Gary Snyder | Critical Essay by Katsunori Yamazato

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
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Critical Essay by Katsunori Yamazato

SOURCE: "A Note on Japanese Allusions in Gary Snyder's Poetry," in Western American Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 143-48.

In the essay below, Yamazato traces Snyder's use of Japanese folktales and culture in his poetry.

Recent criticism of the poetry of Gary Snyder has focused on the poet's use of allusions. While Buddhist and Chinese allusions have gradually been identified and explicated, the equally important Japanese allusions in Snyder's poetry have attracted little attention. Reflecting the poet's Japanese years (1956–1968), these allusions range widely over such subjects as classical Japanese literature, folklore, religion, and the Japanese way of life in general. The allusions to the Japanese subjects indeed are so varied that a coherent discussion of them would require a much longer study than the present one. Instead of attempting an exhaustive discussion of Snyder's Japanese allusions, then, I would like to narrow my focus and discuss a few representative examples.

In poem 4 in the "Logging" section in Myths & Texts, Snyder alludes to a Noh play, Takasago, written by Zeami (or Seami) Motokiyo (1363–1443). Snyder juxtaposes the allusion to the play with scenes from "logging," the mindless destruction of nature the poet has witnessed at the early stage of his poetic career:

       Pines, under pines,
          Seami Motokiyo
          The Doer stamps his foot.
          A thousand board-feet
          Bucked, skidded, loaded—
          (Takasago, Ise) float in a mill pond;
          A thousand years dancing
          Flies in the saw kerf.

The first three lines in the passage cited allude to the stage setting and the author of Takasago. In the Noh play, two pine trees appear on the stage, symbolizing both prosperity and longevity. "The Doer" (or the principal actor: shite in Japanese) is the spirit of one of the pine trees who in the shape of an old man engages in a conversation with a travelling priest. The characteristic Noh movement of the Doer ("The Doer stamps his foot") triggers an ironic shift to the next three lines, a metonymic representation of the destruction of nature. The embedded flashback to Takasago and Ise suggests that even the sacred pine trees at these places are not totally free from the destructive attitude toward nature. "A thousand years dancing" alludes to the celebrated longevity of the pine tree at Takasago:

       Among them all, this pine
       Surpasses all other trees,
       Attired in the princely robe
       Of green of [a] thousand autumns,
       Timeless fresh forever.
       By Shiko a court rank
       Bestowed, the superb tree,
       Overseas and in the land alike
       By all is loved and admired.

Takasago ends with the pine god's dance, kamimai, which gives blessing to the land; and the whole play is usually construed as a hymn to the sacred pines which are the symbols of prosperity and longevity. Instead of celebrating nature, however, Snyder shows us its destruction in our time: "A thousand years dancing / Flies in the saw kerf." The dramatic vision in Takasago presents a harmonious interaction between the gods of the sacred pine trees and the travellers, and, needless to say, the world view that informs Zeami's dramatic vision forms a sharp contrast with that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which Snyder regards as responsible for nurturing the destructive attitude toward nature depicted especially in the "Logging" section of Myths & Texts.

Poem 4 in the "Logging" section is the first poem in which Snyder extensively alludes to Japanese subjects, but it is typical of the kind of Japanese materials and world view which attracted Snyder's attention at the early stage of his poetic career. As is implied in the poet's allusion to Zeami's play, Snyder has always been interested in obliterating the line which differentiates between man and nature. An allusion to a Japanese folktale entered in his early journal is another example: "Sparrows entertained me singing and dancing, I've never had such a good time as today." The allusion is to "The Tongue-Cut Sparrow," a famous Japanese folktale which has been frequently translated into English. The tale tells of a kind-hearted old man who helps a sparrow after its tongue is cut by his greedy and cruel wife. The old man eventually visits the sparrow's home built of bamboo, and the "tongue-cut" sparrow and his fellows entertain the old man with food, drink, and the sparrow dance. The tale has a didactic ending, but Snyder seems more interested in the attitude toward nature expressed in the tale than its didactic import. The quotation in the journal highlights the joyful interaction between man and nature; it is not the cruelty of the wife that catches Snyder's attention but the subsequent harmony of man and bird.

"Kyoto Born in Spring Song" in Regarding Wave is a poem in which Snyder's profound veneration for nature's buddhahood is expressed. Man and nature coexist harmoniously in this poetic cosmos. By calling those born in spring "children" and "babies," man and animal alike, the poet obliterates the differentiating line.

The first stanza presents an ambiguity as to the identity of the "Beautiful little children":

       Beautiful little children
           found in melons,
           in bamboo,
       in a "strangely glowing warbler egg"
           a perfect baby girl—

As we read through line 4, we feel that the speaker in the poem perhaps is speaking of "wild babies" (1. 30) rather than "human" babies. Yet the diction in line 5, "a perfect baby girl," is ambiguous enough to call our attention to the identities of the "children." Who and what are they? The ambiguity is uniquely Snyderian, and it arises from the poet's use of three ancient Japanese folktales.

"Melons" in line 2 cited above alludes to "Urikohime," a tale of a girl who is found inside a melon. (Uri in Japanese means melon). The tale has recently been retold by Yanagita Kunio, a renowned Japanese folklorist whose works Snyder read during the Japanese years. A quotation from the opening passage of the tale will help us see clearly Snyder's allusion to this tale:

Long ago there was an old man and an old woman. The old man went to the mountains to cut wood and the old woman went to the river to wash clothes.

One day when the old woman went washing as usual at the river, a melon came floating down the stream. She picked it up and took it home to divide with the old man. When she cut it open, a very beautiful little girl was born. Because she was born from a melon, they named her Urikohime or Princess Melon. Little by little she grew up and at last she was a good daughter who wove at the loom day after day.

The "bamboo" in Snyder's line 3 alludes to one of the most famous Japanese folktales, "Kaguyahime," which tells of a beautiful tiny girl discovered inside a bamboo. The tale seems to have been Snyder's favorite, and he also alludes to it in "Foxtail Pine" in The Back Country: "baby girl born from the split crotch / of a plum / daughter of the moon—". "A plum" is apparently Snyder's creative adaptation of "Kaguyahime," and like Kaguyahime Snyder's "baby girl" is a "daughter of the moon." Line 4 of "Kyoto Born in Spring Song" alludes to "Uguisuhime," uguisu meaning a bush warbler. "Uguisuhime" is a variant of "Kaguyahime," and there is little difference in plot between the two tales. Again a quotation from Yanagita will illuminate Snyder's allusion to the tale:

Long, long ago there was an old man in Sugaru province. He made his way in life by going into the mountains to cut bamboo and making it into all kinds of trays and things which he sold. In old books he is called Takctori-no-Okina and Mizukuri-no-Okina.

This Mizukuri-no-Okina went into a bamboo grove one day, and there he found an especially radiant egg in a nightingale's nest [italics mine]. When he carried it home carefully and set it down, it broke open by itself. From inside there was born a very tiny, lovely princess. Because she was born from a nightingale's egg, the old man named her Uguisuhime or Princess Nightingale. He brought her up as his own child.

We can perhaps appreciate the poem without knowing the folktales alluded to in the first stanza of the poem, but Snyder's vision of the inseparability of man and nature will be seen more vividly when we learn the identities of the "Beautiful little children." For the children in the folktales and Snyder's poem, there is no differentiating line between man and nature.

"Kyoto Born in Spring Song" expresses Snyder's profound Buddhist vision of life:

       O sing born in spring
     the weavers swallows babies in Nishijin
       nests below the eaves
 
       glinting mothers wings
       swoop to the sound of looms
        and three fat babies
       with three human mothers
     every morning doing laundry
                   "good
        morning how's your baby?"
     Tomoharu, Itsuko, and Kenji—

"Nishijin" district in Kyoto is well known for textile fabrics it produces; one can actually hear "the sound of looms" as he walks through the district. In the passage cited above, Snyder emphasizes the harmonious coexistence of man and nature. The juxtaposition of the sentient beings in "the weavers swallows babies in Nishijin" (significantly without commas) and the internal rhymes resounding in the whole passage cited above subtly suggest the harmony achieved in spring.

When discussing Snyder it is almost a cliché to quote passages from scholars of Zen Buddhism to support or clarify one's argument, but the following statement nevertheless clearly illustrates the basic Zen Buddhist notion of nature which has informed Snyder's Japanese allusions: "… Nature not as an object to conquer and turn wantonly to our human service, but as a fellow being, who is destined like ourselves for Buddahood."

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This section contains 1,567 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Katsunori Yamazato
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