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Accessible Poetry: Gary Snyder

By JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp

Gary Snyder
Gary Snyder

Accessible Poetry discusses works which do not require any prior poetic study and demystifies those which seem to elude readers for want of readily available context. Each monthly column will focus on a poet, a movement, or a poetic device in order to “bring the mountain to Muhammad” for the leery and curious alike.

This month’s Accessible Poetry article focuses on one of my all time favorite poets, Gary Snyder. His work transcends the scope of nature writing, although that is what he is best known for in his poetry.

Poetry is the Eagle of Experience

All the little mice of writing letters,
Sorting papers,
And the rabbits of getting in the wood,
The big Buck of a lecture in town.

Then, walk back into the brush
To keep clearing a trail.
High over even that,
A whistle of wings!
Breath of a song.

Let’s take a closer look at the poem’s movement, which is initially outward before retreating. In the first stanza, the lines one and two connote busy work – tasks often completed alone. The third line speaks more to acts of survival, while the fourth indicates social stature and importance. As the stanza progresses, so do the animals’ stations in life.

So here in the first stanza we have a hierarchy of experiences in life which contain three outer experiences – busy work, survival, and recognition. Snyder also provides the playful alliteration of “big Buck” in the last line, letting the reader know that this recognition is for the ego’s benefit.

The speaker immediately seeks his retreat in the first line of the second stanza by reentering private life. It’s time to regroup – to “clear the trail” and forge one’s way in the inner world. It is in the stanza’s third line that the poem turns. It is comparative in nature, denoted by the word “even.” Yes, retreating and evolving are necessary and good, but “High over even that” is a peak experience, that of poetry. Snyder once again employs alliteration (whistle of wings), but this time it is a soaring, auditory flash of movement. It is not a flap; it is a whistle! In the last line, building of tension is displayed by the least use of language and something called synaesthetic imagery – the mixing of two or more senses. Here, it is kinesthetic (breath) and auditory (song).

Should we forget where we were in the midst of this exhilaration, the looping of the poem back to its title reminds us of that which is associated with the most majestic of animals – the eagle.

*Snyder, Gary. The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952-1998. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. Print.
*This poem has appeared in other works, but I am pulling from my own library.

Until our next poem…JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp

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