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Maintained by William J. Higginson

The Lookout Reports

Gary Snyder, The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations 1952-1998, Counterpoint, 617 + xxii pp., $35 hardcover.

Reviewed by William J. Higginson

Ate at the ‘parkway café’ real lemon in the pie
‘—why don’t you get a jukebox in here’
‘—the man said we weren’t important enough.’
With this, the first incident recorded in Gary Snyder’s “Lookout’s Journal” of 1952, the Reader begins. And thus we first encounter the concerns that have dominated a half-century career, playing through and around this useful book: What is real? What is the connection between culture and life? What is important?

If you’re like me, you have a few Snyder books one place or another. Some special, cherished ones you may even be able to find in a moment. My favorite is still the first I got, A Range of Poems, published at Fulcrum Press, London, and containing five of Snyder’s earliest and most influential books: Riprap, Cold Mountain, Myths & Texts, Miyazawa Kenji, and The Back Country. A note from my then lover is still tucked in it, marking the poem “Beneath My Hand and Eye the Distant Hills, Your Body” for its title as much as any of its lines. The poem is not included in the Reader, but many others, many of the best, are. Who will not delight in “Hay for the Horses” with its endlessly instructive moral:

“. . . And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done”
Or “Riprap” itself, with its
lost ponies
Dragging saddles . . . worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
For me, one of the greatest Snyders has been the translator, the bringer of texts that as yet no one else I knew had encountered, much less tackled. Later, I would appreciate Red Pine’s Collected Songs of Cold Mountain and Hiroaki Sato’s versions of Miyazawa Kenji, but Snyder first opened the trails to these so-different poets and their work.

In the Reader we find some new translations, mostly of work at least somewhat familiar in academic versions. The first group, a suite of “Sixteen T’ang Poems,” includes the following, one of Tu Fu’s most famous, in the most successful English version to date that I know of:

Spring View

The nation is ruined,
           but mountains and rivers remain.
This spring the city
           is deep in weeds and brush.
Touched by the times
           even flowers weep tears,
Fearing leaving
           the birds tangled hearts.
Watch-tower fires
           have been burning for three months
To get a note from home
           would cost ten thousand gold.
Scratching my
           white hair thinner
Seething hopes
           all in a trembling hairpin.

A note following says “Events of the An Lushan Rebellion.”

The opening line of the poem stopped me, for I have known it mainly as a Japanese proverbial phrase: “Nations ruined, mountains and rivers remain”—the Chinese may be read as both general and specific. Rightly, Snyder gives us the specific, as did Tu Fu, a witness to the destruction of his time. The poem reads fresh as today’s headlines, and more movingly for its elegant laconism. It also carries the power of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” in that last line’s allusion to the lady whose beauty destroyed the empire.

Less familiar is the poem “Long Bitter Song” by Po Chü-I (whose name Snyder presents in the slightly more phonetic Pinyin romanization, as Bai Juyi). For six pages, the poem tells of the love story leading to the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-762, and its aftermath. Fortunately, Snyder’s introduction sets the stage with the background needed to fully understand and appreciate the poem. (He also thanks and dedicates the translation to his teacher of T’ang poetics at Berkeley in the ’fifties, Ch’en Shih-hsiang.)

The poem has been translated into English almost a score of times, but the only prior version still readily accessible seems to be in Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain (1929). From the opening line, Bynner’s version reads better than dozens of others. But, reading Snyder’s aloud, I found his the most deeply satisfying. Not only has he done his linguistic homework and matched it with richly meaningful English, he has captured something of the rhythm and movement of the original’s lines; they are terse, as classical Chinese is, and yet flow supplely from one to another so as to build from incident to incident, on through to the poem’s concluding vision of desolate love.

The Reader includes healthy groups from Regarding Wave, Turtle Island, Axe Handles, and Left Out in the Rain, but half or fewer of the poems in the earlier books make it into the Reader. If one were interested mainly in Snyder’s poems, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (1992) is the collection to have. Yet, it omits his Miyazawa Kenji; that and the new translations make the Reader worth the price of admission. I missed getting Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996), so I don’t know what from it was omitted, as I wish the prosy, loose “Walking the New York Bedrock Alive in the Sea of Information” had been, but many of Snyder’s finest poems are in the Reader.

Lastly, I come to the prose, which encompasses the first two-thirds of this book. I speak of it last because it is so various, so richly tangled. While the poems give Snyder’s sharp-eyed experience, live and quivering, and the translations present his rich linguistic knowledge married to that practice, the essays present his thinking mind, roaming over our society and the planet through time. The journals of the ’fifties lead the way in, skipping in two to three pages through such insights as “Key to evolution adaptability: the organism alters itself rather than continue fruitless competition,” to snatches of Emerson’s journals, “the profoundly secret pass that leads from fate to freedom,” with stopovers at an abandoned Buddhist monastery and a Japanese Noh play on Yang Kuei Fei, whose fabled beauty was the root cause of that An Lushan Rebellion.

New material in the prose includes modest selections of ’fifties letters to Philip Whalen and Will Petersen, some fifty pages of new journal selections (1959-94) and three previously uncollected essays. One of these last provides a chance to see the vision of this thousand-eyed big book whole. In “Is Nature Real?”—a retort to those who see “nature” as a “social construction” and therefore “manageable”--Snyder speaks for

. . . the awareness that wilderness is the locus of big rich ecosystems, and is thus (among other things) a living place for beings who can survive in no other sort of habitat. Recreation, spirituality, aesthetics--good for people--also make wilderness valuable, but these are secondary to the importance of biodiversity. The protection of natural variety is essential to planetary health for all.
Not to demean humans, Snyder also notes, “We [conservationists and environmentalists] need to stay fresh, write clean prose, reject obscurity, and not intentionally exaggerate. And we need to comprehend the pain and distress of working people everywhere.” Amen.

As Snyder himself says in his “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the Reader, “The mix of ideas, images, meters, archetypes, and propositions here is out of the nervy (in retrospect) but deliberate life I have put myself to . . . .” He’s built his books from his life, and their core concerns are all here. If you’ve only a few of those books, or want to see what the old lookout has been up to these past few years, take up the Reader and find some of the rest of the world, of his world and ours, in its pages.

An earlier and briefer version of this review appeared under the title “The concerns of a half-century career” in The Santa Fe New Mexican, November 7, 1999.

This page first posted 13 May 2006 and last updated 13 May 2006. Copyright © 1999, 2002, 2006 by William J. Higginson. All rights reserved. No material from this web site may be copied on other web sites or produced in printed copies, or otherwise reproduced except by permission of the author in writing. Please do not e-mail copies of this web page; rather, just send the URL: http://wjhigginson.home.att.net/Reviews/Snyder.html.
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