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

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.