Swirl in the Flow: Gary Snyder

In his introduction to Turtle Island Gary Snyder tells his readers that his “poems speak of place, and the energy-pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a ‘song.’”

Snyder is a poet of purpose, a dreamer, a magic maker, a weaver of words, and a storyteller. He harbors an optimism, albeit guarded at times and tempered by reality at others, that humans and the natural world can thrive together …if we do our part, show our respect, and care for this planet we share with so many other living things.

turtle islandHe is also a poet with a clear voice and a strong point of view, the kind of writer whose work makes a good companion on a backpacking trip or weekend of rain at home.

I grew up in Oregon and have spent most of my adult life on the west coast; the landscapes and details of much of Snyder’s poetry are as familiar to me as they are to many who live this side of the Rocky Mountains. I’ve seen the forests he brings to life in poems like “Pine Tree Tops.”

in the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
the creak of boots.
rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.”

I’ve driven behind the log trucks he mentions, and have met people like the old men he describes in “Two Immortals” a prose poem that isn’t above sneaking in some sly internal rhyme as Snyder introduces us to the ex-con and his traveling companion.

     His friend, in a red and black buffalo check jacket stuck his hand out, under my nose, missing the forefinger. “How’d I lose that!” “How?” “An axe!”
Texas Slim said “I’m just giving him a ride. Last year his wife died.” The two ambled off, chuckling, as Kai and Gen came running back up from the banks of the Rogue River, hands full of round river stones.”

That those people and places can be so perfectly captured in Turtle Song strikes me as something pretty magical. I wonder if readers beyond these rain soaked climes feel the same sense of place I do. I suppose some must; Turtle Song won Snyder the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. Still, it feels  personal when I read poems like “Dusty Braces” with its catalogue of “punchers, miners, dirt farmers, railroad-men” and the poem’s narrator, a “tree hearted son.”

There is a sense of purpose to Snyder’s poetry. In poems like “For the Children.”

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
The steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valley, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light”

And there is also a streak of something close to resignation. Addressing his readers at the end of “The Call of the Wild” (a poem that shares its title with the classic Jack London novel, and knows it, but takes as its subject something more human than London’s dog story) Snyder writes: “I’d like to say / Coyote is forever / Inside you. / But it’s not true.” I suppose the line would feel cynical if it weren’t true, but Snyder’s collection reminds us over and over that our human lives are, by our own choosing, at odds with nature. That we might overcome those choices always lurks nearby, but Turtle Island is a reminder that we aren’t living the clean life yet.

In “By Frazier Creek Falls” Snyder allows himself a painterly touch to the description of nature around him.

Standing up on lifted, folded rock
looking out and down—

The creek falls to a far valley.
hills beyond that
facing, half-forested, dry
—clear sky
strong wind in the
stiff glittering needle clusters
of the pine—their brown
round trunk bodies
straight, still;
rustling trembling limbs and twigs


This living flowing land
is all there is, forever

We are it
it sings through us—

We could live on this Earth
without clothes or tools!”

Sure criticisms about the veracity of those last two lines come to mind, but the sentiment, the same sentiment that led so many “back to the land” in the 1970s, carries with it a sense of belonging and a belief in the holiness of nature.

Snyder, incorporating Native American imagery, catalogues of animals and geographical features, and helping of Zen, describes our natural world and our human place in it (sometimes aspirationally) in a way that resonated in the mid 1970s and I suspect might resonate with a new generation of youth who look around and see a planet, as Snyder describes it: “Turtle Island.”


Continuing this year of poetry next week with San Francisco Blues by Jack Kerouac.

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