Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg – Photograph by Christopher Felver
Gary Snyder in the Sierras, 1994 – Photograph by Christopher Felver
Gary Snyder reading at Naropa, 1983 – continues from yesterday
GS: We live at the three-thousand-foot elevation on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada in the Yuba River Watershed, which is north of Sacramento and eastward into the mountains. It’s all Mediterranean climate, which is to say, summer-dry, five-month to six-month drought, and very hot (although, you know, not as hot as here [Colorado] – I’m surprised, I expected coming over here that we would get some cooler weather, but you’re hotter here right now than it’s been in the Sierra this summer, I don’t know why that is.
So the California Indians lived outdoors and without a stitch of cloths, except a little jewellery, six months of the year. We live outdoors a good part of the year during that hot summer season. You don’t want to fire up a wood-burning range in the kitchen in the summer, right? You move out. And so we have our outdoor kitchen ramada-shade-shelter-complex (and) everything else moves out too. We sleep out under an oak tree and so forth and.. used to go naked, but, I don’t know, everybody getting conservative! At any rate, the fact of the matter is you don’t have to wear clothes in California in the summertime, except for the air-conditioning, which is so chilly when you go inside. So everything about that pattern is workable except for the extraordinary vulnerability that an outdoor kitchen has to raccoons! – and that’s what this next little poem starts with. It’s called “True Night” – [Snyder reads “True Night”] – (“Sheath of sleep in the back of the bed:/From outside this dream womb/ Comes a clatter/Comes a clatter/And finally the mind rises up to a fact/Like a fish to a hook/A racoon at the kitchen!” …. “Dusy feet, hair tangling/I stoop and slip back to the/Sheath, for the sleep I still need/ For the waking that comes/ Every day/ With the dawn”)
I’m going to read now from a series.. a little series of poems, little small poems, as guys I used to work with on ships would say, “hand over that small little one” – These are called “Little Songs For Gaia” – I’m only going to read a few of them. Gaia is the reference to the Earth Goddess – “Ge”- or “Gaia” in Greek mythology – (hence “Ge-ology”- the study of the Earth (if you properly pronounce the “g” hard) – it was in Greek, “Gaia-ology”) – but (has since been) brought back to currency by James Lovelock,the biochemist and Lynn Margulis in the so-called Gaia hypothesis – the notion that all of the biosphere is, I guess in some almost literal sense, one organism, and that we are all but tiny tiny parts of that larger structure and strategy . The last CoEvolution Quarterly [sic] has an article, an updated article by James Lovelock called “Daisyworld”, in which Lovelock presents a very simple, elegant, what he considers, proof that the Gaia hypothesis is accurate.
Anyway, working with that scale or notion, I did some of these little poems , just trying to find a way to talk about a perspective like that, or presences like that – [Snyder reads (several) “Little Songs For Gaia”] –
(“Red-shafted/ Flicker -/ sharp cool call…”…”..the droppings of oak-moth caterpillars/nibbling spring leaves/High in the oak limbs above.”
” Hear bucks skirmishing in the night”…”open the door to go out/to the chickencoop for eggs,””
Log trucks go by at four in the morning… “as we think, dream and play/of the world that is carried away”
“Dead doe lying in the rain/on the shoulder/in the gravel I see youe stiff leg/In the headlights/by the roadside/ Dead doe lying in the rain”
“Snowflakes slip into the pond/no regrets/Thin shoots of new-sprouted grass/it grows spring evening snow.”
“THE FLICKERS sharp clear call/ –THIS! THIS! THIS/ in the cool pine breeze”
“Hers was not a/ Sheath/ It was A Quiver.”
(I sent that to Wendell Berry when I first wrote it. Next time I saw him, he said, “Gary, that little poem did me a world of good!”) –
“I am sorry I disturbed you./ I broke into your house last night/ To use the library./ There were some things I had to look up./ A large book fell/ and knocked over others./ Afraid you’d wake and find me /and be truly alarmed/, I left/ Without picking up./ I got your name from the mailbox/ As I fled, to write you and explain.”
The final cycle of poems here [in Axe Handles] is called “Nets”
“Geese Gone Beyond” – (“In the cedar canoe, gliding and paddling on mirror-smooth lake;/ a carpet of canada geese/ afloat on the water…” …”A touch across/the trigger/ The one who is the first to feel to go” – Seeley Lake, Montana X, 79“
“Three Deer One Coyote, Running in the Snow” – (“First three deer bounding and then coyote streaks right after tail flat out… “to study how that news all got put down”) –
– (That’s how you learn tracking, really. That is you put yourself out there enough to see things happen from some quiet vantage point. After seeing it happen, you go and study how to read the tracks, even if it’s just squirrels and lizards – watch what the lizard is doing and then go and see what the traces are, watch two lizards come together and go apart, study how that reads, (then) graduate to squirrels. Dogs and cats are just fine. Even kids. Tire-tracks. And then when you get a chance, especially after a fresh snow, after an overnight snow, like, get out early in the morning when the snow’s still clear and see what you can see happening – And that’s how you learn to read. And the little pointer in that is how much of our education is wrong in that we are asked to read without ever having seen it happen – backwards. One of the most elegant little things I saw was, in Montana, rabbit-tracks coming along, (then) two great swoops in the snow – da-da-da-da-da, like that – On both sides – no more rabbit tracks. A big hawk or eagle, golden eagle (had) just picked him up.
Some short poems from the first of June 1977
Ceanothus blossoms/ and the radiator boiling over/smelling as if Spring”
Fat rear haunches/toes, tail/half a mouse/ at the door at dawn/ our loving cat.”
This year, the third/ of the bullfrog,/ he rarely speaks/Is it drouth and low water/or age?”
Kid coming out of the outhouse /at dusk in pajamas/ still tucking them in/ (says) “how many eggs?”
Last night, the first time,/ raccoons opened/ the refrigerator/ You can’t slow down/progress”
In the rodeo world, there is something called “the grand entry”. During the bicentennial year (1976), they had quite a pageant at the Nevada County Fair for the grand entry into the rodeo. They had all of the cowgirls in the county, practically, riding in patterns, carrying American flags (each one of the flags being one of the different flags, you know, from the thirteen-star flag, up to the fifty-star flag. So this poem is called “The Grand Entry” – Year of the Bicentennial, Nevada County Rodeo – (“The many American flags, whipped around on horseback carried by cowgirls…”…”hamburger offerings all over America, red white and blue”)
A couple of… I’m going to read a couple of what I’m forced to call “public service poems”, reflecting the four years I was on the California Arts Council during the administration of Jerry Brown.The first year I was Chairperson of the California Arts Council living in a remote place in the country without a telephone. Well, I tell you, I swore after that, never again will I be head of a government agency without a phone. At any rate, I had to go twelve miles to get to a pay-phone to conduct state business. That was out on Highway 49. A log-truck thoroughfare, a little town called North San Juan, where an Okinawan lady married to a G.I had come back, and she had opened a little Okinawan noodle shop by the side of Highway 49 so log-truck drivers could have Okinawan noodles and milk-shake(s) for lunches. And so.. It was also a bait shop!.. So that was where I conducted business. on this little pay-phone, (which was not with a roof on it, it was just one of those pay-phones just bolted to a pipe) – So this is called“Under the Sign of Toki’s” (that was her name – “Toki”) – The people in our community didn’t like her husband at all. He was kind of.. something of a bully, you know, with a .357 magnum around and all kind of threats.But she was just wonderful. So they actually made a little local bumper-sticker, vernacular to just that part of the countryside, (and) all it said was “Poor Toki” –(It) drove her husband up the wall! – “ Under The Sign of Toki’s” ( “Is this Palo Alto?’ “No, Wisconsin… so gentle…” – “… “at Tokis ice, worms”)
People ask me what is Jerry Brown doing right now ? As far as I can figure out, he’s doing this – (and when you think about it, this is exactly what he should be doing, as quixotic as it might seem) – he’s not doing anything else, except (sitting) in a little office with a phone and some workers going, and waiting and watching to see if, by any chance, all of the Democratic nominees fumble and stumble and at the last minute they ask him to come in. – That’s politics!
“Talking Late with the Governor about the Budget” – This poem is dedicated to Jerry Brown (“Entering the midnight/ Halls of the capitol…”…”Is it raining tonight at home?”
Governor Jerry Brown – Photograph © by Peter B Choka
“Arts Councils (For Jacques Barzhagi)” – “Because there is no art/ There are artists/Because there are no artists/ We need money/ Because there is no money/We give/Because there is no we/There is art”
Some friends in the mountains got married, a young couple (this is an occasional poem) asked us to come to a party, and I asked him, Bill, Bill Crosby, “What would you like as a wedding present?”, you know, wanting to be useful. And he said, “a splitting maul” – So I said, “Good, do you want an eight-pound or a ten-pound?’ – He said, “I want a ten-pound” – I knew he was serious – So I got him a splitting maul the next time I was down in town at the hardware (store) and then, on the way to the party, bouncing along in my old truck with this maul on the seat beside me, I was thinking, “I just can’t give a nice young couple a maul for a wedding present, like that” – and pulled over to the side of the road and wrote this little poem down (and) put it around the handle with a rubber band and gave it to them. And then, about a week later, I was thinking about it after the party and all, and I thought, “nah, that wasn’t such a bad poem”. So I went back to his place and said, “Do you still have that poem that came with the maul?”. And he said, “Sure”. So I wrote it down, and here it is – “A Maul for Bill and Cindy’s Wedding “ (“Swung from the toes out… as the maul splits all/ may you two stay together”)
I’ve been getting to Alaska every year-and-a-half or so, doing some work up there with poetry, and some work with communities. This is from Dillingham, out in western Alaska, south-western Alaska, ahead of the Bristol Bay area – “Dillingham. Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar” – (I should say I put in several years in logging camps and working on tankers and freighters and have had a pretty good sampling of the bars of the world. So I know whereby I speak in this poem) – “Dillingham. Alaska, The Willow Tree Bar” – (“Drills chatter full of mud and compressed air”… “the pain of the work of wrecking the world”)
A little poem – “Removing the Plate of the Pump on the Hydraulic System of the Backhoe” – “for Burt Hybart” , (who’s now dead, a wizard with heavy equipment, an elderly wizard) – (“Through mud, fouled nuts, black grime,/it opens, a dream of spotless steel…”… machine-fit perfect/swirl of intake and output/ relentless clarity/ at the heart/ of work”)
Now this next poem I’m going to read has a different flavor. In the fall of (19)81, Nanao Sakaki and I spent a month, spent six weeks, in Australia, at the invitation of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australian Arts Council – a very interesting, wonderful connection that happened. Australia is strangely enlightened in some quarters, and one of the strange reasons for their enlightenment is that the Arts Council of Australia, which has, percentage-wise, a gigantic budget for a population of only fourteen million, gives to the Aboriginal people a discriminatory budget of their own, which they can use in any way they wish without any interference from any white administrators and so the Aborigines invited Nanao and me to come to Australia to spend time in the Central Desert with them to discuss the critique of civilization. and the long-range prospect for the survival and ultimate predominance of hunting-an-gathering cultures. Getting up into Central Australian desert country then. we visited, of course, Ayers Rock, that great red sandstone dome that’s out there in the center, miles from anywhere, and it’s called in Pitjantjatjara language – it’s called Uluru. So this is called the “Uluru Wild Fig Song” – [Snyder reads a
five-part poem] – “Soft earth turns straight up/curls out and away from its base/hard and red – a dome – five miles around/Ayers Rock, Uluru…”……”Sit down in the sand/skin to the ground,/a thousand miles of open gritty land/white cockatoo on a salt pan/ hard wild fig on the tongue./this wild fig song.”
I’ll tell you a little story, just one little story. Those people still are.. in the interior desert areas..are the predominant population and still follow the religion. So the boys still are all getting initiated and one tooth is knocked out and a series of scars are cut in the chest and rubbed with charcoal so they become raised and a number of other little things are done. And so you recognize people right away. You’re either initiated or uninitiated. And the girls go through little initiation ceremonies too. And within one group, the women, as part of their initiation, get a little series of scars right here [GS points to the torso] –like a chevron, at an angle of six or seven raised scars. And so.. Of course, nowadays, whenever they’re in town, they all wear clothes (although out in the desert they don’t). So whenever people of this Pitjantjatjara group meet each other, (it’s a) very slow, gentle, warm, (langorous almost), way of moving and talking all the time. The greeting-gesture of an adult man to an adult woman is to stroke her scars – She’s a woman, and of his group – Just like that (GS gestures) just touch the scars, through the dress, intimate.
The last section of “Nets”:
“Breasts” (“That which makes milk can’t/ help but concentrate..”….”And the glittering eyes/Old mother,/ Old father,/ are gay.”
“For a Fifty-Year-Old Woman in Stockholm” – (I wrote this in Sweden last Fall (“Your firm chin, straight brow, tilt of the head.. knees up in an easy squat..”..”for a thousand years dead”)
This is the skeleton of a woman called the Bäckaskog woman, who was excavated at Bäckaskog – about five foot three, and she’s been put back exactly as she was excavated in the historic museum in Stockholm, with her knees up, and her elbows down, and her head tipped forward. Beautiful, delicate brow and chin features and the comment of the physical anthropologists is that the back of the pelvis shows that she gave birth about nine times and that her teeth show that she died at about the age of fifty. And the genetic statistics are that, if she gave birth nine times and four or five of the children survived, then all of us of Western and Northern European extraction carry her genes.
“The Canyon Wren” – for James and Carol Katz – The Stanislaus River runs through central Miwokcountry and down to the San Joaquin Valley. The twists and turns of that river, the layering, swirling, stone cliffs at the gorges, are cut into nine-million-year-old latites. For many seasons lovers of rock and water have danced in rafts and kayaks down this dragon arm of the High Sierra. Not long ago, Jim Katz and friends, river-fanatics all, asked me to shoot the river one time with them to see its face once more before it goes under the rising waters of the New Melones Dam. The song of the canyon wren stayed with us the whole voyage, and at China Camp, I wrote this poem in the dark – Two literary references – Su Shi is also Su Tung-Po – I make reference to Su Shi here and to a poem that he wrote that is called the “Hundred-Pace Rapids” in the eleventh century AD , an account of a river running trip he went on – and the other reference is Dogen, the 11th Century Zen master, who wrote an elegant poetic essay called “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” – Okay – “The Canyon Wren” (“I look up at the cliffs/But we are swept on by downriver..”… “These songs that are here and gone, here and gone to purify our ears”).
“ For All” – “Ah, to be alive/ on a mid-September morn/fording a stream/barefoot, pants rolled up,/holding boots, pack on,/sunshine, ice in the shallows,/northern Rockies./ Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters/ stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes/cold nose dripping/singing inside/creek music, heart music/ smell of sun on gravel/ I pledge allegiance// I pledge allegiance to the soil/ of Turtle Island/one ecosystem/ in diversity/ under the sun/With joyful interpenetration for all”
Thank you very much.
Allen concludes the evening, thanking everyone for coming – “Hope to see you at the workshops, either Timothy Leary’s or William Burroughs’ this weekend – Leary’s at the Boulder Inn and William Burroughs’ workshop at Naropa Institute. For Naropa students who might be interested, there’s a dance going on at Naropa now which you can repair to. So good evening.”
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately thirty-two-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at the end of the tape] &