Gary Snyder’s “What Have I Learned”

I think I share many of the same beliefs that Gary Snyder holds, though I’m sometimes amazed at how two people who have traveled such different paths could end up with such similar beliefs. Though we both grew up in the Pacific Northwest and California and share a love of the Cascades, our paths could hardly have been more different. I have been as conventional in my actions as Snyder has been unconventional.

Perhaps age gives us insights. Having made a lifetime of mistakes, one hopes to have learned something, and as one ages one realizes that the only way to keep anything is to pass it on:

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

-the first Calochortus flowers
and in all the land,
it's spring.
I point them out:
the yellow petals, the golden hairs
to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

you pass it on.

It’s hard not to look back and fear we have passed on things we didn’t get right, but in the end we hope that we can pass on those things that we have gotten right, otherwise such wisdom is wasted.

More from Snyder’s No Nature

I’m not foolish enough to believe I could summarize Gary Snyder’s complex philosophy in a short blog entry, but these two poems, chosen from the middle part of his career, give a pretty good feel of some of the most important elements of his philosophy.

I strongly identify with this poem written after the birth of his first son Kai:


When Kai is born
I quit going out

Hang around the kitchen-make cornbread
Let nobody in.
Mail is flat.
Masa lies on her side, Kai sighs,
Non washes and sweeps
We sit and watch
Masa nurse, and drink green tea.

Navajo turquoise beads over the bed
A peacock tail feather at the head
A badger pelt from Nagano-ken
For a mattress; under the sheet;
A pot of yogurt setting
Under the blankets, at his feet.

Masa, Kai,
And Non, our friend
In the green garden light reflected in
Not leaving the house.
From dawn til late at night
making a new world of ourselves
around this life.

Though making my living by teaching did not allow me the luxury of staying home all the time after my daughter was born, I certainly experienced the same kind of feelings and was transformed into a homebody for the next twenty years, focusing most of my life on raising two kids.

The transformation was not a temporary one; even when the kids left the lifestyle remained. I am still a home body, one who enjoys returning to that simple life even after a thoroughly enjoyable trip to far away places.

“The Trade? introduces a slightly different aspect of his philosophy, but it is certainly in concert with the first poem:


I found myself inside a massive concrete shell
lit by glass tubes, with air pumped in, with
levels joined by moving stairs.

It was full of the things that were bought and made
in the twentieth century. Layed out in trays
or shelves

The throngs of people of that century, in their style,
clinging garb made on machines,

Were trading all their precious time
for things.

If you read my blog very often, you’re probably not surprised to find this poem here, either, since it is one of my reoccurring themes, which is not to say that I’m not tempted by expensive toys. It that were true, I wouldn’t have spend much of the day learning what it would cost me to upgrade my cable connection to a faster speed. Still, faced with the choice between time to do the things I want to do or more things, I’ve always chosen time, refusing to work summers when I was off and choosing to retire as early as possible, no matter what the financial consequences.

Gary Snyder’s No Nature

Reading much of Gary Snyder's later poetry it's easy to forget that he is often classified as a Beat poet, and not just because he was friends with many of the most important people in that movement. One rediscovers those ties while reading early poems in No Nature: New and Selected Poems.

His early emphasis on Buddhism dovetails with other Beats like Kerouac, Whalen, and others. More importantly, the informal nature of his themes, particularly the emphasis on sex, places him in the same stream.

I'm not always fond of the poems that include sex as a theme, particularly since it often seems at odds with the Buddhist themes that can often be found in the same poems, but when done well the inclusion of sex in a poem seems to capture a sense of reality that is often lacking in more formal poetry.

One of my favorite of these poems is:

The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog

I pull out your blouse
warm my cold hands
you laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
hot iron stove.
bring in the axe, the rake,
the wood.

we'll lean on the wall
against each other
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark
drinking wine.

Of course, I probably like this poem because the playful gesture that opens the poem reminds me of fond memories in my own life. It also offers a nice contrast to the image that ends the poem, an image that offers rather different sexual overtones.

Still, this simple scene, simply conveys an image of love that is as comforting as mother's tomato dumplings or homemade chicken soup.

Snyder’s danger on peaks

I may have put poetry on hold lately, but I haven't forgotten that this is, after all, primarily a poetry blog. When I read that Gary Snyder's latest volume of poetry danger on peaks featured poems on Mt St Helens and, as the jacket notes, "poems in an American/Japanese hybrid, a form of haibun, "haiku plus prose," which will remind readers as much of William Carlos Williams as Basho" I knew that I would have to read it. First because I generally like Snyder, but secondly because, as you may have noticed, I've become intrigued with haibun and its many manifestations.

It turns out I was a little disappointed with the poems about Mt. St. Helens, but perhaps that's because I think I was even more familiar with the area than Snyder was, having lived just south of the mountain for thirty-five years and hiked the area many times both before and after the mountain erupted.

Luckily, I was more impressed with the different variations of haibun Snyder introduces.

My favorite haibun is in many ways quite traditional, but it's also very personal:

For Anthea Corinne Snyder Lowry 1932-200
She was on the Marin County Grand Jury, heading to a meeting, south of Petaluma on the 101. The pickup ahead of her lost a grass-mower off the back. She pulled onto the shoulder, and walked right out into the lane to take it off. That had always been her way. Struck by a speedy car, an instant death.

White egrets standing there
always standing there
there at the crossing

on the Petaluma River

The extended haibun "After Bamiyan" about the Taliban destruction of the giant Buddhas may well be worth the price of the book itself.

Strangely enough, though, my favorite poem turned out to be a rather traditional one:

Mimulus on the Road to Town

Out of the cracks in the roadcut rockwalls,
clumps of peach-colored mimulus
spread and bloom,
stiffly quiver in the hot
log-truck breeze-blast
always going by "
they never die.

Learn Your Place and Do Good Things

The last section of Mountains and Rivers Without End focuses on man’s connection with the earth and our relationship to it. The first poem “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House” ends with Coyote saying to mankind, “ You people should stay put here,/ learn your place,/ do good things.” Learning our place and doing good things for the earth, of course, could serve as the motto of the whole book, but they are particularly relevant in this section.

My favorite poem in this section, oddly enough, is quite similar to “The Canyon Wren” particularly in that it describes a boating experience, in this case a kayak trip. Perhaps it’s just that as we get older it’s easier to boat than it is to climb mountains, but I too have recently discovered the joys of kayaking as a way to re-establish ties with the world of water:


Floating in a tiny boat
lightly on the water, rock with every ripple,

another skin that slides along the water
hung by sea and sky

green mountains turn to clouds
and slip slow by

two-mile saltwater channel
sucks and coils with the tide,

kayak like a cricket husk—
like an empty spider egg case,
like dried kelp fronds,
like a dry cast skin of a snake,
like froth on the lip of a wave,

trembles on the membrane
paddling forward, paddling backward

crossing at an angle to the
roiling shallow bars

the mountain slides, the moon slides,
the waters churn together,
the near bank races onward,

twin kayak paddles turn and glint like wings
casting spume,

there is no place we are
but maybe here

sky and water stitched together
with the oystercatchers screaming steady flight
the kittiwakes deliberate beat of wing
the murres bob up from underworlds
the seals heads dip back to it
the terns erratic dive and splash
the ravens tweet and croak and gurgle in the far-off
outflow alders;

wind ripples westward, the tide goes east,
we paddle east southeast
the world a rush of wings and waters,

up the slopes the mountain glacier
looses ice melt over gravel in a soft far roar
that joins the inlet-basin world of cries and whistles

(and all this realm was under icefields ten miles long,
when my grandfather drove his team
to pick berries at Port Orchard)

the glaciers shift and murmur like the tides
under the constant cross-current
steady drum of bird wings
full of purpose, some direction,
all for what
in the stroke
in the swirl of the float

we are two souls in one body,
two sets of wings, our paddles swing
where land meets water meets the sky,

where judges and speechmakers, actresses and carpenters,
drop their masks and go on as they were,
petrels, geese, oystercatchers, murrelets,
and small fish fry,

in the tide-suck dark draft sea,
floating in the weaving

of clouds, ice, tides, calls
-only to be here!

The tiny skin boat.

Kayaks are quite different from most boats, particularly for those of us raised with sea-going row boats built to withstand the pounding of ocean waves. The first impression when you get in one, besides the feeling that you’re about to tip over, is of being one with the water. You’re so close to the water that you feel every ripple against the boat. You move so easily that soon you almost believe you’re one with water. For all their fragility, kayaks are easy to maneuver and before long the sky and mountains slip by with amazing ease. Once you’ve mastered the kayak paddle, the tips of the paddle appear much like wing tips dipping into the water as the boat flies forward. Before long you feel more at one with the water than you could ever feel with a motor boat.

Of course, Snyder is describing the dream trip for all kayakers, a trip to the glaciers in Alaska, one of those places on earth where ocean, land, in the form of huge glaciers, and sky meet and become one. A place largely unspoiled by industry, a place where birds of all kinds gather to multiply. Here man can still imagine that he is part of the primeval wilderness, a “tiny skin boat” in a living universe.

Of course, it is this very feeling of being at one with the universe that Snyder has most tried to promote in his book. To the extent that he accomplishes this, I have enjoyed the work because I certainly share this feeling and wish that I could share it with everyone else. There are several poems that I admire as much as any nature poems that I have read.

On the other hand, as I’ve noted throughout this review, too much of the book seems devoted to trying to convince the reader that every religion on earth, with the possible exception of Christianity, is devoted to the sacredness of the earth and to saving it from mankind’s depredation. Perhaps someone more interested in, or more informed about, Buddhist manuscripts would find this book more compelling than I do.

The truth is that I don’t care what American Indian mythology, East Indian mythology, Chinese Mythology, or Buddhist mythology has to say about nature. All one needs to do is to experience nature directly and fully to realize that it is a vital part of who we are and to realize that we ignore that reality only at our own peril.

If I had the time right now, I would read Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems and review it because I know from reading parts of it that I prefer it to this book. Snyder is one of my favorite nature poets; so, it is with some regret that I admit that I am less enthusiastic about this work than the many reviewers on the net that I pointed out earlier.

Unfortunately, I’m poetried out for awhile. I need to get outside, get my hands dirty, and plant the seedlings I’ve been starting since February. But first the beds need to be rototilled and raked. Then the tulips and daffodils need to be cut back, and the weeds hacked out.

Ain’t Nature Grand?!!

The Simple Joys of Nature

Section III of Mountains and Rivers Without End seems to focus on the idea of purification and rejoining with mother earth. The section begins with a poem called The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais. It begins:

Walking up and around the long ridge of Tamalapais “Bay Mountain,” circling and climbing—chanting to show respect and to clarify the mind. Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and I learned this practice in Asia. So we opened a route around Tam. It takes a day.

This poem and the web page cited above, in particular, remind me that I’m much more of an Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist than a New-Age, Buddhist. I don’t need to chant to be reminded how “sacred” Mount Hood or Mt Adams are when I’m walking around them. For me, the silence, the overwhelming silence, accentuated perhaps by the occasional sound of running streams or bird songs provides its own sanctity that certainly needs no interruption of human chants.

Although there are several long, complex poems in this section demanding a rather sophisticated understanding of Buddhism, my favorite poem is a simple one called, “The Canyon Wren:”

The Canyon Wren

I look up at the cliffs
but we're swept on by downriver
the rafts
wobble and slide over rolls of water
boulders shimmer
under the arching stream
rock walls straight up on both sides.
A hawk cuts across that narrow sky hit by sun,

we paddle forward, backstroke, turn,
spinning through eddies and waves
stairsteps of churning whitewater.
Above the roar
hear the song of a Canyon Wren.

A smooth stretch, drifting and resting.
Hear it again, delicate downward song
ti ti ti ti tee tee tee

descending through ancient beds.
A single female mallard flies upstream-—

Shooting the Hundred-Pace Rapids
Su Tung P'o saw, for a moment,
it all stand still.
"I stare at the water:
it moves with unspeakable slowness."

Dogen, writing at midnight,
"mountains flow
water is the palace of the dragon
it does not flow away."

We beach up at China Camp
between piles of stone
stacked there by black-haired miners,
cool in the dark
sleep all night long by the stream.

These songs that are here and gone,
here and gone,
to purify our ears.

Those who have rafted are immediately struck by the details in the poem, particularly phrases like “the rafts/wobble and slide over rolls of water” or “A hawk cuts across that narrow sky hit by sun.” The second stanza captures the constant sense of physical motion, the constant roar of motion which makes rafting so compelling -- only to be dispelled by the “song of a Canyon Wren.” And later, when drifting along, the same voice becomes even louder. Those who spend hours outdoors regularly will certainly identify with the ability of a single bird song to pierce the silence, or even the regular roar of rushing water. Though it may be the whole experience of nature, particularly the flowing waters that appear to stand still even while moving at exhilarating speed, that captures our hearts, it is often the song of single bird that stands out in our memories. Certainly Snyder seems right on when he says that these songs are “here and gone/to purify our ears.”

Section III is obviously meant to reveal the holiness of nature and of life as revealed through many cultures, but again, it is the simple poems, not the complex ones, that capture my heart:

The Bear Mother

She veils herself
to speak of eating salmon
Teases me with
“What do you know of my ways”
And kisses me through the mountain.

Through and under its layers, its
gullies, its folds;
Her mouth full of blueberries,
We share.

I’ve often felt this way while hiking the huckleberry fields in Indian Heaven during the fall. As I pause to eat a fistful of huckleberries while keeping a watchful eye out for bears sharing my repast, I often contemplate how little I know about bears and am amazed at their ability to survive at these heights where I am only an occasional visitor.

Getting Rid of Excess Baggage

Section II of Mountains and Rivers Without End begins with a poem called “Market” and ends with a poem called “The Hump-backed Flute Player.” Thematically it’s not always clear what the point of the section is, but generally the section seems to be about the “baggage” that we carry with us. And, as we all know, 20th century Americans, lucky Canadians and Australians, carry way too much baggage.

“Market” begins with a rather benign description of John Muir packing “pears in the best boxes” and taking them off to market. After, in my opinion, an overly-long listing of market “equivalencies,” i.e., “Seventy-five feet hoed rows equals/ one hour explaining power steering,” the poem concludes with a gruesome description of a market in Varanasi where animals are held for sale in abysmal conditions: “ They eat feces/ in the dark/ on stone floors/ one-legged monkeys, hopping cows/ limping dogs blind cats/ crunching garbage in the market.” The concept of “market” is a complex one and the poem portrays two extremes of the market quite well.

“Journeys” contrasts a rather magical hike in the mountains to the view the narrator discovers when he hits the LOWLANDS:

Underground building chambers clogged with refuse
discarded furniture, slag, old nails,
rotting plaster, faint wisps, antiques newspapers
rattle in the winds that come forever down the hall

Again, we discover how man has polluted what should be “sacred” ground.

A later poem, “Covers the Ground” begins with the John Muir quotation, “When California was wild, it was one sweet bee garden…” Now the land is covered with “mobile homes, pint-sized portable housing, johnny-on-the-spots, “cubic blocks of fresh fruit loading boxes,” and “trucks on the freeways.” In other words, as the last line of the poem suggests, “us and our stuff just covering the ground.”

To me the most interesting poem in the section is the last one, “The Hump-backed Flute Player.” The poem begins with the lines “The hump-backed flute player/ walks all over/ Sits on the boulders of the Great Basin/ his hump…is a pack.” A later line suggests that the pack he carries is really emptiness: “he carried/”emptiness”/ he carried/ “mind only”/vijnaptimatra.”

RANT FOLLOWS: TOO MUCH of this poem seems intent on tying this figure, Kokop’ele, to important cultural figures in Chinese and Buddhist history. Now, I’m not sure how other readers may react to this kind of linkage, but it annoys me. I feel like I’m reading Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” or taking more Joseph Campbell lessons on archetypes. Hell, I’m not going to take a summer-long seminar at Stanford in order to understand the subtleties of this poem. I JUST WANT TO KNOW HOW THE HELL SNYDER THINKS THIS RELATES TO “MARKET.” Wasn’t it the Beat poets that objected to academic poets? I’ll take Snyder’s word that this is a universal archetype. … RANT ENDED

The point of the section seems to be that we need to get rid of the excess baggage that weighs us, and our society, down. We need to free ourselves of our obsession with things if we are going to put ourselves back in touch with nature. I’m not sure, though, that Thoreau didn’t convey the same idea better in Walden’s Pond.