There’s not too much more I can say about the life of Gary Snyder that Dana Goodyear hasn’t already covered in “Zen Master,” a wonderful profile of Snyder in the October 20, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.

I will mention, however, that I was pleased to find out that Snyder no longer identifies as a Beat poet; that being a Beat was temporal and ideological, not an aesthetic movement like, say, the New York School or Black Mountain poets or Language poets. That was a major sticking point for me with the whole Beat thing; it’s often presented as a cohesive, aesthetic movement instead of what it was: an artsy, counterculture lifestyle movement. It does seem, however, that Beats tend to eschew articles.

I will also mention that I picked up Snyder’s Axe Handles in a thrift store in Canon City, Colorado, during a summer I spent along the Arkansas River as a young twenty-something, and I ended up producing a lot of horrible, derivative work about streams and rocks and turkey vultures. (I should find that journal and burn it.)

Axe Handles is the only book of Snyder’s that I own and I haven’t looked at it since that summer until last night and I noticed a few things.

  1. There were several loose pages from the June 1988 issue of Northwest Portfolio that contained a lengthy review of the book by William Logan that was notably absent of any criticism (is/was Northwest Portfolio an alumni magazine?) but you could feel that Logan didn’t think much of Snyder’s poetry.
  2. The book could double as a field guide for the Sierras. Snyder, as Goodyear notes in her essay, is terribly specific and knows his flora and fauna and his images are crisp and clean.
  3. Snyder’s persona (which isn’t too far removed from Snyder, if at all) is so incredibly engaging that it makes me call into question what I’m doing on the East Coast and makes me want to move back to the Colorado backcountry. Snyder is a poet of his own lifestyle and doesn’t engage in furthering the English tradition. In fact, I bet Snyder would admit if pressed that he’s furthering the Japanese tradition through the English language.
  4. Most of the poems end with a little epiphany or koan and Snyder may be public enemy #1 for perpetuating this unfortunate trait of “the workshop poem” that beleaguers undergraduate and graduate workshops.

Mu Ch’i’s Persimmons,” the Snyder poem that appears in the October 20, 2008, issue of the New Yorker is typical of what I found in Axe Handles; it’s concerned with the stated facts of the thing and is absent of artifice. We find out where the painting is held and how it’s presented. We get a local snapshot from Snyder’s life in the form of him rehanging a painting every fall and his neighbors Mike and Barbara and their orchard. We get a clear image of a man eating a persimmon over a kitchen sink (which echoes the famous Williams plum poem). And we get a little phrase that references the epigraph that snaps the poem to close. In our modern world, it almost seems like a stylized blog post or a series of twitter posts.
Apparently Snyder wrote another poem titled “Persimmons” that also references Mu Ch’i’s painting and that someone created a chart that breaks out the elements of each and compares the two works.

Further Reading:

Dana Goodyear answers e-mails about her article on Snyder.

Snyder bio and works on the Modern American Poetry site.

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