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This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.A PURE PRODUCT OF AMERICA
As William Carlos Williams wrote 'To Elsie': 'The pure products of America/go crazy.' Of course, there's crazy and then there's crazy. If most Americans go crazy by leading, in Thoreau's words, lives of quiet desperation - getting fat, wearing acrylic hair-dos, hating their children -there are always a few mad geniuses around who turn crazy into a compliment and a rebuke to the rest of us. Such a one is Gary Snyder. Snyder sidestepped the trap of his early fame as a Beat Poet and Merry Prankster on Jack Kerouac's magic bus to have not only one career as a fine poet but another as America's most eloquent environmental activist. Just to say it this way is misleadingly to bifurcate his life by separating Snyder's 'careers'. For Snyder, man in nature fuses to make his poetry and his politics one whole. Most poets' radicalism is at best intellectual or at worst a pose; for Snyder it is an animating activism. Mountains and Rivers Without End, a long poem sequence, forty years in the writing, provides the opportunity to consider Snyder's unities.
Even though Snyder now is a respectable academic at the University of California, he spent many years working at whatever was at hand - forest-fire lookout, merchant seaman - and teaching himself whatever he wanted to know. Snyder immersed himself in Asian religions and philosophies, but I read him as a distinctly American voice, one speaking from western America's radical syndicalist and anarchist working-class past. When I hear Snyder I see migrant workers and bindle stiffs on the road, riding with a hard grin nailed on of cheerful fatalism:
All night freezing in the back of a trunk
dawn at Smith River
battering on in loggers' pickups
prunes for lunch
The next night, Siuslaw.
The music in Snyder, and he's not much for rhyme or metre, is the incantation of a talking blues. He likes to leave out articles and connections or misuse tenses to get the clickety-clack of highway fenceposts going past:
Caught a ride the only car come by
at seven in the morning
chewing froze salami
riding with a passed-out L.A. whore
glove compartment full of booze.
the driver a rider,
Like me picked up to drive…
Snyder loves Asian and Amerindian mythology, reworking their fables and stories in his verse, but their most direct impact on his poems is his use of their chanting cadences.
Snyder can be a gritty realist (his working class is not sepia-tinted) but he's no materialist. Indeed, Snyder is an idealist both temperamentally - he's basically cheerful and optimistic - and philosophically. For Snyder, as for Whitman, consciousness is everything. Ostensibly a poet of nature, Snyder has argued that here is No Nature (New York, 1992), that nature is humankind's construction. Mountains and Rivers without End begins with 'Endless Streams and Mountains' which appears to be a landscape poem until the poet pulls back to show the painting he's describing. The clue is in the first lines:
Clearing the mind and sliding in
to the created space,
a web of waters streaming over rocks,
air misty but not raining
seeing this land from a boat on a lake
The boat, 'coasting by', mimics the sequential unrolling of the scroll painting.
Snyder cleared his mind through Asia. He writes, 'These songs that are here and gone,/here and gone,/to purify our ears.' I am not qualified to comment on the Asian elements in his poems: 'Hari Krishna Mantra/Om Shri Maitreya/Hari Om Namo Shiva.' And as a good American rationalist and sceptic, I think a lot of the direct religious and spiritual borrowings of Snyder's verse are at best distracting and at worse baloney. (As a 1960s teenager I also - light the incense - can't help remembering that the mysterious east was a good way to pull girls.) But it works for Snyder, gets him going on what I think he's best at, so let's take him on trust.
With his cleared mind, Snyder oscillates between poems of nature as it is and as it should be. Snyder's nature poems feature a dissolve of consciousness and all four of Mountains and Rivers Without End's sections progress through the world, ending with a lift off to 'where the eagle that flies out of sight//flies.' or 'as we hang on beneath with all we have//enjoy her flight./Drink her light.' The book ends with one final leap:
The space goes on.
But the wet black brush
tip drawn to a point,
But since man makes nature nature is really society. The joke in Snyder's title is that it's the 'wet black brush' that's without end.
When Snyder traces the ongoing mark of man he is coruscating. The strongest poem in Mountains and Rivers is 'Walking the New York Bedrock/Alive in the Sea of Information' which begins with a reverse transubstantiation of what we complacently think of as nature into the city: 'New York like a sea anemone/Wide and waving.' Office workers transmogrify into schools of fish while buildings become canyons full of 'Helicopters making their long humming trips/Trading pollen and nectar/In the air/of the/Sea of Economy.' The poem ends with another dissolve:
As the fine dusk gleam
Lights a whole glass side of
Forty some stories
Soft liquid silver,
Beautiful buildings we float in, we feed
Foam, steel, gray
This is the nature we choose. We can make another choice. When Gary Snyder writes about down-and-outs and workers, you have to think of the I.W.W. and its dream of a new consciousness and thus a new society through 'One Big Union.' In his work, Gary Snyder carries on the Wobbly martyr Joe Hill's testament, 'Don't mourn. Organize!
DAVID C. WARD
This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.