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.

Off to Colorado

I’m off to Colorado this weekend and won’t return until next Sunday. I’m looking forward to baby sitting my grandkids most of the week. It’s the first time I’ll have seen Zoe since she started walking, and that’s exciting. And it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen Logan, and there’s a lot to catch up on.

I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing, but I’m sure it won’t be daily as it is here. It’s only 7 degrees there as I write this, but according to my weather report there’s supposed to be a warming trend next week, up into the low thirties for highs. That will also limit my photography. I know it has here when it’s that temperature. It’s 32 degrees here now, but the high winds make it seem like 22 degrees and I haven’t been in any rush to get outside.

It’s tough to know what will happen next week. At worst, a week off from blogging might come as a pleasant break. It’s been tougher coming up with entries lately, and it weren’t for the bird pictures, I’d be lucky to post more than twice a week on a regular basis.

I’m sure I’ll still read my email and delete any spam that arrives here, but I won’t promise much beyond that.

Have a good week. Hope to see you when I get back, if not before.