Look out indeed, this small volume
may not be quite what you'd expect at first glance.
New Directions started their 'Bibelot' series in 1993. Bibelots are
'inexpensive, pocket-sized volumes to serve as introductions to the great
modernist authors of the twentieth century'. This small book sets Gary Snyder
in the series alongside Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Thomas Merton,
Octavio Paz, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound... and the selection is Gary
So far so good. Here's the but: the selections (with the exception of a
single poem) been put together from work Snyder originally published with New
Directions, so this is a selection solely from the late 1960's and 1970's.
Within those limits, it's fine. He's a passionate environmental poet, or a
beat poet or Buddhist poet depending on how you want to read him. There are
plenty of poems to give you the choice, as well as a feel for the haiku-like
intensity of Snyder's writing style (this from 'Burning')
with a ping
Red cedar of
the thick coast valleys
Included are some poems from Turtle Island, like 'The Hudsonian Curlew', a poem about which I still can't make
up my mind, with it's detailed account of the evisceration of the bird for
eating. No, I'm not squeamish (at least not about this) -I'm uneasy at the
particular way the episode draws attention back towards the writer.
There are plenty of prose pieces too (the book's about half and half) which
interest me: I don't have the book they're from, Earth House Hold (1969). These couldn't be more varied. The first
of them, 'Lookout's Journal' is just that: a sporadic journal from the
summers of 1952 and 1953 when Snyder was firewatching in Mt Baker National
Forest - a blend of landscape and reflection and talk (via radio contact).
This is the Look Out of the title as well as the Lookout of what he's set as the
book's epigraph: 'Poem Left on Sourdough Mountain Lookout' - a poem he wrote
in 1953. In Left Out in the Rain
(published by North Point - this is the import into New Directions) he notes
that he was told by a later lookout that the poem 'was still pinned up in the
cabin in 1968'.
Among the prose pieces is a detailed account of a week's meditation in a
Kyoto temple: 'Spring Sesshin at Shokoku-ji'. (Brief footnotes help a reader
unfamiliar with terms in Zen Buddhism.) Next, all the beat concerns are here;
LSD; the breakdown of family, native Americans, hunting, shaman-poets... it
feels like a classic period-piece.
In a 1973 'Craft Interview', Snyder answers all the usual questions. Yes he
keeps notebooks. And journals. Yes they're organised. Yes he writes by hand,
'But before I write I do it in my mind many times.' He continues
step is the rhythmic measure, the second step is a set of preverbal
which move to the rhythmic measure, and the third step is
in words... I let it ripen until it's fully formed and then try to
poem out [p.130]
I wonder if this is a good way to read him? Step-by-step, rhythm, image,
word? Because the poems are stripped-down images or snatches of talk that ask
you to attend and be there:
Sat down on
and desert S.P. tracks
not far off
howling and yapping from a rise.
The book begins and ends with tributes to James Laughlin, New Directions'
founder. Snyder opens with a prose appreciation of Laughlin's support as a
publisher - though the syntax gets a bit convoluted when he writes about
changing publishers. The books closes with 'What to Tell, Still', a poem
addressing Laughlin as a poet, which endears me to Snyder rather more:
I think of
how J. writes stories of his lovers in his poems--
in a lot,
it touches me,
to write so
much about your lovers
when you're a
long-time married man. Then I think,
what do I
About what to say
or not to
say, what to tell, or not, to whom,
This book must be New Directions' answer to Counterpoint's 2000 The
Gary Snyder Reader 1952-1998, which will
cost you about twice the price - but then it covers twice as many years and
is more than twice as big. But buy the New Directions one if you want a small
one for your back pocket.
© Jane Routh 2005