Gary Snyder | Critical Review by Herbert Leibowitz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
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Critical Review by Herbert Leibowitz

SOURCE: "Ecologies of the Finite and the Infinite," in New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1975, p. 2.

In the following review of Turtle Island, Leibowitz argues that Snyder has failed to adequately transform stray thoughts into powerful poetry.

When Walt Whitman advised his countrymen in 1871 to book passage to India he was not dreaming of extending the American empire to Asia, though he was enough of a chauvinist to view the restless migration to the Pacific complacently. Before the Civil War, American mercantile interests, New Englanders prominent among them, had discovered the lucrative China trade. Thoreau had carried the "Bhagavad-Gita" in his bag to Walden Pond, and Emerson's Transcendentalism had taken much from Hindu, Buddhist and other Oriental philosophies. For Whitman, as for Emerson and Thoreau, the allure of the East was that it was not tainted by the allegedly worn out forms and methods of Europe. The enterprising American artist might draw on new sources of inspiration, uncover new-old versions of the self, acquire a new lingo of spiritual ecstasy and enlightenment.

This fascination with Oriental script and scripture ("the elder religions," Whitman called them) continued unabated into the 20th century. By his own testimony, Pound's stumbling on Ernest Fenollosa's work with the Chinese ideogram decisively changed Pound's thinking about—and writing of—poems. And even William Carlos Williams, that stubborn champion of local idiom, remarked in 1950 that poets living in West Coast cities, facing the Orient, had the grand opportunity of "crossing cultures," of being less confined by the "debased precedent" of Europe than their Atlantic or inland peers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Allen Ginsberg chants hare krishnas, mantras, and oms at his poetry readings or that Gary Snyder, having spent several years in a Zen monastery in Japan, should look to the East for literary and religious models. For both poets, the West, with its crazed technology and its stress on the exploitative ego, is a threat to the "planetary biological welfare." The East, by contrast, schools the will to go beyond the acquisitive self and to concentrate on "the power within."

"The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple," Snyder quotes the Chinese poet Tu Fu. It is an accurate motto of his purposes in Turtle Island, his seventh book. Like Thoreau, he wants a "broad margin" to his life and believes that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." The virtues of simplicity are the lesson he has learned from Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Snyder's poems fall roughly into three categories: lyrical precepts (prayers, spells, charms) designed to instill an "ecological conscience" so that we will respect the otherness of nature, frequently personified as the tender, generative mother, and use her wisely. (Linked with these poems are a group that register his disgust at the heedless wasters, interlopers and marauders, the suburban developers for whom if you treat nature right, "it will make a billion board feet a year.") Several poems celebrate domesticity and the family, the poet as doting father and husband bestowing benedictions on his wife and sons. By far the largest segment of his work records quiet moments when he observes the "whoosh of birds," cloud movements, a volcanic crater, the coyote's wail, the Douglas fir or a red leaf. These imagistic poems employ a spare notation.

Snyder's subjects are often appealing: walks, mountains, children, the skinning of a deer, love-making, communion with friends on a camping trip—all the ceremonies of innocence. But the poems themselves are thin, scattered, forgettable, their rhythmical pulse sluggish, as in "Pine Tree Tops," a standard Snyder poem:

     in the blue night
     frost haze, the sky glows
     with the moon
     pine tree tops
     bend snow-blue, fade
     into sky, frost, starlight.
     the creak of boots.
     rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
     what do we know.

The reader feels he is watching home movies, leafing through snapshots of an exotic trip. What stays afterwards are silhouettes of experience: a bare breasted woman stooping to pick a shell while her children play nearby, or this:

     my friend broke open a dried coyote scat
     removed a ground squirrel tooth
     pierced it, hung it
     from the gold ring
     in his ear

Despite a few lovely poems—"The Egg," "Straight-Creek-Great Burn," and "The Hudsonian Curlew"—Turtle Island is flat, humorless and uneventful. (Snyder's prose is vigorous and persuasive.) The poems are also oddly egotistical. Any random scrap jotted into a journal, the miscellaneous thoughts and images that are the seeds of shaped poems and that most poets discard, are transferred into the poems without the imagination's critical intervention. Turtle Island is a textbook example of the limits of Imagism.

I am reluctant to mention these doubts since as the bulldozers stand poised to despoil the wilderness by strip-mining the West for the sake of more dreck and civilized trumpery. Snyder's sane housekeeping principles desperately need to become Government and corporate policy. He is on the side of the gods. But as Snyder remarks, "Poetry is the vehicle of the mystery of voice," and the voice of Turtle Island, for all its sincerity and moral urgency, lacks that mystery and "inspired use of language" we call style….

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This section contains 848 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Herbert Leibowitz
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