Gary Snyder (b. 1930)

    Contributing Editor:
    Thomas R. Whitaker

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing


    As Snyder tells us in his first volume, riprap is "a cobble of stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains." In Myths & Texts (p. 43), he calls poetry "a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics." This poem may suggest the "objectivism" of William Carlos Williams--"No ideas but in things"--and yet it finally evokes an infinite, ever-changing system of worlds and thoughts. Such idealism, of course, also enters Williams's Paterson. Central to the poetics of both Williams and Snyder are strategies that enable particulars to evoke a pattern and so provide a link with the universal. What strategies can the class find here? Some poems for comparison: "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" and "Piute Creek" in Riprap, and "For Nothing" in Turtle Island--all concerned to relate "thing" and "mind" or "form" and "emptiness."

    "Vapor Trails"

    How does this poem relate aesthetic patterns, natural patterns, and the patterns of human violence? Is the poem finally a lament over such violence? Or a discovery of its beauty? Or a resignation to its naturalness? Or all or none of these? Can the class trace the shifting tone of the meditation from beginning to end?

    This poem, too, has affinities with Williams's work. See, for example, such studies of symmetry and craft as "On Gay Wallpaper" and "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper." Does the ironic use of "design" at the end of "Vapor Trails" obliquely recall the concerns of Robert Frost's "Design"?


    This poem, like others in Regarding Wave, links various manifestations of energy--inorganic, organic, sexual, linguistic, mental--through images and etymologies that evoke a cosmic wave, motion, or dance. Snyder's riprap, a human construction that enables a mental ascent, seems now to have yielded more fully to the perception of patterns inherent in natural process, patterns in which we dancingly participate.

    Wave: wife. As that analogy develops, does the poem suggest that nature is our muse and that the energy of all sentience and all cosmic process is fundamentally sexual?

    Would the class enjoy some visual analogies to "the dancing grain of things/of my mind"? If so, you might look at the photographs and calligraphy in Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Random House, 1972).

    "It Was When"

    This reverie over moments when Snyder's son Kai might have been conceived is both a love poem to his wife Masa and a celebration of the "grace" manifest in their coming together. Its imagery, cadences, and reverence for vital processes strongly recall the poetry of D. H. Lawrence. The class might like to make comparisons with Lawrence's "Gloire de Dijon" and perhaps other poems in Look! We Have Come Through!

    "It Was When" is a densely woven pattern of alliteration and assonance. How do those sound effects cooperate with the poem's cadences and its meanings?

    You may want to consult other poems in Regarding Wave that continue Snyder's meditation on his marriage and Kai's birth: "The Bed in the Sky," "Kai, Today," and "Not Leaving the House."

    "The Egg"

    This is another poem in a rather Lawrentian mode. Among its issues: What does the "egg" hold in potential? Can the body it generates--the body of one's own son--be a kind of articulate utterance, a manifestation of organic syntax? And can that utterance express the whole process of cosmic evolution?

    The epigraph comes from Robert Duncan's "The Structure of Rime I," The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1960, p. 12). In the sequence begun by that poem, Duncan explores language, the psyche, the organism, and the cosmos in ways that Snyder here recapitulates from his own point of view. In the "egg" and "snake" is, among other things, the kundalini of Tantric yoga, a movement of energy from the body's sexual "root" to the "third eye," an organ of transcendental vision in the forehead. How does the poem ask our attention to mediate between the concrete particulars of Kai's lively body and such evolutionary and cosmic implications?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Snyder often plays variations on the imagist mode in which Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams did much of their earlier work. D. H. Lawrence's love poems and animal poems are also important antecedents, as are Kenneth Rexroth's meditations amid Western landscapes and his translations from Japanese poetry.

    Central to the poetics of both Williams and Snyder are strategies that enable particulars to evoke a pattern and so provide a link with the universal.


    Refer to headnote in the text for complete information.