Gary Snyder’s Myths and Texts
by Keith Kumasen Abbott
“. . .academic fashion judged poets and other artistic innovators as suspect or irrelevant; critics were essential. . . the academically based literary or art critic was more important than creative artists and affirmed the critic as the acknowledged arbiter of taste and societal approval.”
The long poem Myths & Texts was Gary Snyder’s first book, written before he wrote Cold Mountain poems or Riprap, though they were published before Myths & Texts. This was not widely known, but the critics now accept and use the order to explain certain aspects of Snyder’s thought and writing practices.
The poem has elements of Snyder’s personal history but the collage structure recalls the scholarly process of cut and paste quotes, examples and opinions inserted into articles, theses and dissertations. His Reed College thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: Dimensions of a Haida Myth, used such multiple sources and techniques.
The techniques of this type for poems were present in three of the most famous long poems in modern English: T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. Snyder knew all these works and authors.
Myths & Texts’ common structure also owes a debt to the invention of the movies and its serial collage-like nature of splicing in discrete sequences between jumpcuts in time, place and character. The cinematic use of montage, overlapping images, also influenced these poems. Another significant genre for all modern artists was the newsreel, but seen as an anti-art. Walker Evans, one of the seminal photographers for the 1930s Depression era, “devoured [newsreels] on a weekly basis” because some theaters only showed them, not movies. Newsreels “were essentially skeins of raw facts gathered straightforwardly. These films were the opposite of art: gritty scenes of life and death, wars and the signing of treaties, natural calamities and the launching of ships, a panorama of what seemed like unprocessed reality.” (Walker Evans, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000)
By the 1950s such methods of writing poetry and prose were not unusual. However, academic critics regarded it as risky, fake avant-garde, passé, or just rude. The New Criticism discouraged the personal in poetry, prized the ironic and/or neutral tone, and an urban or European setting. Poetry, they maintained, is best interpreted without recourse to its author’s intentions or its historical context. Some academics claimed all invention had ceased to be necessary because all inventions within the Modernist tradition of invention had been already tried. To call this particular time in American literature conservative is an understatement.
This academic fashion judged poets and other artistic innovators as suspect or irrelevant; critics were essential. With the rise of the universities as the centers for intellectuals and the gradual disappearance of “the man of letters” (who wrote literary opinion, reviews and literary history for popular venues) the academically based literary or art critic was more important than creative artists and affirmed the critic as the acknowledged arbiter of taste and societal approval. Publish or perish for job tenure cemented this role. The official USA poetry became tame or outright dreary, largely produced by pre-approved academic poets.
Political and social repression was common, free speech censored, and paranoia a product vended by the U.S. Government in the name of freedom, democracy and the American Way of Life. A state of constant war preparation and vigilance was demanded of American citizens. A multi-level picture of this society may be viewed in the documentary The Atomic Café.
Snyder’s long poem did not involve itself much in the 1950s, for all the above reasons, preferring to engage a large long view of time and culture. The poem’s settings are distinctly Western (as opposed to Eastern seaboard); as Snyder’s dominant interest was wilderness and wildness and how they co-existed with or in societies around the Pacific Rim. His setting was neither urban nor European, although both cultures enter the poem.
Referring to the book, Snyder said, “The title comes from the happy collections Sapir, Boas, Swanton, and others made of American Indian folktales early in the century; it also means the two sources of human knowledge—symbols and sense impressions.” (Allen New American Poetry, 1960)
His characters—animal, vegetable, mineral and human—often exist in a state of transformation and transmigration. Few return to the poem after their initial scene—so there was never any dramatic through-line for the poem.
Looking at the Book
Myths & Texts’ first edition cover features a sumi brush characters for its title, and its sections are illustrated with sumi brush pictures.
After the title page, the acknowledgements page features a quote from The Bible, from Acts 19:27 about how “our craft” is imperiled and why both “the temple of the Great Goddess Diana and her magnificence” must be razed because she has devotees in “all Asia and the world”. The speaker is an artist Demetrius, a silversmith, who says his craft will be lost along with other idols of worship if the Apostle Paul’s commands are carried out.
The next page displays a sumi-brush version of a pine tree, the word Logging, and leafing ahead we see that the other two sections Hunting and Burning have similar brush illustrations.
The first line of section 1 paraphrases the last line of Thoreau’s Walden: “The Sun is but a morning star.”
The morning star is not a star
Two-seedling fir, one died
Girdled in wisteria
Wound with ivy
“The May Queen
Is the survival of
The year spins
Pleiades sing to their rest
at San Francisco
Green comes out of the ground
Young girls run mad with the pine bough,
Obviously, after only a few lines into the poem, this book has taken a different point of view from the dominant culture in which it was published. This part of Myths & Texts is titled “Logging” but talks about fertility rites during astronomical events, rites that occurred before the Cold War 1950s, but how some Western societies keep one vestige of those bacchanals in May Queen ceremonies, where school children dress up for twinning ribbons around a May Pole. Io was the mother of Dionysus and that Greek myth is conjoined to a Coastal Californian Native American myth about the setting of the Pleiades stars as the sign of spring.
Reading on, the words and concepts sometimes come from that culture, but not the official mouthpieces, such as television, Time magazine or the New York Times newspaper, but rather from other sources: ecumenical religions, anthropology and art history, from vernacular, biological and industrial texts.
This poem itself multiplies through the infusion of both myths and texts, dealing with death and destruction, fertility and renewal, all feeding each other and creating one new synthesis after another, voices conjoining other voices, to multiply into multiple myths and texts. So Snyder is engaged in “mythopoesis” by describing particular sensory experiences—texts—and juxtaposing and melding them into myths that nourish and promote formations of culture.
The three sections deal with the following subjects. Logging: the devastation of the natural world and whether the damage may be undone before biosphere regenerates. Hunting: the recovery of animal sensibility through wise adaptations of alternative belief systems. Burning: transformation of all living beings via a deep spiritual reality within a whirling galaxy of experience.
Who Is Talking? Who is Witnessing or Doing these Things?
In reading Snyder’s poetry the job is often to distinguish between the narrators. The speaker in some sections is not always the same person as the narrator. The speaker may not, also, be confined to a single ego as a function of the speaker’s identity. The voice may be speaking as a member of a tribe, a species, a nation, or a representative of a scientific discipline. A critic Tim Dean has argued, “the characteristically Snyderian voice is one in which many voices can be heard.”
So the voice you hear may not be Snyder’s narrator, but some voice inside a larger more complex narration. The same goes for the Witnesses in this poem; Snyder is not necessarily the witness or the voice for the witness, even if the passage does not have quotation marks around it. Some voices are masks, only one aspect of a given culture given over to a fictional character.
There is also more than one consciousness watching or involved in the actions. We can realize that belong to some place in the United States or that they belong to the Turtle Island Tribe. Or both. And in those roles they may change their ways of speaking or addressing a situation. These alterations or morphing of speaking roles happen often in Myths & Texts.
Orders of procreation are this: the myths that arise from actions, in Snyder, may arise from specific texts: the action of a deer or a logger may be generalized into a myth for all Deer or all Loggers. Results in the visual or perceptual field may expand in time or influence or space; the field may be multi-dimensional, a web of connections much like the metaphor of Indra’s Net: jewels at each crossing reflect all the rest of the connections. Snyder may put “emphasis on the action or event rather than on the person causing or witnessing such an event.” (Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring)
This suspension or transformation of a particular human or generic actor or perceiver has its roots in various religious rituals, in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, in ecological techniques and also in the poetic practices of Snyder’s favorite Modernist writers. The poems inside Myths & Texts’ sections are full of human beings, however they are neither the center of attention, nor are they a protagonist in a drama, an existence or the behaviors of other human beings. Snyder at times does or doesn’t write from an anthropocentric or ethnocentric point of view. And drama, with protagonists and antagonists, with conflict or transformation via motivation, opportunity and intentions, for Myths & Texts often occurs in fragments: a labor strike, a love affair, or a family crisis. The sources for such human comedies or tragedies are outside the poem’s sections; the contexts for the players are outsourced, brought in only as a part of the ongoing collage or montage. We only see facets on them at any one time; again in as in the metaphor of Indra’s Net, a single facet may reflect other webs or gems elsewhere in the interpenetrating spaces of our reading experience.
How the Texts Evolve
Here we look at how the texts evolve into myths and what the dominant concerns are for Snyder’s poem. In Myths & Texts the texts are sensory experiences, but instead of our culture’s five senses, the Buddhist fashion it regards mind as the sixth sense. Myths are the little stories that we create or someone else creates for us, which distill the elements of the stories into archetypes or clarify the qualities of the elements so the elements are seen as archetypes.
For Snyder, in Myths & Texts first part, Logging section 2, there is a collage of texts, which trace several ways of seeing the harvest of lumber. The first is religious, how cutting down sacred groves was a way to destroy another religion. Then a quick jump from Biblical times to China and then into the Northwest where we hear the tone of a documentary. This voice-over gives us just the facts in technical terms with shorthand lumbering slang along with a quick shift in time as we follow the lumber being milled and sent down the coast.
Squared beams, log dogs,
on tamped-earth sill
San Francisco 2x4s
were the woods around Seattle
Then a much more rhythmical voice, in measured ritualistic cadences as if chanting, tells us of the anonymity of the ancient religions and people for the men producing this onslaught of new transplanted societies.
Someone killed and someone built, a house,
A forest, wrecked or raised
All America hung on a hook
& burned by men, in their own praise.
Then from those particular tones Snyder’s narrative turns into a personal first person vernacular account of logging, with the logger suffering “from bitter dreams”. The Cat that ends the stanza is a Caterpillar Tractor, used to bulldoze hillsides and carry or drag downed lumber.
The last stanza shifts tones again into a quote of what appears to be a translated Chinese couplet with mythic Taoist overtones:
“Pines grasp the clouds with iron claws
Like dragons rising from sleep.”
Then the documentary or official tone reenters the poem, giving us the figures for the logging operation if the optimum circumstances are maintained: “If both Cats keep working/& nobody gets hurt”.
The irony of the last phrase is intended, whereas the speaker is only speaking for the employees or the loggers. Actually a great many creatures get hurt or killed or displaced when a bulldozer cuts paths through forests.
Of course as with all collages how the tone changes invites us to read the meanings of these little stories differently. The last line could be read as a reassurance, that this logging business, when conducted efficiently, hurts no one. And another irony of that is, of course, throughout the section: razing a religion’s sacred groves hurts not only people’s homelands and erodes their spiritual lives, but also damages their culture and their survival. So, as with many of Snyder’s works, value is a cultural matter, and here ignorance of history an invitation to violate the values of our ancestors
Another technique Snyder uses is more cinematic, less reliant on the juxtaposition of tones from shifting texts. In section 4, there occurs a polyphonic montage of a lumber harvest, but with visual references to Japanese culture. One way to imagine this section is as a newsreel documentary, images intercut with sparse commentary. This string of images will demonstrate how lumber comes from trees and what end products—pine boards for theater floors—that particular species may provide. Intercut into this documentary are images of a mostly bare stage with a wooden floor with an actor stamping his feet.
Seami Motokiyo is the most famous Noh theater playwright. Here, spliced into the film, the main actor stamps his feet on the pine floor boards as he plays the Doer in Seami’s play Takasago set in the city of Ise, where a shrine to the Sun Goddess is surrounded by ancient pines. Toward the end of section 4 the Doer moves off-stage, metaphorically gone, physically returned to being an actor, just as Kwanami, Seami’s father, who was also a Noh actor and author, may be also absent from life, but not memory.
According to Katsunori Yamazato, one of Snyder’s critics, the play’s plot portrays the Doer as the spirit of one of the great pine trees. In the shape of an old man the Doer/pine spirit engages a traveling priest in conversation. By telling his story to a priest the Doer gains release from this world as a ghost and the Noh play ends with song and/or dance in celebration of this transformation.
The journey of the felled pine trees “A thousand board-feet/Bucked, skidded, loaded—” through its natural habitat of water with all the attendant creatures is also shown, along with the sparse actions and only one line “Today’s wind moves in the pines” which is probably from the Noh play.
Snyder often employs this particular montage technique leaving the reader with a complex image, series of images or cycle of pictures. There is no explicit meaning or commentary supplied. The question of values—does this belong to the preceding actions—often is left open. The reader acts as witness to this dual journey, images and values in transformation, and may draw some conclusions about it from his or her experience.
The next section shows us an array of conflicting value judgments about the worth of texts, words, philosophy, politics, economics and art. How do we or don’t we apply these value judgments retroactively to Section 4?
That is left up to the reader, again, but the juxtaposition of this cinematic rendering of wood while it becomes a sounding board for an actor’s feet next to a highly inflected and opinionated language polyphonic collage does create in the reader the need to try. And this is how Snyder creates “a story of the land-in-process, the travelers upon it, and the spirits within it” that also includes the reader.
The notion of enlightenment is central to Buddhism. And this transformation also is its central contradiction. According to tradition, because everyone is already enlightened, everyone has or is Buddha-mind. What comes between our own Buddha nature and our actions is ignorance created by some of our delusive emotions. In Myths & Texts Snyder presents a selection and dispersal of negative emotions and ignorance and indicates how this occurs and/or shows when an entry into an enlightened state may occur.
The technique of selection is crucial because this poem is by its nature not the quest for something, or someone’s quest, but a journey among multiple events, actions and things.
I am indebted to the scholarship of Katsunori Yamazato for the following example of how Snyder works with the notion of enlightenment. In Myths & Texts Gary Snyder edited a passage from John Muir for his poem’s own needs.
The original passage in John Muir that Snyder edited follows. His edits are crossed out here, but the insertions by Snyder are not indicated
“After scanning its face again and again, I began to scale it, picking my holds with intense caution. I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down to the glacier below. My mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I become possessed of a new sense. my trembling muscles became firm again; every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing to do.
Gary Snyder inserted a few words to create runaway emotions.
“After scanning its face again and again,
I began to scale it, picking my holds
with intense caution. About halfway
to the top, I was suddenly brought to
a dead stop, with arms outspread,
clinging close to the face of the rock,
unable to move hand or foot
either up or down. My doom
appeared fixed. I must fall.
There would be a moment of
bewilderment, and then,
a lifeless rumble down the cliff
to the glacier below. My mind seemed to fill with a
stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
lasted only a moment, when life blazed
forth again with preternatural clearness.
I seemed suddenly to become possessed
of a new sense. My trembling muscles
became firm again, every rift and flaw in
the rock was seen as through a microscope,
my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
with which I seemed to have
nothing at all to do.”
Katsunori Yamazato in his dissertation, Seeking A Fulcrum, Gary Snyder and Japan (1956-1975) states that when we see some significant content words left out by the poet, we begin to understand how he would like to interpret Muir’s rare experience. In the middle of line 19, the poet omits the following passage from Muir: “The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel–call it what you will–came forward and assumed control.” Muir’s dualistic notions are rejected by Snyder, and instead, he seems to direct the reader to the monistic notion of satori (or kensho) in Zen Buddhism.
Satori, in D. T. Suzuki’s definition, is “an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradiction to the analytical or logical understanding of it. It brings forth an unfolding of a new world, hitherto unconceived.”
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Keith Kumasen Abbott is a poet and calligrapher, and the author of numerous poetry books, novels and short story collections as well as the memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing In America (Astrophil Press, 2009).