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Poem As WorkPlace Gary Snyder (стр. 1 из 2)

Poem As Work-Place: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Poetics Essay, Research Paper

Nick Selby


the American poet Gary Snyder the poem is a work-place. The idea of work, I shall argue

throughout this paper, is central to Snyder’s ecological poetics because it allows him to

throw explicit attention on to the act of ‘writing the land’. This is clear from his

well- known environmental concerns, and his work with various ecological projects in

America since the sixties. Critics have thus tended to see his poetics as an assertion of

the interconnectedness of all things that is both Buddhist and ecological. According to

Helen Vendler Snyder is better known as an ‘ecological activist’ than poet, but I

shall argue that his poetics is an ecological poetics: it is the site for acts of reading

that are ecological in their attempt to read land and poem as one. I want to suggest,

however, that Snyder’s ecological poetics discovers dualities — land versus poem, human

versus nature, self versus other — even as it seeks to overwrite them in what Snyder

terms the ‘real work’ of integrating self, society and, most crucially, environment.

Whilst this marks his challenge to the ideology of mainstream America, it also marks the

extent to which his poetry is a product of deeply ingrained patterns of American culture.

Snyder’s poetic work ethic, this paper argues, is the ground upon which anxieties about

the annihilation of personal and cultural identities, anxieties at the heart of American

thought, are worked through. This is because the dualities which Snyder’s work expose

indicate a troubled relationship to the land, they discover faultlines that are deeply

ingrained in American culture. Snyder’s ecological poetics recognises that these can no

longer be sublimated into romantic myths of the land, but must be seen as the traces of

divisive self-division at the heart of the American psyche.

The poem ‘I went into the Maverick Bar’ from

Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Turtle Island (1974) bears the traces of such

anxieties in its nostalgic recollection of fifties America. To read the poem’s opening

lines is to enter an apparently hostile environment, a working-class bar in

‘Farmington, New Mexico’. Not only does the poem’s first-person narrator tell us that

his ‘long hair was tucked under a cap / [and] I’d left the earring in the car’ (lines

5-6) as a measure of his sense of alienation from the other people in the bar, but the

waitress’ question ‘where are you from?’ (line 10) is eerily ambiguous, made more

threatening by its being set against the syntactically strange ‘Two cowboys did

horseplay / by the pool tables’ (lines 7-8). Interestingly, such anxiousness results from

the fact that the bar is seen as a place of leisure, not work. The cowboys ‘play’, as

does a country-and-western band, and a couple get up to dance. Against (or within) this

setting the narrator remembers working in Oregon in the fifties:

They [the dancing couple] held each other like in

High School dances


the fifties

I recalled when I worked in the woods


the bars of Madras, Orgeon.

That short-haried joy and roughness —


— your stupidity.

I could almost love you again.

(lines 15-21)

The narrator’s sense of his relationship to

America, though fraught and ambiguous like the syntax of these lines, is one which he

seeks to clarify through his relationship to the work he once did in the woods and bars of

Oregon. If his alienation seems to frame a challenge to the complacent America portrayed

in this bar, it is also seen to be the product of imagery traditionally thought of as

‘deeply’ American. Thus, although the poem specifically recalls the fifties — itself

a period fraught by questions of Americanness — its nostalgia is a complex site that

brings together a series of typically American readings of the land as a work-place. It is

in this relationship between work, land and identity that the poem is able to play with

various American personae. In the space of these few lines, and because of their

indeterminacy of reference, we encounter the Beat outsider of the fifties (the apostrophe

to America’s ‘stupidity’ leads to a declaration of allegiance that sounds strikingly

similar to the Allen Ginsberg of Howl and Other Poems); a ‘joy and roughness’ which

recalls Walt Whitman as ‘one of the roughs’; and a romanticising of work in America’s

Northwest that recalls a mythology of rugged frontiersmen who see the land as a space for

the testing of individual and national identities.

The variety and complexity of such personae mean

that the poem does not express Snyder’s ‘unbecoming egotism’ as David A. Carpenter

claims, nor does it fully manage to accomplish, as Bert Almon believes, the ‘real

work’ of turning America back into ‘"Turtle Island," the aboriginal name

for the continent’. What we do encounter, though, is a poem that works by turning back

(seemingly without irony) to a ‘real’ experience of America as that which ultimately

validates identity. Thus, in the final lines of the poem, we witness a re-inscription of

founding ideological assumptions about America, ones that write of the American land as a

place for a mythical regeneration of self:


the tough old stars —

In the shadow of the bluffs


came back to myself

To the real work, to


is to be done."

{lines 23-27)

Myths of the New World as Eden, or as God’s

plantation, as a virgin land, or the land of opportunity have all sought (paradoxically,

perhaps) a way of writing America into reality. In just such a mythic space we see

Snyder’s narrator ‘rediscovering’ his ‘real self’. The ‘real work’ of this

poem, then, involves recognizing the patterns of traditional imagery that turn America as

workplace into America as poem.

The pattern of identification between poem, land

and work is already well established in Snyder’s first two published collections, Riprap

(1959) and Myths and Texts (1960). His ‘Statement on Poetics’ for Donald

Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry (1960) makes this clear:

I’ve just recently come to realise that the

rhythms of my poems follow the rhythm of the physical work I’m doing and life I’m leading

at any given time – - which makes the music in my head which creates the line.

However, it is in the very emphasis upon the

physical, upon the attempt to ground poetry in the ‘real work’ of the world, that

Snyder’s texts display a deep anxiety about seeing the land as poem. This is not just an

anxiety of American poetics, but one which lies at the heart of American thought because

it is coupled with anxieties about the effacement of identity within, and by, the land.

Such anxieties disclose typically American concerns in the way in which their focus is

transferred on to questions of the textual. I disagree, therefore, with Lawrence Buell who

contends that an attention to the textual in American culture leads to a dissociation from

the land. Whereas Buell argues that the marking of the gap between world and text

effectively silences any environmental concerns, my point is that the anxiousness American

culture displays in its marking of this gap is indicative of the anxiousness of its

environmental imagination. The ‘real work’ of Snyder’s ecological poetics, then,

involves the paradoxical recognition that reading the land and poem as one is to assert

their discontinuity, it is to recognise the gap between culture and nature that any

representation of the land as a work-place implies. To see American Literature generated

from a ‘sequence of spiritual appropriations of, and by, the land’, as Marshall

Walker claims, is to mark how concern for the American land has always, in American

thought from colonial times onwards, been marked by the turning of that land into a scene

of writing. The considerable anxieties about selfhood and identity that are evidenced in

American texts generally, and in Snyder’s poetry particularly, thus disclose and write

over anxieties about the land as the cultural determinant of American identity.

This helps to explain why Snyder’s poetry is

usually read as a fairly untroubled meditation on the visionary relationship between

environments of work, mind and land. Typically, his poetry is described as one that

‘integrat[es]‘, in the words of Patrick Murphy, ‘the routines of physical work

with the life of the mind’. What this paper seeks to challenge is the assumed ease with

which such integration takes place. I shall argue, by looking at Riprap and Myths

and Texts, that Snyder’s poetry works to make troubled those notions of lyrical

voice, imagist clarity and the poem as environment that are assumed ‘natural’ to his

visionary poetics. Indeed, it will be seen that the categories of ‘the natural’ and

‘the visionary’ which have troubled Anglocentric American thought since the Puritans,

and were the particular focus of concern for the romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau,

remain troublesome to Snyder.

The opening poem of Riprap,

‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, clearly announces the book’s major theme:

an exploration of the relationship between land(scape) and self that is established

through work. The poem derives from Snyder’s experience working as a fire-watcher at

Sourdough mountain in Washington State during the summer of 1953. Critics have tended to

read it as a poem of visionary experience in imitation of the classical Chinese poetry

that Snyder was studying at this time. What these readings forget is that it is a

work-poem. Work as a lookout depends upon visual experience, on the act of looking. The

narrator is thus defined by his relationship to the landscape because of his work of

reading it for signs of fire. This relationship is embodied in the poem’s structure, with

its first half describing the landscape and its second half the ‘I’ within that

landscape. The work of the poem lies, therefore, in its bringing together of land and


Down valley a smoke haze

Three days heat, after five days rain

Pitch glows on the fir-cones

Across rocks and meadows

Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read

A few friends, but they are in cities.

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

Looking down for miles

Through high still air

The poem’s attention is upon the work of mediation, or as I shall develop later, upon

an idea of exchange. Not only is this implicit in the poem’s form but in its imagery. And

in both cases the insistent demand of reading the poem is that we see it as a work-place.

In formal terms the poem works because of the way

in which the apparently unmediated description of the landscape in its first half

(‘Down valley …’) mediates and is mediated by the gaze of the narrator (who is

‘Looking down for miles’) in the poem’s second half. But that gaze, his reading of

the landscape, is the lookout’s work. And in terms of imagery the smoke haze, heat haze,

and swarming flies in the poem’s first half alert the attention because they look like

signs of fire, like smoke. The work of reading these signs is therefore crucial, and

determines the process of reading the poem. This is seen both in the way that ‘smoke

haze’ is, upon further reading, shown to be the result, not of a forest fire, but of

‘Three days heat, after five days rain’, and also in the fact that the final

smoke-like image of the stanza turns out to be ‘Swarms of new flies’. Our work of

reading the poem is thus analogous to the work it describes.

This is also evident in the line ‘Pitch

glows on the fir-cones’. The line is not simply at the physical centre of the stanza. It

balances — mediates between — the two smoke images because it discovers the poem’s

central pattern of imagery. The line’s image, in which the natural is closely attended to,

or read, is also an image that depicts such an act of reading as, inescapably, an act of

mediation. The ‘fir-cones’ are not seen directly, but through the medium of glowing

pitch. This, in turn, alerts the reader to the work of the poem itself whereby the

landscape is always mediated through acts of reading. The valley is seen through haze;

‘rocks and meadows’ are seen trough swarms of flies; and, importantly, the poem’s

final image looks down at the environment surrounding Sourdough mountain ‘Through

high still air’. Clear as this air may seem, it is still a medium through which the

landscape must be read. Even the narrator’s apparently clear vision of the landscape is a

matter of mediation between the human and the natural. Thus the work of the poem means

that we see the landscape through the poem just as the narrator sees the landscape through

the ‘high still air’.

The poem suggests, therefore, that an apparently

visionary experience of the land is marked, in fact, not by clarity and transparency in

the relation between the human and the natural, but rather by a sense of that relationship

as one of inescapable mediation. Always, the poem suggests, the land must be worked upon,

it must be read. Snyder’s poetics of the real, then, both throws attention upon the gap

between text and world, and seeks to abolish that gap through the work of reading. Thus,

although the act of reading is the poem’s controlling trope, its real work, such an act

does not signal a coming back to oneself so much as an anxious recognition that selfhood

and identity are continually effaced by the land. At the moment of its realisation in the

poem, the narrator’s ‘I’ is obliterated, forgotten, even as it reads itself into the

land and the text: ‘I cannot remember things I once read / A few friends, but they

are in cities’.

Such moments, in which the speaking subject is

obliterated even as it speaks, have commonly been read in American Literature (and in

Snyder) as moments of visionary transcendence. This results from the romantic legacy of

Emerson, and has meant that the relationship between the human and the natural is seen as

visionary, unmediated, a transparent integration of self and universe. Famously this finds

expression in the passage — according to Harold Bloom ‘the most American passage

that will ever be written — from Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ (1836) when, for a moment

on Boston Common, the self becomes all-seeing:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by

the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a

transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being

circulate through me …

Cary Wolfe points to the paradox at the heart of

this passage, noting that here the ‘pinnacle of selfhood … disappear[s] at the very

moment of its attainment’. Indicatively American, such a paradoxical economy of the self

may seem, initially, to operate similarly in Snyder’s poetry. Accounts that situate

Snyder’s poetry, for example, in the post-Poundian objectivist ‘school’ stress that

its lyrical effect is powerful precisely because, paradoxically, it witnesses an

Emersonian obliteration of ‘all mean egotism’. It thus seems to enact the

‘getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego’ by which Charles

Olson characterises objective verse. However, the visionary moment for Emerson’s

‘I/Eye’ works through an obliteration of any sense of the land itself as real. This

is clearly in stark contrast to Snyder’s poetics of the land as work-place.

If Emerson’s vision seems ‘most American’ it

is because the relationship to the ground it describes is one of unmediated exchange

between self and other, inner and outer natures. The image of the ‘transparent

eyeball’ does not describe a working of the land but a transcending of it. Emerson’s

symptomatically American moment therefore portrays a refusal, or at least an inability, to

read the land: Boston Common becomes an unreadable blank page, ‘bare ground’. Thus,

whereas Snyder’s poetics of work marks a troubled exchange between land and text,

Emerson’s moment of visionary transcendence signals a spiritual appropriation of the land

that turns its gaze away from that very land. What seems quintessentially American about

this is the way in which anxieties about America’s ideological foundation, the colonial