NO NATURE: New and Selected Poems
Pantheon: New York, 1992.
390 pp., $25.00 (clothbound).
GARY SNYDER HAS BEEN one of the most influential and original poets of the past forty years, at least since the mid-fifties when he was immortalized as Jaffe Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. He was among the poets introduced by Kenneth Rexroth at the legendary reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 19S6, where Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of “Howl.” He was among the sanest, most disciplined voices of the counterculture during the sixties, when he stressed the importance of spiritual ecology, laborintensive economics, and personal responsibility in establishing a sustainable culture.
With publication of his book Riprap, in 19S9, Snyder’s style and range were established. “Above Pate Valley” offers Snyder’s historical perspective, the poem closing on an encounter between a history stretching back into geological time and modern human behavior: cutting a trail through the mountains, the poet notes particulars of his surroundings during a lunch break, and finds obsidian flakes and “arrowhead leavings” scattered about. Connecting with human and animal history, he concludes:
Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Ten thousand years.
The “teaching” of this poem is centered in the poet’s sense of mindfulness, of being fully aware of the consequences of one’s actions. The poet knows exactly what he is doing here, and he knows it from the long view rather than from the typically self-conscious, self-centered perspective of most of his contemporaries.
Another poem from Riprap, “Hay for the Horses,” exemplifies poems Snyder made from a deep love of hard physical work and his keen ear for learning from his elders, as when he quotes an aging hay-truck driver:
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”
With his translations from the eighth-century Chinese of Han Shan (Cold Mountain Poems), Snyder introduced a powerful literary Zen tradition to a new North American readership. And with Myths & Texts, he drew from his anthropological scholarship in Native American oral traditions to develop a distinct narrative that would later be extended in the ongoing Mountains and Rivers without End.
With publication of The Back Country, Snyder was firmly established as a cultural icon, often perceived as a twentieth-century embodiment of the spirit of classical Chinese and Japanese Ch’an and Zen poets. “As a poet,” he often said in the late sixties and early seventies, “I hold the most archaic values on earth.” He advocated a reexamination of “the real work,” rejecting capital-intensive exploitation of “natural resources” in favor of a labor-intensive, family-based, Buddist-inspired economics.
Returning from several years of strenuous Zen studies at Shokoku temple in Kyoto, he built his home in the High Sierras, writing poems that celebrate daily labors, love, marriage, and family. One of the best poems from his Kyoto days, “What You Should Know to Be a Poet,” is a surprising ars poetica:
all you can about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers
names of stars, and the movements
of the planets and the moon.
your own six senses, with a watchful
and elegant mind.
at least one kind of traditional
divination, astrology, the book of
changes, the tarot;
the illusory demons and illusory
kiss the ass of the devil and eat shit;
fuck his horny barbed cock,
fuck the hag,
and all the celestial angels
and maidens perfum’d and golden—
& then love the human: wives
husbands and friends.
children’s games, comic books,
and the weirdness of television and
work, long dry hours of dull work
swallowed and accepted
and livd with and finally lovd.
the wild freedom of the dance,
silent solitary illumination, enstasy
real danger. gambles. and the edge
This poem plainly and elegantly articulates Snyder’s Buddhist shamanism, his inclusive ethic, and his artistic sensibility. The language is coarse, but delivered with great care, the shock value played down, but nonetheless clearly present. He reminds the conscientious reader that Buddha-mind includes Kalimind, and that as Zen Master Hakuin said, “the work is part of the koan.” As a teacher—through his poems, translations, and essays—Snyder has proven himself one of the most perceptive and disciplined and original minds in American poetry. The range of his scholarship is unique, from his investigations of Native American mythology to his knowledge of classical Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures, from scientific forays into deep ecology to his grasp of the true geography of the American West as it can be known only to those who walk much of it—and Snyder has walked much of the country between the Lower Yukon in Alaska and his home on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
As perhaps the most articulate spokesman for Zen, he has always stressed practice, locating the interstices of the “civilized” and the “wild” within the mind, bringing into practice a fundamentally Buddhist spiritual ecology that in turn tends more toward the inclusive than the exclusive.
No Nature is a very generous selection of poems spanning, in nearly four hundred pages, almost forty years. In reviewing this expansive collection, I was struck by how often Snyder’s poetry is “occasional,” in both the best and worst senses of that term. With the exception of the ongoing Mountains and Rivers without End, a “long poem” made up, at least thus far, of shorter lyrical poems with a basically autobiographical narrative thread, his poetics have not changed noticeably from his earliest to his most recent work. His poems are short, compact, and generally cool. But this is to quibble, perhaps, with a poet whose writing and personal practice have been a model and inspiration for me over several decades. He is in deed and fact an elder dharmabrother, a patient and thoughtful teacher. I can’t imagine how impoverished recent American poetry might seem without his gracious and considerable gifts.
Sam Hamill, a Contributing Editor to Tricycle, is a poet and translator and the editor of Copper Canyon Press.