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On "Straight-Creek--Great Burn"

Robert Kern

In a more recent poem, on the other hand, Snyder seems to go to the opposite extreme, offering an explicit, self-conscious instance of metonymic closure that underlines rather than hides the differences between the poem as a poem and its sources in external experience. At the end of "Straight-Creek--Great Burn," the poet sees (or hears) "A whoosh of birds" fly up into the sky. Their flying is "all apart" and yet also "of one . . . mind," and so constitutes an image of unity in anarchy. Finally,

They arc and loop & then
their flight is done.
they settle down.
end of poem.

The simplest way to read this ending is as a reminder of the close relationship between the poem and the experience it is based on. When the experience ends, as in "December," so does the poem. Yet to say "end of poem" is to call quite explicit attention to the differences between the poem as an aesthetic structure and the experience it reflects, which exhibits no such closure, or at least contains nothing that corresponds to the utterance "end of poem." That utterance, we might say, is in excess of the facts upon which the poem is based, and to that extent violates their silence (as well as the poem's). On the other hand, Snyder could he trying to regard the experience, the flight and settling down of the birds, as itself a poem or aesthetic event. But with this reading we are forced back into the contradiction between the wish for material which "says itself" and the unavoidable knowledge that the poet is an interpreter speaking for silent things. Indeed, that knowledge seems clear in Snyder's explicit interpretation of the birds' unruly flight as an instance, nonetheless, of the essential order of nature.

More than anything else, it is this explicitness and the didacticism of his recent work, however much demanded by a sense of ethical and ecological urgency, that signal Snyder's movement away from the poem as silent form. His poetry has always had an underlying ethical and didactic dimension, but the work in Turtle Island is more and more addressed to an audience, and to that extent seems increasingly willing to moralize overtly and to take on the status and style of more conventional kinds of poetic discourse--discourse that an audience can readily follow even at a public reading.

From Ohio Review (1981)

Bonnie Costello

Gary Snyder's bold project is to restore the imagination to the stance of the primitive. He has come closer than any other American poet to imagining the world as one of Stevens's future primitives in "Sunday Morning," "chanting orgy to the sun," might. Communal, ritualistic, boisterously physical, utopian, this is a consciousness fully occupied by the present, ecstatically embracing necessity. It is a form of vision which Stevens prophesies but never adopts, his Platonism and his need for poetic authority always balking at such reductions. But Snyder is not altogether different from Stevens in this, for his "primitive" imagination and the body in which it is invested remain figurative in his best work. The need for poetic authority struggles with his poetic thesis so that the poems often equivocate as to whether the body is material or tropological. When it is material, poetic authority is reduced but replaced by prophetic, ideological authority.

What Snyder's theory does not account for, but what his poetry at its best demonstrates, is that his primitive is inescapably rhetorical. His cultural and poetic project is one of reinhabitation (to become natives rather than invaders of the earth).


"Straight Creek—Great Burn" (Turtle Island 52-53) is a clear example of the spatial imagination and its treatment of history. It also indicates Snyder's gradual movement away from objectivist configurations and his turn to a passive, scenic mode. The first part of the poem characteristically describes a landscape without inhabitants or witness, a vision free of human agency:

Lightly, in the April mountains—
                    Straight Creek,
dry grass freed again of snow
& the chickadees are pecking
last fall's seeds
            fluffing tail in chilly wind,
Avalanche piled up cross the creek
                and chunked-froze solid—
water sluicing under; spills out
             rock lip pool, bends over,
             braided, white, foaming,
returns to trembling
             deep-dark hole.

The description, like others by Snyder, emphasizes movement: solid elements are included in order to be enfolded with the general flow. We see a tableau of frozen chunks the result of avalanches, boulders indicating flow near lines, and later "tumbled talus rock / of geosyncline warm sea bottom."

This poem also illustrates again the tension in Snyder's work between materialist and mythic vision and between the cure of the ground and the urge to transcendence. The eye moves naturally, but also rhetorically, from the sense of the past arising out of spatial awareness to the "eternal / azure," and it is in this mythic realm that the beholder is mentioned:

us resting on dry fern and

Shining Heaven
change his feather garments

A whoosh of birds
swoops up and round
tilts back
almost always flying all apart
and yet hangs on!

never a leader ,
all of one swift

dancing     mind.

They arc and loop & then
their flight is done.
they settle down.
end of poem.

Shining Heaven becomes momentarily figurative, a Keatsian bird born out of the particular birds that launch the poem with the processes of nature: "pecking / last fall's seeds." But Snyder quickly returns from this mythic moment to another naturalistic one, grounding the poetic imagination in the material rather than identifying it with some eternal principle, as the young Keats might have done. The poetic mind attempts to identify itself with the "empty / dancing mind" of the birds, to yield to instinct and resist its will to dominate ("never a leader"). The poem ends with the arc of the birds' flight, though it had not been controlled by it earlier. The symbolist eternal azure cannot become the focal point; earthly birds, not celestial ones, provide the model for poetic invention. But a lively tension develops in the poem among three points of view -that of the heaven gazers, that of the birds, and that of the poet, which is reduced to that of the birds at the end, but only then.

Snyder's relaxation of figurative invention, and his forsaking of it at extreme moments, leads him in his most recent work to a laconic and even prosaic style, and increasingly to the substitution of ideological for poetic authority. What used to be organizing tropes are now reduced to images or subjects in an anecdotal frame. The structure of the poem "River in the Valley," for instance, in some ways resembles that of "Straight Creek," but the poem rests passively in the scenic mode. Stanzas begin "[1] We cross the Sacramento River at Colusa . . . [2] Gen runs in little circles looking up . . . [3] Kai leans silent against a concrete pier . . . [4] I pick grass seeds from my socks" (Axe Handles 58).

It is hard to muster enthusiasm for the symbolic action of someone picking grass seed from his socks. Snyder seems compelled to make a bald statement of his theme at the end, uncertain of its presence in particulars, unassisted by poetic authority: "the river is all of it everywhere, / all flowing at once, / all one place"

For Snyder the poetic mind is fundamentally passive, "Like Compost," he says (Axe Handles 75). Williams, too, saw poetry in agrarian terms and called for an attachment to soil, but the poet was for Williams a composing antagonist. Snyder's entire project hopes to end such antagonism, to harvest the very different fruits of an unalienated intelligence.

from "The Soil & Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary Literature 30:3 (Fall 1989): 412-433.

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