The Post Natural World
One of the original voices of the Beat Generation, Gary Snyder has been publishing poems for over 50 years. In addition to writing poems, Snyder has had a firm commitment to sustainability, a concern that is echoed in both his poems and essays. John Felstiner interviews.
John Felstiner: On the BART train this morning, someone said to me, “Ask Gary for one haiku I can take home with me.”
Gary Snyder: I don’t remember who wrote this one, but . . .
Walking on the roof of hell gazing at the flowers.
That haiku makes me think of William Carlos Williams’ challenge to poets toward the end of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Are haiku a concrete instance of us getting the environmental news from poetry?
More than any other literary tradition on earth, it has been the language of the natural world, and has had an enormously large readership for two and a half centuries. It is not a literary career; it’s an exercise in mind-focus that everyone shares. And they have not yet exhausted it; that is to say, there are major Japanese newspapers that still have a daily haiku page. Daily commentaries are provided by one or another of Japan’s most eminent haiku writers; they are sent in by the thousands, and the critics take one haiku and comment on it.
But given the “roof of hell” haiku you just recited, it seems that you don’t worry about the five-seven-five syllable count?
That’s for Japanese language. The ratio of morphemes to phonemes is different in English and in Japanese. I am in touch with the American haiku people and their magazines, like Modern Haiku. The position I take, and there’s several others who join me on this, is not to worry about syllable count. That’s a Japanese challenge, not an English language challenge.
I have vigorously declared when necessary that I am not a haiku poet, and that very few of my very short poems qualify as haiku. Haiku is a different aesthetic, which is very specialized. In the rest of the world, there are a number of short-poem traditions that are not necessarily haiku, but which are equally powerful and to the point.
Do you remember some moment in your recent or remote past when you got the connection between poetry and environmental consciousness, where you felt it as a kind of absolute truth?
I grew up with it. Beginning when I was four years old, five years old, in the countryside, in a wooded landscape north of Seattle, back in the days when kids weren’t programmed. We just ran loose around the family dairy farm and went through the gap in the fence and right back into the woods. I felt as welcome and as much at home in the forest, second-growth forest growing back, as I did anyplace else, and I was comforted by it. I was always easy being alone. And if I went with a friend, that was fine too.
So I grew up [with] a natural conviviality and sympathy and sense of belonging in the whole natural world. My parents were socialist-minded agnostics who did not subscribe to any Christian doctrine. My mother supported the idea that we should be aware and sympathetic to all of nature, and also taught that there was no transcendental deity that was set apart from the creation.
Was there any moment or moment within a particular poem when the nexus between poetry and environmental consciousness came home to you?
You know, it would have been first with Walt Whitman, although Whitman just embraces everything, so you get nature and everything else too. The next step for me was discovering the Birds, Beasts and Flowers collection of poems by D. H. Lawrence, which I stumbled onto, actually, looking for Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I was seventeen or sixteen at the Seattle Public Library. Of course they didn’t have the novel, but they did have Birds, Beasts and Flowers. That was a wonderful awakening to the fact that you can be absolutely straightforward and clear in taking nature as a subject.
How would one distinguish an environmental poem from what is sometimes called an ecological poem?
Look at the words. “Environment” means the surroundings. The surroundings can include an oil refinery, can include all of Los Angeles and the I-5 strip. That’s the environment too, whatever surrounds us.
So there’s an “us” in “environment.”
Everything surrounds everything else. Yes. What is “ecological”? Etymologically, the "household of nature" is what's being called up. “Ecological” refers to the systems of biological nature, which include energy, and mineral and chemical transformations and pathways. “The environment” is used more commonly to also include human and technological productions. And it’s not an absolute, hard and fast separation. . . .
Have you written poems that could be qualified as one way or the other, or as both together—environmental and ecological?
The best example of how you can cross the line is in this little book right here, Danger on Peaks.
“In the Santa Clarita Valley”: That is the first valley north of the San Fernando Valley on Interstate 5. There’s a little river there, and it has become almost entirely suburban development now. Here's the poem:
Like skinny wildweed flowers sticking up
hexagonal “Denny’s” sign
eight-petaled yellow “Shell”
blue-and-white “Mobil” with a big red “O”
growing in the asphalt riparian zone
by the soft roar of the flow
of Interstate 5.
This is playing with the possibility that we might look at the human, physical, made environment as if it were natural environment.
So we move from “Mobil” into a “riparian zone.”
And hear that word “flow” for the highway.
Right, it’s ironic. I comment when I read this in meetings, that this is to help prepare us for a postnatural age. For writing nature poems in a postnatural age.
What’s always struck me is how your poems move through time and space—say, for example, in Riprap. First, it’s about being at a mountain lookout in ’52 and ’53; then, before we know it, without your giving us any warning, we’re in Kyoto, Japan. What makes this seamless movement? What’s happening as you pass between wild America and Japanese culture?
Well, it’s also wild Japan, too. The third step is when I left Japan for a while on my seaman’s papers. I shipped out from the Yokohama harbor and sailed in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean on several trips. Ah, so that also is just flowing right through it too.
Asia is far, far west. You have to understand that we are in the eastern Pacific. East and west no longer mean what they meant for the rest of the Occidental world. How does one get from the West Coast to Asia? Well, if you’re a working person and you have seamen’s papers, you sign on to a job and work your way somewhere. I did that back and forth across the Pacific Ocean as a working seaman two times. I had my little handbooks of ocean weather and birds and ocean fish, and I could keep track of where I was that way.
In this society we are burdened by the Abrahamic tradition—God’s giving us dominion over earth and its creatures. The Hebrew word for “dominion” even means “tyrant.” But I find other things, in Genesis plus Job and Psalms, which do speak to us. That great litany of wild nature that God challenges Job with, and the Psalms’ rolling praise of earth’s plenty.
Yes, it’s the Abraham story in Genesis, where everything is framed in terms of the poisonous covenant that grants that occupied country to Abraham and his followers, namely Canaan, the Promised Land. The Promised Land is a toxic image that the Occidental world has used as an excuse for going on to the next conquest ever since. And you know, the final poor end result of that is that California was called the Promised Land up to a few years ago.
Yet also, there’s a lot of good common sense in the Torah. It is Neolithic. It has nothing to do with Yahweh. It’s in the empirical and commonsense tradition of agrarian subsistence cultures.
So many of us find ourselves preaching to the converted 99 percent of the time. Is poetry, your poetry, getting out to the common reader, people who don’t know the terms “reinhabitation” and “bioregion”?
Well, I write prose as well as poetry. I never use the word “reinhabitation” or “bioregion” in poetry. [Laughter] So, I mean, I see my prose as serving one function, and my poetry is another. It’s true I’ve written a number of poems that are very, very accessible, and I’m happy to do that. And some of them come out of the world of work and daily life in such a way that people can read them with no difficulty.
Any other such poems in Danger on Peaks?
Yes, it’s almost all accessible, but it has a few little tricks and twists and turns in it, too. Which is part of the fun of being a writer. And it can be said that if you’re a literate person and you’re writing a book, you are already addressing the choir. The literate, reading population is the choir in that sense. I also like to think about the pre-literate oral tradition, and how it was performed for people who don’t necessarily read and write at all.
I have a memory of your reading at the ASLE [Association for the Study of Literature and Environment] conference a little over a year ago.
In Eugene, right. I took some notes about your way of presenting poems. This is from my June 2005 notebooks:
moving from a deep voice to a tenor, varying speed, volume, tone, intensity, emphasis, with sudden enunciations, hands gesturing, fingers pointing, often with a comical shrug, facial turns and shakes and glances.
When you’re writing a poem, in your inner ear, do you already sense any of this activity?
I do indeed. And I really believe in the performance of poems; I believe poetry is an oral art, fundamentally. I hear a lot in my inner ear, of course, especially having done it for so many years, but then I finally learn more when I start performing a poem in public. That’s the last lesson.
You move through the gestures as you read the poem. There’s something physical in language. The gestures (in some languages more than others) go along with speech.
How do poems come to you?
You know, the writing is secondary. I often compose the better part of a poem in my mind before I ever write it down.
You compose when you’re walking outdoors?
Ah, sometimes, walking around doing physical work. Oh yeah, I’m doing work all the time. I compose while I’m working. When I was working on ships, I did a lot of menial chipping paint down in the hull and repainting down inside the lowest levels. And I wrote little poems in my pocket spiral notebook.
What are you working on now?
My publisher is going to bring out two previously published books of mine that never been very available; one is He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village, which is the retelling and analysis of a traditional Haida Indian story. This was my undergraduate thesis at Reed College, which was published as a book in 1959. A lot more work has been done on Haida oral literature since that time, particularly by Robert Bringhurst, who is a kind of classical linguistic thinker and poet, a Canadian, who lives in British Columbia. He has written a three-volume work on Haida oral literature. The story that my thesis is about is a version of the Swan Maiden Tale, which is found worldwide.
Then we’re bringing out a new edition of my little Grey Fox Press book called Passage through India, an account of the six months’ travel in India that I did in the early ’60s with Joanne Kyger, Peter Orlovsky, and Allen Ginsberg.
And now I have a book of prose essays just out, called Back on the Fire.
That’s an ambiguous but exciting title!
In terms of forest management and marshland management, it means to be a partner with fire and not treat it as an enemy.
We were speaking of Williams’ “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” In 1950 or so he took his Western tour, and he came to Reed, where you were with your poet friends. Is there anything specific you remember about that event?
There were several young people other than myself who were all writing poetry at that time, including Philip Whalen, William Dickey, Lew Welch, and several others. We did not have a formal poetry program yet at Reed, but we had Professor Lloyd Reynolds, who also was our calligraphy teacher. He was a kind of an expert on William Blake too, and had a print shop up on the top floor of one of the buildings where he taught people how to set type. He actually hosted Williams, who stayed at his house.
We all had one-on-one meetings with Bill Williams where he read our poems and gave us some little comments, said it was okay, made some points in regard to a couple of individual lines. And then there was a kind of a colloquium with a larger number of students in one of the meeting rooms. What stayed with me was how he said ultimately the poet, the artist, brings to society and to the world "conviviality.” That surprised me and stayed with me: conviviality.
He said art is about conviviality. I saw instantly that this goes past the idea of the solitary, romantic, lonely artist suffering for his art, which I never trusted. And the acknowledgment that artists have a role in society, which is to contribute to the community — to the heart of the community.
To take Williams’ statement that people “die for lack of what is found there,” I think this means lack of open-heartedness, lack of sweetness and tenderness to each other. But then a little later I saw that meaning also as ecological, that openness not just for the human community but for the natural community; it’s for our immediate neighborhood of all the other species, all of us passing through time. I get angered when the bears eat my apples right off the tree. But I can say well, okay, they got to them first; they must have enjoyed them.
Illustration by Marianne Goldin.