Gary Snyder at Poets House

Poets House hosted a members only Afternoon with Gary Snyder on Friday as a “gesture of thanks for good will, support and friendship in poetry.” 

Snyder, 80, was spending a rare few days on the East Coast in support of his film with Jim Harrison, Practice of the Wild. He read his poetry and then discussed his craft with Jonathan Skinner.

Snyder entered the standing-room-only space and mesmerized the audience by sharing jokes, charm and intellect. He began by reading some older poems.  Here’s a partial set-list:

1. Song of the Taste

2. Word Basket Woman

3. How Poetry Comes to Me

4. For Philip Zenshin Whalen

5. The Kannon of Asakusa Senso-ji  Short Grass Temple Sumida River

During his reading, Snyder mentioned how important his mentors Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth were to him in developing his own sense of poetry.  Snyder said he is thrilled that with the release of Spicer’s My Vocabulary Did This To Me, a new generation is now discovering the “brilliant” and “unforgiving” poet.

Snyder was joined onstage by Jonathan Skinner (Politcal Catcus Poems),who quoted from Snyder’s “How Poetry Comes to Me” — “ I have to go out to the edge of the fire” — and also mentioned Spicer’s “dictation” of poems. He asked Snyder, “where do poems come from?” 

“Poetry is not the same as prose. You can flog yourself to write a paper but you can not flog yourself to write a poem,” Snyder said, before quoting Duncan: “Poetry has to have two things: music and magic.” 

Snyder explained further.

“Poetry comes from keeping your mind open and available, and not filling your mind with schedules—one has to have the space for and be receptive to a poem [when it] comes,” he said. “Some poems have a lot of music and little magic, some have a lot of magic and little music and some have a balance of the two.” 

A prose poem has some of “magic’s trickery,” he said. “Just enough to make it a poem.”

Skinner referenced the essay “The Edict of Freedom” from Snyder’s book of essays Practice of the Wild. He asked how to keep language “wild.”  Snyder said that he considers himself to write in “Americano,” which is “divergent” from English.

He said that recognizing the divergence of language is necessary in knowing its “wildness” — knowing where it came from, where it might be going, how much of it is regional and how much of it is “empirical.”

The conversation then shifted to the importance of Ezra Pound on Snyder’s work and ideas of poetry.  Snyder said that he fell in love with Chaucer, then traced Chaucer to Pound, then went from Pound to classical Chinese, which had a tremendous influence on “Riprap.”  Snyder said the two things he learned from Pound were “quality of sound,” noting that few poets have an ear like Pound, and “the possibility of a long complex poem woven as a map in a non-linear way.” Without Pound, Ginsberg would not have written, “Howl,” nor would Snyder have written “Rivers and Mountains Without End.”

Skinner asked where Snyder gets his  “optimism”  in spite of the constant destruction of the natural world. Snyder chuckled, and said he wasn’t “optimistic” — only “good-natured.”  He said he thinks that the world is in awful shape, but that each person can only do “what they are given, no, each person must do what you’re given. In your time and place if you are given it — a voice, responsibility, action — you better [use] it.” 

Snyder closed out with two new poems. The first was a prose poem titled “Stories in the Night.” The second was called “A Letter to M.A. who Lives Far Away.”  A brief Q&A took place after the reading, and was followed by a lovely reception.

Gary Snyder won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Turtle Island.

-steven karl