Gary Snyder, Speaking for the Trees
May 7, 2008 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Gary Snyder, sublime and seminal poet of ecological awareness and activism [YouTube link], Zen appreciation of "ordinary mind" and American speech, shamanistic intimacy with the natural world, and surviving member of the Beat Generation (West Coast posse) at age 78, has won the $100,000 Ruth Lilly poetry prize. "Gary Snyder is in essence a contemporary devotional poet, though he is not devoted to any one god or way of being so much as to Being itself," said Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman. "His poetry is a testament to the sacredness of the natural world and our relation to it, and a prophecy of what we stand to lose if we forget that relation.” Previous recipients of the Lilly prize include Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin. [Previously mentioned here.]
posted by digaman (43 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Let me be the first to say congratulations, and thank you!
posted by crazylegs at 9:29 AM on May 7, 2008

Excellent! I've met him a few times and attended some of his readings (he lives, or used to live anyway, near where I went to high school and college). My high school Environmental Science teacher had him come in and give us a reading of his latest poetry book back in 1982. He was quite an influence and I admire his work greatly. Good for him!
posted by elendil71 at 9:34 AM on May 7, 2008

I invited Gary for a week's residency at Oberlin College when I was a student there in the late '70s, and it was one of the most fascinating weeks of my life. I also once had breakfast with Snyder and his friend Nanao Sakaki -- a fine poet in his own right who was a teenage Japanese soldier when he saw a mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki. The menu at 9am was fresh oysters, soba noodles with tons of fierce wasabi, good green tea, and beer. Breakfast of champions!
posted by digaman at 9:52 AM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Never had the pleasure of meeting or seeing Snyder in person myself, but I've long been a fan of his work. So I'll just echo what crazy legs said: Congratulations and thank you!
posted by saulgoodman at 10:03 AM on May 7, 2008

Without a doubt, my favorite poet. Thank you kindly for this!
posted by cavalier at 10:24 AM on May 7, 2008

Big fan of Snyder's work here, so this is cool. Kenneth Rexroth, grandfather to the beats, SF literary polymath and autodidact, one of the greatest American poets of the last century, knew Snyder well and admired him: see his 1970 essay Smokey the Bear Bodhisattva to gather something of Snyder's spirit:

One of the surviving or junior members of the pre-war Reactionary Generation, the Old Left Establishment, one of the numerous clones of Philip Rahv, once referred to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and myself as “members of the bear-shit-on-the-trail school of poetry.” Was it Lionel Trilling? Was it Leslie Fiedler? Was it Norman Podhoretz? I can’t remember; they all look alike to me, and, as Lenore Kandel says, an hour after you have eaten them you are hungry again. Regardless, the characterization was appropriate and even just. As a description of spokesmen for a way of life only dimly discernible by a two-hundred-inch telescope from Morningside Heights or the roof of a thirteen-story office building on Union Square circa 1930, it is the complaint of the senile establishment that the counter-culture has no ideologists, no critics, except their own renegade, Paul Goodman. What they mean by ideology in criticism is prose that quotes predigested Freud and misunderstood Marx and concerns itself with a verbalized relationship of a completely urban society in the bygone industrial era. No bears shit on the grass, alas, in Central Park.

Gary Snyder is unquestionably the leading ideologist and critic of the counter-culture, but he is that, not discursively, but as a poet whose values are exposed in the factual experience of the poem with the presentational immediacy of concrete happenings. The ideology is the perspective. The criticism is in the arrangement. The dead culture is challenged not by rhetorical judgment but by unassimilable occurrences.

posted by ornate insect at 10:25 AM on May 7, 2008

How Poetry Comes to Me -- Gary Snyder

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light
posted by cavalier at 10:35 AM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

thanks digaman. good links to follow, and a nice follow up after seeing your whalen project.

"on the path, off the trail," from the practice of the wild, was the one that got me.
posted by ioesf at 10:40 AM on May 7, 2008

He was also the one who swiped unattributed the Iroquois term "Turtle Island" and turned it into "the Native American word for Earth", as seen in various forms of soft-headed "how-eco-conscious-those-noble-savages-were" green-porn. He has a poem in one of the early-70's collections in which he accidentally enters a redneck bar with "Proud to be an Okie from Musuokee" playing and thrills with terror at the brutish inhabitants thereof. I have somewhat mixed feelings on the Gary Snyder subject.
posted by ormondsacker at 10:43 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Work to Do Toward Town

Venus glows in the east,
          mars hangs in the twins.
Frost on the logs and bare ground
          free of house or tree.
Kites come down from the mountains
And glide quavering over the rooftops;
          frost melts in the sun.
A low haze hangs on the houses
          —firewood smoke and mist—
Slanting far to the Kamo river
          and the distant Uji hills.
Farmwomen lead down carts
           loaded with long white radish;
I pack my bike with books—
          all roads descend toward town.
posted by languagehat at 10:43 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I got to meet Synder at my uncle's wedding. That man has a warm radiant aura that is just wonderful to be around. I have always been partial to his poem Why I take Good Care of my Macintosh Computer [if you click through you can hear him read it]. Thanks for the post, digaman.
posted by jessamyn at 10:44 AM on May 7, 2008

You know who else had a warm radiant aura that was just wonderful to be around?

(ok, sorry for that, couldn't resist. carry on)
posted by ornate insect at 11:03 AM on May 7, 2008

posted by kozad at 11:30 AM on May 7, 2008

Wow, nice. Good on him. Thanks for posting this, digaman.
posted by sleepy pete at 11:47 AM on May 7, 2008

ormondsacker - are you trying to say that Gary Snyder... isn't... perfect!?

*grasps head in agony*

my hero worship! aggg!

By the way, it's Muskogee, not Musuokee.
posted by crazylegs at 12:25 PM on May 7, 2008

Ah well, so much for the layout, sorry. Without indents then:

I Went into the Maverick Bar
by Gary Snyder

I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I'd left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay
by the pool tables,
A waitress asked us
where are you from?
a country-and-western band began to play
"We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie"
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances
in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness--
America--your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.

We left--onto the freeway shoulders--
under the tough old stars--
In the shadow of bluffs
I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
"What is to be done."
posted by digaman at 12:49 PM on May 7, 2008

And by the way, it's Muskokie, not Muskogee.
posted by crazylegs at 12:57 PM on May 7, 2008

Knew I had "Muskogee" misspelled wrong.
posted by ormondsacker at 1:18 PM on May 7, 2008

Great post. Thanks, digaman.
posted by homunculus at 1:41 PM on May 7, 2008

Kenneth Rexroth, grandfather to the beats, SF literary polymath and autodidact, one of the greatest American poets of the last century

Thanks for this, ornate. I fully agree, and alas Rexroth has been nearly entirely forgotten by younger people these days. His "salon" above Jack's Record Cellar at Page and Divisadero in SF -- which is still there! -- was a gathering place for poets, painters, jazz musicians, Eastern scholars, Buddhists... schooled Snyder, Ginsberg, and the other Beats when they arrived here.

When I dragged the rotten log
From the bottom of the pool,
It seemed heavy as stone.
I let it lie in the sun
For a month; and then chopped it
Into sections, and split them
For kindling, and spread them out
To dry some more. Late that night,
After reading for hours,
While moths rattled at the lamp —
The saints and the philosophers
On the destiny of man —
I went out on my cabin porch,
And looked up through the black forest
At the swaying islands of stars.
Suddenly I saw at my feet,
Spread on the floor of night, ingots
Of quivering phosphorescence,
And all about were scattered chips
Of pale cold light that was alive.

-- from Rexroth's "The Signature of All Things"
posted by digaman at 2:02 PM on May 7, 2008

And less glibly, yeah, there's an undertone of the childishness of Middle America there, and the first half is all about setting up the narrator as infiltrator in hostile territory before he's charmed by all the short-haired joy and roughness - but I've obviously remembered the negative aspects distortedly prominently. I'm probably just pissed about the Muskokie thing.
posted by ormondsacker at 2:17 PM on May 7, 2008

Thanks for the link to my Whalen project, ioesf!

I went to a tribute reading for Whalen last weekend at the SF Public Library, and it was great. Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, Clark Coolidge and others all read from Whalen's work, as well as Alastair Johnson and Dave Haselwood, two small-press printers whose books and broadsides provided crucial publishing opportunities for the Beats. Charming event.
posted by digaman at 2:59 PM on May 7, 2008

Great stuff. Big fan of his work: Earth House Hold, Turtle Island, Cold Mountain Poems, Mountains & Rivers Without End, The Back Country, A Place in Space...these & others I must have read dozens of times each.

His Smokey the Bear Sutra would be a compulsory daily prayer in all schools if I had my way.

As a footnote, you'll see his thinly-disguised character, Japhy Ryder, in Kerouac's novel, The Dharma Bums, along with a rendition of Ginsberg's reading of Howl at the seminal Six Poets at Six Gallery reading.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:01 PM on May 7, 2008

The menu at 9am was fresh oysters, soba noodles with tons of fierce wasabi, good green tea, and beer. Breakfast of champions!

I know *exactly* what I'm having for breakfast on sunday!
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:09 PM on May 7, 2008

posted by digaman at 5:48 PM on May 7, 2008

wonderful news. I love Snyder's work. I just brought home DANGER ON PEAKS, a lovely more contemporary series of poems.

Someday I will hike up to the peak of Granite Mountain in the N Cascades, where he was posted as a firewatch in the late 40s early 50s. The fire lookout building is long gone, but the trail to the peak remains, dangerous and enticing at once.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:48 PM on May 7, 2008

that would be CRATER mountain, near Granite, oops
posted by seawallrunner at 7:51 PM on May 7, 2008

He was also the one who swiped unattributed the Iroquois term "Turtle Island" and turned it into "the Native American word for Earth",

Not so. From wikipedia:
Turtle Island is the English language translation of many Native American tribes' terms for the continent of North America. The term is proposed as a substitute for or synonym for North America. The term was brought into popular usage by Gary Snyder through his book Turtle Island[1] in 1974. In a later essay, published in At Home on the Earth,[1] Snyder claimed this title as a term referring to North America which synthesizes both indigenous and colonizer cultures by translating the indigenous name into the colonizer's languages (the Spanish "Isla Tortuga" being proposed as a name as well). Snyder argues that understanding North America under the name of Turtle Island will help shift conceptions of the continent.
as seen in various forms of soft-headed "how-eco-conscious-those-noble-savages-were" green-porn.

This may be so, but Snyder's work is the opposite of "soft-headed", in the opinion of many. In addition to his accomplishments as a poet, he's also widely respected as an ecological thinker and essayist.
posted by flotson at 8:23 PM on May 7, 2008

One of my very favorite poems:

Siwashing It Out Once in Suislaw Forest

I slept under rhododendron
All night blossoms fell
Shivering on a sheet of cardboard
Feet stuck in my pack
Hands deep in my pockets
Barely able to sleep.
I remembered when we were in school
Sleeping together in a big warm bed
We were the youngest lovers
When we broke up we were still nineteen
Now our friends are married
You teach school back east
I dont mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you.

A Spring Night in Shokoku-ji

Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms
At night in an orchard in Oregon.
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.

An Autumn Morning in Shokoku-ji

Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.

December at Yase

You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were--
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.
posted by flotson at 8:27 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops. Title:

Four Poems for Robin
posted by flotson at 8:28 PM on May 7, 2008

Thanks, digaman. I have always loved the idea of Gary Snyder, Beat/Counterculture/Oregon/Northern Cal/eco/personal/humble etc. And my big project these days is a Taoist "appreciation of 'ordinary mind' and American" life. I'm even a big fan of digaman, who I know (barely) from the Well days.

But I've never been able to connect with Snyder's actual poems, I must be doing something wrong. "This poem is for bear" worked, a bit. And I love those 4 poems for Robin. Thx again.
posted by msalt at 10:00 PM on May 7, 2008

Thanks, msalt. And yes, flotson, thanks for reminding me about those Robin poems. They're unusually emotionally forthcoming for Snyder, and gorgeous.
posted by digaman at 11:16 PM on May 7, 2008


That wikipedia article (by a single author, no major edits) is kind of exactly what I'm referring to. "Many Native American tribes' term" is at first glance better than "the Native American term", but... name the tribes. Name a tribe, other than the member of the Iroquois Confederacy whose origin myth it is. While you're at it, find a pre-Snyderite use of "Isla Tortuga" for anything larger than specific island bodies.

I know it's the good guys using it, for the best reasons. I know Snyder picked the metaphor in the first place because it's so perfect for a living, fragile planet. But "Turtle Island" is an idea that now gets completely, wikipedialy decoupled from its originating culture and applied to the great Native American hivemind - like warbonnets and 'How' - by the very people who ought to know better. There's no such thing as "the indigenous name" for anything.

Anyway, minor gripes don't discount Snyder as a poet and I've been grumpy enough in a celebration thread. I promise to check out some of his later stuff.
posted by ormondsacker at 1:43 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

According to Ojibwe author Adam Fortunate Eagle, "turtle island" is an Ojibwe term too, and the Ojibwe were one of the largest tribes of people in North America. Their language was in the Algonquin family, which was widely spoken by many tribes across the continent. This Ojibwe myth-busting site asserts with Snyder that "Traditional people call North America 'turtle island.'"

So, I don't care so much that you're grumpy, ormondsacker, but as with your skewed interpretation of Snyder's poem about walking into the bar, I wonder if you've done as much homework as you think.
posted by digaman at 7:05 AM on May 8, 2008

If I had my copy of Turtle Island with me, I'm sure I could find Snyder explicitly stating the origin of the term.

Another of his books that I own is He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, which was basically his Honours or Masters thesis, from memory.

I doubt that somebody who wrote such an anthropological study on a particular native american tribal myth would then turn around and glibly & disingenuously lift a term without respect or understanding of its true origin & meaning.

If it's a matter of whether Snyder or ormondsacker did their homework, I know who my money would be on.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:42 AM on May 8, 2008

Notes from a conversation between Snyder and poet Nathaniel Tarn [PDF link], who was also trained in anthropology. Even as an undergraduate at Reed, Snyder was reading widely in classic anthro texts. Say what you will about Snyder, he doesn't come at his vocation from the perspective of a "soft-headed" dilettante.
posted by digaman at 8:09 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

turned it into the Native American term for Earth

Not exactly. The introduction to "Turtle Island" calls it "the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millenia, and reapplied by some of them to North America in recent years. Also, an idea found world-wide, of the earth, or cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity."

IE, the turtle of "all-the-way-down" fame. So Snyder is reasonably subtle, but I think ormandsacker has a point -- Snyder sort of downplays the role of his coinage by subtly overstating the ubiquity of the term. Or at least makes it easy for his readers to do so. That phrase "some of them" is very easily to miss or forget.
posted by msalt at 12:30 PM on May 8, 2008

blah blah blah

All I want to say about Gary Snyder is: HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
posted by crazylegs at 12:35 PM on May 8, 2008

So Snyder is reasonably subtle, but I think ormandsacker has a point -- Snyder sort of downplays the role of his coinage by subtly overstating the ubiquity of the term.

Sorry msalt, in the passage you quoted, I don't see an assertion of "ubiquity," nor, frankly, do I see Snyder asserting that he chose the phrase because it's ubiquitous. He said the phrase is "based on many creation myths" of people who lived here before Columbus, which is true, and then he says that "some" of those people have reapplied it recently, which was probably particularly true in the anthro/ethno/linguistic/poetic circles that Snyder travels in.

Snyder's vocation -- poetry -- comes from poesis, which means "making." Poets make language, rather than simply reporting or recording its use. In this case, Snyder was doing both, which is the essence of his personal poetics.
posted by digaman at 2:32 PM on May 8, 2008

And yay, Happy Birthday Gary! I didn't realize it was today. Thanks crazylegs.
posted by digaman at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2008

Ormondsacker-- I'm not trying to be argumentative, and I do understand what you're objecting to. But I was trying to point out (or state my opinion) that Snyder's ideas and intentions regarding his use of the term is much more sophisticated than the ideas of those to which you refer. What I focus on in that teeny wikipedia quote is this:

Snyder claimed this title as a term referring to North America which synthesizes both indigenous and colonizer cultures by translating the indigenous name into the colonizer's languages. . .

If other people have read Snyder poorly, he can hardly be blamed for that.
posted by flotson at 12:08 AM on May 9, 2008

Sorry msalt, in the passage you quoted, I don't see an assertion of "ubiquity,"

Well, be that as it may. Not a huge deal to me either way. I just thought ormandsacker had at least a partial point, which was getting shouted down.
posted by msalt at 12:55 PM on May 9, 2008

ahh... thank you for this, digaman - he is one of my eye openers, one of those who made me stop & listen, & it has been too long since I last read his work

congratulations & gratitude to you, Gary Snyder, you Johnny Appleseed of wisdom, may your poems & essays forever find fertile minds to grow wild in
posted by jammy at 3:06 PM on May 9, 2008

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