Wednesday, May 08, 2019
RIPPLES ON THE SURFACE
"Ripples on the surface of the water--
were silver salmon passing under--different
from the ripples caused by breezes"
A scudding plume on the wave--
a humpback whale is
breaking out in air up
---Nature not a book, but a performance, a
high old culture
scraped out, rubbed out, and used, used, again--
the braided channels of the rivers
hidden under fields of grass---
The vast wild
the house, alone.
The little house in the wild,
the wild in the house.
Both together, one big empty house.
I first heard Gary Snyder read when I was a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois in the spring of 1967. In his late 30s then, Snyder had been a presence in American poetry for over a decade. He was among the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery evening in 1955 that premiered Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and launched the so-called Beat movement. A student of American Indian cultures and both Chinese and Japanese languages, Snyder interspersed months and years at a Zen monastery in Japan with jobs on an oil tanker, on logging crews and as a fire lookout.
The Knox Student lists Snyder's events as a lecture on Tuesday (subject: "What's Going On?") and a reading on Wednesday, both in the Alumni Room of Old Main beginning at 7:30 in the evening. While Snyder did speak about political, cultural and environmental subjects at one or both of his appearances, I recall him reading a great deal of poetry at both--hours of it.
Snyder's readings were mesmerizing: poems of direct descriptions in brief bursts of mostly nouns and verbs, and short, often one syllable words (a conscious choice in Rip Rap due to his observation of classical Chinese) that produced a cumulative, incantatory magic. After awhile the words became mostly sound and you got tired, but then they took you to another level. I doubt that many audiences anywhere had the opportunity to hear Gary Snyder read for such sustained periods.
His emphasis on the ignored value of the non-human and Indigenous cultures struck a chord with me: as he wrote, "In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past."
Snyder also was an impressive presence on campus. One attendee remembers that he wore an earring, some decades before this became a male fashion. I recall the bells in his boots: little jingle bells that rang as he walked. I loved that, and tried it myself for awhile. But even in the upcoming counterculture it didn't catch on, alas. Still, I remember sitting in the audience for the second event, alive with anticipation, and hearing those jingling boots tromping down the Old Man hall.
The party for him was at a student apartment. I asked him one question. Though I don't remember what I asked about, it was in the nature of "how do you know?" He answered that I'd have to "experience it." I immediately jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he'd advised me to take LSD. Such were the nerve endings as the wildness of the counterculture approached. It was in fact a practical as well as a perfectly Buddhist answer to almost anything.
I heard Snyder read again a few years later at a benefit reading for an ecology organization in Berkeley. He was among his old San Francisco colleagues, including Lew Welch, who read his famous California poem with the refrain "This is the last place/there is nowhere else to go." Months later Welch disappeared, a presumed suicide. I spoke with poet Michael McClure in 2003, who read there that day as well as at the historic 1955 event that launched Howl, and he remembered that reading in Berkeley as something special.
For the next five years Snyder published poems in periodicals, from Look magazine and the New York Times to Poetry and the Hudson Review to Kayak, Caterpillar and Unmuzzled Ox. His collection Turtle Island (a traditional name now applied to North America) sold something like 100,000 copies and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. It included the prose statement "Four Changes" that set the agenda for a number of environmental groups.
For awhile after, I acquired his books haphazardly, mostly as I came across them used, but eventually I had the poetry collections The Back Country (1968), Regarding Wave (1970) Axe Handles (1983), Left Out in the Rain (1986) and the hybrid Turtle Island (1975) as well as the prose collections Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977) and The Real Work (1980).
Probably his prose masterpiece is The Practice of the Wild, published in 1990. It was one of my first acquisitions as a resident of California in 1996. I saw it in the window of Arcata Books, used. The bookstore owner sold it to me and said, "I knew it wouldn't last long. I just put it out this morning."
For me, living in California brought new dimensions to Snyder's work, both in terms of places he wrote about and the relevance of his writing to our ecology. (He lives most of a day's drive south of me, in the foothills of the Sierras.) So I began to acquire his more recent books: the completed Mountains and Rivers Without End (1997), Danger on Peaks (poems, 2004), A Place in Space (new and selected prose, 1995), Passage Through India (1992 edition) and Back on the Fire (essays, 2007.) I even got his doctoral thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (1979.) Even at that, there are books I missed.
More recently I added The Etiquette of Freedom (2010), a companion book to a film featuring Snyder in conversation with poet and fictionist Jim Harrison, which also includes the film on DVD. Now I have another experience of Snyder reading his work (which he said "is mostly done") in his late 70s. In honor of his 89th birthday, I just purchased a recycled copy of No Nature: New and Selected Poems.
Gary Snyder's writings led me beyond his own books to a wide network of others, too numerous and involved in their connections to describe here. They helped define my attitudes and activities in relationship to forests and non-human life in general, and they were checkpoints along the way. To some degree, they led me to far northern California, where I've lived for more than 20 years now.
So I celebrate his work, and the fact that he is among us now to celebrate his own 89th birthday.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Congratulations to Richard Powers and The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It's a significant achievement, not only for the author (who in my opinion should have won years ago for The Time of Our Singing in 2004) but for fiction that takes the world seriously--that is, the world beyond urban relationships, beyond only human relationships to other humans. It may be too late to make the crucial difference, but if there is time to avert the end of life as we know it, the importance of human relationship to other life must be acknowledged.
Here's a link to my review posted here in October 2018.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
It is not until later
that you have to be young
it is one of those things
you meant to do later
but by then there is
someone else living there
with the shades rolled down
how could you have been young there
at that time
with all that was expected
then what happened to
there is no sign of them there
a shadow passes across the window shade
what do they know in there
whoever they are
published in New York Review of Books
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
the New Yorker
W.S. Merwin, a hero among poets, who not only defended forests in his work, he planted a forest. The world he spoke for has lost a voice. And tomorrow we wake without question, even though the whole world is burning.