Gary Snyder in the Library of America

I am fascinated by publishers who choose to curate classic collections. I enjoy looking through the lists of the Library of America, Knopf/Doubleday Everyman’s Library, and Modern Library Torchbearers. Something about the blend of books previously read and those new to me excites me. I think it’s the opportunity to re-experience the old ground of the twentieth century through recent translations and new voices, or to reread books first encountered before acquiring any life wisdom.

Though that’s what propels me to investigate their catalogs, the reason I purchased Gary Snyder’s Collected Poems (Library of America) at the Between the Covers Bookshop in Harbor Springs, Michigan, is because I wanted to read it. Snyder’s influences–Japanese and Chinese poetry and culture, the California wilderness, life on a ship, and myths and legends from North American indigenous cultures–interest me. It’s all about desire and following where it leads.

Every day in August I read at least one poem from the volume. And then I go as far I want. I was mostly just reading the poems, then I thought, shouldn’t I look at them more closely? I’m not very good at this, not being any sort of literary scholar, but I made a list of what I noticed in his poems. (I am working through The Back Country now.)

  • loose syllabics
  • individualistic spelling, especially in the past tense–instead of -ed, just a -t
  • images one after another; a series of images
  • emphasis on place
  • a narrow shape, often
  • a final leap into image that could be considered a poem in itself
  • using a line break as punctuation, a pause
  • breaking the line after an adjective
  • observation more than emotion
  • disregard of capital letter conventions
  • when women appear, so does sexual desire
  • occasional use of meter

Right now, I am claiming Snyder as a seminal poet, and this a seminal text. The world is smaller today than when he wrote; poetry now welcomes a greater diversity of voices and subjects. Snyder presents a mid-century white male interpretation/translation of Native American, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian myths, cultures, and poetry. I’m still drawn to his poems. The time and place Snyder spoke from–I know it well. All of its privilege, its limits, how it seeks for something more meaningful than capitalism, and how it finds this meaning in poetry and nature. He’s a sage, yes, one who, after everything, points away from himself. I desire to read and learn from him. I am at least reading. I hope the learning comes.

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