Posts Tagged ‘water


Quick Notes on Gary Snyder

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Gary SnyderGary Snyder (May 8, 1930) is an American poet often associated with the Beats because he was friends with them, but I don’t think his poetry picks up the Beatific feel, as his poetry is far more sincere and nature orientated. And as Tom C. Hunley pointed out, Snyder, in a sense, distances himself from the Beat poets when he writes in the opening poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” in his first collection of poems Riprap, “A few friends, but they are in cities.” Those friends are the Beat poets, and they are far away in an urban scene. Perhaps it’s easier to consider Snyder an ecological poet or primal poet, or as he says in A Controversy of Poets, “As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times” (“Biography”).

Gary Snyder’s first collection of poems, Riprap¸ was first released in 1959, the same year as Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. With both poets, the “I” in their poems is the poet, but the I’s relationship with its surroundings is much different. Lowell’s I, while realizing it is not completely independent and is formed in part by family history, is an ego-centric I, self-reflexive, and mainly concerned with the self. Snyder’s I, however, tries to integrate with the natural setting that surrounds him, such as at the end of “Water,” when after diving into a cold mountain pond or lake, he surfaces with “Eyes open aching from the cold and faced a trout” (12). In this moment, we can grasp much of Snyder’s ecological philosophies – he shares a space with other creatures with which he is equal to – he sees the trout eye to eye in a shared environment. This doesn’t mean they are same. Each creature has its own journey, like the deer and he do in “Above Pate Valley,” when he reports, “They came to camp. On their / Own trails. I followed my own / Trail here” (11). For Snyder, the vast types of life forms in nature are unique and equal in their shared environment.

As I just said, Snyder “reports” this observation, and often when moving through Riprap, it feels like Snyder is reporting on the environment objectively and imagistically. At times the poems almost feel like they are Imagism poems as a scene is presented without comment, such as the opening of “Nooksack Valley”:

     At the far end of a trip north
     In a berry-picker’s cabin
     At the edge of a wide muddy field
     Stretching to the woods and cloudy mountains,
     Feeding above the stove all afternoon with cedar,
     Watching the dark sky darken, a heron flap by,
     A huge setter pup nap on the dusty cot.                  (17)

Further, like an Imagism poem, there is even a charged juxtaposition, which occurs with the elaborate description of the cabin and its environment (which is so vast and grand) and the dog taking a nap. The two worlds objectively collide and create an intuitive meaning, and we encounter the subjective experience of the speaker. We inhabit that comparative space with the speaker, and hopefully feel and understand what he does. This juxtaposition is further enhanced with the prepositional “At,” which signals that the subject and verb will come later. As a result, we have expectations, which are further elevated with “the far end of a trip north.” It creates the sense of some sort of awe-inspiring epiphany will eventually arrive, because it’s the long end of the journey. However, what we encounter is just a snoozing dog. But this is the space I think the speaker wants to inhabit, or at least he wants to avoid the anxieties of city life in “San Francisco / and Japan” in the third quarter of the poem with “damned memories / Whole wasted theories, failures and worse success, / Schools, girls, deals . . .”. When he escapes those memories and responsibilities lingering in his head, he sees the dog winding down to sleep in the poem’s final two lines.

Perhaps Snyder’s self or ego just wants to be absorbed by nature, or maybe he realizes there is no self, or that he seeks and egoless-interference with his surroundings. For instance, the first three lines of the last stanza in “Piute Creek”: “A clear attentive mind / Has no meaning but that / Which sees is truly seen” (8). Right before these lines, Snyder again provides a journalistic account of the environment only to realize that in this environment “All the junk that goes with being human / Drops away [. . .] / Even the heavy present seems to fail / This bubble of a heart.” He is divesting himself of his ego so that he can situate himself to see truly, and if he does, he will be “truly seen” by nature (like the trout he encountered), and/or in a Zen way, he will be truly seen by himself.

The rhythm of the poems in Riprap is not staccato, but sometimes it moves abruptly with spondees and three stressed syllables in a row, often because an article or pronoun is left out of the sentence. The rhythm, however, is not jarring. Quite the contrary, Snyder’s rhythm adds to the very sincere tone poems, which are also filled with reverence. This is not to say he doesn’t know his craft. One just has to listening the opening poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” to recognize his very talented ear. This poem is dominated by long syllables and long vowels, and in the opening lines – “Down valley a smoke haze / Three days heat, after five days rain / Pitch glows on the fir-cones” – each long A, long E, long O, and long I are stressed syllables. One could also listen to “Hay for the Horses,” where he interjects two iambic trimeter lines to mimic the mechanical nature of the activities: “With winch and ropes and hooks / We stacked the bales up clean.”

In these lyrical poems, there is little subjective interference, but there is much that enables us to inhabit Snyder’s spirit being at one with nature. He’s a deep ecologist before deep ecology was created, as he seeks to create a relationship with humans and other life forms and seeks the inherent values in living things, and does not impose a value/worth on a living thing.


Works Cited

“Biography: Gary Snyder.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 2015. Web. 10 Sep. 2015.

Snyder, Gary. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990. Print.



In Pursuit of the Juiciest Water: Day One (Brockport Tap Water Through Brita Filter)

The last dream I had before waking up this morning went something like this:

I was in a writing workshop in a PhD program somewhere. There were at least four people in the class. There was an invisible but obviously present student, who may have been Silas H. He sat to my left. There was a professor to the right. All I could see was his chest and his right arm. I think it was David Kirby, which would put me at Florida State University. And then there was another student. She may have been a TA or just a student that had been there for at least a year. She said we were going to do a creative writing exercise. She handed me a plastic cup of water. Translucent Plastic CupIt was one of those semi-transparent plastic cups that are gray in color. They have those ridges in the middle for grips, and the plastic is really thin. If you press to hard, you get those white fault lines in the cup. She said, “We are going to do a tasting. The first thing I want you to do is to smell its bouquet. What does the side of the water smell like to you, Tom?” I really enjoyed that she asked what the side of the water smelled like because I think the edge of the wine smells different from the inner part of the wine. I responded, “The edge of the water has a bouquet of air. I also pick up a hint of dryness or dustiness that reminds me of my second-grade classroom.”

Then the dream kinda evaporated. I think the point of the dream was to tell me that I was thirsty and I should get up and get a glass of water. My dreams do that sometimes. They give me clues to get up and get something to drink when I’m dehydrated, or they will give me clues to get up and go to the bathroom or to remember to breathe.

Then I thought, “Hey, I do wine tastings. Why not do a water tasting. And in the spirit of ‘In Pursuit of the Juiciest Wine,’ I’ll do ‘In Pursuit of the Juiciest Water’.” I wonder if water can be juicy? Anyway, here we go.

Orange Brita Water PitcherToday’s water will be Brockport tap water that was chilled in an orange Brita water pitcher.

I’m serving this water in a white wine glass. It’s been breathing for about 15 minutes. The nose has a slight hint of wood or mustiness to it. It smells like the outdoors. There’s also an underlying layer of salt. It’s very, very faint. When I smell it, I think of a dirty glacier in northern Montana.

The texture at first is crisp, but that could be because it is cold, for as it warms it become more malleable and thick. It has a long finish that brightens in the mouth. My teeth feel like glass or cheap crystal. And there is a bit of a dryness on the side of the tongues. I wonder if this is what dirty glacier water tastes like. I mean, it tastes good, and it feels good, but I keep thinking of a glacier in Montana, but not the Glacier National Park. There’s another one, and it actually may be in northwest Washington. I think that’s what I’m thinking of. But I’m not thinking of the main glacier. I’m thinking of the snow on the top of the mountain that is slightly browned and is dripping off as it melts.

I like this morning’s water. I hope you do to.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

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