Monday, 15 of July of 2024

Book Review: Collected Poems of Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder in 1958

By Dennis Fritzinger

Gary Snyder is an ecosystem. His Collected Poems reads like a Field Guide, and like any good field guide touches the smallest and the largest elements in the field we’re studying. In the case of Gary, those range from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mount Saint Helens (or Loo-Wit), to the cobbles used to build a mountain trail, and everything in between, people, horses, you name it, not to mention stars and galaxies. But don’t let subjects like stars and galaxies make you think Gary only writes about the sublime, he’s equally, if not more, at home writing about such mundane things as fixing a stew or stopping at a service station to gas up a car.

None of us outlives the flesh and bones of the body we’re born with, so the most afterlife we can possibly hope for is our words and the words of people who know us. Collected Poems is so full of autobiographical elements like Gary’s trips to Japan, India, and Australia, that it’s easy to overlook how often he brings friends into the picture, and not just friends, usually through their names and a brief description, but influences, people he has read and absorbed or at least read about and acknowledges. Gary is like a cartographer drawing a map; he wants to get in all the essential features.

For me, some poems stand out, and others are best appreciated for what they add to the Big Picture of Gary’s life, the aforementioned ecosystem. Some poems contain just a few words; they are like Kokopelli’s word-basket when it gets light. Other poems contain many words, and they’re like Kokopelli’s word-basket when it’s at its heaviest. Mountains and Rivers Without End, Gary’s epic poem, is many word baskets strung together. To really appreciate it you have to make many trips back and forth over connected territory. Even when it isn’t obvious what territories are being connected, they are all under the umbrella, the ecosystem, of Gary’s life.

One of Shakespeare’s characters asserts that life has Seven Ages. Starting with the third, I’ll call them the lover, the soldier, the philosopher, the retiree, and the last stage. Collected Poems follows the progression in roughly the same order, since it follows the order of publication of Gary’s books, with only some uncollected poems and notes at the back. It’s a huge volume and a huge amount of work went into it. It’s also a huge gift to its readers, new or familiar to the poems, and with the carefully compiled notes at the back it’s like looking at a territory with a hand lens and a field guide at your fingertips.