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

Poet’s Mousehole

July 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

Marble sarcophagus with the contest between the Muses and the Sirens Roman, Severan period, 3rd quarter of the 3rd century A.D. Metropolitan Museum. Athena, Zeus, and Hera preside over a musical contest between the Muses and Sirens. The Muses are defeating the Sirens.


I’ve been meaning to get to the Poet’s House showcase of all the new poetry books published this year, and when I do, maybe I’ll write about it. Today I saw an article on the subject in the New York Times, and felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t written something myself two weeks ago and submitted it. But so it goes. I was struck by the quote at the end of the article, from Kimiko Hahn. “When you see the books and chapbooks represented at Poets House in any given year, you can see how poetry is not in the margins of people’s lives. It’s really at the center of people’s lives.”

It’s at the center of some people’s lives (particularly those who’ve published a book of it in the last year). It is of interest to a wider and more diverse group than writers and academics, and perhaps it’s vitally important to many individuals who’ve never heard of 99.9 % of contemporary published poets. But in respect to the vast majority of people who, if they’d been born in a different era, would have read or at least heard of all the acclaimed new poets: no. Poetry is in the margins. It’s there and it’s stuck there and all the prizes and poet laureates and occasional commercial success (Billy Collins, Mary Oliver) aren’t going to pull it out. If, after a lovely dinner, when the candles are guttering and the last wine is being poured, you ask your guests to listen while you read aloud a poem by your new favorite poet, they’ll be charmed (possibly); they may even promise themselves to read more poetry. They won’t. If you put a poem at the end of every blog post, as some people are known to do, many readers will skip those poems. How many I’d prefer not to know.

It’s exquisitely painful as an artist to be so out of step with the times her very genre is nearly obsolete, but I don’t know that there’s anything to be done about it. Poetry in Motion—those wonderful short poems on the New York subways, a brilliant idea of Molly Peacock’s—reached those literate after dinner guests, the firefighters Kimiko Hahn mentioned who ignore the people and save the books (no, I made that part up) and some others, but I doubt it moved anyone to buy more than one book of poetry, if that. You can’t do anything about the pain either. It’s ridiculous to say writers write for themselves, so don’t say it to any writers you know. It’s like saying loving oneself is the most important thing. It’s important because without it, no other love can flourish, but if you stop there, that love won’t flourish either. Writers need readers. We can get by with a few. Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte managed with their few. Some manage with none if they have a passionate belief in future readers; they have very strong souls. And they suffer.

Poetry—as opposed to doggerel—is in the margins. If you’re 16 or of a certain melancholic, romantic temperament, you can make a tiny flame from that word ‘margins’, make it seem like endangered wetlands with their 10,000 species, or twilight, a daily phenomenon justly famous long before the movie; you can search for the new liminal (a word cherished by poets a decade or so ago, now sucked dry and abandoned to PR writers); you can view your small audience as the only one that matters.

And it is. But only to you.

My Grandmother’s Love Letters

There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
Elizabeth,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

Hart Crane

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