Gary Snyder | Critical Essay by Woody Rehanek

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
This section contains 3,249 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Woody Rehanek

Critical Essay by Woody Rehanek

SOURCE: "The Shaman Songs of Gary Snyder," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 162-69.

In the essay below, Rehanek focuses on Axe Handles and considers Snyders' philosophy of the interconnections between man and nature.

Shamanism relates to the most archaic of human religious practices … It informs the fundamental lore of the planet, that is to say, all of the worldwide body of folktale that we all share. The folk motifs of Native America are scattered all across Europe and Asia. We are all in the same boat, stemming from ten to thirteen thousand years back in the Pleistocene. We are all sharing the same information and the same religious disciplines. It is to the credit of some peoples, like the Native North Americans, that they kept it going longer, and I think they were right. We must all work to help them keep their lands and cultures together.

Axe Handles is Gary Snyder's first book of poetry since the emergence of Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island eight years ago. Here we see an elaboration and expansion of themes which have run like tributaries through the mainstream of his body of work. Axe Handles is grounded in essentials—knowing our local watershed, how we relate to the earth/Mother Gaia and to each other. He brings to bear craftsmanship, precision, and tradition as a master carpenter knows the woods, tools, and designs of his craft.

Like transparent overlays in a medical textbook, where circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems overlap the skeleton and musculature to form a coherent whole, Gary Snyder's themes overlap layer on layer, taking us from upper Paleolithic times to the bioregional future. Central is the concept of basic "human-ness" being formed 40,000 years ago: "Our human experience and all our cultures have not been formed within the context of civilization in cities or large numbers of people. Our self—biophysically, biopsychically, as an animal of great complexity—was already well formed and shaped by the experience of bands of people living in relatively small populations in a world in which there was lots of company: other life forms, such as whales, birds, animals." This unconventional interpretation of history opens doors to a rich body of analogies, parallels, and correlations which are woven through the simple/complex fabric of his work.

Gary Snyder was raised on his father's small dairy farm in Kitsap County, Washington, "on the edge of logging country." His father "was a smart man, a very handy man, but he only knew about 15 different trees and after that he was lost. I wanted more precision; I wanted to look deeper into the underbrush." Young Gary went to work in the woods, logging and manning fire lookouts in the Skagit country.

He developed a dry, precise, descriptive journal form which is excerpted in Earth House Hold. Add to this a degree in anthropology at Reed College in Portland, mix with the leavening of Buddhist/Hindu studies, sift in several years of Zen Buddhist discipline in Japan. Add a stout dash of San Francisco poetry readings in lofts and livingrooms during the Fifties, plus the famous public poetry forum where "Beat" poetry sprouted as a media event. Spice with homesteading on San Juan Ridge near the South Fork of the Yuba River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Preheat in an atmosphere of poetry readings, zazen (sitting meditation), and beating the planet drum for Mother Gaia long before it came into vogue, and you have the beginnings, the basic loaf, the elemental staff of Gary Snyder's life.

He has lived on San Juan Ridge for a decade, deepening his "sense of place," of belonging to the land. Both Turtle Island and Axe Handles probe the richness of family/community/watershed interface. The poems are distilled from direct experience, allowed to simmer and percolate as fragments in card files, then synthesized and polished into finished form. Like the high, almost imperceptible whang! of an axe as it splits woodgrain, these poems hum with the authenticity of direct experience.

In the Australian interior desert, which by some peculiarity of the language is called the Outback, aboriginal peoples literally "sing the land." That is, the entire myth/lore of the race is embodied in songs which are sung while walking. You would learn who did what and where, the great epics of your people. You would also, in learning the songs, be learning a specific map of the terrain: where a hidden spring can be dug for, a cache of food, a shrine, a power spot, a clump of herbs, perhaps a stand of white gum trees among the mulga bush and mallee scrub, a red kangaroo run, perentie lizard abode, a roost for galah birds, a wild fig tree.

So in "singing the land" you would be learning precise information about the physical landscape while simultaneously exploring what Alan McGlashan calls "the savage and beautiful country" of the mind. You would, in short, be singing both internal and external terrains synchronously: the epics of your people and the physical contours of the land.

"Singing the land," then, is a very exalted and sophisticated means of orally transmitting an entire cultural matrix. In "Uluru Wild Fig Song," Gary Snyder tells of

clacking the boomerang beat,
    a long walk
   singing the land.

As he describes the desert, you can feel the sacred, arid land open up before you. The poem's prime symbol is a wild fig tree, a natural shrine which still feeds its people. Gary Snyder expands this theme in Coevolution Quarterly No. 39, an article titled, "Good, Wild, Sacred." The history of natural shrines in Australian aborigine, Japanese Ainu, Paleolithic European, and contemporary American contexts is sketched. He also gives five ways to visualize your local watershed (Ainu "iworu":field) as teacher.

An African tribe calls the written language "word-trapping." Gary Snyder's work forms an important cross-cultural link between oral tradition ("singing the land") and written tradition ("word-trapping"). We'll probe how the poet, in Snyder's view, aspires to healing in his songs in the ancient function of shaman/brujo/medicine man/healer. Ultimately, it's in the singing of healing songs, songs which enlarge and refine the listener's vision, that Gary Snyder brings to fruition the deep and complex array of connections in his works.

Besides forming a cross-cultural link between oral and written traditions, his work forms parallel bonds between Oriental thought (especially Tibetan and Zen Buddhism) and Western culture (cowboys seen as priests of protein-conversion), between human and nonhuman realms (in a Corn Maiden Dance, the dancer becomes the corn), between local people rooted in a sense of place and the interlocking global village (as in the poem, "For All"), and between upper Paleolithic modes of perception and possible bioregional scenarios of the future ("What's Meant by 'Here'").

Gary Snyder stands as human spokesman for Mother Gaia, a living Being. He links macrocosm and microcosm, reaching across time/space continuums for old and new affinities, rooting out a 40,000 year continuity in human culture, a much longer and deeper range than is generally accepted by historians. His symbol for this range is embodied in the term "loops."

The 71 poems in Axe Handles are structurally divided into three sections: "Loops," "Little Songs for Gaia," and "Nets."

The Japanese word bushi or fushi means "a whorl in the grain … like a knot in a board." They are also "… specific turbulence patterns of the energy flow that manifest themselves temporarily as discrete items, playing specific roles and then flowing back in again." Loops, in other words: whorls, knots. The 25 poems in this section loop back to the upper Paleolithic era, in time. They probe unadorned human nature, without its civilized accoutrements: "the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe."

"The out-of-time function of poetry is to return us to our own true original nature at this instant forever." It loops us back to Original Mind, "The Back Country," the intersection of one's inner nature and Mother Nature, and beyond the wilderness of the unconscious to the eternal Now. Gary Snyder likens Original Mind to "the old image of the mirror without any dust on it…."

"I think that poetry is a social and traditional art that is linked to its past and particularly its language, that loops and draws on its past and that serves as a vehicle for contact with the depths of our own unconscious"

Gary Snyder demonstrates through his poetry that this looping is indeed rich ground. Take the title poem, "Axe Handles." It is the simple story of making an axe handle with his son, Kai. They use an axe to carve a new handle, and the poet recalls both Ezra Pound and Chinese poet Lu Ji in a work entitled Wen Fu (4th c. A.D.) saying that "the pattern is near" when doing this. He then draws an analogy that he is an axe and his son an axe handle, and that his son will become the axe, passing culture on down the line. This analogy describes very precisely the transmission of culture on several levels at once—by showing, by being the model, and by being the tool that carves the new. Like a Zen riddle, it grows on you!

In the second poem, "For/From Lew," the dead poet Lew Welch urges Snyder to "teach the children about the cycles. The life cycles…." Again, we loop back to early man and the pure perception (minus thought/word/static) of Original Mind. In "True Night," the poet graphically describes himself waking and chasing two young racoons into the night where he is transformed: "I am all alive to the night." An ancient experience—men have been chasing animals from their firesides since time immemorial. The poet loops back to a satori-like state of transcendence and union with the night.

"So Old—" provides another loop/link, describing a local creek, its canyons and a town perched on a slope; spending "a good day, we know one more part of our watershed." This is a vital and recurring theme in his work—"this bioregional ethic," developing "a sense of place," of belonging to the local ecosystem, of knowing the drainage, the lay of the land, soil, plants and animals, winds, clouds, myriad microclimates, shrines—just as Australian aborigines know these things in "singing the land," or native American Indians in their songs and rituals, myths and lore. "By being in place, we get the largest sense of community. We learn that community is of spiritual benefit and of health for everyone, that ongoing working relationships and shared concerns, music, poetry, and stories all evolve into the shared practice of a set of values, visions, and quests. That's what the spiritual path really is."

The poem "Soy Sauce" suggests another kind of loop: man identifying with, representing, and finally becoming a totem animal. This experience transcends intellectual rapport and becomes a total affinity with the nonhuman. Gary Snyder is helping friends build their house when he notices the smell of aged soy sauce on a windowframe. He's told that deer lick the frames at night; the framewood came from a giant redwood soy sauce tank in San Jose. The smell kindles a richness of association in the poet's memory—days past in Japan! It also transforms him into a voice for the nonhuman, as he puts himself in place of the deer licking windowframes.

A vital aspect of shamanism is this ability to become one with the animal: "The practice of shamanism in itself has at its very center a teaching from the nonhuman, not a teaching from an Indian medicine man, or a Buddhist Master. The question of culture does not enter into it. It's a naked experience that some people have out there in the woods."

The ancient theme of honoring one's ancestors surfaces in "At the Ibaru Family Tomb." A sense of continuity between past and future is established in "Eastward Across Texas": in Snyder, Texas, the poet speaks ironically about being remembered by the future. The timeloop is enlarged to include both distant past and future, ranging from ancient ancestors to future descendants.

"Working on the '58 Willys Pickup" deals with time parallels between Gary Snyder's own life and objects from his surroundings. The year the truck was made, he was studying sutras in Kyoto; he gathers sawdust from a mill abandoned about the time he was born. He hauls gravel from old placer diggings and reads about old Chinese farmers of the past. We begin to sense time, not as a linear sequence of moments, but as an ever-present reservoir, a reservoir which can be tapped for depth and richness of meaning as a vehicle for entering the eternal Now.

Gaia—Earth Mother—is a living Being, "alive to her very recesses," to quote Don Juan. These short songs are further explorations of nature and provide a voice for nonhuman realms. The poems illustrate Snyder's adherence to describing the "flat, concrete surface of 'things,' without bringing anything of imagination or intellect to bear on it." The images are spare taut and dry, almost "flat"; their bare-bones leanness is intended, and the analogies here work quite well in their elegant and voluntary simplicity.

Gary Snyder concerns himself with what is, thereby linking himself with certain Western Romantic traditions hearkening back to Wordsworth. "I don't invent things out of my head unless it is an actual experience—like seeking a bear in a dream, this is a true mode of seeing a bear." This focus on what is directly perceived, without attaching excess baggage to it, creates a purity of perception in his work which is very rare, undoubtedly aided by 30 years of zazen. Poems range from the dry and prosaic ("Dead doe lying in the rain") to the ethereal ("As the crickets' soft autumn hum").

"Little Songs …" displays Snyder's virtuosity with the precision of language. Precision is a key word in his talks and interviews; one of his functions as poet is to hone and sharpen the meanings of words, to refine and distill the language so that nuance and subtlety are matters of shades of meaning without vagueness. "In the flow of linguistic utterance … the poem or the song manifests itself as a special concentration of the capacities of the language and rises up into its own shape." He also follows the trajectories of seed syllables of language in his work, i.e., magical constructs such as OM or HUM which originate from Sanskrit but are not used in language except in special contexts. Etymology, the origin and historical development of words—their semantic derivation and evolution—is an integral part of his poetry. Regarding Wave and Turtle Island are particularly rich in word origin/derivations.

"Nets" is the third part of Axe Handles. The word "net" derives from Indo-European ned, to bind or tie; from the Germanic natilo, nettles or hemp plants; and from the Latin nodus, a knot, node, or nodule. This part of Axe Handles deals with networks, connections, the organic web of life—all in the specific context of poems as healing/shaman songs. In Earth House Hold Gary Snyder speaks of "the glittering nets of language." He also describes Indra's net in Hindu cosmology—"the vast jewelled net" where each of us shines as a node illumined by the pure light of Brahma.

The four parts of "Nets" are roughly equivalent to four layers of healing songs defined in "Poetry, Community & Climax," the final chapter of The Real Work. "That specialized variety of poetry which is the most sophisticated … is the 'healing songs' type … The poet as healer is asserting several layers of larger realms of wholeness." Oneness with nature is the first level of the healing song. "Walked Two Days in Snow, Then It Cleared for Five" paints the appearance and habits of seven animals without naming them (except for a hawk). In "Three Deer One Coyote Running in the Snow," he observes how animal activity becomes transcribed into snowtracks. These poems are a sturdy lesson in conciseness, precision, and compressed language. "Here the poet is a voice for the nonhuman, for the natural world."

Another layer of healing songs "asserts a level of humanity with other people outside your own group." Here, the poet extends his range of songs to embrace rodeos, his work on the California Arts Council, & Governor Jerry Brown. "What Have I Learned," like the poem "Axe Handles," deals with cultural transmission, "passing it on." These poems constitute a conscious "biopoetic beginning of a new level of poetry and myth. That's the beginning for this age, the age of knowing the planet as one ecosystem, our own little watershed, a community of people and beings, a place to sing and meditate, a place to pick berries, a place to be picked in."

In the third layer of healing songs, "the poet as myth/handler/healer is also speaking as a voice for another place, the deep unconscious, and working toward integration of interior unknown realms of mind with present moment immediate self-interest consciousness." "Uluru Wild Fig Song" becomes a haunting lyric which echoes with graphic intensity and associative richness because it touches long-standing veins in our unconscious. "Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar" presents the dark side of the unconscious mind (and of civilization) where men are engaged in "the pain/of the work/of wrecking the world."

A crescendo is reached in the fourth level of healing songs. Here the poems deal with a condition/state of mind called climax. "The communities of creatures in forests, ponds, oceans or grasslands seem to tend toward a condition called climax, 'virgin forest'—many species, old bones, lots of rotten leaves, complex energy pathways, woodpeckers living in snags, & conies harvesting tiny piles of grass. This condition has considerable stability and holds much energy in its web—energy that in simpler systems (a field of weeds just after a bulldozer) is lost back into the sky or down the drain. All of evolution may have been as much shaped by this pull toward climax as it has by simple competition between individuals or species." Gary Snyder also defines climax as a state of mind: "When we deepen or enrich ourselves, looking within, understanding ourselves, we come closer to being like a climax system."

It is in the singing of healing songs—songs which enlarge and refine the listener's vision—that Gary Snyder brings to fruition the deep and complex array of connections in his works.

This is the shaman song in full bloom—healing songs encoded with all the intricacies, density and diversity of a climax forest. Because we're dealing with layers, they can be superimposed on each other like transparencies, each level adding a dimension of richness and complexity. "Money Goes Upstream" evokes the poet's power to be indoors, yet directly experience a sunlit weedpatch outside the window. "Old Rotting Treetrunk Down," like "On Top" in "Loops," sings a resonant song of compost, turnover, decay. "Old Woman Nature" is a humorous litany centered around bones. In "The Canyon Wren," a bird song is heard above the roaring rapids as men run the Stanislaus River. The canyon wren's song represents the healing quality of all song, its power "to purify our ears." In "For All," the poet celebrates a September morn with a "singing inside/creek music, heart music" and pledges allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, our continent.

If we be true to the spirit of challenge and the web of life, perhaps we can sing such songs. Perhaps we can live such songs. Perhaps we can seek out a condition of climax in our hearts and minds, seeking simultaneously to heal the earth and the "savage and beautiful country" within ourselves.

(read more)

This section contains 3,249 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Woody Rehanek
Follow Us on Facebook