Mind, Mouth and Page – ( Gary Snyder)

Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 Naropa  Mind, Mouth and Page lecture continues from here 

AG: In sequence to that, then, (Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition”) , what’s interesting is, in answer to Whitman, and in answer to Williams, a great number of poets rose to complete the study more awkwardly (and that, Williams developed a method for). And I think I remember (that) I told you that Williams got, by 1948, to Reed College and met Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, and immediately influenced their styles, among many other poets. So, by 1955, when I was in San Francisco visiting Kenneth Rexroth, who was a correspondent of Williams, I was looking around for other poets that were influenced by Williams, or who had the same hardness, particularity, raw material, who had the same short line, who tried to place visual images on the page, and Rexroth directed me to.. as he said..”There’s one guy that writes well, out in Berkeley. He lives in Berkeley, studies Zen – a guy named Gary Snyder, why don’t you go and visit him?” – I was trying to organize a poetry reading. So I went out to see Snyder in his little cabin in ’55, a tiny little miniature house about the size of half this stage, actually [Allen is conducting the class on stage] – literally – and about seven feet high, probably a backyard gardener’s shed, converted to a tatami-mat-floor living-place, where you couldn’t quite stand up, but you could sit cross-legged very neatly and cook that way (and) write that way. He had a springboard binder, which I noticed, filled with poems (and I used to use a springboard binder, so I was immediately impressed by his professionalism). And I opened up his little book of poems and started reading it and saw, “Oh, there’s all these little particular descriptions – just like Williams!” – and the lines were balanced on the page – and, obviously, he’d read Pound – so we began talking, and I suddenly realized (that) there was more than one person with the same sort of understanding in mind. It was a big revelation to me that the perceptions that I was having, sort of an intellectual form of Williams that I had at 28 or so, other people had also. So it reaffirmed my own glimpse or grasp.

So what I thought would be interesting to do, out of Gary Snyder’s latest (sic) work, Turtle Island, (is) read just a couple of poems, to see how he applies, in his own (way), for his own particular speech, Williams’ method – In the country, in this case.. [Allen begins by reading “Two Fawns That Didn’t See The Light This Spring”] – “A friend in a tipi in the/ Northern Rockies went out/ hunting white tail with a/ .22 and creeped up on a few..”…”…And the little/ hooves were soft and white”” – So that’s almost Williams’ style – just direct description and the beauty of the actual detail being the point of the poem, rather than some crazy story told, or some romantic-castle myth expounded on, or magic ring found. “And the little/ hooves were soft and white”. Obviously you could see (that if) Williams (was) looking at Snyder’s poetry, (he) would understand and dig what he was doing, the precision of it.

Snyder, however, had other training – Zen training and Pound training – so there’s a way that he uses of juxtaposing to make his points, because he’s got big, heavy, philosophy (that) he’s been laying out a long time, but he still keeps it mostly to presenting two images, or two sets of facts, well-described, to make the point, rather than a big editorial. [Allen reads Snyder’s poem “Steak” in its entirety] – “Up on the bluff, the steak houses/ called “The Embers” – called/ “Fireside”/ with a smiling disney cow on the sign…”… “And down by the tracks/ in frozen mud, in the feed lots,/ fed surplus grain/ (the ripped off land)/ the beeves are standing round-/ bred heavy/Steaming, stamping,/ long-lashed, slowly thinking/ with the rhythm of their/ breathing/ frosty – breezy -/ early morning prairie sky” – A heavy editorial in this, yet the poem itself composed of such details that the editorial, or philosophic, conclusion is possible.

Next), “Front Lines” – Of course, here, I think, there’s a certain element of bad poetry that enters in, as Snyder gets a little too hooked on his ideology and sneaks a little editorial generalization in occasionally, but there’s enough solidity in the poem, in the poems, that you can see Williams’ influence and its application (its healthy solidity compared to the slight(ly) vain empty edges of Snyder’s insistency. [Allen reads, in its entirety, “Front Lines”] -“The edge of the cancer/ Swells against the hill – we feel/ a foul breeze -/ And it sinks back down./ The deer winter here./ A chainsaw growls in the gorge..”..”A bulldozer grinding and slobbering/ Sideslipping and belching on top of / The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes/ In the pay of a man/ From town…”…”And here we must draw/ Our line”- Well, there’s enough actual real fresh sight that he’s actually making his point – “The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes/ In the pay of a man/ From town…” – Now, that’s really true. It’s “in the pay”. The bulldozer “(i)n the pay of a man/ From town…” who’s not on the site. So that there’s a certain editorial composition which is built up of facts, which is really intelligent and precise in Snyder (and) worth doing.

Student: So what do you see as the bad part?

AG: The bad part was “The edge of the cancer/ Swells against the hill”, the beginning, with the cancer, I mean, what’s that?

Student: Why is it bad? I mean, why do you say it’s bad?

AG: Because it’s not a natural object. It’s not a natural object serving as an adequate symbol [Allen obviously quoting Pound here]. It’s his imposition of “cancer”, which he doesn’t again get to in the poem.

tudent: Maybe it’s a metaphor of cancer in the body..

AG: Sure..”like a cancer” – but he doesn’t need it. It’s awful(ly) soft, awful soft, angry, mindless. Everything else is really there – the winter deer
“a foul breeze/ and it sinks back down./ The deer winter here/ A chainsaw growls in the gorge/ Ten wet days and the log trucks stop..” – That’s all fine there. And he’s making his point just with that – [Allen continues reading] – “Sunday the 4-wheel jeep of the/ Realty Company brings in/ Landseekers, lookers, they say/ to the land/ Spread your legs” – alright, let’s him get away with that – “the jets crack sound overhead…”/ “A bulldozer grinding and slobbering/ Sideslipping and belching on top of/ The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes/ In the pay of a man/ From town.” – That’s perfect. It’s all real.

Student: But isn’t he taking the land as a body, and, like, the planet…

AG: Yes, but it’s just ridiculous to start “The edge of the cancer/ Swells against the hill”. It’s hysterical. It’s just stupid. You can’t see that it’s out-of-place and dumb, just because you agree with it? See, it’s why Williams said, “Your attention is called now and then to some beautiful line or sonnet sequence because of what is said there. So be it. To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance. What does it matter what the line says?” – It doesn’t matter what the line says. What really is important (is) that the line be clear, rooted in the world, and not be saying something like “The edge of the cancer/ Swells against the hill”. It’s bad manners. It’s not Zen at all (whereas the rest of the poem is really Zen). In other words, it’s exaggerated. It’s not a cancer, except as a metaphor, but he hasn’t carried out the metaphor as real cancer, actually.

Student: What’s the title?

AG: “Front Lines” – On top of that, the basic metaphor is – it’s a battle – here‘s where we draw the line, see? – So he’s drawing the line against cancer? Nah, he’s going to lose his “war”, boy, if he (is). In other words, he’s got the wrong image, it’s off. He’s prophesying his own doom if he does it that way because it doesn’t exactly apply. If you want to make it a war, then you use that metaphor that way, as he’s got it there, pretty good. A “war”, forest, draw(ing) the line.. You have to be pretty precise. In other words, it just isn’t precise enough (although the whole poem is terrific, I think, it’s a really good.. it’s just that you can see where it goes off).. Let’s see..Ah, here’s a good editorial thought here, I thought [Allen reads in its entirety Snyder’s poem “Ethnobotany] – “In June two oak fell,/ rot in the roots…”…”Boletus./ one sort, Alice Eastwood/ pink, and poison;/ Two yellow edulus/ “edible and choice”/ only I got just so slightly sick – / Taste all, and hand the knowledge down.” – So his experience of mushrooms from the local region for his neighbors and friends – a local poem, actually – which mushrooms are good and which are bad. The editorial – “Taste all, and hand the knowledge down” (but he’s doing that, and he is illustrating how he’s doing it, so you (he) can put that in). I didn’t read it very well but you can exactly get the point

Student: Do you intend to read to us from Riprap

AG: No, I don’t. I’m just reading a little section from recent (work). Riprap would be ideal, but this is what I had around, and I wanted to see what his practice was now, ripened. If you want Snyder, in a sense, at his sharpest, finest, there is a book called Riprap. Place the images.”Riprap” is, I guess, logging, or Northwest, or mountaineering, lingo, to put stones close enough so that you can walk on a solid stone, one step to another, making a riprap path, a path of riprap

Student: For horses

AG: For horses? Originally? What’s the lingo?

Student: It’s something the Rangers do, so pack horses…

AG: Ah, for pack horses. So it would be placing stones solidly pack horse step size. The main point being solidity, and making a continuous path for the mind. So he’s got a whole book – you can see how that comes out of Williams – a whole book subtly titled Riprap. “Rap”(is) also talking. So, in a way, that’s his ideal.

Student: There’s a poem in there, “Magpie’s Song”

AG: Here? Yeah. Well, I wanted to get just the things that were so solid that there would be no mistake what was going on.

Student: Could you maybe read something that wasn’t solid, and then say why it wasn’t?

AG: Well, not that I’d mind doing it, but I’d rather work with what’s there, rather than what’s not there. Just like, in looking at people’s poetry here, generally what I’ve been doing is just underlining what is active. Not even bothering with what is inactive, because if you can point out what’s solid, what’s riprap, what’s real, what’s things, that tends to lead the mind in the right direction, rather than setting up, like, a big argument. Negative – this is negative and I don’t like it, or – it doesn’t make it. It’s always what makes it and is real, right, you can deal with it, it’s palpable. So it’s better to teach what’s palpable than what’s not.

[Allen reads next, in its entirety, Snyder’s poem “The Call of the Wild”] – “The heavy old man in his bed at night/ Hears the Coyote singing/ in the back meadow..”…”The Government finally decided/ To wage the war all-out. Defeat/is Un-American..” …”So they bomb and they bomb/ Day after day, across the planet/ blinding sparrows/ breaking the ear-drums of owls/splintering trunks of cherries”… “All these Americans up in special cities in the sky/ Dumping poisons and explosives/ Across Asia first/ And next North America/ A war against Earth./ When it’s done there’ll be/ no place/ A coyote could hide”

Envoi – “I would like to say/ Coyote is forever/ Inside you./ But it’s not true.” – So there’s a combination. There’s a certain area of slippage there, you might say, of imprecision, but, at the same time, it’s very inventive.

(So) he always comes back to (something like) “breaking the ear-drums of owls” (that’s something so exact and interesting, you’d have to know about owls and bombs and see relationships to know that – there’s some really curious beauty). Of course, there, he’s intentionally exaggerating and making an editorial, but he weaves it together – a kind of political rip rap going on here – that does make it, and brings home a very clear point about the very nature of what America had become, as distinct from the desire of Williams (in fact, it’s a funny complement to Williams). But Williams is saying we have to discover our particular place, or saxiflage and our earth, and here is a vision of Americans lost in “special cities” in the skies attempting to avoid that very earth – “And they never came down/for they found/ the ground/ is pro-Communist and dirty And the insects side with the Viet Cong” – a the specific insects. Yeah? You had a question?

Student: In a poem like that, isn’t the generalization or conclusion which a poet makes valid because it arises naturally out of the poem? I mean..he lays the groundwork for the generalization in the poem itself.

AG: Well, yes, except the generalization finally is a war against Earth, except that he’s described what is literally a war against Earth. That’s the miracle here. With the details he has selected, literally, “breaking the ear-drums of owls/splintering trunks of cherries/twining and looping deer intestines” and they “bomb/Day after day, across the planet”, “in special cities in the sky/ Dumping poisons and explosives”. Then “the ground is pro-Communist” (which is, quite literally, true. In the jungle war, they literally did find the jungles, the Mekong swamp, pro-Communist, in the sense that it protected the Viet Cong, so they had to leaf-icide a seventh of the swamp area. So there’s a funny kind of literalness about all of this editorial detail). So it’s weirdly literal, which is why the poem is so good, because it sounds outlandish and far-out – “Really? What? These Americans warring against the Earth?” – and yet, by accumulated specific information (rather than detail) and some selected exact detail (“breaking the ear-drum of owls”), you really do have an editorial which is identical with a statement of fact. Odd. There’s a slight deception about it, I feel, sometimes, but I don’t know, because it isn’t totally composed of seamless particulars. There’s still some intrusion of a person making a point, rather than a point being made through a person that’s transparent. It’s like Snyder taking responsibility to formulate and announce for poetry, for me, for you, for his group , his family, and for the hip culture, what is going on in this war (Vietnam). So there’s this element of persona there, which is also poetic artifact, underlying it – that he’s invented a poet named Gary Snyder who’s taking responsibility to discriminate and make intellectual and social discriminations and to present a thesis regarding Earth and its survival.

Student: (Bob) Dylan‘s really good at that (too). I think.

AG: Yeah. More generalized often. Who else? Someone’s hand (raised)?

Student: I just took a line. For instance, “like warts stuck out in the woods” – that’s negating a lot of “no ideas but in things” simile

AG: Yeah. It’s a little heavy – “The ex acid-heads from the cities../…dream of India, of/ forever blissful sexless highs./ And sleep in oil-heated/ Geodesic domes, that/ Were stuck like warts/ In the woods.” Except geodesic domes do look a little like that.. But I wonder if it’s exact. See, when he jumped to say “warts stuck out in the woods”, he lost a fact. What would have been better would have been a description of the blue styrofoam, or the styrofoam bumpiness painted blue, leaky with brown-paper patchwork along the ridge edges where the geodesic dome structure doesn’t match but lets the raindrops through, set in the midst of ponderosa pine that dwarf the tacky Puerto-Rican-drugstore blue surface of the dome. Then it would have been a little better for him to have relied on the actual detail (and the reason I know the detail is I know which domes he’s writing about, and they’re tacky blue-painted, and they look like Puerto-Rican-drugstore blue, or something). So he’d have been better if he’d stuck with detail instead of making it a mind-jump, I think. And that’s a very subtle matter.

Student: It’s just a particular mode. You said it’s a subtle matter

AG: Pardon me?

Student: You said it’s a very subtle matter

AG: Well, it’s how sharp can you be? How sharp and attentive to detail are you really? And how much do you let go by and get away with? How much can you get away with? If you get a subtle matter, somebody will write something really beautiful like, “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass/ Stains the white radiance of Eternity/ Until Death tramples it to fragments”, well, there’s a “dome of many-colored glass” there, that’s true, and there’s the “white radiance of eternity”, and you can’t deny that’s the most beautiful line in the English language (if “Brightnesse falls from the ayre” isn’t the most beautiful line in the language). I wouldn’t be too insistent about everything being exactly literal (particularly (in Williams) as Williams get into his old age), but, at least, having that in mind, knowing it as a basic compass and standard, so you don’t get deceived by your own bullshit is basic..

Now here’s something monumental, composed of information and fact, where hardly any generalization is necessary. “What Happened Here Before, 300,000,000 (years ago)”. It’s got the dates, “300,000,000” – What happened here before – “here”, being the Sierra land where Gary Snyder lives. [Allen then reads from “What Happened Here Before – 300,000,000” in its entirety, the poem begins at 300,ooo,ooo and traces through geological/historical time] – “First a sea, soft sands, muds, and marls/ – loading, compressing, heating, crumpling/ crushing, recrystallizing, infiltrating/ several times lifted and submerged/ intruding molten granite magma/ deep-cooled and speckling/ gold quarts fills the cracks….”…[The poem ends] – “Now – we sit here near the diggings/ in the forest, by our fire, and watch/ the moon and planets and the shooting stars-/ my sons ask, who are we?/ drying apples picked from homestead trees/ drying berries, curing meat,/ shooting arrows at a bale of straw./ military jets head northeast, roaring, every dawn/ my sons ask, who are they?/ WE SHALL SEE/WHO KNOWS/HOW TO BE/ Bluejay screeches from a pine.”


  1. Michael Corr did the art that is cover-art of Turtle Island..

    He sent me one of the prints from the woodblock … long about 1973 or 74. It's around here somewhere.

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