Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gary Snyder's "The Real Work": Book Review

After reviewing Gary Snyder's "Reader" and his letters to and from Allen Ginsberg recently, I wanted to learn more about Snyder's relationship to his adopted Nevada County and Northern Californian bioregion during the 1970s. This collection compiles conversations mainly from that decade with the counterculture press, his "East West" in-depth interview which delves deeper into his past and his vision, and an elaboration of his model of the ecological system reaching its climax and sustaining itself by 40% recycling at its steady state of flourishing.

Towards the end he applies this to a restoration of our "inner potential" as our own "sense-detritus" finds liberation by art, work, and creativity. This "fruiting" happens for Snyder throughout this anthology. Editor Scott McLean adds a preface and endnotes to supplement some of Snyder's observations.

Notable is his ability to see within the planet its capacity for our emotional rather than economic enrichment. "It's a problem of love: not the humanistic love of the West--but a love that extends to animals, rocks, dirt, all of it. Without this love, we can end, even without war, with an uninhabitable place." (4) This 1964 Gene Fowler interview captures his "power-vision in solitude."

Yet, he cannot sustain such alone. He returns from a Japanese monastic stint to California, and he eventually joins Gov. Jerry Brown's Arts Council to disburse funds. He believes in the public commitment of the poet and the need to work one's craft and employ one's hands to create.

He even envisions culture, therefore, with fresh eyes. He compares a university's English department to "a cardboard box that everybody throws every poetry magazine that comes in the mail into and says, 'Well, we'll look at that later. I haven't got time to read it now.'" The retrospective perspective of English, "looping backward as they go, and trying to connect" the present to tradition, to rediscover a Blake or a Melville, represents its own function and "truly tribal work," he adds. (63, Fall 1977 to Paul Geneson in "The Ohio Review.")

Such observations reverberate in a period where fewer praise the humanities: he warns of the difficulty that more and more we face as the liberal arts get jettisoned. Practicality, all the same, gets to be its own necessity, for Snyder compares in the five-day April 1977 "East West" interview the contemporary reality for a practitioner as contrasted with the state of monastic Tibet, a quarter of its population meditating, its class structure demonstrating "a byproduct of exploitation"--if someone else grows your food, this cannot be kept on "for a whole lifetime without somebody else having to give up their meditation so that 'you' can meditate." (96)

Therefore, Snyder insists on the poet's grounding in the real and the engaged. Yet I found the same distancing here as elsewhere from the impact of his entry into the Sierras and the attraction this sparked for his followers and friends to join him. "Tracking Down the Natural Man" with carpenter Colin Kowal, whom is to be assumed as one of those who moved there--expresses little worry about the population increase. I suppose Snyder figures he and his colleagues weigh less heavy upon the land.

Similarly, he harbors in these reflections about the nuclear threats and ecological breakdown less tension than in the essays he included in the "Reader" but this unease certainly persists in the interviews during the aftermath of the 1960s. Peter Barry Chowka continues in the "East West" interview to ask about Snyder's "Buddhist Anarchism" essay originally 1961, revised 1969. He reminds us how Buddhism as with Asia did not discover until the last century what the West had earlier: "that history is arbitrary and that societies are human." (101) Not being divine or natural creations, changes and choices can be made. For Eastern systems, compromises with power diminished critiques of state or nation. He elaborates how "World Religions" tend to prop up their societies, and even if they posit liberation, they give in to protect their sub-cultural enclave. Celibacy deepens this institution: it's renewed from the outside each generation, so a tribal accumulation of transformational energy passed down does not build up and threaten the social construct. A fascinating insight.

One final point merits notice in a talk that three-dozen or so years later demands attention. Responding to Chowka's question whether Snyder plays the disconnected muse, Snyder boasts that he worked "nine months on a tanker at sea and nobody once ever guessed I had been in college." (111) This sort of reverse snobbery, arguably logical, does enter parts of this as it has his other writings. Snyder's lucky to have lived his long life so applauded by so many, and he's labored to build on the land his dream. Whether this sort of stance makes him more admirable than his MFA counterparts in the seminar room and his acolytes in the academy remains, perhaps, open to debate.

The appeal of Snyder is that he comes across directly, a bit prickly but usually openhearted. He's eager to express his ecological philosophy and his poetic calling, but he's also mindful to place his vocation within his setting and his respect for nature. Without being sentimental or coy, he helps us to listen to and see our world better. (5-25-13 Amazon US)

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