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Critical Review by Christopher Benfey
SOURCE: "The Critter Poet," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 12, March 24, 1997, pp. 38-42.
In the following review, Benfey reconsiders Snyder's career from the 1950s to the present.
Gary Snyder was a character in a novel before he published his own first book. In Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, that vivid account of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and the Beat movement, there is a biographical sketch of Japhy Ryder, "the number one Dharma Bum of them all":
Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later in Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology. Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China and Japan. At the same time, being a Northwest boy with idealistic tendencies, he got interested in oldfashioned I.W.W. anarchism and learned to play the guitar and sing old worker songs to go with his Indian songs and general folksong interests.
This is the beginning of the Snyder myth. For all I know, and for all that I can glean from Snyder's autobiographical writings, it is entirely true.
What makes The Dharma Bums a pleasure to read, forty years after its publication, is the way Kerouac, in the guise of his ordinary-Joe narrator, undercuts Japhy Ryder's humorless, self-satisfied ethos. Ray, the writer's stand-in, walks into Japhy's shack, and there is Japhy "sitting cross-legged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, 'Ray come in,' and bent his eyes again to the script." "What you doing?" "Translating Han Shan's great poem called 'Cold Mountain' written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings." "Wow." Japhy proceeds to teach Ray all about Asian poetry and culture, including the proper way to have sex. When Ray walks in on Japhy, in the lotus position, making meditative love ("yabyum") to a woman called Princess, Japhy explains that "This is what they do in the temples of Tibet. It's a holy ceremony, it's done just like this in front of chanting priests. People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void. I'm the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see."
A part of Gary Snyder's considerable prestige in the small world of American poetry is owed to the impression that he has put in the time and done the work: graduate study in anthropology at Berkeley; summers on lookout duty in national forests and parks ("The prolonged stay in mountain huts … gave me my first opportunity to seriously sit cross-legged"); ten years in Japan, mainly in the 1960s, doing Zen and studying Japanese aesthetics; his current roughhewn life with his family on a hundred acres in the Sierra foothills, with a teaching appointment in English and ecology at the University of California at Davis. All this experience has gone into Snyder's poetry, the best of which manages to suppress his didactic side.
Snyder at his most moving is an elegiac poet, mourning the loss of forests, "critters" (as he calls animals), lovers, places. Snyder at his most annoying is the pedantic guv on the Paisley pillow who says, "I'm the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see." To those of us in whose early intellectual lives Snyder was a significant chapter, a return to his work after long absence can have its own embarrassments. When I was 17, spending a year in Japan, Snyder's The Back Country (1968) was one of the books that I carried everywhere with me. My favorite poem in it, which I still know by heart, was "December at Yase," the last of the "Four Poems for Robin." It begins:
You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."
After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.
Ten years and more go by, in which the poet considers trying to win the woman's love back. "I didn't. / I thought I must make it alone. I / Have done that." The poem concludes:
Only in dream, like this dawn.
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.
We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.
I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
I can't say whether this poem is any good. It's too close to me, and it too perfectly captures some of my own feelings from those days. I can see now how the poem uses little clumps of Imagist detail, drawn from Pound's translations from the Chinese: "in the tall dry grass by the orchard," and how the enjambment is rather arch: "After college I saw you / One time." But, even when I was young, I knew that those last two lines about karma were a disaster. (They're crossed out in my battered copy of the book.) What they show is that Snyder, as he looks back on his early obsession "with a plan," still subscribes to one, a higher one, which he now calls "karma." All the uncertainty and the wistfulness and the delicacy of the rest of the poem is caught in the harsh headlights of "what my karma demands."
Something similar happens toward the end of what may be Snyder's best and most enduring poem, "I Went into the Maverick Bar" (from Turtle Island, 1974):
I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I'd left the earning in the car.
Two cowboys did horseplay
by the pool tables,
A waitress asked us
where are you from?
a country-and-western band began to play
"We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie"
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.
They held each other like in High School
dances in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras,
That short-haired joy and
I could almost love you
We left—onto the freeway
tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffs
I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
"What is to be done."
Snyder's pleasure in being able to "pass" for a macho man is nicely rendered here, and the temptations of that life are palpable in the poem. But the rejection of "that short-haired joy and roughness" is too pat in those final two lines. One wishes this guy weren't quite so certain about the nature of the "real work," a favorite phrase of Snyder's. The revolutionary readiness of Lenin's old phrase, "what is to be done," sends a chain-saw through all that romance in the bar. Snyder knows that the dancing couples are part of the problem, and that he has the solutions. He's like the wistful revolutionary who muses, "What a beautiful church. I was baptized here. Too bad I have to blow it up."
Prescriptions for "the real work" and lists of "what is to be done" dominate Snyder's prose, much of which is collected in A Place in Space. On reducing world population, for example:
Try to correct traditional cultural attitudes that tend to force women into childbearing; remove income-tax deductions for more than two children above a specified income level, and scale it so that lower income families are forced to be careful, too…. Explore other social structures and marriage forms, such as group marriage and polyandrous marriage, which provide family life but many less children.
The decisive verbs here are "correct" and "force." Correct those wrongheaded cultural attitudes and force those poor families to be careful.
In recent years, Snyder has become a popular speaker on the Green circuit. He is the unofficial poet laureate of the environmentalist movement. A few years ago, he exhorted the graduating class of Reed College, his alma mater: "Let's go on into the twenty-first century lean, mean, and green." (No quibble with lean and green, but why mean?) In his recent prose, Snyder is particularly attentive to the link between "endangered cultures and species." He insists that "the destruction of cultural diversity goes hand in hand with ecological destruction." So he's a strong proponent of ethnopoetics, "the study of the poetries and poetics of non-literary peoples," which he compares to "some field of zoology that is studying disappearing species."
But, while Snyder loves nonliterary poetry, he seems to have little fondness for the literary kind, especially if it comes from the West. As he sees it, Western poetry is dominated by "the Judeo-Christian-Cartesian view of nature (by which complex views all developed nations excuse themselves for their drastically destructive treatment of the landscape)." That's quite a three-headed monster, the Cerberus of Western culture, but I don't see what critters have to fear from it. Why should Jews or Christians or Descartes be held as prime suspects in crimes of ecological disaster? I'm sure Snyder has in mind some vague notion of a sinister "dualism," as against the "holistic" conceptions of nature and humanity presumably found everywhere else on the globe. He evidently assumes that such arguments and objections no longer need to be spelled out.
Snyder's prose is laced with American Indian sayings and Zen proverbs and Chinese epigrams, but he almost never quotes a "Western" poet. In a talk on "Unnatural Writing," he does pause to take a swipe at two lines by Howard Nemerov: "Civilization, mirrored in language, is the garden where relations grow," wrote Nemerov, "outside the garden is the wild abyss." While Nemerov may be, as Snyder patronizingly calls him, "a good poet and a decent man," he is, judging from these lines, an enemy of nature, and in need of correction:
The unexamined assumptions here are fascinating. They are, at worst, crystallizations of the erroneous views that enable the developed world to displace Third and Fourth World peoples and over-exploit nature globally. Nemerov here proposes that language is somehow implicitly civilized or civilizing, that civilization is orderly, that intrahuman relations are the pinnacle of experience (as though all of us, and all life on the planet, were not interrelated), and that "wild" means "abyssal," disorderly, and chaotic.
Poor Nemerov, displacer of Third and Fourth World peoples, all because he suggested that language is better equipped for gardens than for wilderness. But even Whitman, whom one might have expected to garner some praise from Snyder, is chastised for his errors of thought, in a talk that Snyder delivered in Spain on the hundredth anniversary of Whitman's death:
Whitman is unexcelled in his attribution of a kind of divinity to ordinary (white) men and women. However, the respect and authenticity he gives to human beings is not extended to nonhuman creatures.
But is this true? Here's the fourteenth section of "Song of Myself" (1891–92):
The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation,
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listening close,
Find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.
This is the Whitman who said, "I think I could turn and live with animals…. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins"; the Whitman who said, when his tread scared the wood-drake and the wood-duck, "I believe in those wing'd purposes"; who said, "And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me."
But Snyder has not been reading Leaves of Grass. His dismissal of Whitman, it turns out, is based on a cursory reading of Democratic Vistas, in which, according to Snyder, "we miss the presence of people of color, of Native Americans, of wilderness, or even the plain landscape." Well, then, one feels like shouting at Snyder, why don't you read Whitman's damn poetry, in which you will find all these things, and in richer and more convincing profusion than in any other American poet of his time or after?
Snyder's prose is too often chastising, moralizing, didactic. His best essay by far is called "Crawling," a three-page description of what it feels like to navigate on one's stomach through the Sierra underbrush:
No way to travel off the trail but to dive in: down on your hands and knees on the crunchy manzanita leaf cover and crawl around between the trunks. Leather work gloves, a tight-fitting hat, long-sleeved denim work jacket, and old Filson tin pants make a proper crawler's outfit. Along the ridge a ways, and then down a steep slope through the brush, belly-sliding on snow and leaves like an otter—you get limber at it…. To go where bears, deer, raccoons, foxes—all our other neighbors—go, you have to be willing to crawl.
This is fresh and exhilarating. It reads like a poet's prose. "You can smell the fall mushrooms when crawling." There are perhaps a dozen pages like this in A Place in Space.
Already in that Berkeley shack, on April 8, 1956, Snyder had begun Mountains and Rivers Without End, a title that—as sections were published across forty years—came to seem predictive. Now Snyder has declared the poem finished, and published it in a handsome volume, with the twelfth-century Chinese scroll painting that inspired it reproduced on the endpapers. He has appended a helpful essay on the making of the poem, as well as explanatory notes and a publication record of where the many parts of the long poem first appeared.
Do the many sections of Mountains and Rivers comprise a single long poem? If so, it's a pretty loose and baggy one. The guiding metaphor of the structure of the poem is the gradual unfolding of the painted scroll, with the reading and viewing eye following the progress of a journey through a landscape of mountains and rivers. The book opens with a masterly description—in the tradition of ekphrasis, or writing inspired by a painting—of the painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art that serves as Snyder's muse.
Rider and walker cross a bridge
above a frothy braided torrent
that descends from a flurry of roofs like flowers
temples tucked between cliffs,
a side trail goes there….
Snyder doesn't ignore the seals and the writings at the end of the scroll, added by owners and connoisseurs. One of these jottings says: "… Most people can get along with the noise of dogs and chickens; / Everybody cheerful in these peaceful times. / But I—why are my tastes so odd? I love the company of streams and boulders." It's clear that Snyder conceives of his poem as another such tribute, added to the scroll by a poet-connoisseur many centuries later.
Mountains and Rivers is best read as a sort of autobiographical journey in verse and verbal collage. Some of the earliest written sections have a distinctly period feel, with Bob Dylan rhymes—"Fat man in a Chevrolet / wants to go back to L.A."—and hitchhiking lyricism—"Caught a ride the only car come by / at seven in the morning / chewing froze salami / riding with a passed-out L.A. whore / glove compartment full of booze, / the driver a rider, / nobody cowboy, / sometime hood, / Like me picked up to drive / & drive the blues away. / We drank to Portland / and we treated that girl good." The more recently written sections arise from Snyder's current preoccupations with species loss and "cultural genocide." To my ear, the most rewarding passages are those in which Snyder imagines a world of wild nature beneath the structures of civilization, as in "Walking the New York Bedrock / Alive in the Sea of Information":
From the steps leading down to the subway.
Blue-chested runner, a female, on car streets,
Red lights block traffic but she like the
Beam of a streetlight in the whine of the Skilsaw,
She runs right through.
A cross street leads toward a river
North goes to the woods
South takes you fishing
Peregrines nest at the thirty-fifth floor …
Snyder's populist take on the "cliffdwellers" in their high-rises reads like something out of an updated Dreiser: "Towers, up there the / Clean crisp white dress white skin / women and men / who occupy sunnier niches, / Higher up on the layered stratigraphy cliffs, get / More photosynthesis, flow by more ostracods, / get more sushi, / Gather more flesh, have delightful / Cascading laughs…." But when Snyder attempts to merge entirely with the world of "nature," his poetry can descend into bathos, as in his sub-Whitmanian love song to a river, "The Flowing" (1974): "The root of me / hardens and lifts to you, / thick flowing river, / my skin shivers. I quit / making this poem." Better the pithy, no-ideas-but-in-things observations of "Old Woodrat's Stinky House": "A venerable desert woodrat nest of twigs and shreds / plastered down with ambered urine / a family house in use eight thousand years."
Snyder discerns a tension between the mountains and rivers of his title, between "the tough spirit of willed self-discipline and the generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings." There is a similar split in Snyder as well. His less savory side is the disciplined commissar of "what is to be done," with his endless lists of "corrections," and his self-satisfied certainty that he is living the good life while most of us are going to the dogs. But the Snyder I treasure is the wry and grizzled wilderness dweller, generously at ease in both the garden and the wild, who can cheerfully admit: "My wife Carole and I are now using computers, the writer's equivalent of a nice little chainsaw," and then add, "Chainsaws and computers increase both macho productivity and nerdy stress." That sounds to me like the Snyder who goes into the Maverick Bar and feels at home there, and can almost love America's stupidity.
This section contains 3,048 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)