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Gary Snyder joins the greats

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One of the most influential figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, Gary Snyder, has entered the Library of America, a series that shows the breadth and diversity of our canon with one ambitious new volume after another, even though unfortunately its publishers do not always do so. put merit first.

In the case of the new inductee, the quality of the work prevents any struggle over whether he deserves such an accolade. Like his friend and traveling companion Jack Kerouac, whom he survived for well over half a century, Snyder is deeply interested in bliss, revelry, transcendence, Dionysian extremes and beauty as it manifests itself in literature and in the world. Like Kerouac always, he rejects the current tendency to relegate to the hole of the memory all that belongs to the past and which does not correspond to all the sensitivities of today.

Like Kenneth Rexroth, considered by some to be the catalyst for the West Coast’s literary revival, Snyder’s inner compass led him to the Far East and to the city we know today as Kyoto, formerly Heian Kyo, which was the capital of a flourishing culture. and nation for over a thousand years. Here is a West Coast poet who cannot ignore the call of Japan. During the heyday of Snyder’s spiritual house, writing verse was as common as breathing.

The world and us
The Collected Poems of Gary Snyder (Library of America).

Although never overtly political, a few of these poems show concern for an environment that we humans have not dealt with admirably. But ecology is part of a larger vision uniting personal and social imperatives in a unique way.

Snyder’s ecological concerns come to the fore as he insists that people can do better, must do better, not just in their habits and consumption patterns, but in their thoughts and deeds as members. of a diet. In “Hills of Home,” you’ll find one of the darkest and most ironic tales of the Bay Area ever put to paper. Although known the world over for its beauty and easy living, San Francisco enjoys a rather different distinction in this poem. Snyder admits the opulence of the place, “bonewhite in blue sea bay”, while naming as its main features “two large prisons”, Alcatraz and San Quentin, and “an oil refinery”, with many sailboats all around and jagged rocks where you can sit and have your lunch amidst the breeze.

The poem gives new meaning to damnation with light praise. We’re throwing people into the slammer at a breakneck pace and killing jails and oil even as we defile and ruin the beauty of the world. But the construction of the poem is too clever, the imagery too indelible, for it to sound moralizing.

One of the Kyoto period works, “Bomb Test”, opens with a haunting image: “Fish float on their bellies, for real – / Uranium in the white / of their eyes.” These fish were minding their business, at an ocean level so deep beneath the waves that all you see around you is darkness, when “the silver snow of something strange / shimmered / from the cirrus clouds to the mountains submarines”.

Leave it to humans to disturb the beauty and harmony of the world for their gross and selfish purposes. As yet another figure associated with San Francisco’s Renaissance, Kenneth Patchen, put it in “Continuation of the Landscape,” “only man / Would change his distance from this beautiful center.”

Yes, he may be environmentalist and in that sense progressive. But in Gary Snyder, we have a designer who eschews the banalities and trivialities of partisan politics, while suggesting a sky-blue pastoral reality where extremes meet, or where those with totally different values ​​might actually find common ground. Along with his concern for the natural world, Snyder brings, again and again, an ethic of personal responsibility.

What have you become?

You are bound to wonder why, in so many of his poems, people who consume huge volumes of alcohol and tobacco don’t seem to be having a good time. In fact, their level of happiness may seem inversely proportional to their indulgence in these pleasure-identified chemicals. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Snyder’s subjects, whether they reside in California or Japan, cannot fail to notice the beauty of the landscapes around them and feel all the more how deeply their moral nature is. out of place in the midst of such splendor and grace, like a heap of trash in a field of daisies.

Sometimes it’s the circumstances of their party that make it impossible to feel good about what they’re doing. In the poem “April”, Snyder describes his experience sleeping with a lover on a grassy slope. It turns out that she is pregnant for the third time. He speaks directly to this lover, having obtained “your husband’s blessing on our brief doomed love.” All the wine, the sun and the sex do not make happy the two runaways or others to whom the poem alludes, but maintain a Puritan guilt if largely inarticulate, the indelible impression of which shines through in a final image: “The sun burns the / Writhing snakebone / From your back.

In another poem, “Makings,” Snyder recalls growing up watching his father’s friends rolling cigarettes, a habit he picked up on himself, but not under the rosiest of circumstances. His father lived in a big house, but Snyder describes himself as the black sheep of the family, a slacker with questionable ethics who didn’t come to enjoy the post-war prosperity of others and now lives in a hut. Rolling cigarettes in your cabin, like your father’s friends used to do, is progress and a good life for you.

nature does not respect you

In “Map”, Snyder invites the reader to imagine a farm in the middle of a lush valley teeming with pastures where cows, deer, hawks, crows, wrens and frogs abound, and the farm dwellers are significantly less well-adjusted than these other inhabitants. The stock market is in the doldrums and it is difficult to sell corn. The world around them doesn’t care, because they are just visitors blissfully unaware of the brevity of their stay. The poem concludes: “The woods have time. / The farmer has heirs.

The natural world is everywhere in this work, and it is not uncommon for the reader to feel that we are simply unworthy of it and that it does not and should not give us esteem. Not only are we ecologically clumsy, but we fall short of any ideal of virtue in our daily behavior and our treatment of others.

One of Snyder’s heroes is Alan Watts, whose quintessential work This Is It argues for recognizing the urgency of the moment and the truth of the trope that life is not something that will happen later when all your plans come to fruition, it’s here, it’s now, for a fleeting moment. That’s it. “For Alan Watts” is a written tribute to the guru’s death in 1973. It would be easy to interpret Watts’ teachings as a call for hedonism and decadence, but Snyder urges people to rise to their best their personal and social abilities and thus achieve a more mature life. reading this ethos.

The Far East hypnotizes

For all the liveliness of its evocations of the Bay Area and the Midwest, it is Kyoto that inspires the most eloquent passages in the thousand pages of this volume. In the Kyoto plays, in particular, the unity of the poet’s pleas for ecological and personal rectitude is evident. Snyder doesn’t need epic length to say what he has to say. Some of the poems are as concise as anything by Dickinson or Frost.

“Housekeeping in Kyoto” is just eight lines about Snyder’s decision to throw away a red washcloth he found one day in 1956 while camping with Kerouac, shortly before he left for Asia. . The cloth languished in man’s excavations in Kyoto and, he tells us, has faded to a grayish-pink hue from its incessant use to clean smoky pots. In a few lines, he says a lot about a way of life and the habits of complacency he indulges in without regard for the wear and tear they inflict. He traveled thousands of miles to a place of splendor and grace, and lived in a way hardly befitting his environment or certain standards of discipline and righteousness.

“I See Old Friend Dan Ellsberg on TV in a Mountain Village in Japan” is an account of the Vietnamese-era activist observing him standing at a spot amid the rice paddies of the Yura Valley in Kyoto Prefecture and speak to the camera as owls screech from their nocturnal roosts. Snyder likes Ellsberg’s message, which is that the world should disarm and that Japan should maintain its post-war neutrality and not get into the great power conflicts that nearly ended the world and could still do so. . The reader senses that, for Snyder, the appeal of what Ellsberg has to say here goes a little deeper. Snyder wants Japan to retain its cultural idiosyncrasy and perhaps even return to the splendor that Western encroachments over the years have helped to bury.

But today’s Japan has come a long way since the heyday of Heian Kyo, thanks in part to Western junk food culture but also to Japanese choices. The personal failures Snyder alludes to are not the exclusive domain of Westerners, he subtly suggests. Rather, they may be universal, or at least cross-cultural, traits of the fallen world in which we live. “Seeing the Ox” is an equally laconic poem from Kyoto with a slightly misleading title, as it is the ox, standing outside the Daitoku temple, that watches.

Snyder describes a drooling, sad creature watching the children playing near the temple “with rolling eyes” as it lingers over a pile of its own excrement. They behave like a bunch of dumb western tourists. The poem raises more questions than it answers, leaving the reader to speculate on the emotional intelligence of a putatively inarticulate creature who may not respond well to frivolity, not to say impudence. , exuberant children outside a monument that once housed a sacred place. place in Heian Kyo culture.