "a ringing tire iron / dropped on the pavement" and the "whang of a saw / brusht on limbs" (from "Some Good Things to Be Said for the Iron Age"). In "What You Should Know to Be a Poet," he praises "work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted / and livd with and finally lovd." Technology, particularly old technology, fascinates him. Here, in its entirety, is "Removing the Plate of the Pump on the Hydraulic System of the Backhoe": Through mud, fouled nuts, black grime it opens, a gleam of spotless steel machined-fit perfect swirl of intake and output relentless clarity at the heart of work.

At the same time, no one has written so forcefully against urban sprawl, pollution and mechanization, the "thousands / and thousands of cars / driving men to work." Somehow he has managed to stay outside what used to be called the System and to remain a free man….

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This section contains 766 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Richard Tillinghast
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