Gary Snyder, Danger
Berkeley: Shoemaker & Hoard,
The white dome peak whacked lower down,
open-sided crater on the northside, fumarole wisps
a long gray fan of all that slid and fell
angles down clear to the beach
dark old-growth forest gone no shadows...
under the fiery sign of Pele,
and Fudo—Lord of Heat
who sits on glowing lava with his noose
lassoing hardcore types
from hell against their will..(15)
At age 15, Gary
Snyder climbed to the then 9,677 foot summit of Mt. St. Helens, in southern
Washington State. One week before, on August 6, 1945, the United States
dropped the first of two atomic bombs on the people of Japan. When the
news reached him at his campsite, the would-be poet vowed "something
like, 'By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens,"
that he would "fight against this cruel destructive power and those
who would seek to use it, all my life.'"(9)
In 1980, Loowit,
as the Indians call her—"Luwit, lawilayt-lá—Smoky/is
erupted, changing her contours and the landscape around her forever.
In August 2000, after having published more than eighteen books of poetry
and prose, Snyder returned to the mountain, walking in the shadow of
her truncated summit, making notes for what would become the first section
of Danger on Peaks.
Today, the sound
of rain mixing perfectly with the rills of a stream is rubbed raw by
a truck grinding up the winding road that skirts Portland’s Japanese
Garden. Far off, but within sight of this city, Loowit is again sending
up columns of smoke and ash, recreating itself with signs and portents.
Taking shelter in a wood-pillared kiosk, sitting on a bench of knotty
pine, I begin work on this critique of a book written by a man whose
life and work have influenced the better part of mine.
In the summer of 1962, lazing
on the sunny beaches of Provincetown, MA, hanging out with artists and
jazz musicians at night, before reporting for military service, I was
reading two books: Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell; and Donald
M Allen's seminal anthology, The New American Poetry, in which
some of the major Beat Poets made their national debut. It was here
that I first read Gary Snyder's work, a portion of the "Burning"
sequence from his second book, Myths & Texts. I had not
read poems before that were both erudite and earthy. After reading these
poems, I would change my life.
Two years later, I left New York
and moved to San Francisco. One morning in the Trieste coffeehouse in
North Beach, I was having a long philosophical conversation with the
Le Blanc. When I mentioned to him that I was applying for a National
Endowment for the Arts grant and needed one more reference, Peter said,
Gary Snyder?" "Terrific!" I replied. Peter went to the
phone booth. When he returned, he handed me Snyder's contact information.
declined to act as a reference, we met many times over the next
ten years: in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kyoto, and Kitkitdizze,
his homestead outside Nevada City, CA. In 1969, recently returned
from Japan with his new family, he was temporarily living in a Japanese-style
house in Marin Co.
||I was living
not far away, in the Bolinas home of physician/poet John Doss, and
journalist Margot Patterson Doss, where "Ginsberg
came half a dozen times and taught me to 'butter steam veggies'
one Thanksgiving," while many other poets lived nearby, or
visited on weekends.
When he invited the household
to dinner, that evening Snyder mentioned how at age nineteen he had
mapped the path of his career. Coming from a man whose aesthetic is
to make a poem as if each word were "placed
solid, by hands/In choice of place, set/Before
the body of the mind / in space and time," this
statement seemed more constrictive than odd. Then I thought of a poem
in Myths & Texts:
If the myth is large enough,
the vision deep enough, the path can accommodate switchbacks and precarious
In 1974, I edited a
small book of writing by Sam Thomas, a talented young poet who had
taken one of Gary Snyder's workshops at The University of California,
Berkeley. On January 8, 1970, "deeply depressed," Thomas had
hung himself. Snyder wrote a generous Postnote for the book, remembering,
too, his friend Lew Welch who eight months before had "walked off
into the woods, leaving behind his sleeping bag, his car, his notebooks,
his unfinished MSS, his wallet, his ID. He was never seen again."
At the end of that extraordinary decade, living in the high desert of
the American Southwest, I attempted to walk away from the influences
of my past.
Walk with Snyder's high-minded
voice in the shadow of the mountain's devastation, accompanied by geologist
Fred Swanson, who's been "studying Mt. St. Helens from the beginning."
Snyder explains that after the 1980 eruption,
"the Soil Conservation Service wanted to drop $16.5 million worth
of grass seed and fertilizer over the whole thing," while "the
Forest Service wanted to salvage-log and replant trees," and, of
course, "the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build sediment retention
dams." But local activists stopped them, and "zero restoration
became the rule."(14)
As a result, the natural restoration of
the zone became possible. In May 2005, in a talk given by Swanson in
Portland, he said that, to everyone's surprise, much of the new growth
didn't come from seeds blown in from elsewhere, but from the indigenous
burned-over area itself, "blighted by a fall of ash," as Snyder
puts it, "but somehow alive."(16).
|| Straddling dichotomies
as communal individualism, hospitable ownership, "the pathless
path," Snyder's authoritative voice is what wooed Jack Kerouac
into making him the hero of The Dharma Bums: an erudite woodsman
with an "original mind," as Robert Bly called it, one whose
a "curious combination of smallness and infinity."
white-hot crumbling boulders lift and fly in a
burning sky-river wind of
searing lava droplet hail,
huge icebergs in the storm, exploding mud...
Discussing how Snyder juxtaposes
images in some of this poems, Jody Norton pointed to the shih
of T'ang Dynasty
China, which is "a poetry of image rather than idea, in which
the images are
neither fully drawn nor explicitly located, and in which the precise
nature of their interrelationships is not defined." The measured,
broken line, "with significant elisions and disjunctions"
and "very little enjambment":
shoots out flat
and rolls a swelling billowing
cloud of rock bits,
crystals, pumice, shards of grass
dead ahead blasting away— (11)
While at their best Snyder's
poems limn a joyous rhythm, Danger on Peaks opens with pages
of prose: the story of Mt. St. Helens' last major eruption, and reminiscences
of the mountain when he was young. Lacking the "cicada singing,/swirling
in the tangle," in his two major books of prose I found a tedious
flat terrain to traverse. Here the writing is more lyrical, comfortably
sauntering between poetry and prose, yet still tends to fall into crevasses
of figures and facts.
For the past fifty-five years,
Gary Snyder has tendered the myth of himself like a plant growing in
a wild, though accessible, place. He "re-inhabitated" territory,
and recombined aspects of Chinese and Japanese spirituality, knotting
it all together with thrums of Amerindian shamanism and lore. His 1969
book, Earth House Hold, introduced
to a literary audience the basic concepts of ecology. Coined by German
biologist Ernst Haeckel exactly a century before, thanks in part to
Snyder "ecology" is now a household word. Its central thesis
is the mutual dependency of all living systems and sentient beings,
which is also the core teaching of Buddhism, as well as Snyder's poetics.
Journal" was begun in 1952 when Snyder spent the summer as a
fire lookout in the North Cascades of Washington State. It makes up
Earth House Hold's first section. Here he was already experimenting
with haibun, a combination of prose and haiku which Matsuo
Bashō had used to remap the cultural landscape of 17th Century
("Ate at the 'parkway café' real lemon in the pie/'—why
don't you get a jukebox in here'/'—the man
said we weren't important enough'"); profound: ("When the
mind is exhausted of images, it invents its own."), Snyder scatted
and quoted with humor, and insights befitting an older man.
Edward Rothstein rhetorically
asks, "What artist does not yearn, some day, to possess a 'late
style'? A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that
comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery
of craft that has nothing left to prove. It might recapitulate a life's
themes, reflect on questions answered and allude to others beyond understanding."
Hermann Broch called this 'the style of old age,' and suggested that
it "is not always the product of the years; it is a gift implanted
along with his other gifts in the artist, ripening, it may be, with
time, often blossoming before its season under the foreshadow of death,
or unfolding itself even before the approach of age or death: it is
the reaching of a new level of expression..." In particular, the
style of old age is "the impoverishment of vocabulary and the enrichment
of the syntactical relations of expression."
All this leads us to "Yet
Older Matters," the series of short poems that make up the second
section of Danger on Peaks—
A rain of black rocks out
onto deep blue ice in
nine thousand feet high scattered
Crunched inside yet
from times before our very sun
At Elephant Moraine in eastern
Antarctica, 160 miles northwest of the United States base at McMurdo
Station, nearly 2000 specimens of meteorites have been recovered, including
one "as definitely being from Mars;" although, most of
the rock fragments, called "chondrites," originated from asteroids.
It struck me how, relative to the planet we call Earth, we are all infinitesimally
young. Spaced for Snyder's breath/voice,the
ma, a gap, "a way of seeing" the interval found
between temporal things or events, the poem exemplifies he who "is
always a mere breath away from universals."
The balance of this section
I find insightfully slight, the poet's personality stronger than the
poems. Until the end, at "Sand Ridge," it is as if he suddenly
realized that, if our species is to survive, to some extent the path
he's traveled we must too, and draws a map:
that backbone path
ghosts of the pleistocene icefields
is the subject of the third section, poems that read like a journal
meant for Literary History. He has always been overtly autobiographical,
but the myth now seems somewhat weary. In the first poem, "What
to Tell, Still," he is reading "the galley pages of (James)
Laughlin's Collected Poems/with
an eye to writing a comment./How warmly J. speaks of
Pound,/I think back to—" When at twenty-three
in a lookout
cabin in gray whipping wind
at the north end of the northern Cascades,
high above rocks and ice, wondering
I go visit Pound at St. Elizabeths?
He went to study
Chinese at Berkeley instead, then on to Japan to practice Zen. From,
"Working on hosting Ko Un great Korean poet,"(p.43)
to the "Summer of '97," when his posse gathered to build his
family a new house:
for siding/Fresh skinned poles for framing/Gravel
for crunching and/Bollingen for bucks—"(p.47)
Then their names and chores are listed: "Daniel peeling/Moth
for singing/Matt for pounding ..."and "Gary
for cold beer." No where did he nail his communal ethics down
tighter than in a 1979 interview with Michael Helm: "No amount
of well-meaning environmental legislation will halt the biological
holocaust without people who live where they are and work with their
neighbors, taking responsibility for their place, and seeing
to it: to be inhabitants, and not to retreat."
On the road again,
he's "Waiting for a Ride" at the Austin Texas airport(56),
or "Heading south down the freeway making the switch/from
Business 80 east to the I-5 south,"(50)
harking back at least 40 years to "Night Highway 99,"
in which "Sokei-an met an old man on the banks of the/Columbia
growing potatoes & living alone." Sokei-an asks him why he
lives there. He replies, in Snyder's voice:
Boy, no one ever asked me the reason
I like to be alone.
I am an old man
I have forgotten how to speak human words.
One sees that the
footloose young poet dreaming of adventures to come. Then the middle-aged
father "on my way to pick up my ten-year-old stepdaughter/and
drive the car pool."(p.41)
Stages of a life, accepting this, he will stick to human words. How
to go on? "Steady, They Say," which is the book's fourth
There's a poem that
I first read in a magazine's tribute to poet/Zen Master Philip Whalen,
Snyder's roomie at Reed College and lifelong friend. When I moved into
the Bolinas house of John and Margot Doss, it was because Whalen, who
had lived there, had left for Japan. In the bedroom's dresser I found
a large-sized pair of underwear, and holey tabi, Japanese split-toe
socks. Danger on Peaks has two poems dedicated to Whalen, who,
blind and enlightened, died on June 26, 2002. Seeing this one, "Claws
/ Cause," collected here is what made me buy the book.
is the claw-curve, carve—
In the thrust of
a complex text, too many critics twist its guts,
as if one can breath life into death. I could speak to "the veins
in stones and wood, to constellations, represented by the strokes
connecting the stars, to the tracks of birds and quadrupeds on the ground
(Chinese tradition would have it that the observation of these tracks
suggested the invention of writing)," but creativity is raw energy:
the reader must be moved. Thus, the claw of an extinct animal
was curved to carve flesh, or dig for roots, and us. Then, in the art
of weaving we uncovered a grammar like the Navajo spirit road, working
its way through like a "paw track, lizard-slither, tumble of/a
single boulder down," over the edge. A poem accepts its death like
a sentence its period. A poem is its own eulogy, "Saying, 'this
was me'/scat sign of time and mood and place,"
and "language is breath,
claw, or tongue." From between the lips, what darts out, or draws
Youth may blossom
unexpectedly, this poem, reminiscent of one Snyder wrote more than 35
years ago, which ended simply: "Eating each other's seed/eating/ah,
each other./Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:/lip
to lip." Now, "'tongue' with all its flickers/might
be a word for
love, and fate.
A single kiss a
tiny cause [claws]
A whispered word
quivers like a kiss blown across a room, bridging streams of meaning
such grand effects [text].
poems: To his wife,
whose legs were trained "by the/danger on peaks,"(74)
to his Japanese mother-in-law, "needing no poem,"(66)
and "To All the Girls Whose Ears I Pierced Back Then."(64)
He travels from the Mibu River, "Four hours
back to the Yuba River, "where it enters the Sacramento valley
to "the soaring Parthenon, sacred to gray-eyed
Athena." Bivouacking there, he "Dreamed of a gray-eyed girl/on
this rocky hill/no buildings/then."(88)
There's also a haibun for his
sister, Anthea, who was "struck by a speedy car, an instant death."
egrets standing there
at the crossing
the Petaluma River.(96)
paths lead to the mystery of one's existence; yet we love the material
arts, the liturgical words, the robes of spiritual office, an incense
burner's perfumed clouds. I reached Rytakuji in the autumn of 1968.
A Zen monastery built in the 18th Century in view of Mt. Fuji, its peaceful
ambience, national treasures, and brilliant abbot, Soen Nakagawa, moved
me to write to Snyder, who was in Kyoto preparing to leave for America,
something like, "Now that I've found Paradise,
what do I do with it?"
He replied, "Beware of the fox inside." Japanese trickster,
who in the Western USA is Coyote, would "say 'that's just what
I thought too'/And do it. And
go his way."(59)
Kyoto, "the great bell of Gion/one
hundred eight times/deeply booms through town."(97),
while through my open windows
today, a church bell's deep throat opens twelve times, unwittingly
tolling the destruction of Bamiyan.
13, 2001, the BBC News reported that Islamic fundamentalists had
dynamited the giant Buddhist sculptures that were carved into the
Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, "claiming that all statues
were false idols and contrary to their Islamic
beliefs." First mentioned in 5th Century A.D. by the Chinese
traveler, Fa-hsien, 200 years later, the Buddhist
pilgrim monk, Hsüan-tsang, saw the figures decorated with jewels
and Rivers Without End, Snyder included the lovely lyrical poem,
"The Hump-backed Flute Player." First published in 1971, with
a flawed finish he later rewrote but still rings false, the poem begins
in Canyon de Chelly, where, "on the south wall, the pecked-out
pictures of some mountain sheep with curling horns," join a humpbacked
flute-player, a solitary and mysterious flute-playing creature known
to the Hopi as Kokopelli, who "may have been as important
to the Southwestern Indians as Abraham is to Jews or Paul to Christians."
To Snyder, Kokopelli's "hump is a pack," which he
associates with Hsüan-tsang, who walked to India and returned
to China sixteen years later with the Buddhist teachings of emptiness,
of "mind-only," vijñaptimātra.
In the last section
of Danger on Peaks, Hsüan-tsang appears
again, as Snyder laments the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan "by
woman-and-nature-denying authoritarian worldviews that go back much
farther than Abraham."(101)
"And yet," he replies to a letter "from
a man who writes about Buddhism," "'and yet' is our
perennial practice. And maybe the root of the Dharma."(102)
A stubbornly compassionate vision—"walking the pilgrim path,/climbing
the steps to/Avalokiteshava, Bodhisattva of Compassion/asking:
please guide us through samsara"(105-6)—in
midst of Gaia and her children being sacrificed to Power & Greed.
"What was that?/storms of flying glass/&
than burning, hold hands.(104)
this century by tens of thousands of readers, Gary Snyder remains a
unique presence. As exemplar of a sustainable planet, his is a life
lived large and, more often than not,writ
For all beings
living or not, beings or
inside or outside of
The white dome
peak: G. Snyder.
From, "The white dome peak..."
Peter LeBlanc: "In early morning, during spacious
coffee-breaks, we would sit in the empty saloon and talk about
the nature of our creative drives and aspirations. Our conversations
were intense but not without humor. We were both convinced
that we were absolutely right, no matter what, as long as we remained
true to our work." D. Meltzer, "Beat Generation Poets:
The Prints of Peter Le Blanc." Bastard Angel, Fall
Ginsberg came: M.P. Doss, "A Reminiscence
of #9 Brighton." Bolinas, CA, 1998.
placed solid / by hands: G. Snyder. From, "Riprap."
In, Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems. San Francisco,
I sit without thoughts: G. Snyder. From, "First
I edited a small book: Bits & Snatches:
The Selected Work of Sam Thomas. Introduction by Dr.
D.H. Rosen & Postnote by Gary Snyder. Brooklyn, NY, 1974.
a curious combination:
C. Altieri, "Gary Snyder's Lyric Poetry: Dialectic
as Ecology." In, P.D. Murphy, Critical Essays on
Gary Snyder. Boston, MA., 1991.
the pathless path: When Yaoshan Weiyan visited Shitou
Xiqian and asked him about the teaching of the Southern
School of Ch'an Buddhism, Shitou replied, "This way will
not do, nor will any other way do. Neither this way nor
any way will do. What do you do?" Contemporary Zen Master,
Shin'ichi Hisamutsu, echoed this with, "Nothing will do.
What do you do? Snyder replied with, "Knowing
nothing need be done / is where we begin from."
a poetry of image:
"The Importance of Nothing: Absence and Its
Origins in the Poetry of Gary Snyder. In, P.D. Murphy, Editor,
Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston, MA,
cicada singing: G. Snyder. From, "Song of the
Tangle." In, Regarding Wave. New York, 1970.
two major books: The Practice of the Wild:
Essays. San Francisco, CA, 1990; A Place in Space,
Washington, D.C. , 1995.
Hold: New York, 1968.
Edward Rothstein: “Twilight of his Idols.”
Review of Edward W. Said's, On Late Style: Music
and Literature Against the Grain. The New
York Times, 16 July 2006.
Hermann Broch: "The Style of the Mythological
Age." Introduction to R. Bespaloff, On the Iliad.
Washington, D.C., 1947.
as definitely being from Mars: Astrobiology Magazine,
7, November 2002. http://www.astrobio.net/news/print.php?sid=308
the ma, a gap: See, R.B.Pilgrim, "Intervals
(Ma) in Space and Time: Foundations for a Religio-Aesthetic
Paradigm in Japan." History of Religions
#3, February 1986. Snyder also wrote poem titled Mā (In, Mountains
and Rivers without End. Washington, D.C., 1996."Snyder
has said that 'Mā' is an actual letter he discovered in an
abandoned shack in the mountains not far from his home on
the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. " A. Hunt, Genesis,
Structure, and Meaning in Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without
End. Reno NV, 2004.
is always a mere breath: R. Peters, review of
Axe Handles. San Francisco, CA, 1983. Sulfur #10 1984.
acknowledged as Korea's foremost and most prolific living contemporary
poet, Ko Un is finally becoming known and recognized outside
of Korea as more translation of his 130 diverse booksvolumes
of poetry (from short lyrics to sweeping epics), fiction,
essays, translations and dramabecome available in major
Asian and European languages." "Ko Un: Human Nature
Itself is Poetic." Interview by P. Donegan. Kyoto Journal
No amount of well-meaning: In, W.S.McLean, Editor,
The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-1979. p.161.
Night Highway 99: In, Mountains and Rivers
Without End. Washington D.C., 1997.
in a magazine's tribute: Shambhala Sun,
November 2002. G. Snyder, "Highest and Driest."
the veins in stones: J. Gernet, quoted in J. Derrida,
Of Grammatology. Baltimore, MD, 1976.
Eating each other's seed: From, "Song of
the Taste." In, Regarding Wave. New York, 1970.
may have been
as important: J.W.
Sharp, "On the Trail of Kokopelli." http://www.desertusa.com/mag00/