Gary Snyder | Critical Essay by Lee Bartlett

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
This section contains 2,366 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Lee Bartlett

SOURCE: "Gary Snyder's Han-Shan," in Sagetreib, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 105-110.

In the following essay, Bartlett discusses Snyder's translations of the works of seventh-century Buddhist poet Hanshan.

Kenneth Rexroth, whose fourteen books of translations include many poems from the Chinese, has argued recently that Chinese poetry probably began to influence a few English speaking writers when Three Hundred Poems of T'ang was translated into French free verse in the mid-19th Century. Certainly the English translations of early sinologist Herbert A. Giles, collected in his Gems of Chinese Literature, marked in their archaic and doggerel renderings no advance in verse, as Giles' short reworking of Wei Ying-Wu's "Spring Joys" makes evident:

     When freshlets cease in early spring
              and the river dwindles low,
     I take my staff and wander
              by the banks where the wild flowers grow.
     I watch the willow-catkins
              wildly whirled on every side;
     I watch the falling peach-bloom
              lightly floating down the tide.

Non-readers of French, Rexroth continues, of course had to wait until the turn of the century for first Arthur Waley's translations, then Ezra Pound's (and he finds the work of both Waley and Pound in this area lacking, as it gives the appearance that Chinese poetry is "as dependent on quantitative rhythms as on accentual"). Still, the effect of Chinese poetry (and [Ernest Francisco] Fenollosa's theoretical substructure, "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry") on verse in English was of course profound, entering "the American and to a much less degree, English poetic consciousness at exactly the right moment to purge the rhetoric and moralizing of 19th Century Romantic poetry and even more moralistic, preachy poetry of the 90's." Pretty much across the board—from Imagism to Objectivism, from H. D. to Oppen—its influence was felt.

Gary Snyder dates his own interest in Chinese art from about the time he was "eleven or twelve":

I went into the Chinese room at the Seattle art museum and saw Chinese landscape paintings; they blew my mind. My shock of recognition was very simple: "It looks just like the Cascades." The waterfalls, the pines, the clouds, the mist looked a lot like the northwest United States. The Chinese had an eye for the world that I saw as real. In the next room were the English and European landscapes, and they meant nothing. It was no great lesson except for an instantaneous, deep respect for something in Chinese culture that always stuck in my mind and that I would come back to again years later.

In fact, years later, he did. While an undergraduate anthropology major at Reed College, he discovered both Waley's and Pound's translations, Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and many works of Chinese and Indian Buddhist literature. While Snyder admits that he valued Pound highly "as a teacher in poetic technology" (this influence can be seen most readily in Myths & Texts), his own interest in Chinese poetry came as much from inspiration of the figure of the Chinese "hermit poet / nature poet" as from an interest in technique.

Snyder's first "collection" of poems to see print actually appeared a year before Riprap, when in 1958 in its sixth issue Evergreen Review published his translations from the 7th Century Chinese poet Han-shan, along with a short introduction and a few notes on the text. Snyder discovered Hanshan while doing graduate work in the Department of Oriental Languages at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1955. He had been taking seminars in Chinese poetry, and had done a few translations of T'ang poems, when his interest in Buddhism in particular prompted him to ask Professor Ch'en Shih-hsiang to direct him in a tutorial on a Chinese Buddhist poet. Dr. Shin-hsiang suggested Han-shan, whose work at that time had been rendered into English only sparsely (Arthur Waley's "27 Poems by Han-shan" had appeared in Encounter in 1954). Snyder remembers that his teacher was "not a Buddhist, as indeed all contemporary Chinese intellectuals are not Buddhist, and I think he had a certain amount of anti-Buddhist feeling as all contemporary Chinese do," but that the Han-shan project changed his mind a bit, "partly in seeing the excitement with which I put it into English; it made him see the possible freshness in it as before he had seen it as a kind of stale set of ideas."

We know almost nothing of the facts of Han-shan's life, save that he was a reclusive poet who lived during the T'ang Dynasty. Lu-ch'iu Yin, an official of the Dynasty, wrote a short preface to Han-shan's three hundred-plus poems, in which he explained that he caught sight of the poet (and his friend Shih-te) only once:

I saw two men standing in front of the stove warming themselves and laughing loudly. I bowed to them, whereupon the two raised their voices in chorus and began to hoot at me. The joined hands and, shrieking with laughter, called out to me, "Blabbermouth, blabbermouth Feng-kan! You wouldn't know the Buddha Amitabha if you saw him! What do you mean by bowing to us?"

And the two strange men ran off and disappeared into the mountains. According to Lu-ch'iu Yin, he then organized a group of monks to collect Han-shan's poems, which the poet had written on "trees and rocks or the walls of the houses and offices in the nearby village." It is this collection of poems we have come to call "Cold Mountain," after the vivid mountain landscape Han-shan describes. But as Arthur Waley has noted, Cold Mountain is more than a place—it is also a state of mind. "It is on this conception," Waley wrote in his introduction, "as well as on that of the 'hidden treasure,' the Buddha who is to be sought not somewhere outside us, but 'at home' in the heart, that the mysticism of the poem is based."

Snyder was certainly familiar with Waley's translations, and he was obviously drawn to Han-shan's work as both a circumstance of place and a state of mind. Snyder's short preface to his translations presents Han-shan as a kind of archetypal Beat wanderer and holy man, a "mountain man in an Old Chinese line of ragged hermits," not unlike Jack Kerouac's sense of Snyder himself in The Dharma Bums. In fact, Snyder carries the identification even further, as he feels his own experience in the mountains of the northwest helped him capture the ethos of the originals in a way other translators could not:

I was able to do fresh, accurate translations of Han-shan because I was able to envision Han-shan's world because I had much experience in the mountains and there are many images in Han-shan which are directly images of mountain scenery and mountain terrain and mountain weather that if a person had not felt those himself physically he would not be able to get the same feel into the translation—it would be more abstract. I think that was part of the success of those translations—a meeting of sensations.

By "accurate translations" Snyder does not mean, of course, literal ones, but rather "imitations" in Robert Lowell's sense—to "keep something equivalent to the fire and the finish" of the originals. Pound's Cathay and "The Seafarer" really established the modern idea of translation for American poets, that is the privileging of sense or tone over literal accuracy. If the translator proceeds as a scientist, Ben Belitt argues, if "a simplistic semantics and a misguided analogy with scientific method" leads him "to identify the truth of a poem substantially with its 'words' and its 'intent,' "he will end up with a "science fiction of translation." Rather, he must give a "pulse to his language," must "make a poet's demands on the emerging English rather than a pedant's or a proctor in" some Intermediate Original. The point is that when a literal translation has been accomplished, the translator's real work then begins.

Thus Snyder's translations of Han-shan (like Lowell's Imitations and Robert Bly's more recent renderings from Rilke) attempt to bring over the experience of the poems as poems into English. In a letter to the linguist Dell Hymes, Snyder explains his method of translation with explicit reference to his versions from the Chinese. "I get the verbal meaning into mind as clearly as I can," he writes,

but then make an enormous effort of visualization, to "see" what the poem says, nonlinguistically, like a movie in my mind, and to feel it. If I can do this (and much of the time the poem eludes this effort) then I write the scene down in English. It is not a translation of the words, it is the same poem in a different language, allowing for the peculiar distortions of my own vision—but keeping it straight as possible. If I can do this to a poem the translation is uniformly successful, and is generally well received by scholars and critics. If I can't do this, I can still translate the words, and it may be well received, but it doesn't feel like it should.

In addition to capturing the ethos of the original, then, this notion of translation also means that the English poem becomes—in its language, its imagery, and, even to an extent, its rhythm—finally as much a product of Snyder's poetic imagination as of Han-shan's. And indeed as readers when we study the versions of Pound, Lowell, Snyder, Bly, Kinnell, and other poets, we look to those poems to tell us as much about the interests, influences, and techniques of the translator-poets as anything else.

While there is not quite the same sense of compression or ellipsis in Snyder's versions of Han-shan's poems as in a poem like "Praise for Sick Women," still the poems are obviously of a piece with Snyder's other early work; in fact, in 1969 he collected the early books together as Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation), as if to signify a unity of style and subject between his early original poems and the translations. Certainly it is difficult to detect much difference between "Mid-August on Sourdough Mountain Lookout" (the lead poem in Riprap) and, for example, "I settled at Cold Mountain long ago" (number 7 of the sequence). The language of both poems is simple and direct, and in each we encounter a similar situation—the poet in seclusion, and his exhilaration in nature.

Perhaps an even more interesting exercise is to set one of Snyder's translations alongside one of Waley's. In 1954, Waley published the following reworking of a Han-shan poem as "XVI" in his Encounter series:

      The people of the world when they see Han-shan
      All regard him as not in his right mind.
      His appearance, they say, is far from being attractive
      Tied up as he is in bits of tattered cloth.
      "What we say, he cannot understand;
      What he says, we do not say."
      You who spend all your time in coming and going,
      Why not try for once coming to the Han-shan?

In his collection, Snyder translated the same poem as the last in the sequence, "24":

       When men see Han-shan
       They all say he's crazy
       And not much to look at—
       Dressed in rags and hides.
       They don't get what I say
       & I don't talk their language.
       All I can say to those I meet:
       "Try and make it to Cold Mountain."

Compared to Herbert Giles' "Spring Joys," Waley's translation is certainly less stilted; his language seems almost casual in tone. Yet beside Snyder's version. Waley's is more wordy and privileges the "poetic." Snyder has obviously tried to strip the poem to its bare essentials ("people of the world" becomes "men"; "not in his right mind" becomes "crazy"), and to give Han-shan not only a language that approximates speech, but a truly contemporary language. Where "What we say, he cannot understand; / What he says, we do not say" still retains a hint of a certain traditional poetic resonance, Snyder transforms the lines to everyman speaking: "They don't get what I say / & I don't talk their language."

In an interview, Snyder's close friend Lew Welch explained,

Poi-Chui was a very great poet that used to have a peasant lady who was illiterate yet very smart. She ran a garden down the road and he would go and engage her in conversation. And then he would dump the poem on her and if she didn't recognize that he had just said a poem, he figured that he had written it right. If she had gone "huh?" or something, if it seemed awkward to her or wrong, somehow ungraceful, then Poi-Chui would go back and fix it. He tested his stuff against a lady who had never read a poem in her life and never wanted to. That's a standard, and that's the way I feel about that standard.

And Snyder would, I think, agree. Of course Poi-Chui's peasant lady would not have chased Waley down the street with a trowel, as his language is fairly idiomatic; but we can be sure that on hearing Snyder's poem, she wouldn't have even looked up from her weeding, for the language is purely contemporary, purely conversational.

Additionally, Snyder's translation seems to tie the importance of the wilderness more closely to one's psychological state. As I mentioned earlier, Waley's notion of Cold Mountain is that it is "not somewhere outside us, but 'at home' in the heart." Thus in the last line of his version of the poem, travellers are admonished to "try for once coming to the Hanshan," that is, the Buddha inside themselves. There is no distinction made between place ("Cold Mountain") and poet (Han-shan). Snyder would have no quarrel with this identification, and it is one both evident in his own poem and central to Zen thought. Yet in his translation, the poet seems more directly part of the natural world. Where Waley's Hanshan wears "bits of tattered cloth," Snyder's is "dressed in rags and hides" (italics mine), which thus links him more explicitly with the animal realm. And more important, Snyder's rendering of the last line underscores a crucial separation between individual and environment as the poet advises passers-by to "try and make it to Cold Mountain." As in the Riprap poems, it is only when an individual has placed himself back in nature that he can properly look into himself and hope to find some sort of understanding and psychic quiet.

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