Snyder Riprap

The author’s copy of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder.

Schuykill Valley Journal Online published my essay on Gary Snyder’s “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” last month. Here are the introductory paragraphs and a link to the full essay:

To get to Sourdough Mountain Lookout, you hike a good five miles, gaining 5000 feet or more of elevation. The terrain is rugged and the hiking strenuous, but that’s to be expected in the Northern Cascades. Located 130 miles northeast of Seattle, Washington, the Forest Service opened one of its first lookouts here in 1915.

The view from the lookout station, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, is a postcard in every direction: Hozomeen Mountain and Desolation Peak looking north, Jack and Crater mountains out east, Pyramid and Colonial peaks to the south with Ross and Diablo lakes directly below, and, as if not to be outdone, the Picket Range is off to the west. This is impressive country and you can understand why it’s been an inspiration to poets and writers for generations.

Poet Gary Snyder was 23 when he worked as a fire-spotter on Sourdough Mountain in 1953.

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snyderToday is poet Gary Snyder’s birthday. He is 83 years old.

I studied with Gary and he had a big impact on my poetry, which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog.

You won’t find traces of his influence in my work, stylistically at any rate; rather you’ll find it in my deep engagement of nature, in how I pay attention, and “be crafty and get the work done.”

Happy birthday Gary!

Here is Gary Snyder’s poem, “Old Bones”:

Old Bones

 

Out there walking round, looking out for food,

a rootstock, a birdcall, a seed that you can crack

plucking, digging, snaring, snagging,

barely getting by,

 

no food out there on dusty slopes of scree—

carry some—look for some,

go for a hungry dream.

Deer bone, Dall sheep,

bones hunger home.

 

Out there somewhere

a shrine for the old ones,

the dust of the old bones,

old songs and tales.

 

What we ate—who ate what—

how we all prevailed.

–Gary Snyder

 

And here is a recording of Gary reading “Old Bones”:

 

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Almost a decade ago, the Alaska Quarterly Review published a poem of mine called “Naming.” I thought of it today because a good friend mentioned it in a message to me on Twitter. (She had overheard a conversation about magpies I was having with another friend.)

I’m not around magpies much these days, living on the East Coast. I miss them. Magpies, all corvids, really, are a totem for me (bears, especially polar bears are my other totem). Highly intelligent birds with bad reputations, they are a lot of fun.

Gary Snyder once told me and a group of other students that we should find totems for our poetry, “this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must all investigate.” He also told us to “fear not science,” to know what’s what in the ecosystem, to study mind and language, and that our work should be grounded in place. Most of all, he instructed, “be crafty and get the work done.”

Advice that also, curiously enough, reminds me of magpies.

Here is my poem “Naming”:

The way a name lingers in the snow
when traced by hand.
The way angels are made in snow,
all body down,
arms moving from side to ear to side to ear—
a whisper, a pause;
the slight, melting hesitation–

The pause in the hand as it moves
over a name carved in black granite.
The “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,”
of great-tailed grackles
at southern coastal marshes,
or the way magpies repeat,
“Meg, Meg, Meg”–

The way the rib cage of a whale
resembles the architecture of I. M. Pei.
The way two names on a page
separated by thousands of lines,
pages, bookshelves, miles, can be connected.
The way wind hums through cord grass;
rain on bluestem, on mesquite–

The tremble in the sandpiper
as it skitters over tidal mudflats,
tracking names in the wet silt,
silt that has been building
since Foreman lost to Ali,
since Troy fell — building until
we forget names altogether–

The way children, who know only
syllables endlessly repeated,
connect one moment to the next by
humming, humming, humming–
The way magpies connect branches
into thickets for their nesting–

The curve of thumb as it caresses
the letters in the name of a loved one
on the printed page, connecting
each letter with a trace of oil
from fingerprint to fingerprint,
again and again and again—

Scott Edward Anderson
Alaska Quarterly Review, Summer 2001

Here is an Mp3 recording of me reading “Naming” Live at the Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on September 22, 2008: Scott Edward Anderson’s “Naming” (Note: there is a 10-second delay at the beginning of the file.)

Postscript: And here is a filmpoem of “Naming” made by Alastair Cook in 2011: Naming

Thanks to Peter Semmelhack, who asked for poetry recommendations via Twitter, I made a list of the 5 books of “contemporary” US poetry I can’t live without:

Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III

Robert Lowell, Life Studies

Gary Snyder, Turtle Island

Donald Hall, Kicking the Leaves

Robert Hass, Praise

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What are the 5 books of poetry you can’t live without?