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On "I Went Into the Maverick Bar"

Gary Snyder
(from an interview with Bill Moyers)

SNYDER: In the early 1970s, I had finally come back to live in the United States, and I had a family and a little place up in the Sierra Nevada. Friends called me to join in on the Black Mesa issue down in New Mexico.

MOYERS: That's when they were trying to build the huge energy complex at the Four Corners, right?

SNYDER: Exactly. Doing open-pit strip-mining on Navajo and Hopi land. There was a group called The Black Mesa Committee, and some of us went down there to see it firsthand and to think about what we could do in the way of writing about it and so forth. We had to pass through Farmington, which is right near the Four Corners plant and which is not a New Mexican town. It's a Texan town full of Texan coal and oil people, and it was considered at that time a pretty heavy town to go through. So we went through it, and not only did we go through it, we stopped at a bar, which was maybe a mistake. Stopping was kind of bold.

MOYERS: Nothing is a mistake that produces a poem like this. What do you mean when you say at the end of the poem, "I came back to myself, / To the real work, to / 'What is to be done.' "

SNYDER: I've been working on that question ever since.

MOYERS: That happens to poets. It takes a long time to discover what you meant.

SNYDER: Oh, I believe so, yes. If you're honest. You might die without knowing, and that's okay, too. Keats said that we must be open to confusion and darkness and doubt, without an irritable grasping after reason. He called that "negative capability." It's part of what a poet has to be capable of. Actually, I brought out a volume of essays some years later called The Real Work explaining that question further, and what I would say in one sentence is that, for Americans, the real work is becoming native to North America.

MOYERS: Meaning . . .

SNYDER: The real work is becoming native in your heart, coming to understand we really live here, that this is really the continent we're on and that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work involves developing a loyalty that goes back before the formation of any nation state, back billions of years and thousands of years into the future. The real work is accepting citizenship in the continent itself.

from The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers.  Ed. James Haba. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Public Affairs Television, Inc., and David Grubin Productions, Inc.

John Whalen-Bridge

The second way of dealing with duality I will call anti-dualistic dualism. The poet takes a stance against duality or dualistic thinking, which is of course an action which proceeds from dualistic mind. But anti-dualistic dualism differs from the failure of non-dualistic awareness (as discussed above) precisely in the poet's awareness of dualistic mind. Snyder signals such an awareness in the final lines of "I Went into the Maverick Bar," lines which trace important divisions in American culture:

That short-haired joy and roughness—
                                America—your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.

We left—onto the freeway shoulders—
                                under the tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffs
                                I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
                                "What is to be done."

The final line, an allusion to Lenin's phrase taken from Chernyshevsky's novel, clearly challenges the thesis that Snyder attempts to forge a poetic of non-duality. The poet in the poem, in masquerade as a maverick bar redneck, attains a moment of awareness, a moment of openness to the joys of country music, but he slams the door on such a moment. Those people in the bar who hold each other "like in High School dances / in the fifties," those people who clearly would not accept long-haired, earringed Snyder, are plenty dualistic themselves; but the poet's dualism is equal and opposite. The reader is expected to understand the poet’s moment of awareness, to sympathize with the poet’s momentary sympathy, and ultimately to concur with the poet’s anti-dualistic dualism. Snyder has written in Earth House Hold that "Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be the given facts of the human condition" (EHH 90). In other words, the struggle for non-dualism can be regarded as narrow minded in certain circumstances. I do not believe this poetic strategy works in "Maverick Bar." The poet asserts "I came back to myself, / To the real work, to / 'What is to be done,"' but nowhere does he establish or explain why the self in the bar is unreal or in any way different from the politically committed/anti-redneck self outside the bar. In "Marin-an" the poet looks down on cities and in "Maverick Bar" he looks down on rednecks: both poems are marred by a leakage of compassionate insight.

The third strategy I will call "undualistic dualism," the idea being that dualism is part of this world no less than anything else. In poems of this nature we come to understand the poem, as an expression of non-duality, even if dualistic understanding exists within the poem. The poet chooses not to repress dualistic understanding, but to set it within a non-dualistic vision. Gary Snyder writes poems which capture, value, present dualistic moments for their own sake, since it would be dualistic to segregate samsara (Buddhist hell—clinging to life, objects, concepts, etc., out of fear of sunyata, the void) from nirvana.

Let us look again at "I Went into the Maverick Bar." Suppose for a moment that Snyder knows full well that the self in the poem comes off as arrogant and partial in his vision. The final reference to Lenin and/or Chernyshevsky brings to mind dialectical materialism, and so we should perhaps understand the poem as concerning the dialectic of selves within non-dualistic reality. If we choose to read this way, the poem is a koan of sorts: how does Buddha free the Third World? The contrarieties of Buddhism and Marxism complement one another in "I Went into the Maverick Bar," but I will later discuss poems which resolve the duality of self and world much more successfully.

from "Gary Snyder's Poetic Right of Speech." Sagetrieb 9.1-2

Kevin McGuirk

"I Went into the Maverick Bar" describes his infiltration of a conservative establishment during a rest from the road: "My long hair was tucked up under a cap / I’d left the earring in the car." Cowboys, country music, a couple dancing, holding each other "like in High School dances / in the fifties"--Snyder acknowledges the innocent appeal of this world: "The short-haired joy and roughness--/ America--your stupidity. / I could almost love you again." But out on the road "under the tough old stars" he "came back" to himself, "to the real work, to /'What is to be done.'" The revolutionary aim of Snyder's work--not just in poetry--is indicated in the citation from Lenin. "Work" in being qualified by the adjective "real" becomes a master term for his cultural project.

From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 165: American Poets Since World War II, Fourth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York at Buffalo. Gale Research, 1996. 1999 The Gale Group.

Patrick D. Murphy

"I Went into the Maverick Bar" has received considerable attention, both positive and negative. In it Snyder recognizes that his own heritage is the same as that of the people he encounters here . . . .

In the end, however, he emphasizes the difference between him and them: he denounces that cultural heritage because it has become destructive, xenophobic, and repressive. The speaker realizes that his responsibility to Turtle Island and to these people--although they are not yet ready to recognize or accept it--requires that he continue to promote his alternative vision. That this vision involves nothing short of complete social transformation is suggested by his defining the "real work" in terms of " 'What is to be done,' " the title of a major theoretical work by Lenin on the necessity of a Marxist revolution led by a vanguard party in Russia at the turn of the century.

From Understanding Gary Snyder. Copyright 1992 by the University of South Carolina.

Charles Molesworth

"I Went into the Maverick Bar," vividly captures the despairing lack of social possibility that is a minor but important theme counterpointing Snyder's utopian vision.

The allusion to Lenin's revolutionary tract in the last line of the poem, along with the use of what is one of Snyder's key phrases, "the real work," poses this anecdote on an edge of ambiguity that in many ways resembles that prized in the art-lyric. Yet the ambiguity here--the unspecified commitment, the feelings of rejection and fear mingled with nostalgia and fondness--actually dissolves with the phrase "I came back to myself." Here Snyder realizes how far his values are from those of many of his ordinary fellow citizens, but he also realizes he must and will maintain those values. Unlike the art-lyric, which traditionally strives for an image of closure that focuses and yet heightens ambiguity, this poem closes with an opening vista of resolution to pursue an ethically formed, intellectually shaped goal.

From Gary Snyder’s Vision. Copyright 1983 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

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