Tuesday, July 20, 2004

I'd never really given much thought to Gary Snyder. When he did cross my mind, it was as one of the Beats—a group I have ambivalent sympathy for. I think of them as poets who did important things, who were themselves important symbols for a little while, but who became in our cultural memory a primary example of commodified dissent: "Jack Kerouac wore khakis," etc. Most of the actual writing bores me to tears. Gary Snyder the man continues to impress me because of his dedication to environmental causes; his Buddhism also seems very sincere. But I've never much liked his poems. This is all just a lengthy preamble to me saying I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying his newest book, Danger on Peaks, an advance reader's copy of which was handed to me as I came to work at The Bookery this morning. The first section comprises a group of haibun on the topic of Mount St. Helens and its varying significations through the poet's long life: from the place where he first heard about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a visit to the Blast Zone as a site of more or less unreconstructed nature in 2000. Snyder's style isn't particularly remarkable; it's the kind of nature writing that I've always found to be a bit of a snooze, mostly description of natural features mixed in with acute observations of the changes made by humans (interstates, the presence of ranger stations, etc.). Reading this kind of thing always brings out my inner Frank O'Hara: "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally REGRET life." But there were a few moments that cut through this, that made me feel the presence of unregretted life. When I was twenty I did a peak climb in central Oregon as part of an Outward Bound trip, and although the beatspeak of the first sentence makes me wince, I understood what Snyder meant when he talked about the estrangement from earth one experiences at the top of a really high mountain:
West coast snowpeaks are too much! They are too far above the surrounding lands. There is a break between. They are in a different world. If you want to get a view of the world you live in, climb a little rocky mountain with a neat small peak. But, the big snowpeaks pierce the realm of clouds and cranes, rest in the zone of five-colored baners and writhing crackling dragons in veils of ragged mist and frost-crystals, into a pure transparency of blue.
Somehow I forgive Snyder this bit of Orientalism—I feel like he's earned it somehow, that he really does see the Chinese heaven up there. Plus I've seen it myself: I remember near dawn at the top of a glacier looking at peaks rising through fog like a thick green sea, sun beginning to crystalize on the snow through the eastern clouds. Then there's his basic unpretentiousness. He has a series of charming quasi-haiku in the second section which make Imagism seem almost fresh again:
A Dent in a Bucket

Hammering a dent out of a bucket
       a woodpecker answers from the woods

Standup Comics

A parking meter that won't take coins
a giant sprinkler valve wheel chained and locked
a red and white fire hydrant
a young dandelion at the edge of the pavement


small birds     flit
from bough
to bough to bough

to bough to bough to bough
That last one is my favorite and taps a deeper reservoir of linguistic possibility than Snyder had previously seemed interested in. So I'll keep reading. What's come as a welcome surprise is his willingness to see what's in front of him, acutely and without becoming strident: it's the fulfillment of Pound's "periplum" (something Pound himself completely failed to do; his excoriation of American from Europe is the complete opposite of his proclaimed "see for yourself" ethic). It does not strike me as the kind of invigorated "late work" that Ron was talking about last week, but maybe I don't know enough about Snyder's other work to judge that. Sometimes the mere perseverance of an older writer is inspiration enough.

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