Live from Reed, it’s Gary Snyder 52 years ago

Gary Snyder , Lincoln High and Reed College graduate, made a return appearance in Portland Friday. In the Oregonian Jeff Baker reports the discovery of a tape of Gary Snyder reading at Reed College on February 14, 1956. Rather, it is a cassette copy a Reed student made twenty-five years ago from the original reel-to-reel tape that is now missing. Recall back in February of this year Scatter commented on Reed’s release of the tape of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” that same night and the likelihood that a second tape had captured Snyder’s reading, too. The release of the Ginsberg tape inspired the Reed graduate, Portland photographer Steve Halpern, to offer up the cassette he had made while doing research in Reed’s library. Baker’s story includes Snyder’s reaction to the discovery. Baker also reports that Snyder’s reading from the seminal work “Myths & Texts” gives a glimpse of how the text published in 1960 evolved from the early version he read at Reed.

Jack Kerouac wrote a fictionalized account of Snyder and Ginsberg during this time in The Dharma Bums, still my sentimental favorite among Kerouac’s novels. You can listen to the tape at Reed’s website, which also has extensive notes discussing the variations between the read and published versions of the poems. The recording is remarkably clear. Snyder’s rich outdoor voice complements nicely the environmental themes of the poems. In addition to “Myths and Texts,” Snyder read versions of poems published in later books, including Riprap (1959), although he did not read the title poem in that collection. Too bad, really, for “Riprap” is Snyder’s call to arms, hands and feet as a poet, as well as to the voice, mind and heart that grows through his work from beginning to end.

Here is “Riprap”:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way.
straying planets,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles –
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

Riprap, the use of irregular shaped rocks, boulders and broken concrete to form walls, paths and dikes to stem erosion, is here a metaphor for poetry-but just barely metaphor. Riprap is Snyder’s way of laying down words, solid and capacious, the same way he’s done anything as seaman, fire lookout, logger, sustainable farmer, Buddhist or “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.” His roots and his vocation are human-formed and human-scale, irregular and built as we go.

Contrast this with another poem of roots and vocation, Seamus Heaney’s equally-powerful “Digging”:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney’s digging with “squat pen” is total metaphor. The love and respect for father and grandfather are there, but the blunt, crisp language (“the curt cuts of an edge”) marks our place in the physical world in a different way. Heaney looks back at the past, and from a window looks down on his father’s back. The political and moral digging is intellectual rather than hands on.

In the taped reading at Reed, in prefatory remarks to “Myths and Texts,” Snyder says the terms are taken from ethnography; myths, the stories of the tribe handed down from prehistory, and texts, the personal stories of the living. In poem after poem, Snyder has riprapped those elements together in a way that brings nature and our archaic past into the human “living” room.

It is “the common work of the tribe,” as he says in Earth House Hold.