Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Snyder's Robin Poems

Almost everyone has read the work of Gary Snyder, and many people have written about him, his poetry, and his influence on the American environmental movement, and the counterculture stream of Eastern-inspired religious devotion and life-style.

As a boy, growing up in California in the 1950's, I was led to believe that the West--both the concept, and the actual landscape itself--was a precious resource, as well as a dream. My Stepfather, Harry Faville, who had escaped a middle-class life in the late 1930's, traveling extensively across the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast, taking odd jobs, fishing and working in the woods, dreamed of the "back country"--a place in his imagination to which we would one day retreat, living in the forested wilderness, far from the dirt and compromises of the city. I was encouraged to think that I might find work for the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service in my teens. This never materialized, though I did go to one "interview" in Modoc County, where the local ranger indicated that without a "Governor's" phone call, the chances of my being hired were mighty slim. When I learned that many of the "boys" who would be working at the mountain camp would be juvenile delinquents or paroled felons, my enthusiasm deflated. That Summer, like most, would be spent reading and toiling in construction and landscape work. This was supposed to "make a man" of me, though the lessons learned from nailing scaffolds, painting under eaves, and weeding flower beds never seemed to me to justify the time and discomfort they demanded. And the pay was always poor.

Nevertheless, when, in sophomore year in college, I discovered the work of Gary Snyder, I knew immediately what he was talking about, and I responded to his special mixture of sophisticated Zen attitudinizing, celebration of physical labor, and vague, mystical communalism. I believed at that point that the most honest, direct thing an intelligent young man might do was dress like a back woodsman, with a big pack and sleeping bag strapped to his shoulders, and with this, and a little survival knowledge, hike up into the mountains and write shrewd little poems about nature and the sad state of the world.

I don't mean to make light of these tendencies, though they now seem dewy-eyed and silly. For me, these were the natural outgrowth of feelings I'd been taught to have from childhood. But before I could try any of these back-to-nature options, I found myself married and quickly introduced to fatherhood. Responsibilities will dictate the shortest route to compromise--or at least that's the way it's been in my life. If I ever imagined that I might live in a cabin in Mendocino or Humboldt Counties, that daydream was quickly abandoned when the necessity for obtaining food and clothing and transport intervened. The manly thing was to shoulder the burden, not run away into the wilderness.

Still, some part of me never completely relinquished the romance of a semi-remote life-style, and a close access to the forest, the rivers and streams, and clean air of unsettled territory. Gary Snyder, it seemed perfectly obvious, had managed to live, in some measure, this escapist dream of a working-class laborer's scholar-poet's existence. If he could do it, why couldn't I? But I knew, of course, that the "wilderness" this pretentious fantasy was built upon, was neither hospitable, nor as "pure" and "clean" as one might imagine it to be. Still, I wondered whether a poetic aesthetic might not be built out of the noble callings of diligent study and dutiful labor.

It isn't difficult to see how the four connected poems below might appeal to young men in their late teens or twenties in the decades following WWII. Many of us who grew up during the 1950's and 1960's felt a calling, away from the straight-jacketed life-choices of our parents. We hadn't endured the Depression, or the War--though these were all around us in the talk and memories and stories of our parents' generation--but we believed we knew a better way than they had chosen (the "organization man" or the "invisible man" or "the lonely crowd" or "the pyramid climbers"). They had chosen security and prosperity and safety and selfishness and acquisitiveness and retreat. These were cop-outs; we didn't want cop-outs, we wanted challenges, and felt emboldened to meet them.

Gary Snyder's poetry has held out the promise of a spiritual emancipation from the engineered practicality of a middle-class career track for three generations of America's educated youth. It must have gotten to sound a little routine by now, though it didn't sound routine in 1968, when I first read Riprap [Kyoto: Origin Press, 1959], Myths & Texts [New York: Totem/Corinth 1960], and The Back Country [New York: New Directions, 1967]. I knew about that back country, had camped there, fished there, hiked there. And, like the speaker in those poems, I had experienced young love, had squandered opportunities, and felt (like him) "ancient, as if I had lived many lives."

This set of poems is untypical of Snyder, in that it deals with autobiographical material in a direct, uninhibited way. Typically, Snyder will deal in constructed personae designed to position himself ideologically within a politically correct environmentalism, or Zen Buddhist triad, with limited aesthetic options. He romanticizes the "working-man"--a sort of WPA ideal of men unionized into a common purpose, and often presumes a shared commitment (with his readers) to Eastern religious tenets and tradition(s). These are charming proverbial counter-culture themes in his poetry, as well as in his prose essays, though they run counter to the mainstream reading audience which his writing now enjoys. Inspired youth who might once have shared these providential attitudes have grown old--it's been at least a generation and a half, since those kinds of notions were fashionable. And nothing dates as fast as intellectual property. Which is not to suggest that Snyder's view of an ecologically friendly, Zen-inspired aesthetic was ever wrong in its details, just that the world has moved on. It may have seemed in the 1960's and 1970's that Snyder's poetry and life example was the avatar of a cultural shift, but, like the Beats, it was silently incorporated into the zeitgeist, and became as familiar, and then obsolete, as old copies of the I Ching and rusty old Food Conspiracy bins.

Yet these poems don't require any presumptive commitment to "the Way" or any backwoods knowledge to appreciate the emotional force of the rhetoric being employed. The poems describe a teen-aged relationship between the speaker and a young woman, separately rejected by both, in favor of life-choices and priorities which may now seem, in retrospect, at the point of writing, to have been dreamy and starry-eyed. The poet takes a rueful and resolute consolation that he will probably never know whether his choice to abandon the love affair, so early in life, was the correct one. The conflict between romantic youthful love, and the demands of an idealized life program (the karma or "plan"--the Buddhist notion of fate)--is clearly laid out--

I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

The resolution of that "have done" "what my/karma demands" is one of modern poetry's special moments, though the now somewhat dated quality of the use of the word "karma" instead of fate, or destiny, may sound slightly stale to our ears.

With the thawing out of tension which followed the defeat of Japan, Westerners were free to travel and live there, with relatively little resistance or prejudice among the native population. In China, of course, things were different, and the contrast between the adoption by Japan of the mercantile factory system of the West, while China spent the next four decades living out the Communist fantasy of a liberated agrarian proletariat, is nowhere more evident than in Snyder's later poetry, where acceptance and "worldly wisdom" predominate. The special relationship between Snyder's academic adoption of the "passive" religious dogma of Zen Buddhism, and the anti-Western view of capitalistic enterprise embodied in the old doctrinaire socialist line, once made his positions seem genuine. But Snyder didn't become a Zen master, like his great friend Philip Whalen; instead he matriculated into university teaching. Snyder, after all, unlike most of the Beats, was primarily an academic at heart, who enjoyed tempering and refining his sensibility through careful reading and focused attention. He wanted his work to be understood in terms of the great tradition of ancient Chinese poets, with whom his work was invariably identified.

I've always like Snyder's early poems best, because they seem the work of a young man with a mission, filled with belief and commitment and determination--things that I shared when I was a youth myself. Had opportunities presented themselves differently, I might very well have ended up majoring in Ecological Science, and working in Alaska. But I will never know if I am a fool, or have done what my karma demands.

Four Poems for Robin

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.


J said...
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Anonymous said...

nice essay
do jog my memories...
is/was "Robin" Joanne

and, yes Rip Rap, Cid Corman published it...

thought Gary Snyder the best of (the beat) lot
me too

I (also) thought (still do) that the 'girl Beats" were far-and-away better poets/people than the guys

lots of JK's pieces in Japan and India Journals...

check-out her JUST SPACE I yet have a green
St. Mark's book-mark in it...at the

"Bob Creeley has died (....)" poem.

Kirby Olson said...

In Joanne Kyger's Big Moon Journal she mentions a fight with Snyder over who would do the dishes (they were in Japan) that ended up with her receiving 60 stitches. She said she would do them later. He pounded her face against the table, and said do them now, is, I think, how it went. He was sorry about it later and took her to the hospital.

I don't think he has many poems that celebrate this incident.

I wrote a piece on Kyger that I must have published somewhere (perhaps in the Corpse), and we corresponded briefly. She was mad that I was a Lutheran, and said Christianity was all about blood.

I didn't mention the 60 stitches that she received at the hands of a Buddhist eco-saint over who would the dishes.

Lutheranism is about restraint.

J said...

I (also) thought (still do) that the 'girl Beats" were far-and-away better poets/people than the guys

Baker's typical PC-liberal appeal.
Did any of the fembeats pen "On the Road"?? Nyet. (ahd still rank Kerouac as King of the beats, anyway, and the one who introduced Japhy Ryder) Maybe some haikus or hymns to sappho, but no epics. Beat kitties aren't really my cup o' tea but ...Edski's in error.

Kirby Olson said...

2 violent incidents with regard to Snyder in Kyger's Strange Big Moon journal of 1960-1964 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2000).

"Gary stops playing guitar...Later he kicked me for some reason and not long afterwards disappeared to be violently ill on the lawn for the rest of the evening" (54).

"Asked Gary what if I was involved in doing something & didn't want to do the dishes for a few days... He would not grant me that, he said. We argued and talked about it for sometime, at last in exasperation I rose from the bed and said I was going to sleep in the Genkan whereupon he grabbed me around the knees and down I fell striking my head against the edge of the table splitting it open. I couldn't believe what had happened, feeling a furrow in my head & blood pouring out. Thoroughly frightened we drove to the BAPTIST hospital and had it stitched up..." (33).

It was in Japan where they were pretending to be Buddhists, but please note that it was a BAPTIST hospital that stitched her up.

I thought I remembered it saying 60 stitches somewhere in the book. That's a LOT of stitches, so is maybe too many.

The main thing to recall is that Snyder is the author of the book, but his narrator is an invention, the Buddhist eco-saint. The real Snyder is angry all the time and very promiscuous. This isn't in the poems.

You get instead a kind of good honest clean life, and as you say, respect for the clean WOBBLY workmen of the northwest woods.

I have a friend who loves to go up mountains and drive on bumpy roads, but the few times I did it, I hated it. I got headaches.

But the mountain flowers around Rainier, and other places in the woods, are nice to reflect BACK on, and if you can have laughs out there with a pal, and end up in stitches of another kind, that's swell. I try to hike around here. There used to be mountain lions all over the place (hence the name, Catskills) but they were all killed off, and now there's just rumors of them. No one has any actual photographs or DNA samples of them.

Hard not to like Snyder's poems. I like Ginsberg's poem called Seattle Afternoon in which he and Snyder talk about what they have to offer to the next generation -- a kind of strategy session.

Snyder offered a vision of the northwest -- based very much on what your relatives were clueing you into.

A lot of young people took up their backpacks and went for it. I like the vision.

The reality is different, especially once you have a family, as you put it. Then it's 9 to 5 in a cubicle with coffee breaks, and Dilbert cartoons.

J said...

Olsonberg for Wobblies. What a joke.

The GOP killed off the IWW sometime like in the 50s (with help from the mainstream unions), and it's mostly forgotten except for a few nostalgic creeps in collegetown.

Anyway his authentic poetic visions were generally set in the sierra nevada (as with riprap)--and those who've never been in high Sierra (say 13,000+) are not likely to understand 'em, or should stick to the bay area beatnikdrahma.

Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

Hello Curtis,

"The manly thing was to shoulder the burden, not run away into the wilderness."

"run away"?

Did you actually write this, or did you make it up?

all's well, Bob

Anonymous said...

Strange Big Moon (2000) is reprint of

The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964

I in 1973 with some friends out of Eugene who were studying the life-forms that were living in the top-most branches of Giant Red-wood trees... I think it was down-around Cave Junction or Takilma
those are SOME trees ... tall tall tall...

loggers speeding down fro mountains trucks carry timber...

too many ...Pretenders in Berkeley then too.... political ..

took a blanket (and a cute girl) hopped a train and "boogied" forth.

Curtis Faville said...

Bob A:

I'm not sure what you mean by your question. Did I actually write the words "run away"? Of course I did.

Did I actually consider "running away" into the wilderness at some point in my youth? Oh, yes, for a brief period, the idea of living in the Sierras, close to the land, seemed a very tantalizing prospect. In retrospect, I think it would have been a mistake, but I did have those sentiments once upon a time.

I remember telling my Stepfather, perhaps in 1970, that "going back to the land" and doing subsistence farming, might be a better choice than looking for a job as an insurance adjuster. Needless to say, that brought guffaws and wisecracks.

These were the dreams of youth....

J said...
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Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



I recognize that sound…
that wild whisper of freedom.

No, I guess not.
Just the drone of a truck upwind
on the highway down the mountain.

But I know this sound…
that soft voice sweetly singing.

Well, maybe not.
Just the constant loud roar of the
neighbor’s brand new fountain.

Still I think can recall
the sound, remember that whisper.

Singing from long before.
The sound of alone, a song
gentle though stark.

Ah, yes…now I remember…
the wind through the pines
in the dark.

Copyright 2008 - Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

Craig said...

I lived in a logging town when I was in grade school while my dad ran a project at the nearby mental hospital. We lived in an Elizabethan style house on two acres of land that was really a private park surrounded by three acres of cow pasture and three acres of cucumbers that Mexican migrants would harvest. We had two goldfish ponds with lily pads, a filbert orchard and a defunct nuttery for storing the filberts, all for $120 a month.

Nearest neighbor was a mink farm with two or three horses awaiting retirement as glue and mink food. Mr. Earl used a shotgun when it was time to slaughter a horse, one blast through the nasal cavity into the brain. Past the mink farm was a creek with icy cold water where the cows would drink. The river was a mile downstream with more and more beaver dams the closer you got to it.

Upstream a mile was the hospital grounds, perhaps a hundred acres or more of prime farmland, where the patients had furnished more or less free labor since 1912 when it opened for business. Beyond the hospital the creek climbed half a dozen miles into the foothills along a logging road that got steeper and steeper until you reached the donkey, where the trees were winched from the creek, stripped of their branches, turned into logs and loaded on trucks.

My deskmate in sixth grade was Linda Willoughby. Each desk had two seats and only one desktop that you couldn't raise without disturbing your deskmate. She was a tiny little girl, irritating as hell. Her father owned a log truck.

J said...

....his special mixture of sophisticated Zen attitudinizing, celebration of physical labor, and vague, mystical communalism. I believed at that point that the most honest, direct thing an intelligent young man might do was dress like a back woodsman, with a big pack and sleeping bag strapped to his shoulders, and with this, and a little survival knowledge, hike up into the mountains and write shrewd little poems about nature and the sad state of the world.

As with much of the 60s--or Thoreauvian tradition-- Snyder's appeals to eco-topia do seem somewhat naive. Perhaps not as sinister as...maoism or..Nixon-Kissingerism for that matter, but narcissistic. A semester or two of german philosophy (or even...the greeks) might have helped out. Though granted, apres-Hiroshima (nazis, stalinist, el al) --not to say the return of evangelical morons (Kirbys!) western tradition does not look so promising . It's the ...optimism of the green sorts ..ie Emersonian, scientific, even American-- that should irk us, IMHE. Schopenhauer's readings of buddhism do not offer such hopes, for one. Death...wins, no matter which ideology or metaphysics you choose

Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard said...

to get back to robin -
robin is not joanne
joanne is not robin
robin is an earlier love and muse

J said...


Approved by McJobs and Apple, Inc.

Beats were 95% hype, really--at least Ti Jean could vooley-voo a bit, and enjoyed real jass. Then so is most US "poetics"-- Hallmark, or in the case of the bleatniks & Co, Hallmark, stoned (or wit navel gazing, in leather, mental institutions, so forth). The never quite made it through the cliffsnotes to...Heart of Darkness (or forgot it)

AS the tune went, they wuz in the Right place at the right time.