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Critical Essay by R. J. Schork
SOURCE: "Echoes of Eliot in Snyder's 'A Stone Garden,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, Summer, 1990, pp. 172-77.
In the following essay, Schork speculates on the influence of T. S. Eliot's poem "Preludes" on Snyder's "A Stone Garden."
When Gary Snyder in a 1954 letter to Kenneth Rexroth utterly dismissed the imitators of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, he indicated his lack of respect for poets who derive from the Modernist Masters:
Very well: high compression, complexity, linguistic involutions are all virtues in poetry—but in the hands of the mediocre, just so much frillery. Which disposes of the imitators of Ezra & Eliot.
Samuel Johnson said that no man became great by imitation, and Snyder doubts that such a poet can even be good. It is surprising, then, to find Snyder himself closely tracking Eliot's "Preludes" in "A Stone Garden," imitating its four-part structure and echoing specific phrases. Published in Snyder's collection Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (1959), "A Stone Garden" encounters Eliot's pessimism but weaves in Japanese materials to suggest alternatives to Eliot's decline of the West. As a variation on Eliot's poem, "A Stone Garden" demonstrates that Snyder did not merely ignore his High Modernist predecessor—it is often supposed that the "Beat" poets merely ignored tradition—but, instead, that he considered Eliot's achievement and answered him poem for poem.
Both poems are divided into four sections, and in the first section of each poem an energetic vision of the street gives way to a depressed reality in which, in "Preludes," "morning comes to consciousness." The tones differ markedly: Eliot's vision, with its windblown garbage and stale beer, expresses Swiftian disgust:
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet …
In contrast, "A Stone Garden" registers sounds of good work, bright sun, and worthy materials:
Stone-cutter's chisel and a whanging saw,
Leafy sunshine rustling on a man
Chipping a foot-square rough hinoki beam …
Eliot's pessimism in the close of his first section takes the form of ironic epiphany, for, after the energetic stirrings,
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
That "lamps"—all the enlightenment that Eliot's street will receive—rhymes with "stamps" underscores the poet's belief that spiritual yearnings will fail for those trapped within bestial natures; again, Eliot resembles Swift in his emphasis on the painful limitations of the flesh.
Snyder's poem follows Eliot's with the substitution of a bear for Eliot's cabhorse:
And I that night prowled Tokyo like a bear
Tracking the human future
Of intelligence and despair.
Both poets close their first sections with images of suffering animals, but Snyder reverses the significance of Eliot's animal image. For Eliot, the animal incarnation satirizes the limitations of human spirituality, whereas Snyder's bear-self is an implicit criticism of anthropocentrism, the worldview in which man is central in the universe. As in Faulkner's short story "The Bear," Snyder's bear tracks human arrogance from the periphery. In turning away from man-as-the-center, Snyder works in the tradition of Robinson Jeffers' "Inhumanism." Poets such as Snyder and Jeffers contrast the Mind of Europe as discussed in Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" with the Mind of Nature as witnessed by the non-human.
Echoes of Eliot intensify in the second section of "A Stone Garden." The water scattered "on the dusty morning street" recalls similar images from "Preludes." Eliot's image points to a civilization literally being run into the muddied ground, but Snyder's image retains hope. The Japanese children, contrasting in their youth to Eliot's old women, are responsible stewards of their world:
Little black-haired bobcut children
Scatter water on the dusty morning street—.
The second section of "A Stone Garden" reverses the image concluding the second section of "Preludes." Eliot's stanza proceeds through images of hangover and ennui to an ironic epiphany in which hands (cut off, like "muddy feet," from bodies) grudgingly negotiate with sunlight:
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
Eliot funnels the sordidness and disappointments of human life into a Noh-like gesture. His image of a dreary morning-after becomes, in Snyder's poem, an image which expresses compassionate acceptance of the aging process:
Seeing in open doors and screens
The thousand postures of all human fond
Touches and gestures, glidings, nude,
The oldest and nakedest women more the sweet….
In Eliot's poem, thousands of others are trapped in dingy lives; in Snyder's poem, the thousand gestures signify human warmth and contact. These women, "more the sweet," ripen with age. Snyder reverses the significance of Eliot's image in order to include Eliot's subject matter (aging, decline), while rejecting Eliot's conclusions about that subject matter.
The Japanese prostitutes differ sharply from Eliot's women. They appear in Snyder's poem as people with levels of feeling rather than merely as indices to cultural degradation. The fact that women scavenge for fuel signals, for Eliot, a spiritually bankrupt universe—"The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots." Snyder takes issue with Eliot's cosmology:
And saw there first old withered breasts
Without an inward wail of sorrow and dismay
Because impermanence and destructiveness of time
In truth means only, lovely women age—.
By expressing cheerful acceptance through the Japanese women, the poem leaves pessimism behind. The Japanese context, evoking the Buddhist tenet that we must value all aspects of existence, becomes especially significant in Snyder's poem, in which even the leveled cities from World War II continue to express the fullness of existence:
The cities rise and fall and rise again
From storm and quake and fire and bomb,
The glittering smelly ricefields bloom,
And all that growing up and burning down
Hangs in the void a little knot of sound.
The void which Snyder refers to is surely an Eastern Buddhist void rather than, say, the Western Existentialist void of Sartre's Nausea. As the lines on fires, storms, and falling cities show, it is possible to see Ground Zero as a prelude to growth.
The "little knot of sound" looks forward to Snyder's third section, which is filled with human music, birds, and "The noise of living families," but little if anything that can be traced to T.S. Eliot. Instead, Snyder replaces Eliot's images of psychological breakdown with images of imaginative creation. The musical voice of this section stands in contrast to the bed-ridden visionary of Eliot's poem, who
… clasped the yellow soles of feet
in the palms of both soiled hands.
Eliot's lines, again, show the degraded search for spirituality in "soles," whereas the lines in Snyder's third section express no such frustration:
Grope and stutter for the words, invent a tune,
In any tongue, this moment one time true
Be wine or blood or rhythm drives it through—.
Snyder's lines, in counterpoint to Eliot's, have a Yeatsian ring as Snyder moves increasingly towards a philosophy of acceptance. Rather than being clothes upon a stick or a projector of sordid images, a man should sing and louder sing.
No reader quickly forgets the strikingly divided consciousness that Eliot captures in the two final stanzas of "Preludes," wherein the hopeful "I am moved by fancies" is followed by the spiteful peroration, "Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh." Eliot presents us with a tense confrontation between the hunger for spiritual fulfillment and its worldly denial. The poem leaves to the reader the corollary that this is our tension.
In the fourth section of "A Stone Garden," however, we are given no verbal echoes, no sordid images or "vision of the street / As the street hardly understands," Snyder denies Eliot's grim dualities, and so he leaves behind the divided Mind of Europe for the mind, especially the aesthetic sensibility, of Japan. Still, non-dualism is an elusive quality: it is important to note that he establishes Eliot as a Western model against whom he may react. Snyder's "emptiness" imagery escapes the dualistic morality of "Preludes," but, at the same time, his Eastern non-dualism defines itself against Eliot's (Western) experience of modern emptiness. Or, one might argue, Snyder's poem complements rather than opposes Eliot's: "A Stone Garden" shapes presumably useless materials such as those found in Eliot's grimy streets into a poetic equivalent of the Japanese stone garden.
"A Stone Garden" begins Snyder's lifelong dialogue with Eliot. Myths and Texts (1960) is, with its cycles of waste and rejuvenation, an answer to The Wasteland (1922), and in The Real Work (1980) Snyder gives his mature appreciation of Eliot:
What's really fun about Eliot is his intelligence and his highly selective and charming use of Occidental symbols which point you in a certain direction…. Eliot is a ritualist, a very elegant ritualist of key Occidental myth-symbols with considerable grasp of what they were about.
In this interview Snyder goes on to say that Four Quartets is his favorite work by Eliot, and readers of Snyder may anticipate the completion of Mountains and Rivers Without End to see how Snyder responds, in poetic terms, to Eliot as a "very elegant ritualist."
This section contains 1,452 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)