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Critical Review by David Barber
SOURCE: Review of No Nature, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. 164, No. 3, June, 1997, pp. 167-71.
In the following review of No Nature, Barber argues that Snyder's work has lost an element of vitality and urgency.
With the appearance of Riprap in 1959, Gary Snyder added contour and credence to the emerging claims of a Pound-Williams line of descent in midcentury American poetry, a poetics of open forms and seemingly limitless prescriptive dictums. Snyder's poems looked the part and fit the bill: they were "fields of action," they were "composed in the sequence of the musical phrase," they had a sinewy, backcountry specificity that seemed manifestly in the spirit of "no ideas but in things." They were also suggestibly radical in outlook and orientation, informed by ecology, anthropology, and regional folklore, responsive to the gravitational pull of what would later be coined the "Pacific Rim," altogether aloof to the anxieties of influence afflicting so many metrically baptized poets of Snyder's generation.
In hindsight it's easier to see that the "poetics of the new American poetry," as one widely noted anthology called it, was more of a loose amalgamation of experimental energies and polemical attitudes than any kind of true school or unified crusade. What's clearer too is that Snyder's most enduring work stands some considerable distance apart from these much-documented countercultural agitations and affiliations. Alone among his cohort, Snyder staked himself to a prosody of disciplined contemplative acuity and distilled perceptual awareness, a poetry of mindfulness rather than intellect, a tradition of Asian quietism and concision, craft so well-tempered and translucent that it borders on artlessness:
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember the things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
"Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout"
What made this poem original and disarming—genuinely radical, even—in the late '50s remains largely undiminished: lines governed by pulse and cadence as opposed to regular stresses, phrasing that's at once telegraphic and meticulously scored, emotion and significance entrusted to the inner workings of rhythm, measure, and syntax rather than given over to the self-dramatizing dynamics of tone, style, or "voice." Here on the opening page of No Nature, we can see that Snyder has already advanced well beyond an ideogramic method a la Pound, has already transformed technique into temperament. Nor is this limpid mastery mainly a paradigmatic instance of an "Oriental" manner smoothly assumed. The form and demeanor may point us to Far Eastern models of thought and expression, but the ear that parses this poem's measure is cannily attuned to the grain of English, to the patterns and tolerances of sound that run beneath the surface of the poet's native tongue. It's the same knowing counter-balance that's evident in a later Snyder poem that's rightfully become a favorite anthology piece, "Pine Tree Tops":
in the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-bluè, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
the creak of boots.
rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
Snyder's seductive offhandedness has had many imitators, but he really has no peer when it comes to this spare mode of spacious utterance. Part of the secret lies in how coolly Snyder sheds the overfamiliar first-person singular that dominates the vast share of American lyric poetry: in effacing himself to the point where all that remains is "the creak of boots," he also liberates himself from a vision of the natural world overshadowed by the Egotistical Sublime of the English Romantics. The linguistic torque of "bend snow-blue, fade / into sky" is worth a fortnight of "craft" workshops; the vernacular inscrutability of those closing three lines epitomizes the comingling of naturalism and mysticism that has been one of Snyder's most singular contributions to the poetic sensibility of his day.
Snyder has also excelled through the years at writing a quite different kind of meditative poem, so-called poems of "process" in which the rhythmic and verbal cast aims at embodying not charged stillness but the apprehended experience of recurrence and flux. The conception is clearly an outgrowth of Snyder's deep and abiding immersion in Buddhism and his preoccupation with what he refers to in one essay as "the mythological present," but in practice these philosophical trappings are neither as abstruse or ethereal as a generalized description makes them sound. On the contrary, this attention to the interconnectedness of matter and spirit has prompted Snyder to write a handful of stirring homages to human labor and rugged toil—celebrations of "Wedge and sledge, peavey and maul / little axe, canteen, piggyback can / of saw-mix gas and oil for the chain, / knapsack of files and goggles and rags" ("Getting in the Wood") or of the arduous chore of stowing away "Hay for the Horses": "With winch and ropes and hooks / We stacked the bales up clean / To splintery redwood rafters / High in the dark … / Itch of haydust in the / sweaty shirt and shoes." These poems help remind us that Snyder has never been a "nature poet" in the conventional sense of the term, any more than he's presumed to be a Zen master or a modern shaman. Few contemporary poets have written with such authentic incisiveness about the particulars of work and the rhythms of subsistence, and done so without succumbing to class-rooted righteousness or rural nostalgia.
Snyder's most realized work holds up so well precisely because its intrinsic precepts stem from sources and traditions other than the strictly literary. It's also earned Snyder a wider readership and broader cultural relevance than most serious poets ever come close to mustering, especially those who deliberately swim clear of the mainstream. No Nature suggests, however, that all this has been something of a mixed blessing: the vigor and output of Snyder's poetry has clearly been on the wane over the last 20 years, even as his social and ethical insights have gained stronger currency. Combing through these forty-odd years of work, one is struck by how even the more obscure and diffuse efforts from his early to mid career—the totemic, incantatory sequences from Myths and Texts, the oracular songs and Japanese settings of Regarding Wave—exude an urgency and restlessness that's all but dissolved in the poems Snyder's published since his Pulitzer-winning 1974 collection Turtle Island. The younger Snyder wouldn't have abided the looseness, not to mention the unexamined sentiment, of the opening lines from "For All" ("Ah to be alive / on a mid-September morn / fording a stream / barefoot") and would have found a way to keep the truths articulated in a poem like "Axe Handles" from shading off into truisms: "And I see: Pound was an axe, / Chen was an axe, I am an axe / And my son a handle, soon / To be shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on." The poet who was formerly adept at elucidating intimations now seems to be content with simply espousing positions.
It would be churlish to point out that the younger Snyder also wasn't university professor, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, or an official California poet laureate (so named during the tenure of former governor Jerry Brown, who makes suitably offbeat appearances in a couple of Snyder's later poems here). Only avowed detractors will want to claim that worldly success has softened the man or left him overly fond of playing the sage. The best of Snyder's newer poems are leavened with a humor and self-deprecation that some readers may find a refreshing departure from the hermetic portentousness that runs through his best-known books; a mildness and crinkle-eyed autumnal serenity has replaced the old avid thirst for enlightenment. In "The Sweat" he says as much: "Older is smarter and more tasty. / Minds tough and funny—many lovers—/ At the end of days of talking / Science, writing, values, spirit, politics, poems—." And while it's true that Snyder's mellowness is often indistinguishable from an easiness, an absence of animating drive, it also strengthens one's conviction that he's resisted the temptation from the beginning to write programmatically or to fall back on the tried-and-true for the sake of generating material. Snyder's essential poems would make for a far more slender volume than the bulky assemblage in No Nature, yet they would more than clinch the case that Snyder ranks among the small company of figures who have vitally altered the way American poetry moves and breathes.
This section contains 1,423 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)