As I was saying back in Montana, I picked up a copy of Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End in West Yellowstone, and I've since been entranced.

It's a remarkable book for a number of reasons, but I'm currently mostly interested in the ways in which it has made me feel like shit.  No one can induce guilt like Gary Snyder.

Oh, gee, I say to myself as I yawn and stretch, I'm tired from driving through the Big Horn Mountains in the fog with just a lukewarm cup of tea and some bad radio to keep me company. And then there's Snyder in his dungarees and workshirt saying in that soft Eagle Scout voice: I hitchhiked through feudal Japan in monsoon season with a bad case of scabies of the eye and a half-palsied Allen Ginsberg stuffed into my rucksack.

Yes, it's hard not to feel a bit inadequate and whiny when you've got Gary Snyder breathing down your neck.

His Spartan ethic would fit in well here in the deep Plains where the landscape breeds a pure and deadly existential masochism/machismo.  I mean, why enjoy a meal here on this lovely June day when in a few months winter will come and extinguish all life with a frosty death breath?  Just slurp that burnt coffee and pry a piece of scrambled egg from under that mule hoof, eat it, and shut the fuck up, you mewling yuppie.

Fine!  Done!  Yummy burnt coffee and muley egg!

And then on the road again with a sheepish slump of shoulders through South Dakota.  We stop and look for birds and critters in the Badlands, seeing a few but missing most, and the combination of Snyder and South Dakota present the poetry question of the day: What are the ethics of naming?

I remember a conversation between James Tate and another poet in which Tate got very worked up because this other poet had written a poem about an animal the poet himself had never seen.  Oh my.  That is a no-no in Jim's world. 

I know that it happens, that with great poems you don't care what the "truth" of the writing might have been, but as a writer is there a point where you feel like a lying, exploitative tourist (okay, like MORE of a lying, exploitative tourist) when you're placing nouns you don't know everything about in your writing?

For example: could I write a poem with the black-footed ferret in it, even if I never actually saw the black-footed ferret in the Badlands?  If I don't actually know jack about the black-footed ferret except that it exists and I like the sound of the name, should I do some research, camp out, find this critter and have an experience with it before I put it in my poem?  Or should I just run with it and see if any naturalists call me out?

How much of "The Instruction Manual" is good and healthy, and how much of Mountains and Rivers Without End is actually the true way?  Poets?  Writers?  Do you include names of birds and critters you know nothing about in your poems?  Do you feel bad about it?

Originally Published: June 4th, 2009

Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

  1. June 4, 2009
     michael robbins

    My answer to that question takes the form of two excerpts from Marianne Boruch's latest book (italics mine):\r

    Somewhere out there, those crows\r
    won’t shut up. Maybe they can’t. And then\r
    they do. Which is why the thrush–I think\r
    it’s a thrush–comes out\r
    from underneath with its weird\r
    echoy thing, huge now but–plaintive,\r
    my mother might have said.\r


    But I was\r
    or I wasn’t. Or I was small\r
    but there is smaller. To my left, a door.\r
    Some tree flowering at my right.

  2. June 5, 2009
     Don Share

    Imaginary toads in imaginary gardens! Jerboas, ostriches! Pangolins! I say two by two let 'em enter your poems.

  3. June 5, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    William Blake probably never saw a tiger.

  4. June 5, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Last summer I spent a month in Jackson Hole, and wrote a poem I still really like about a chiseler–thinking that a chiseler would really set me up as a natural American poet.\r

    Actually, I'm lying about that. I used the image of the chiseler because it's so much like me, and I thought that at last I'd found an objective correlative that the whole Mayflower diaspora could share. I thought I'd wrote myself into American folklore at last.\r

    Because I now write in Shangri-la, and most of the imagery I want to use I don't even understand myself--indeed, my poems are weighted down with footnotes.\r

    Like this story. My Norwegian friend is driving out of my gate at 10pm and turns right. Ooops, there's a tree down across the road. Well, we're used to that because the early Monsoon thunderstorms are so vicious, the rice-paddy soil so loose and moist, and the Thais so wanton with trees–the way they knock them down as often with their pickups as chainsaws!\r

    But this tree is moving, says Trygve to me the next day, pulling out his digital as proof. Yes, there's the tree alright, its tail a good 2 metres in the grass on one side of the road and its head a good 2 metres in the grass on the other. So we go out and look at the road with a tape measure--yes, 4 metres wide as I'd said. \r

    25 feet.\r

    So what did my wife say when I asked her if the villagers weren't worried, because this python could have dealt with me even at 6'3" if it were hungry, not to speak of the delicate brown children skipping over there in the dust? "Oh they know it will move on (pythons are solitary and nomadic) but for the visit they're glad. Good fortune, they feel, a gift from the gods, well-being. \r

    Which is the snake in the Orient, of course, and probably why we got Satan!\r

    Oh, and the chiseler? Ask me and I'll tell you.\r


  5. June 5, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    The kitchen with all the burners turned on full blast can be just as dangerous as the badlands.

  6. June 5, 2009
     Travis Livieri

    I, for one, would really enjoy some poetry about black-footed ferrets. And this black-footed ferret biologist won't call you out, I'll help you out.\r

    And when I think about how close the nocturnal black-footed ferret came to extinction I cannot help but bastardize Dylan Thomas..."Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light."\r

    Travis Livieri

  7. June 5, 2009
     Don Share

    Here you go, Travis:\r\r

    An excerpt:\r

    In last week’s mail,\r
    still spread on the kitchen table,\r
    the list of endangered species.\r
    How plain the animals are,\r
    quaint, domestic,\r
    but the names lift from the page:\r
    Woundfin. Whooping Crane. Squawfish.\r
    Black-footed Ferret. California Least Tern. \r

    -- Ellen Bryant Voigt, "A Marriage Poem"

  8. June 7, 2009

    When it came to experience Snyder was a liar and still is. He always had a fall back plan called family and civilization. Live your own life, make your own poetry.\r


  9. June 8, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    Poetry isn't a moral gymnasium. If the poem works it works. Poetry rules describe likelihoods of things working or not working. One of my prescriptions when I teach is that if I say or anyone else in the class says, as a general statement, "don't do x in a poem" the students should immediately go home and do x, to prove it can be done. \r

  10. June 8, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    How easy it is to call some famous poet you never met a liar. Hit Send before you think it through. And other poems.

  11. June 9, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Gary Snyder's fall back plan also included rigor.

  12. June 10, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Terreson thinks Gary Snyder was and is a liar because he fell back on family and civilization. Snyder's project never was to reject the human – that was Jeffers who'd rather have killed a man than a hawk. Snyder saw Troy burning and had the notion that the practice of the Wild (and aborigional wisdoms, not as easily appreciated 50 years ago as they are today) might heal our ills, to begin to build the new society within the shell of the old. The world-wide environmental movement owes a great deal to his thought. \r

    Snyder built his own house in the woods anyway, and I was one of the star-struck kids who lent a hand. Full disclosure: Gary was certainly a kind of a mentor to me, I called him a kulak in a querulous poem 30 years ago, and he generously blurbed my book Caminante. As for family, his folks were poor, his mom was a peace activist into her nineties, and he built his own as well, out of the wreckage.\r

    I thought Terreson's put-down was facile, but I see her (him?) making sense in other threads. Let's unpack this.

  13. June 10, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    I was thinking about Snyder (also) because he read in Seattle just before I returned there to pack up. The reading/talk was a big success by Seattle poetry standards (two thousand attendees, I heard, which is a huge success by any poetry standards, really). But I also heard he didn't read so many poems, talked about his idea of the West much more, and the audience was as much ecologist/environmentalist as poet. A great write-up here. Also prompting this line of thought: I just finished reading the selected letters of Ginsberg and Snyder, which brought me back into my love/hate fascination with the Beats. I too often want to call bullshit on their whole posture, but then there is a generosity (Ginsberg) and force of will (Snyder) that feels lacking today I very much appreciate when reading the raw works (Ginsberg's journals (so to speak) blew my fifteen year old mind). I would love to know what Joanne Kyger thinks, if it's along the lines of Terreson . . .

  14. June 10, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    John Oliver Simon said:\r

    “…that was Jeffers who’d rather have killed a man than a hawk.”\r

    God bless Robinson Jeffers!\r

    John Oliver Simon said:\r

    “Snyder saw Troy burning and had the notion that the practice of the Wild (and aboriginal wisdoms, not as easily appreciated 50 years ago as they are today) might heal our ills, to begin to build the new society within the shell of the old.”\r

    This is pure bullshit. Snyder’s been a Zen Buddhist for decades. Hardly “aboriginal” (by a few thousand years, I might add). He is not a Sioux shaman, a Taoist or even a Pantheist. Please let’s leave our philosophical suppositions out of this. He simply loves the Earth (as do we all) and writes very good poetry.

  15. June 11, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Mr. Simon:\r

    It ain't no fun if you don't shoot back. I wouldn't take this crap from me.\r


  16. June 11, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Hey Gary,\r

    Now and Zen I figure the moving target just ain't worth the ammunition.\r

    Jeffers was pretty far out there. Great poet honored with lip service. Worth following into the cold dark realm, if that's your medicine. \r

    What's interesting is the rigorous muscular threads that connect your simpy gushes of loving the earth / and writing good poetry. My paragraph beginning with Troy strictly recapitulates where Snyder leads us in Myths and Texts, his book which most influenced me. His Native informants come by way of hard-handed work, same like his old Wobblies.\r

    And thence many thousand hours of sitting in cold dark zendos, that's for sure.

  17. June 11, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald


    Fear not. I move very slowly and am a poor target at that.\r

    I have a copy of Gary Snyder’s book 'Regarding Wave’ that I purchased in Albuquerque back in ’71 (Good God, has it been that long?). I have never bought another nor have I read 'Myths and Texts’. I am remiss. But then, I haven’t bought a new poetry book for nearly twenty years. Besides, I’m more of a Lao tzu and Joseph Campbell kind of guy.\r

    I keep Gary Snyder on my Heroes list, though. I’ve read many of his poems over the years plus numerous articles, reviews and interviews. I try to keep up. I like Snyder.\r

    Please let me share with you a personal experience pertaining to Mr. Snyder. I have been writing poetry for over forty years but only published my first book in ’05. It’s a collection of my poems, in chronological order, from age 13 to 53. I had hoped, of course, that people would like it, but I also thought it might, at least, be of some pedagogic value. I called it 'Evolving’. Get it?) :-)\r

    Now, my sixth book of poems will be out in September, but when the first one was published I was, naturally, excited…waiting for that NY Times poetry review, and all (live and learn). The only poet I even bothered to write to back then and ask to have a look at my book was Gary Snyder. I figured that he, as a Buddhist and an environmentalist, was probably the only one who might appreciate my Nature oriented Taoist perspective. He never wrote back.\r

    But, still, I hold him among my heroes because I know that he loves what I love.\r

    As did Robinson Jeffers.\r


    P.S. John…”simpy gushing” was actually pretty mean, wasn’t it?

  18. June 12, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    You didn't read Gary Snyder's response carefully enough, just crumpled it up because it appeared not to come.\r

    You need to learn to read like Lao too tzu.

  19. June 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Hey, Christopher...long time no see.\r

    And fuck you, too!

  20. June 12, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Where I live a pumpkin is called fuck and is a staple of the diet, particularly in the hills. The most delicious type of pumpkin is a fuck tong, a golden fuck.\r

    So thank you too.\r


  21. June 12, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    I agree, "Simpy gushing" was mean. It would have been kinder not to write back.

  22. June 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    You old bastards are all quite nasty, aren't you?

  23. June 12, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Gary, you start off with a tirade – "this is pure bullshit," you wrote, and hit "Post Comment" before taking a deep breath – and you don't really know what you're talking about – haven't read the book in question– then you expect nicey-nice? You're an old guy yourself. Grow up.

  24. June 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    You're okay, John. I like you.\r

    I'm not THAT old.

  25. June 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Okay, okay...I'll read that damned book. Score one for Gary.\r

    (He never read mine, though).\r

    Don't take things so seriously, JOS.

  26. June 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Personally, John, I'd say that not taking things so seriously IS a sign that one has 'grown up'.\r


    When once the changing world we understood,\r
    whose laws we knew were permanent and clear,\r
    when once distinct the shades of bad and good\r
    and fear was all we thought we had to fear;\r

    when once a narrow path before us lay,\r
    straight and unobstructed by illusion,\r
    when once our destination was clear as day\r
    and we were never troubled by confusion,\r

    it was then that we were young and then we knew\r
    a simple world observed with simple eyes,\r
    but as we lived and learned and older grew,\r
    the less we understood and so grew wise.\r

    For wisdom is no more than finding true\r
    that, after all, we never had a clue.\r

    Copyright 2005 - Evolving-Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  27. June 13, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    The clue is no joke you know, Gary, and if the image were sufficiently alive it could carry the whole poem to places you never imagined before or after you thought you were wise. That's what one expects sonnets to do, at least. I suppose you could argue that a sonnet that doesn't do that, i.e. surprise you, has an original twist, but that artistic gambit can only go so far. To make a habit of it is to risk the label of simpy even without the gushing!\r

    You're so witty and surprising in your off-the-cuff comments, and I love the shock of your self deprecations like "I wouldn’t take this crap from me."\r

    This poem would really fly if you got a little of that into it. As a start you could build on the image of the clue as a ball of thread as well, the one that was given to Theseus by the young girl while he was still himself inexperienced, untried, naive, In the end the clue served him better even than the sword, that hard, sharp thing he also got from her way back then. Of course most young men get a sword--few get a clue.\r

    The clue brings you home to the girl--and then you betray her!\r

    Oh dear, I'm a bit over the top now and writing another poem. Anyway, letting that one image drift a bit could get the poem kicking.\r


  28. June 14, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    La de da.

  29. June 14, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Fee Fie Fo Fun

  30. June 27, 2009
     pete lika

    poetry is not reality. It has no rules and is more about breakage of all form(s). The only genuine guideline would be "to follow your heart" because poetry comes from the heart!