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Gary Snyder and the unbroken world Barry Magid July 23rd 2022

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Perhaps some of you were able to tune in on Wednesday to the panel discussion in honor of Gary Snyder on the occasion of the publication of his collected poems by the Library of America. They put together a very interesting group of people talking about Snyder and his work over the years, including people like Robert Hass and Jane Hirshfield and Peter Coyote and Brenda Hillman. At the end there was a chance to hear Gary himself, now age 92, reminisce a little and read some poetry.

I thought I would talk about him a little bit today and also read some of his poems because in a very real sense he was a big factor in my ending up sitting here talking to you like this. He was a transformational figure for my generation, both in the way he wrote and the way he lived. I believe it was Robert Hass on this panel who talked about how radically different Snyder’s early work sounded from anything that was being published at that time. On one hand you had a legacy of the moderns, Pound and Eliot, which was highly abstract and difficult, and on the other you had in reaction to that, a kind of hyper-personal confessional poetry, with someone like Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell, but even think about Allen Ginsberg and “Howl” and “Kaddish.” The reaction to the formalism of the previous generation often swung in the opposite direction of this kind of intense personal narrative poetry.

Snyder was doing something very different. You can say he was a nature poet, but he wasn’t just writing about nature in isolation, he was writing about man and nature, living within nature, as part of nature, and reflecting on all the good and bad ways that people had done that across cultures and across time, from Native Americans to the increasingly industrialized logging operations that he witnessed and worked in in the Pacific Northwest, and to the idea of China and Japan as offering civilizations of people who had a different relationship to nature, who imagined themselves in harmony with it rather than seeing it as a resource to be exploited.

I think in a way what struck me as most remarkable is that in Snyder, you don’t have a sense that the world is broken. If you read Pound or Eliot, or Ginsberg even, there’s the sense of the world gone mad, it’s shattered itself, and what the poet is trying to do is pick up the pieces, put a few things back together as best they can, try to find a few isolated examples throughout history of someone who for at least a little while got it right that maybe we could begin to emulate.

But the picture that emerges in so much of twentieth century poetry up to the mid- century, where Snyder began, was shaped by two world wars, the depression, and then a troubled generation of what seemed to be a kind of deadening or stifling in the forties and the fifties, and there was either something to be lamented or something to protest against. But Snyder offered a vision of an intact world, that nature was often damaged or exploited, but it was something so much bigger than us, so much vaster, stretching through not just human time but geologic time, that it could contain and restore anything that we could throw at it, and that it was a place where the individual could get in touch with that kind of intrinsic vitality and persistent naturalness that we’d been alienated from.

For a lot of people the sixties and seventies felt like a time of great experiment and innovation and the expansion of personal freedom in some ways that were often pretty wild and drug-fueled. But in many ways it was a freedom people didn’t quite know what to do with, and even when people wanted to get out of the rat race of modern urban life, they discovered that buying some empty tract of land in the woods and driving up there with a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog wasn’t necessarily enough to be able to know how to start over, start a new kind of life.

Snyder actually had the know-how, and the grounding, having grown up on a farm and in a Pacific Northwest community, where knowing how to work, work the land, knowing how to use tools, was part of what he grew up with. And his education plugged him into the discipline eventually of Zen monasteries in Japan to know how to put all that to use. It was a very different kind of freedom. When people talked about freedom in those days, they usually thought of, Now we’re going to be free of all sorts of constraints, I can do whatever I want. Alan Watts, I think, characterized that as Beat Zen, the chance to be free and funny and illogical and cut off from ordinary constraints of morality and convention.

But Snyder actually embodied a different kind of freedom, what I’ve called after Isaiah Berlin, positive freedom, rather than the negative freedom of just being free of constraints, but a positive freedom of developing all sorts of new capacities and opportunities that only emerge through structure and discipline and embedding yourself in a whole new world and culture, not of your own individual creation, but something that you really need to plug into to be able to be changed by and to learn from. And that became, certainly for me, the difference between sitting around smoking a joint and reading Jack Kerouac, not that I stopped doing that, but also going to the zendo and putting in lots and lots of hours and eventually lots and lots of years doing this practice. That we’re gathered doing this today in many ways is the fruit of what Snyder showed was possible: How to bring it home, bring it back into our lives, apply the discipline it takes to actually make something happen rather than just daydream about it.

I thought I’d read some poems from “Myths and Texts,” his second book, which is the only one I have here in the country. I have just about everything he’s published but it’s all back in the city and the Library of America volume hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. So I’ll read from this book, which is an interesting collage of stories about the life of logging in the Pacific Northwest mixed with tales from Indian myths and blended with tales from the Buddhism that he was beginning to practice. And they’re all put next to each other in juxtaposition in the sense of a method he learned from Pound, the texts being what we read and create on our own, the myths being something bigger and stranger than we are embedded in. So I’ll read a few sections from this to give you a flavor of their range.

The ancient forest of China logged
and the hills slipped into the Yellow Sea.
Squared beams, log dogs,
on a tamped-earth sill.
San Francisco 2x4s
were the woods around Seattle:
Someone killed and someone built, a house,
a forest, wrecked or raised
All America hung on a hook
& burned by men, in their own praise.
Snow on fresh stumps and brush fires.
The generator starts and rumbles
in the frosty dawn,
I wake from bitter dreams,
Rise and build a fire,
Pull on and lace the stiff cold boots
Eat huge flapjacks by a gloomy Swede
In splintery cookhouse light
grab my tin pisspot hat
Ride off to the show in a crummy-truck
And start the Cat.

“Pines grasp the clouds with iron claws
like dragons rising from sleep”
250,000 board-feet a day
If both Cats keep working
& nobody gets hurt.

* * * * * * *

Ed McCullough, a logger for thirty-five years
Reduced by the advent of chainsaws
To chopping off knots at the landing:
“I don't have to take this kind of shit,
Another twenty years
and I’ll tell ‘em to shove it”
(he was sixty-five then)
In 1934 they lived in shanties
At Hooverville, Sullivan’s Gulch.
When the Portland-bound train came through
The trainmen tossed off coal.

“Thousands of boys shot and beat up
For wanting a good bed, good pay,
decent food, in the woods—”
No one knew what it meant:
“Soldiers of Discontent.”

* * * * * * *

How rare to be born a human being!
Wash him off with cedar-bark and milkweed
send the damned doctors home.
Baby, baby, noble baby
Noble-hearted baby

One hand up, one hand down
“I alone am the honored one”
Birth of the Buddha.
And the whole world-system trembled.
“If that baby really said that,
I’d cut him up and throw him to the dogs!”
said Chao-chou the Zen Master. But
Chipmunks, gray squirrels, and
Golden-mantled ground squirrels
brought him each a nut.
Truth being the sweetest of flavors.

Girls would have in their arms
A wild gazelle or wild wolf-cubs
And give them their white milk,
those who had new-born infants home
Breasts still full.
Wearing a spotted fawnskin
sleeping under trees
bacchantes, drunk
On wine or truth, what you will,
Meaning: compassion.
Agents: man and beast, beasts
Got the buddha-nature
All but
Coyote.

* * * * * * *

Amitabha’s vow

“If, after attaining Buddhahood, anyone in my land
gets tossed in jail on a vagrancy rap, may I
not attain highest perfect enlightenment.

wild geese in the orchard
frost on the new grass

If, after attaining Buddhahood, anyone on my land
loses a finger coupling boxcars, may I
not attain highest perfect enlightenment.

mare’s eye flutters
jerked by the lead-rope
stone-bright shoes flick back
ankles trembling: down steep rock

“If, after attaining Buddhahood, anyone in my land
can’t get a ride hitch-hiking all directions, may I
not attain highest perfect enlightenment.

wet rocks buzzing
rain and thunder southwest,
hair, beard, tingle
wind whips bare legs
we should go back
we don’t

* * * * * * *

the text

Sourdough mountain called a fire in:
Up Thunder Creek, high on a ridge.
Hiked eighteen hours, finally found
A snag and a hundred feet around on fire:
All afternoon and into night
Digging the fireline
Falling the burning snag
It fanned sparks down like shooting stars
Over the dry woods, starting spot-fires
Flaring in wind up Skagit valley
From the Sound.
Toward morning it rained.
We slept in mud and ashes,
Woke at dawn, the fire was out,
The sky was clear, we saw
The last glimmer of the morning star.


* * * * * * *

the myth

Fire up Thunder Creek and the mountain-–
troy’s burning!
The cloud mutters
The mountains are your mind.
The woods bristle there,
Dogs barking and children shrieking
Rise from below.

Rain falls for centuries
Soaking the loose rocks in space
Sweet rain, the fire’s out
The black snag glistens in the rain
& the last wisp of smoke floats up
Into the absolute cold
Into the spiral whorls of fire
The storms of the Milky Way
“Buddha incense in an empty world”
Black pit cold and light year
Flame-tongue of the dragon
Licks the sun

The sun is but a morning star

That last line you may have recognized is also the last line of Thoreau’s “Walden.” I’ll end it there. Thank you all, thank you Gary.

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