Scott Nicholson – “Gary Snyder: Nature’s Poetic Voice” (2007)

November 8, 2008 at 11:27 am (Gary Snyder, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

An essay written for his blogsite Scottnsblog, Aug. 2, 2007. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me posting this here…

Much has been said through the years about Gary Snyder’s Zen Buddhist philosophies, and how they influenced not only his writing, but also the lives of his contemporaries. Some have attributed his naturalistic style of prose and poetry to these very ideologies. My observations lead me to believe however, that more than Snyder’s religious views translating to his ecological writing style, that in fact, his love for his natural environment prompted his spiritual convictions. As one enters into a study of the collective works of Snyder, both of these dominions are clearly present in his writing. Through various talks and interviews conducted over his writing career, he openly shares his views on both topics, and gives insight into how precious and critical they are to him as a man, and an author. Nonetheless, after extensive research of several of his literary collections, I have arrived at the overwhelming conclusion that Snyder, more than a harbinger of Zen Buddhism, is the unmistakable poetic voice of nature.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, book critic Dan McLeod states in his article, “Gary Snyder,” “Snyder’s main impact on the Beat Generation, and on American literature has been as spokesman for the natural world and the values associated with primitive cultures” (McLeod). For over half a century Snyder has carried the standard of environmental issues, not only through his prolific writings, but into the classroom as well. One could easily make the statement that the ecological awareness that Snyder possessed and articulated during the heavily industrialized period post World War II, helped establish a basis for environmental awareness, and very possibly helped advance the environmentalist movement itself in the United States. Although environmental concerns have been discussed openly in the U.S. since the eighteen hundreds, they reached an all time level of public interest during the era of reconstruction after the Second World War, and with the employment of the atomic bomb by the U.S. military, radiation poisoning added a new component to the discussion. The contributions of Snyder, through his writing, and through his activism, helped raise awareness of these issues, and highlighted the importance of preserving our nations ecological integrity.
Snyder’s love and commitment to the natural world sometimes takes a form of pure allegiance. In his poem “For All,” we join the person of the narrative voice as he walks barefoot through a shallow stream in the northern Rockies on a cold September morning. He describes how the sun shines on the icy shallows, and how the stones turn underfoot. His nose is cold and dripping. He is singing inside as he pledges his allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, and to the beings who thereon dwell one ecosystem in diversity under the sun with joyful interpenetration for all” (Snyder). Snyder’s adherence to nature as a vibrant, living, almost god-like entity is so apparent in this last stanza that we can almost feel it welling up and taking form on the page. Throughout the poem, but especially toward its conclusion, Snyder reveals a portion of his soul that appears to be impossible for him to restrain. It is as though the poem was not a product of any labor on his part, but rather an exuberant revelation that he shares because he could not contain it if he wanted to.
Snyder has made himself an approachable source of information over the course of his career, unlike the majority of his Beat cohorts who chose for themselves a more withdrawn, almost reclusive existence. He has given numerous lectures and granted countless interviews, and remains one of the nations most accessible crusaders of environmentalism. In one such interview with Trevor Carolan, which appears in the online journal “Modern American Poetry,” Snyder’s philosophies as nature’s champion are further chronicled. Carolan states “As an ecological philosopher, Snyder’s role has been to point out first the problems, and then the hard medicine that must be swallowed. Snyder has become synonymous with integrity-a good beginning place if your poetics honor ‘clean-running rivers; the presence of pelican and osprey and gray whale in our lives; salmon and trout in our streams; unmuddied language and good dreams’” (Carolan).
In several of Snyder’s works, rather than heralding the wonders and beauty of nature in more direct methods, he chooses to contrast them with illustrations and lifestyles that he clearly finds unsavory. In his poem “The Trade,” taken from a collection of his poetry entitled No Nature, the narrative voice takes us to a place that Snyder would have deemed cold and foreign. “I found myself inside a massive concrete shell lit by glass tubes, with air pumped in, with levels joined by moving stairs” (191). The narrative character is clearly inside a multi-story modern building, illuminated with artificial lighting, breathing circulated air. The descriptive words used to illustrate his surroundings are cold and lifeless. The verse continues, “It was full of things that were bought and made in the twentieth century. Layed out in trays or shelves” (191). We now see that we are in a department store or shopping mall, to which the narrative character is obviously ill at ease. “The throngs of people of that century, in their style, clinging garb made on machines, were trading all their precious time for things” (191). Unsettled tones exude from the narrative description of the place, and sadness for the throngs of people seems to leave the reader with an overwhelming feeling of repulsion. This is such an egregious departure from the natural environment that Snyder holds dear, that we can gain a much more appreciable understanding of how uncomfortable it must have made him feel to occasionally find himself in places such as that described in the poem.
Even when Snyder chooses to share something of his Zen Buddhist spirituality, his religious references are rarely unaccompanied by their deeper natural catalysts. The two are unmistakably intertwined in the mind and soul of the author, but his naturalist ideologies can stand alone without any religious foundation, whereas his spiritual inferences require the aid of natural illustration. The mystic views he shares in almost parabolic fashion always require the notation and use of things existing in the natural realm, without this component the message would be lost or pointless. A poignant example of this fact occurs in the poem “The Canyon Wren,” taken from one of Snyder’s later collections of poetry entitled Mountains and Rivers Without End. The narrative character is describing looking up at the cliffs while being swept downriver on a raft. He illustrates roils of water gently wobbling the raft, the shimmering boulders beneath the surface and a hawk soaring across the sky, backlit by a brilliant sun. “Above the roar hear the song of a Canyon Wren” (90). Snyder’s artistry of painting a vivid mental landscape is somewhat interrupted in the closing stanzas of the poem, with more mystical Asian influences coming to the foreground. “Dogen, writing at midnight, ‘mountains flow water is the palace of the dragon it does not flow away’” (90-91). Snyder’s frequent intermingling of mystic thoughts and spiritual references are always surrounded by the inspirational qualities of his natural world. His natural universe is critical to his spirituality, but his spirituality is merely a by-product of his nature.
In an interview by Paul Geneson taken from the book Gary Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964-1979, Geneson asks Snyder, in so many words, to evaluate the function or value of poetry to society. Snyder’s response, “I’m not sure that value is the same word as function. The value of poetry and the function of poetry in a society are two different things. The value and function of poetry can be said in very few words. One side of it is in-time, the other is out-of-time. The in-time side of it is to tune us in to mother nature and human nature so that we live in time, in our societies in a way and on a path in which all things can come to fruition equally, and together in harmony. A path of beauty. And the out-of-time function of poetry is to return us to our own true original nature at this instant forever. And those two things happen, sometimes together, sometimes not, here and there and all over the world, and always have” (73). The function and the value, the harmony and the path, human nature, and of course, mother nature at the center of it all, this instant, and forever.
So many of the Beat authors, and those who aspired to their ranks, lead such desperate and troublesome lives that Gary Snyder emerges from the group as a real breath of fresh air. The vast majority of their literary culture was not much more than chemically dependant malcontents, venting frustration and restlessness following World War II. Snyder stood among only a few of the Beats who took his work, and his ideals seriously enough as to convert them to something meaningful and lasting. One of the most prolific of all the beats, Snyder’s career transcended that of the stereotypical poet, and translated to the level of teacher and mentor. I have heard it said of Snyder that he remains to this day as one of our nations most approachable literary personalities, which I find very telling of a man who has risen to such iconic status within his realm. As he continues to teach at the University of California, Davis, the message remains the same, though I’m sure he would admit that the audience is more diverse now than ever. I can’t help but recall a poem by Snyder entitled “Hay For The Horses” in which the old man in the poem reveals to his partner that he had sworn to himself the very first day that he bucked hay that he sure didn’t want to spend his whole life doing it. In the end, of course he had. I don’t know if there was a cognizant point in Snyder’s life or his career when he asked himself whether or not his writing would occupy the better part of his lifetime, but I can only speculate that he would have no regret as to it’s outcome. Snyder lived, and continues to live, the life of a fulfilled man, as a husband, a father, and a grandfather. As a poet, a teacher and an activist. Unlike most of his Beat contemporaries, his work, his availability, and his ever-present environmental awareness have earned him the distinction of Nature’s Poetic Voice.

Scott Nicholson

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