Poet of the Sierras

Gary Snyder’s first new poetry collection in years takes on the disturbances of the 20th century with images from our own backyard

Gary Snyder hopes his new poems will contribute to “a deeper way of thinking” about disturbances, both ecological and human.

Gary Snyder hopes his new poems will contribute to “a deeper way of thinking” about disturbances, both ecological and human.

An accomplished poet, ecologist and teacher, Gary Snyder has published his first collection of new poems in more than 20 years. Not only does Danger on Peaks contain a great many poems that local readers will find delightful—short meditations on mistaking a rare sighting of aurora borealis for a wildfire in the foothills, or a lovely poem about the Yuba Goldfields’ visual similarities to the debris left by glaciers—but it’s also a meditation on life in an era of upheaval.

Snyder, who won the Pulitzer Prize for 1974’s Turtle Island, as well as the Bollingen Prize for his entire body of work, has spent a lifetime exploring the relationships of nature, language and spirituality. Trained as an anthropologist, he’s studied and lived extensively in Asia, particularly in Japan, and many of his poems find form in his adaptations of traditional Japanese poetry. This new collection, which opens with his initial climb of Mount St. Helens and closes with an envoy for humanity’s dead, takes its tone from what he calls “disturbances,” after the ecological term for sudden or catastrophic change.

Opening with a series of poems (several of them prose pieces) about Snyder’s various climbs up Mount St. Helens—the first of which occurred the same week that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Danger on Peaks might seem at first to refer to the difficulties of mountaineering. However, it’s not that simple. The title, according to Snyder, who spoke with SN&R recently by phone, isn’t what most people would expect. “I was happy to be able to use the title Danger on Peaks and come up with something that probably doesn’t fit with anybody’s idea of what ‘danger on peaks’ would be about. It’s not about mountaineering danger, unless you might say there’s danger in being at the pinnacle. The true danger is being at the pinnacle of prosperity and power in the world,” he said.

That danger is ever-present in these poems of traumatic events and displacements, and a sense of it provides what Snyder referred to as an “intuitive narrative curve.” For readers, this means that the poems all fit together, both subtly and provocatively, in a sort of narrative arc.

“It’s intuitive narrative,” Snyder said, “in that we’re talking about a poetic narrative, not nearly so obvious or clearly blocked out like plot.”

The book follows a loose timeline: It opens on Mount St. Helens in August 1945, during Snyder’s first climb, and then traces the mountain through the volcanic eruption in May 1980 and the land’s subsequent rebirth. The concluding section contains poems that detail the destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas by mortar-toting Taliban in March 2001, and segues into the devastation of 9/11. In between these opening and closing sections are sections with shorter poems, many about daily life in the foothills, some taking a longer look at the natural world and some exploring more personal, if not less traumatic, losses, such as the death of Snyder’s sister in a car accident. It’s an epic scale of endeavor.

“The reader is making their own connections as they go,” Snyder said. “They’re expected to be involved, as in most poetry.”

Snyder’s friend John Suiter told him that the book was written “under the sign of fire,” and Snyder thought that was an appropriate description. “Well, why not? We’re talking about unleashing atomic weapons, a major volcanic explosion,” he noted. “Then, in subtle ways, the theme of fire and explosion carries along until it picks up again more obviously, with the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan and then the World Trade towers.”

He referred to a talk called “The Fire Sermon,” in which the Buddha Shakyamuni explains that everything in the world is “transforming so rapidly it’s like a fire.” This is the same sentiment Snyder expresses in the poem “Loose on Earth.” In that poem, said Snyder, “I quote Robinson Jeffers as saying that humanity is kind of like a slow explosion.”

The poem describes all of humanity as part of the shock wave of that explosion: “we’re loose on earth / half a million years / our weird blast spreading— / and after, / rubble—millennia to weather, / soften, fragment, / sprout, and green again.”

Snyder explained, “So, those poems are all in the mark of fire. Fire is rapid change, and part of the theme of the book is the complexity of disturbance and destruction. On the one side, it is horribly destructive to us, and on another side, it is what we live in the midst of endlessly, constantly, anyway.”

It helps, he said, if we remember that these sudden upheavals are part of the natural world. “In ecology, we say ‘disturbance,’ which is very useful,” he explained. “It helps us if we understand that nature is full of disturbances—a beautiful, virgin old-growth forest is also a survivor of many disturbances: fires, blow-downs, mudslides, insect invasions, who knows? Volcanic eruptions knocking down hundreds of thousands of acres of trees—which doesn’t excuse humans from their responsibility to think wisely about it.”

It is thinking wisely about cataclysmic change, the trauma and upheaval of life in this century, that will draw many readers to the poems in the final section of the book, “After Bamiyan.”

Snyder recalled that, in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks on the United States, many poets were looking for ways to respond in their art. “Shortly after 9/11, there was quite a movement among some poets to write poems about it; probably several thousand poems were written, and a large number of those were published, some of them rhetorical and quite long,” he said. But he didn’t write about it then.

“I couldn’t write. I couldn’t make a contribution to those groups of poems,” he remembered. “People wrote to me and asked me, ‘Are you writing something about 9/11?’ and I had to say, ‘It hasn’t come to me yet.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to rush this.’” It’s easy, he said, to start writing something in the immediate pain and outrage that follows such an event. He felt that if he waited, he would find something deeper than that initial emotional response. So, he waited.

He was surprised to find, as he was moving into the last phases of Danger on Peaks, that it was becoming clear to him where it needed to go and that he was ready to write about the catastrophic events of 2001. “I made these connections, both in my life and in the world, between these different levels of impermanence and destruction, and saw something larger than anything you would facilely call ‘terror.’ We can’t think that way. So, we have to engage—there’s a maturing process that I hope to contribute to with this book of poetry. A deeper way of thinking about damage, danger, death and loss than just suddenly pinning it on a word.”

Some of the poems, especially those in the penultimate section, “Dust in the Wind,” are written in a sort of hybrid American version of the Japanese haibun form. In the traditional haibun, a block of prose presents a subject and then is followed by a haiku. Snyder has adapted this traditional form into something uniquely his: a prose introductory section that provides context, followed by a short poem. The prose section sets the scene or, on occasion, gives a bit of history or technical information. Then, what Snyder calls the “brief poem” and uses in place of haiku provides a meditation on the subject. But it’s not all serious, as Snyder is quick to note. “The meditation may contain some surprise in it, a different turn or twist that you didn’t expect, and that makes it fun,” he said.

He doesn’t attempt to take on the cultural implications of haiku, and he stresses that most Americans really don’t understand all the implications of the tradition, which requires haiku to fit into one of the four seasons of the year and to use key words, some very subtle, that place the haiku in the proper season. “It’s culturally very deep,” he explained. “I really admire the haiku tradition, but I couldn’t put myself in the place to say, ‘I’m going to write it.’”

One of the elements of Snyder’s brief poems that makes them readily enjoyable is the ever-present, somewhat quirky sense of humor. For example, “April Calls and Colors” takes its spring aura not from blossoming wildflowers or cute baby animals, but from “green steel wastecans” and “a backup beeper.” That sense of humor, though, is one more difference between Snyder’s “brief poems” and traditional haiku.

The humorous or ironic is not really allowed in traditional haiku. “There’s another form,” Snyder said, “that Americans have not heard much of, called senryu. Senryu are written in the haiku form, but they can be sardonic, cynical, parodies, or have elements of a sexual nature. They’re about human affairs and human foibles.” It’s a form he makes use of in Danger on Peaks, particularly in the book’s third section, “Daily Life.”

But the poems closest to his heart are those about the Sierras and the surrounding foothills. His two favorites in the book, “No Shadow” and “Glacier Ghosts,” are close looks at his favorite places, and both provide glimpses of the contrast between change and permanence that is the hallmark of Danger on Peaks. “No Shadow” is set on the lower Yuba River, in the gravel zone, and contrasts the shadow of a cargo plane from Beale Air Force Base with the “no-shadow” of a hunting osprey.

And “Glacier Ghosts” takes him to the core of what he loves about the Sierra Nevada. “I like the whole image of ‘Glacier Ghosts,’” he said. “I feel the whole Sierra Nevada are full of the ghosts of the ice fields that used to cover them. That was only 10,000 years ago. It’s recent.” The poem itself is emblematic of the “disturbance” at the heart of all the poetry in this new collection: “Things spread out / rolling and unrolling, packing and unpacking, / —this painful impermanent world.”