Mountains and Rivers Without End, by Gary Snyder
Thomas Rain Crowe
Mountains and Rivers Without End.|
176 pages, $20 (hardcover).
In the twenty or more years I've known Gary Snyder, I don't think I've ever, really, seen or thought of him as a Beatnik even though those ties and connections are seminal to his beginnings as an American literary figure. True to his Zen anarchist leanings, he has always seemed to be his own man. A member of his own tribe, and yet, part of a much larger community than that of a literary movement with a restricted membership. Particularly, a community of cultural and creative awareness that is not afraid to incorporate a bit of politics—no matter how unfashionable it may be—into "the real work." A community that is not afraid to go up against the big bullies and taboos of the post-industrial age, such as the Information Superhighway, which he takes on in his new book Mountains and Rivers Without End in the poem "Walking the New York Bedrock," where he launches a descriptive attack on the over-the-edge aspects of our modern hi-tech culture swimming (drowning) in its "sea of information," its "sea of economy":
Grass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,
Iron, Stainless steel.
Hollow honeycomb brain-buildings owned by
Columbia University, the landlord of
Alive, in the Sea of Information . . .
But maybe I remember him best as someone who has lived an ideology and vision based on the notion of "forming the new society within the shell of the old" ("Night Highway, 99")—a line from an early poem from which I later quite literally coined the phrase "new native" which became both the title of my second book, as well as the imprint of New Native Press.
Mountains and Rivers Without End, although it encompasses the same time frame as would a bibliography of his collected work, comes off as a kind of distillation of those forty and some odd years. It is, appropriately, like a river running through the stacks of those titles piled up (like small and larger hills) on the tables of contemporary literature during the last half of this century. A river which runs around, yet through, the oeuvre of a man whose life has been that of a focused, single mind writing to the future—seven generations hence—and those who will inherit this legacy in the form of a literary-times capsule of ecological and cultural awareness couched in the principles and practice of diversity, independence, wildness, gratitude, and respect for the past.
I have always thought of Gary Snyder as being descended of the tradition of the scholar/scribes more than the bardic of narrative poets. His poems, which often lack certain engaging qualities that draw the reader into that mythic or mystic dimension beyond time and space, ultimately forfeit beauty-of-line for content-of-line. As a result, Snyder poems often appear as meticulously worked journals of observation, recorded conversations, and map marginalia (poetically crafted and presented to be sure).
I've always felt that Snyder, more than any other contemporary writer/artist, works from the light of the shadow of Marshall McLuhan's adage, "the medium is the message." In Snyder's work, his message is his medium, with the message always being "greater than the sum of its parts" (to use his own words from "Walking the New York Bedrock" p. 99)—the parts in this case being: the form, style, and lyric of the poems themselves. In this sense, one could say that what Snyder is saying is almost more important than how he says it. Even knowing that he would disagree with this assumption, this, in fact, is how the poems themselves often impress the reader, at least this reader who is also a fan. But let me also say, here, that Snyder's would-be weakness is also the mirror of his greatest strength, as he is certainly one of the rare few whose work is not separate from their lives. Gary Snyder has lived what he has written, has practiced what he has preached in "thinking globally and acting locally" and in doing so is deserving of the cult hero status he has garnered from two generations of admiring readers and friends. As urban Greens activist Lee Swenson says of Gary in Dimension of a Life (Sierra Club, 1991): "From dharma bum friends to animals as teachers to Zen as the pain in the legs, Gary keeps himself—and us—alive and well . . . There is much to learn from his daily life as from his written work."
Exceptions of individual poems and sections of poems withstanding, Mountains and Rivers is not a great read. Not like its prose counterpart The Practice of the Wild, where Snyder covers, essentially, the same ground only along a trail that has been cleared and mulched with a personable and congenial prose.
Having gone this far out on this particular literary limb, I'm going to take an even further leap by saying that I think that in many of Snyder's poems—when he is being most self-conscious—he lapses back into the impressions of those early paintings of oriental landscapes. The paintings he describes in the narrative at the end of the book. The poems read as if he wished that language would flow off the ends of his pen as does paint off the end of a brush. The poems are detailed, descriptive, composite—yet lack the color they seem to crave. I'm thinking that there are times when Gary Snyder should paint rather than write, and write when he feels more like talking than meditating. This hunch of mine would seem, to some extent at least, to be borne out in the beginning paragraphs of the first page of the book-ending narrative on the making of Mountains and Rivers Without End which he uses as a kind of confessional, revealing, "At Reed College through Charlie Leong, I learned to hold the brush as well as the pen . . . Though I lacked talent, my practice with soot-black ink and brush tuned my eye for looking more closely at paintings. In museums and through books I became aware of how the energies of mist, white water, rock formations, air swirls—a chaotic universe where everything is in place—are so much a part of the East Asian painter's world. In one book I came upon a reference to a hand scroll (shou-chuan) called Mountains and Rivers Without End. The name stuck in my mind."
I think that there is, inside, still something of a painter wanting to get out of Gary Snyder. That the very visual details and optic lists in his poems are direct evidence of this assumption. It's truly as if he is, with all this attention to naming and listing, wanting to share with the reader the same painterly details that he wished were ripping off the end of his brush onto canvas, papyrus, or rice paper—yet, instead have been released in words.
In all cultural and historical fairness to Snyder, Mountains and Rivers has to be seen and taken in relation to Snyder's whole body of work. A lifetime of focused determination and dedication toward leaving something helpful behind. Something to make the world of his children and his children's children a better, or at least more recognizable, place. Like the scat on the trail he so loves to take notice of and leave lying in his poems—so he has left droppings of sagacious values and discriminations, backpacks of wisdom, truck loads of common sense . . .
Gary Snyder has come a long way since that ride leaving Portland in 1954 with a no-count rodeo rider and a hooker passed out in the back seat of his old car—to become "us and our stuff just covering the ground" along the north San Juan Ridge in California's Sierra foothills. To become a post-industrial bard singing "songs that are here and gone, / here and gone, / to purify our ears" for generations yet to hear the song that will add to the refrain. To become the hopeful voice of the collective conscience as he proclaims "To the healing to the healer hail! / So be it." Yes, having made his way over an entire Earth of mountains and rivers during his lifetime, Gary Snyder has come a long way for a man that in the end will no doubt willfully fulfill the prophetic premonitions in the lines of his own poem "The Flowing" which sensually portends both the completion of this remarkable collection as well as the climax of a brilliant career:
The root of me
hardens and lifts to you,
thick flowing river,
my skin shivers. I quit
making this poem.