Source of book: I own this.
It is still a bit astonishing that Gary Snyder is still with us, so many years after the rest of the Beats passed on. Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed on in 2021 at the age of 101, leaving Snyder as the last one standing. Of course, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs been gone more than a quarter century, and Jack Kerouac for more than twice that.
I first became acquainted with Snyder when I read my first book by Kerouac, The Dharma Bums. As with all of Kerouac’s books, it was semi-autobiographical, and contained barely disguised portraits of his friends. Gary Snyder is renamed “Japhy Ryder” in The Dharma Bums, and plays a key role, both in his promotion of Zen Buddhism and in his leading a rather epic hike up the California Matterhorn.
In 2020, the kids and I followed in Snyder and Kerouac’s footsteps by hiking the bottom half of that trail, up to a beautiful glacial meadow. We sat beneath the rock that they used as shelter overnight before continuing on to the top of the mountain.
Snyder was an avid hiker, a world traveler, and multifaceted writer. I also own some of his prose, which I hope to read eventually. But I decided to start with his poetry.
Regarding Wave is one of his earlier texts, published in 1970. This is actually after the Beat period, but because Snyder had such a long career, his actual Beat Generation stuff is just the start. In fact, my Library of America collected poems runs all the way through 2004, which is pretty incredible.
I chose this one to start with in part because the name sounded promising, and also because when I randomly flipped through the book, it looked interesting.
During the time this collection was written, Snyder was married to his second wife, Masa Uehara, who he met while in Japan studying Buddhism. They had a couple of children together, and lived in the foothills in California in kind of a back-to-nature synthesis of American and Japanese culture.
Masa and their children, Kai and Gen, feature prominently in the collection, as well as the coastal and mountain scenery of California. While there are some broader themes, the poems feel very personal and intimate.
I very much enjoyed reading the poems, and could have chosen so many. Here are some that stood out to me as the best.
Grooving clam shell,
streakt through marble,
sweeping down ponderosa pine bark-scale
rip-cut tree grain
“veiled; vibrating; vague”
sawtooth ranges pulsing;
veins on the back of the hand.
Forkt out: birdsfoot-alluvium
great dunes rolling
Each inch rippld, every grain a wave.
Leaning against sand cornices til they blow away
stiff thorns of cholla, ocotillo
sometimes I get stuck in thickets-
Ah, trembling spreading radiating wyf
catch me and fling me wide
To the dancing grain of things
of my mind!
So many pictures here, from the mountains to the shore; Snyder finds waves in water, mountain, woodgrain, and his wife. The shape of the poem on the page resembles waves too.
The Wide Mouth
A thick snow
the whole house open.
Snowflakes build up on a
single dark green spray of pine
swung and shrieked
in a swish of snowy clustered points,
his wide pink mouth
Not a sound,
The book is divided into sections, containing related poems. The first two I quoted were from the first section, which is mostly about nature.
The second, in contrast, has a sequence of poems with “Song of the…” as the start of the title. They are all erotic, and about parts of his wife’s body and the experience of sex with her. I thought they were quite delightful, proof that sex is in many ways best written about in poetry.
Song of the Slip
folded in girls
feeling their folds; whorls;
the lips, leafs,
of the curling soft sliding
roaring and faring
to beach high on the dark shoal
moves in and makes home in the whole.
The third section opens with a longer poem, an invocation on the event of Synder’s marriage to Masa. I won’t quote it all, but they were married on a tiny volcanic island off of Japan, and Snyder asks the blessing of the gods that gave birth to the island on their union. Here is a bit of it:
from Burning Island
O Wave God who broke through me today
massive pink and silver
cool swimming down with me watching
staying away from the spear.
Volcano belly Keeper who lifted this island
for our own beaded bodies adornment
and sprinkles us all with his laugh-
ash in the eye
mist or smoke,
on the bare high limits-
underwater lava flows easing to coral
holes filled with striped feeding swimmers
The rest of this section is about Snyder’s family, the ocean, and their experiences.
The next section, entitled Long Hair, is the longest part of the book, and has poems about all kinds of different topics. The first poem, “Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution” sets out in poetic form some of his ideas about politics. Snyder saw this as an East versus West dichotomy, with the West about political revolutions, while the East was more about inner contemplation. He also saw Marx as part of the same tradition as Capitalism and Christianity, which is an interesting perspective. And not exactly wrong, if you think about it. In any case, in this poem, there is an interesting sequence:
If the capitalists and imperialists
are the exploiters, the masses are the workers.
and the party
is the communist.
is the exploiter, the masses is nature.
and the party
is the poets.
If the abstract rational intellect
is the exploiter, the masses is the unconscious.
and the party
is the yogins.
Something to contemplate, whether you agree with it or not.
Another poem in this section is philosophical - on the same idea, perhaps, but in a very different way.
I found myself inside a massive concrete shell
lit by glass tubes, with air pumped in, with
levels joined by moving stairs.
It was full of the things that were bought and made
in the twentieth century. Layed out in trays
The throngs of people of that century, in their style,
clinging garb made on machines,
Were trading all their precious time
That is one of my favorites in the book. Consumer capitalism truly is soul sucking, and poets like Snyder are our modern prophets calling for a better way.
The final section is entitled “Target Practice,” and contains some of my favorites from the collection, mostly about nature.
I won’t quote all of it, but the poem “Looking for Nothing” contains an interesting set of quick impressions. I wanted to mention it because one of those involves something that I saw on a recent camping adventure.
first the gas engine pops
then the big diesel catches,
roars, and the cat
rumbles off in the
soft green misty light
of the forest at dawn
One of our campsites (last minute after our coastal destination remained inaccessible due to road damage) was at a county park that included a little agricultural museum. Outside, there were a large assortment of machines, including some early Caterpillar tracked vehicles. The way these worked was that there was a small gasoline engine attached, which you started first by hand. You then would use the gas engine to spin the diesel until everything warmed up, then fire off the diesel engine to run the vehicle. The switch to electric starters came later.
Here is another one from the collection that I thought was excellent.
two thousand years of fog and sucking minerals
from the soil,
Russian river ox-team & small black train
haul to mill;
fresh-sawed rough cut by wagon
and built into a barn;
tear it down and split it up
and stick it in a stove.
For those not familiar with the territory, the Russian River is a coastal river north of San Francisco that runs through the redwoods. If you are ever in the area, the drive out to Sonoma Coast State Park along the river is really beautiful - and be sure to stop by Armstrong Redwoods State Park on the way.
Anyway, the reminder that only five percent of the original old growth redwood forest remains these days. Most of it was logged in the 1800s, before conservationists got the upper hand over the profit-seekers.
I’ll feature this next one for its form - the entirely parallel lines - and the creative use of consonance and assonance within each line.
Dancing in the offing
Grooving in the coves
Balling in the breakers
Lolling in the rollers
Necking in the ebb
Balmy in the calms
Whoring in the storm
Blind in the wind
Coming in the foam.
And, feel free to read any double entendres into it that you see.
I’ll end with this brief stanza from “Civilization.” It seems to fit with the incredibly wet winter we have had, and the creeks and rivers that remain full.
When creeks are full
The poems flow
When creeks are down
We heap stones.
As I said, I loved this collection, and look forward to reading more of Snyder’s writing.
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