Four Poems for Robin

Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest

I slept under   rhododendron   
All night   blossoms fell
Shivering on   a sheet of cardboard   
Feet stuck   in my pack
Hands deep   in my pockets   
Barely   able   to   sleep.
I remembered   when we were in school   
Sleeping together   in a big warm bed
We were   the youngest lovers
When we broke up   we were still nineteen.   
Now our   friends are married   
You teach   school back east   
I dont mind   living this way   
Green hills   the long blue beach   
But sometimes   sleeping in the open
I think back   when I had you.

A spring night in Shokoku-ji

Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms   
At night in an orchard in Oregon.   
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao   
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.

An autumn morning in Shokoku-ji

Last night watching the Pleiades,   
Breath smoking in the moonlight,   
Bitter memory like vomit   
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag   
On mats on the porch   
Under thick autumn stars.   
In dream you appeared   
(Three times in nine years)   
Wild, cold, and accusing.   
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.   
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.   
The first time I have   
Ever seen them close.

December at Yase
You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard   
When you chose to be free,
“Again someday, maybe ten years.”

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.   
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have   
Gone by: I’ve always known
          where you were—
I might have gone to you   
Hoping to win your love back.   
You still are single.

I didn’t.
I thought I must make it alone. I   
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,   
Does the grave, awed intensity   
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others   
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had   
Lived many lives.

And may never now know   
If I am a fool
Or have done what my   
       karma demands.
Gary Snyder, “Four Poems for Robin” from The Back Country. Copyright © 1968 by Gary Snyder. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: No Nature: New and Selected Poems (1992)

Writing Ideas

  1. Think about Snyder’s italicized stanza headings: are they captions to sections? Try writing a poem that similarly uses italics to “frame” what follows. Like Snyder, use both time and place markers.
  2. “Four Poems for Robin” is already spare, generating effects from minimal lines that seem to be always about to dissolve. Can you make it even sparer? Try doing an “erasure” of Snyder’s poem, erasing as many words as you can while still retaining the poem’s mood, structure, and “story.” Think about which words are most suggestive, what the repetition of key words can achieve, and how white space can be evocative.

Discussion Questions

  1. As Troy Jollimore notes in his poem guide, “Four Poems for Robin” is “structured loosely around places and seasons, which tend to suggest emotions that are often not explicitly stated.” How does the poem “suggest emotions”? What is the mood or atmosphere of this poem and of each part of this poem? How does Snyder achieve those moods? Think about word choice, spacing, and sound patterning.
  2. Where in time and space is the poet? How does the poem present memory at a “double remove”? Try drawing a map of the poem: does visually representing the times and spaces Synder is traversing help you understand his poem in new ways?
  3. Pay close attention to Snyder’s use of line in the poem. How does he use the line as a unit of information, sense, or sound? There is only one instance of enjambment in the poem—what effect does this generate for you as a reader? Why might Snyder have enjambed the line he does? 

Teaching Tips

  1. The title to Jollimore’s poem guide suggests another poet concerned with the workings of place and memory: William Wordsworth, who famously wrote that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Have students consider how Snyder’s poem deals with three of Wordsworth’s tenets: emotion, recollection, and tranquility. How does the poem generate effects like tranquility? Can your students detect recollection as an activity in the poem? How does the poem demonstrate the mind remembering? Perhaps have your students read the pertinent section from Wordsworth’s “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads” (the paragraph beginning “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”). Lead a brief discussion on Wordsworth’s claims for poets composing poetry and readers reading it. Then, ask them to either write their own poem demonstrating “emotion recollected in tranquility” or their own poetics statement asserting what they believe the “origin” of their poetry to be.
  2. Snyder is often grouped with the Beats, a movement that also included poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso. Have your students research the Beat poets and in particular Snyder’s role in the group. What are some of their most famous poems? Scandals? What documents, videos (a famous video is “Pull My Daisy,” directed by Robert Frank and available online), sound clips, and art can your students find from the movement and its poets? Ask students to research the Beat generation, perhaps forming groups to investigate key figures, events, or publications. Once they’ve researched and presented their findings to the class, reconsider “Four Poems for Robin.” Now that they have some context for Snyder, does their understanding of the poem change? How does Snyder’s work differ from, say, Allen Ginsberg’s? Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s? Have students choose a Beat poet or poem to write an imitation of; then stage a Beat-style reading or “happening” for students to share.
More Poems by Gary Snyder