Sunday, February 12, 2006

Piute Creek


In ‘Ripples on the Surface’, the last poem of Gary Snyder’s No Nature (a selection of his poetry up to 1992) he says that “Nature is not a book, but a performance, a high old culture” of “ever-fresh events”. Snyder has always thought about the relationship between books and landscape. In the very first poem of No Nature, ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, the young poet had written of being immersed in nature, miles above the cities, able to say “I cannot remember things I once read.” Two other poems in his first published collection Riprap talk about books. In ‘Milton by Firelight’ (written at Piute Creek in August 1955) he rejects Paradise Lost, a “silly story”: once the fire is down, it is too dark to read, but he can still hear the sound of a bell-mare, reminding him of a day’s work in the summer heat. And in ‘Piute Creek’, looking up at the “sky over endless mountains” the poet finds “words and books / Like a small creek over a ledge / Gone in the dry air.”

2 comments:

aurelia said...

The opening lines of ‘Ripples on the Surface of Water’ bring the Wordsworths immediately to mind. It has been suggested that the first three lines (“Ripples on the surface of the water-/were silver salmon passing under-different/from the ripples caused by breezes”)are a passage from the poet’s journal (Scott Slovic, ‘Environment'. March, 1999). Seamus Heaney reminded his readers in his 'Guardian' article (11.02.06) of the poet’s love of the basics of nature: “ordinary things are presented to the mind in an unusual way and made interesting by the poet’s capacity to trace in them - truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature”. He quotes Wordsworth’s ‘The Table Turned’ : “Up! up! my Friend and quit your books;/ ... “Let Nature be your Teacher. ... One impulse from a vernal wood/ may teach you more of man./ Of moral evil and of good,/ Than all the sages can”. Gary Snyder’s “Nature not a book” surely echoes these sentiments.

Heaney quoted William Hazlitt’s comments on Wordsworth to be found in ‘The Spirit of the Age’. Hazlitt wrote that ‘”to the author of the Lyrical Ballads nature is a kind of home; and he may be said to take a personal interest in the universe : ... ”To him the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Hazlitt suggested that Wordsworth admired the works of Rembrandt: “ In the way in which that artist works something out of nothing, and transforms the stump of a tree, a common figure into an ideal object by the gorgeous light and shade thrown upon it”.

Seamus Heaney wrote that Wordsworth “had grown up visited by sensations of immensity, communing with a reality he apprehended beyond the world of the senses”. Gary Snyder, too, seems to be suggesting that the minutiae of life in their everlasting, active “performance” are transformed into an inclusive system that is difficult to fully comprehend: “the inclusively defined ‘”house’” (apparently recalling the Greek word, oikos, as in ecology) of the poem’s final line implies habitat for the ‘”performance’”of active phenomena, human and nonhuman"(Slovic).

Plinius said...

"Up! up! my Friend and quit your books" is a sentiment few disagree with today, although the moral imperative of seeing nature for what it is, outside the prism of art can get a bit tedious: see Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain for example (a book named after the Han Shan poems that Gary Snyder translated in the companion volume to Riprap).

Incidentally, I remember a great episode of Frazier ('Cranes Unplugged') in which Martin reminded Frazier that for all his complaints about Frederick's lack of interest in Nature, Frazier himself had spent his childhood camping holidays indoors reading Walden without ever actually getting outside.