Wild Thing

November 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

Gary Snyder

I went to the new Poets House on the river to hear Gary Snyder. It was a small gathering, for members only: 80-100 people. Everyone had that poet look which stands out so much in New York City: softer, hair mussed, a little distracted, bohemian in a don’t-look-at-me way. I know very well how caustic poets can be but when I’m in a room of them, I’m reminded of a postcard I used to have, a painting of two sheep sitting next to each other, knitting sweaters from their own wool.

Snyder is a short man, white haired and sinewy, with a deeply wrinkled, canny face and an air of recalcitrant—not to mention rude—health. He looks like a Ken Kesey character who wandered into a Tolkien book and then quickly exited.

He read some poems, then sat down for a conversation with Jonathan Skinner, editor of Ecopoetics. Snyder was in New York promoting a documentary called The Practice of the Wild. Given that obvious hook, not to mention Snyder’s reputation, Skinner steered the conversation to the environment. He asked what wildness is. Gary said, “Well, wildness, nature—let me say what nature is. Nature is the whole phenomenal universe, everything that exists, other than the supernatural, if you believe in the supernatural, although in India, this is interesting, they believe that the supernatural, gods, demons, are all part of nature, just a part that’s invisible to us.” (He went on about India for quite a while but I forget the rest.) Then he said, “Wildness is process. The kind of process where human self-conscious agency is not involved. The intellect is not wild, but the body is wild. Language is wild. The mind takes care of language the way the body takes care of digestion, without your having to think about it.”

He talked about how children acquire language—and the precocious thing his 2 year old granddaughter said—and explained how differently language is learned in English, where the alphabet is random in relation to sound, while in India children learn sounds in order from the front of the mouth, the sounds lips make, to the sounds of teeth and tongue, and the back of the mouth, the throat, etc. He discussed his background in linguistics and the six languages of China, as different as the romance languages of Europe but all written exactly the same, so everyone in China can read the same newspaper. I’ve read about this, but don’t really understand it, so if you want to know more, go look it up.

Skinner, asking his next question, referred to Gary as an encyclopedia and Snyder interrupted him to say that these were necessary answers. The cranky old man took the stage more fully when Skinner mentioned that Snyder hadn’t read any nature poems. “I already explained what nature is,” said Gary. “I could read some outdoor poems, if you want.” And then digressed to tell us that Koreans have the most intelligent writing system in the world. (You can look that up too.)

Don’t imagine I wasn’t enjoying this. I love to listen to the deeply erudite, especially when they make dazzling leaps. But he was cranky. He talked about the language of feeling being monosyllabic—in reference to where speech started—and Skinner said, treading cautiously now, “You make it new by going back.”

“I’d just as soon make it old,” Gary retorted. I started to think about age; how some poets, reasonably famous in their later youth and middle age, but marginalized, as poets are in our culture, become fetishized in their eighth or ninth decade as we realize they are leaving us, leaving us with all their memories of how things used to be, in that bygone golden age we used to shrug off as our parents’ youth. They’re leaving and we didn’t treasure them enough, we took them for granted, and now we want them more than ever…anyway, I’ve seen it before, and it’s both heady and annoying for the poet. Or so it seems. But I know that Creeley died and I never knew him; that Ginsberg died and I never heard him read; that Pound died and I never dared to be an intrepid 20 year American girl in Italy charming her way past the wife…

Finally Skinner, trying to steer this unwieldy craft back to Climate Change, which is what I at least was somewhat anxious to hear Snyder talk about, ended up expostulating, “Where do you get your optimism?” This, perhaps, in reference to Gary’s earlier remark that his grandchildren would be able to live in the deep woods and have village buses pull up in the morning to take them to market, where they’d buy and sell handmade goods, swap gossip, then write a poem or two waiting for the homebound bus, which I imagined as something between a yellow school bus and the Merry Pranksters’ vehicle, paint a little faded…when in fact we all know our grandchildren will live in Brooklyn and sell cloned body parts to the superrich.

“I’m not optimistic,” answered Snyder. “I’m good-natured. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. If there’s anything to say for optimism, it’s that nature always bats last.”

I think he meant wild nature, not the whole phenomenal world. And anyway, we all know that. Those who worry about the planets are idiots. People will suffer; animals will go extinct; things will change beyond all recognition. But the planet? She’ll be fine. She’ll be just like me, when things go badly for awhile, eager to get started again, to invent again, glad the past was ripped away with all its constraints…

The earth is mortal, but not in any way we can understand. Mourn our culture, if you like. Mourn the tiger and the songbird, the polar bear with his thinning bones, the insects you’ve never thought about, the plants living and dying quietly far from our murderous hands. But not the planet. The planet endures. It bats last (in our terms; I won’t mention the paltry lifetime of the sun) and knocks us out of the park. It was a spectacular game while it lasted. And the afternoon is still sunny—never mind that chill—that heat—that odd gasping sound of the world’s fresh water drying up. Bless the rain and rivers. Bless your youth, or if you’re still young, bless books.

Axe Handles

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet head
Without a handle, in the shop,
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet.
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head,
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle, the pattern is not fair off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: we’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay of literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih Hsiang Chen
Translated that and saw it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

Gary Snyder

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