For six decades or more, Gary Snyder has written a poetry of experience. And a poetry, almost always, of a brusque wisdom with the quality—somehow, for me—of the weather in the Pacific Northwest. That lush cold, that abundance in the fog. Here is “For the Children,” from his collection Turtle Island, published in 1974 by New Directions—sounding to me like it was written yesterday, for us and our awful moment:
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
Then the poem lets in the dream, the idealism, and you can’t tell, in the second stanza, if the voice wants to mock or affirm that idealism, that dream:
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
In the third and fourth stanzas—and this is the turn that leaves me blown open—the poet grounds us in the learnings of human experience, lays them down in the language, sturdy and not wasting a letter, as the poem ends:
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
A three-line survival guide, that ending, to what’s ahead for humankind.
Gary Snyder’s grace, his urgent, deep information—he once called poetry the most efficient information—springs naturally from the particular studies to which he’s given his life: things like the western coast of the United States, Zen Buddhism, maritime life, land management, Japan, trees, the T’ang poets, the Sierra Matterhorn, the list goes on. Snyder’s first book of poetry was Riprap, brought out in 1965, a title that takes for its name the loose but intentional lining up of stones to make a path through mountain forest. Sometimes he goes almost twenty years without a volume of poems, and has spent great portions of his time translating and writing prose—and building and exploring the land around him. When I talked to him last he was about to go see a particularly old and giant sequoia. He’s in his nineties, and his most recent book of poems, This Present Moment, appeared in 2015. More recently than that the Library of America has issued one its generous, blue-cloth, onionskin-paged wonders devoted to a poet who has outlasted all his contemporaries. Snyder says he’s still writing poems from time to time, but doesn’t expect another book. He feels he’s said what he wants to say in poems. Part of that saying has the ferocity, if that’s the word, of Jack Gilbert, but little of Gilbert’s pompous edge. There’s more attention to thick description in Snyder, to the meat of a matter. The urgency of Adrienne Rich and the patience of Wordsworth. He is one of our greatest living poets.
Snyder, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in rural Washington, told me he thinks the cities are too big—but of course, he added quickly, he has his favorite watering holes in Berkeley or Naha. Although he’s lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for decades on property he originally bought with Allen Ginsberg and others—which he homesteaded, and for some time now has owned entirely—he finds wilderness anywhere, not as some separated, purer place. “The wild,” he told Jim Harrison in an interview, “really refers to a process—a process that has been going on for eons or however long … ‘Wilderness’ is simply topos—it is areas where the process is dominant. Not 100 percent dominant, but a big percentage.” His poetry is a side effect of his trying to live out what he has called The Practice of the Wild—the name of one of his books of prose—which is connected to the larger “etiquette of freedom.” Here’s a playful, serious poem that says something about what that etiquette would take into consideration, and how wildness might be imagined—how we might save what we can with acts of attention, which are acts of accountability. It’s called “They’re Listening,” and it goes like this:
As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.
JESSE NATHAN: A lot of your poems over the years indent their lines from the lefthand margin, as if they are dancing down the page. Why?
GARY SNYDER: I guess that’s just how I talk to myself.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.