Mr. President was fascinated by gunfighters.
November 3, 2012 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Coyote Man, Mr. President & the Gunfighters. A prose poem, written by Gary Snyder, that should be required reading for whoever is in the White House on January 20.
posted by John of Michigan (14 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think all the candidates would understand it.
posted by dazed_one at 8:08 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also good to read is, ""The incredible Survival of the Coyote", which you can find in his book, "A Place in Space"
posted by alex_skazat at 9:18 PM on November 3, 2012

Guns and wisdom. How many times have you heard those two words together?
posted by kozad at 9:20 PM on November 3, 2012

posted by nebulawindphone at 11:14 PM on November 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

That was lovely. Thanks for posting, John of Michigan.
posted by homunculus at 11:31 PM on November 3, 2012

While it might be predictable, I think all Presidents should be familiar with this.
posted by dr. zoom at 12:18 AM on November 4, 2012

And this is why Gary Snyder is one of my favorite poets.
posted by lydhre at 3:57 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I could be missing something, but it seems like the original is all about how the sovereign should be using his power and authority more effectively, given his divine nature, rather than toying with the commoners' instruments of death. The three guns of Snyder's version do not seem to connect with any of the president's actual power or authority in the way that the swords of Chuang Tzu do.

Or is Snyder/Coyote trying to say that the president is a cosmic being with authority over all of mankind, so why debase himself with matters of state?

Maybe I'm just more comfortable with ancient philosophy than I am with modern poetry.
posted by bashos_frog at 6:35 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

That was really good.
posted by oddman at 6:49 AM on November 4, 2012

Jump , frog, jump!
posted by sneebler at 6:55 AM on November 4, 2012

bashos frog - I think they are both about using power more effectively and appropriately. In Chuang Tzu's time and place, the king was the Son of Heaven and a cosmic being, or at least he derived his power from the cosmos. In Gary Snyder's time and place, the president theoretically derives his power from the people, or mankind, and Snyder says of the gunfighter's revolvers "They are of no use in the councils of mankind. Now you occupy the office of Mr. President, and yet you show this fondness for gunfighters. I think it is rather unworthy of you."

I think he making the same basic point as Chuang Tzu, just from a more modern perspective: the affairs and welfare of the people are more important than the affairs of soldiers. Lao Tzu in Chapter 31 (Ellen Chen translation):

Military weapons, being instruments of ill omen,
Are to be employed only in dire necessity.
Better to regard them with lack of interest.
Do not admire them.

If one admires them,
One would be rejoicing in the killing of people.
But whoever rejoices in the killing of people
will not be successful in the world.
posted by tommyD at 7:40 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

For a modern ignorant person such as myself, the sword description in Chuang Tzu's story is easily misread as an appeal to mere snobbery.

Snyder places the story in a North American context, one that automatically invokes an alternate set of values, countering my misreading. The revolver description reminds the President of those great forces to which he properly orients his attention, reverence and care.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:07 AM on November 4, 2012

I do get the intention, but I think Snyder's choice to say "revolver of state" is an interesting one.
It makes the parallel construction from
Heaven -> State -> Individual
Cosmos -> Humanity -> State
seem a bit awkward.

I want my president concerned with matters of state, and the equation of statecraft (even if limited to the military alone, which is a stretch) with gladiatorial bloodsport is a bit much for me. That said, I will accept a vision of the US as being overly fascinated with weapons, and starting wars around the world just to see what happens. Its exaggerated, but there's a kernel of truth to it. Poetic license, I suppose.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:21 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want my president concerned with matters of state

You have my wholehearted agreement. Being governed by those who despise government has become a clear and present danger -- so much so that it's perhaps causing us to misread Snyder here.

This text was written sometime between 1951 and 1980 (according to the cited source's table of contents). In 1974, Snyder described his political commitments as including "powerful environmental concern, [and] critique of the future of the individual state". This suggests he saw the individual state, rather than statecraft per se, playing the distracting role formerly occupied by individual swordfighters. (Perhaps Snyder should have written 'the revolver of the individual state', but that probably seemed unnecessarily clumsy, given that he was writing before Reagan declared that "government is the problem".)

One can critique the future of the individual state without neglecting statecraft. Consider President Eisenhower, who in 1953 had noted that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed”. He used his 1961 farewell address to warn that national fascination with the military-industrial complex endangered "world peace and human betterment": "It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old ... this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. ... The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield."

(Eisenhower's perspective was revived in yesterday's NYT op-ed by a US Naval Academy historian and Marine reserve officer, who thinks the US is unduly fascinated by its military and refusing to listen to contrary advice by those who lack military credentials.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:51 AM on November 5, 2012

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