Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gary Snyder

Okay. I’m expected to write at least one great letter before the shop closes. The problem is that I’ve waited way too long to do that. The other problem is Gary Snyder. He’s somewhat interesting. But is he interesting enough to inspire a great letter? Suspect at best. I read Gary Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and Danger on Peaks. I liked a few of his poems, but most of them tired me. I would read, doze off, try to read again, doze off again (repeat fifteen times), finally succumb to the great seducer—sleep—wake up and then read again. That was the cycle.

I don’t think Snyder wrote for anyone but himself, and maybe that’s the point (as Ethan pointed out). It might have made for great poetry in his eyes, and respectably in the eyes of others far more qualified to discern great poetry than myself, but I opine that more than not, his poems were sapless. I wanted to want to enjoy his poems more. I tried Holy Professor. I failed. I succeeded. I don’t know. I want to like Snyder more, but I can’t. His poems are pristine, sure. And that’s pure and for that well done, but beyond that I feel wind and disconnect. I’m here in sunny Florida. He’s…I don’t know where. He’s seen things and describes them beautifully, at least it seems that way, but I don’t know or feel what he’s talking about. I can’t relate. I respect, but I can’t relate. I think of great poetry as poetry that has found a way to reflect the mountains of humanity off the lakes of reality. For that to happen that water has to be pure and still and able to mirror—show—something of the matter and something of the soul. And since that is my criteria for great poetry, my hands are tied; Gary Snyder didn’t make the cut. He’s an honorable mention. That’s all. Now my experience of it all: Past the above mentioned, if I were to intellectually reveal myself, then I would have to reveal that there were certain sections of his poems, and once in a while cold mountain, entire poems, that managed to awe-inspire, leaving me feeling O so nice. In Riprap he said, “Cobble of milky way, straying planets, these poems, people, lost ponies with Dragging saddles and rocky sure-foot trails. The worlds like an endless four-dimensional game of Go.” Alright, I admit. That’s great poetry. But that’s the exception in Snyder’s poetry. He feeds you solid, nourishing food, but never dessert, or at least not often. I want something sweet all the time (perhaps not the healthiest). I have a sweet tooth in the soul of my mouth. It’s decaying and rotting and in need of a dentist, but it has its needs. It knows it’s done for and wants to ‘sweet it up’ before it falls off. One occasion of the above mentioned happened in his poem Doctor Coyote When He Had a Problem as seen in the following: “Doctor Coyote when he had a problem took a dump. On the grass, asked his turds where they lay what to do? They gave him good advice. He’d say “that’s just what I thought too” And do it. And go his way.” Alright, that’s genius (I always spell genius wrong pre-spell-check) Up until this point in Danger on Peaks you’re reading a lot of poetry with nature words that you’re unfamiliar with for the most part, or words that you’ve seen or heard before, but that you can’t envision in O so cloudy mind, and more so, specific, esoteric words in poems that you try your best to imagine in your mind, but find yourself struggling and feeling inadequate as a pathetic English major far from a far cry from a wordsmith. Exhale. And so when I read the above mentioned poem I laughed. It was shockingly, unexpectedly pleasant and funny and genius in its location in the book. I commend Snyder for that.

Up until this point I’ve yet to admit something, Han-Shan rules (Billy Madison adopted reference…O’Doyle rules!)! Thank you Snyder for translating Han-Shan, you did a great job. Now step aside. Han-Shan’s poetry was amazing. It was enigmatic and concrete and paradoxical in nothing and everything. It was witty and poignant. It had what I wanted in a poem. For instance, poem seven goes as following, “I settled at Cold Mountain long ago, Already it seems like years and years. Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams and linger watching things themselves. Men don’t get this far into the mountains, White clouds gather and billow. Thin grass does for a mattress; the blue sky makes a good quilt. Happy with a stone under head let heaven and earth go about their changes.” Wow! Excited party of one. Here! It’s boastful and far-out and overall a beautiful poem. It’s the type of poetry good enough to make me cry. It’s man in nature completely at peace. That’s what I want. I don’t know about the rest of suffering humanity, but that’s what I want (sigh). The idea of a madman lost in culture and found in nature and at peace in the temporal passing to eternity has this vast, all-enticing allure for me. He’s chill for life—frosty energy or something to that like. He’s a lot. I like. He’s a lot. I like. He’s a lot. I like. O man! He’s a lot. I like.

For the record, I’m not anti-Snyder. I think he’s a good poet who sometimes produces a great poem or two. Furthermore, I think he’s much needed, but not much wanted. That’s all folks. I hope I wrote something substantial. If not, O well. I wrote how I thought Snyder would not write (insert laugh). Darn twenty words from a thousand.


  1. Great letter Phil! I really enjoyed reading it and I thought your style was great. I think that you and I had very similar experiences in our Snyder encounter. Although it feels as if you are a bit more hostile about his poems than I am. I loved his poetry, but like you, it didn't feed my gut. I liked your comment about how eating just sweets might not be the vest thing, and I agree. Although most of Snyder's poems didn't penetrate my inner being like some of Ferlinghetti's poems did, intellectually I really love and appreciate Snyder and want to continue reading him. Snyder isn't always fun to read, but he is a great poet and teaches us to submit to the object in front of us. It seems like Snyder isn't even necessarily self-focused on his poetry--he is more about letting what is simply be--apart from what he might say about it. I can learn from that. Again, I loved your letter! Peace be with you!

  2. Definitely an epic read, Phil. Though I'm afraid I cannot share all of your frustration with Snyder. For the most part I liked him... Chances are mostly for the reason you mentioned before--that he wrote for himself. No, its substance wasn't one that made you want to breathe more, but he writes and sees things how they are. Thanks for the thoughts!