On Gary Snyder, 'Myths & Texts'

Published in 1960 by Totem Press, Gary Snyder’s Myths & Texts (completed in 1956) gives the first indication that his career would be devoted to the long poem as well as the short poem. Anthologized as the author of lyrics like “Nooksack Valley,” “The Bath,” and “True Night,” Snyder also worked away for forty years on the 152-page long Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, 1996). Myths & Texts initiates Snyder’s struggle with the great modernists, many of whom attempted poems of length as well, and each of whom also discovered, like Snyder, that beyond a hundred or so lines, anything calling itself a “poem” would usually prove to be a work of interconnected sections. The form of such a poem gestures less toward a completed unity than the possibility of endlessness (a friend once commented that Mountains and Rivers really was “endless”), of infinite, spiraling speculation and freeplay.

Dividing the poem into three parts — “Logging,” “Hunting,” “Burning” — Snyder then subdivides those parts into numbered sections averaging a page in length. By beginning with the activity of logging, he means to emphasize the human will to harvest the riches of the vegetable world, a process as common to ancient China as to the forests of his native Northwest. It is not a process from which he stands apart: Snyder’s typical stance is one of complicity, not judgment and distance, and he too cuts down trees in order to make a living. Everything goes, leaves, disappears — is in some way used.  Besides, the kids may “grow up an go to college” and not “come back,” but the “little fir-trees do.” [1]

Similarly, in “Hunting,” Snyder begins by saying “a man’s got to eat.” [2] In order to justify or simply to live with the killing involved, cultures have invented stories asserting a continuity between the human and the animal world, between “man and beast.” And so we get the myth of the girl taken home by the bear who will give birth to slick dark children with sharp teeth. In retelling this story, Snyder glosses the meaning of the poem’s title. The sheer human need to eat is the “text,” the unassailable fact. The “myth” is the story we make up in order to rationalize the need.

For all the hard materiality of Snyder’s vision, with its generous attention to “diatoms, lava, and chipmunks,” he concludes his poem with “Burning,” with the awareness that all we see and eat and love is part of the “windy fire” of a creation always in flux and always passing away. [3] The “real-world flesh and stone” is in fact composed of energy caught up in “endless cycles / Forms within forms falling.” [4] As a metaphysical claim, “it’s all falling or burning” is perhaps true enough. [5] For Snyder, what mitigates the terror in the claim is human making: “Poetry a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics.” [6] A riprap is a trail of stone laid down over smooth, slippery granite so as to make a walkable path. Snyder not only actually built ripraps, but he sees a poem as itself constructing what Blake called a limit of contraction, something upon which we can stand and rejoice.

The searching, recursive structure of Myths & Texts provides one such structure. The poem plays, it borrows, it crosses cultures, it proceeds by self-questioning. We can see this in its first and in its last line. “The morning star is not a star,” Snyder begins, in a somewhat pedantic correction of our habit of calling a planet (Venus) a star. [7] He begins, that is, by trying to be “true” to the mere text of things. He ends as follows: “The sun is but a morning star.” [8] Here he is not correcting, he is quoting. In appropriating the last sentence of Walden, Snyder acknowledges his indebtedness to an American precursor who also went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately. More importantly, he revises both the meaning and the spirit of his poem’s opening line. Here, at the end, Snyder lets go of fact-bound accuracy and opts instead for a liberating metaphor. The sun is hardly a morning star: as a natural fact is, it is growing old, burning itself out. As a human experience, however, the sun is what we awake to, even what we get up for. So, at the end, the abiding human capacity for awakening overrides all merely physical entropies and allows us to see the world anew insofar as we are able to say it anew. The myth survives the texts.


[1] Gary Snyder, Myths & Texts (New York: Totem Press, 1969), 6.
[2] Ibid., 19.
[3] Ibid., 44; Gary Snyder, The Back Country (New York: New Directions, 1971), 13.
[4] Myths & Texts, 34–5
[5] Ibid., 46.
[6] Ibid., 43.
[7] Ibid., 4.
[8] Ibid., 48.

Commentary on Larry Eigner's 'On My Eyes'

A response to Charles Bernstein's 1960 symposium presentation

Eigner’s On My Eyes, which was published in 1960, was “edited” as nearly all Larry’s books were during his lifetime: by other hands. Apparently it was thought — and I’m not clear about exactly why this was deemed to be necessary — that Larry was unable to do it himself, and needed this “help” to do it. It may have been as a result of his modesty, or his sense of mental “confusion” which was an effect of his prose writing — people tended to think he was scattered, or unfocused, or perhaps they thought his disability made him “disorganized.” So what we have, with On My Eyes, is a manuscript cobbled together out of a mass of work selected over the preceding decade, though the kind  and style of writing which Levertov chose and arranged was clearly biased towards a specific preference. The work in On My Eyes is stylistically rather unlike most of the writing previously published in From the Sustaining Air and Look At the Park. And it’s also rather unlike the work which appears in his next major collection, another time in fragments. In other words, it feels atypical. Williams’s decision to pair it with Callahan’s photographs had nothing to do with Larry, except perhaps in Williams’s mind. Though the book itself feels professional and carefully presented, there’s a distinct sense that Larry’s work is being shaped by other hands. This imposition, or interposition, is an important issue in Larry’s writing career; it reinforces our sense that his original texts were too rough to be taken on their own terms. This imposition did not permit his readers to see how clear and specific his approach to the page was; i.e., the setting in equivalent spaced typeface.  People (editors) thought Larry needed to be “translated” into the conventions of “verse” and typography.  This misconception was was a guiding feature in the reading audience’s apprehension of his work all his writing life. This isnt necessarily “wrong” or “right” but something that needs to be acknowledged in any discussion of his writing and publications.   

I also have published three blog posts about editing Eigner:



Rexroth to Kerouac

Bob Perelman’s “hats off to Donald Allen” sent me back to The New American Poetry. [1] Allen’s brief preface sketches out an open field of postwar American poetry, from the modernists to a “strong third generation” which “has at last emerged.” [2] Bob remarked upon the curiosity of Allen’s “second generation”: his motley list surprises us today by presenting a strange — and perhaps welcome — bump in the road from the modernist masters to “our avant-garde.” Bishop and Lowell are understandable in 1960; Denby and Zukofsky, remarkable; and then there’s Rexroth.

Kerouac famously captured this perverse elder statesman of the Beats in his 1958 The Dharma Bums: as Rheinhold Cacoethes, Rexroth was “the father of the Frisco poetry scene,” a “bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud.” [3] On the night of Japhy Ryder’s (Gary Snyder’s) farewell party, we hear Cacoethes holding forth on the state of poetry: “I guess the only real poets in this country, outside the orbit of this little backyard, are Doctor Musial, who’s probably muttering behind his living-room curtains right now, and Dee Sampson, who’s too rich. That leaves us dear old Japhy here who’s going away to Japan, and our wailing friend Goldbook and our Mr. Coughlin, who has a sharp tongue. By God, I’m the only good one here.” [4] Rexroth claims his place between Williams and Ginsberg,  the good doctor behind the curtains and the howling young man in the yard.

To Kerouac’s alter ego Ray Smith, Cacoethes is dismissive: “‘Well I guess he’s a Bodhisattva in its frightful aspect, ‘ts about all I can say.’ (Aside, sneering, ‘He’s too drrronk all the time.’)” [5] The Dharma Bums rewrote On the Road, replacing Sal Paradise’s search for “It” with the dharma, while Ray Smith’s way to nirvana skewed the rarefied derangement of midcentury American Buddhism — led by Snyder and approved by Rexroth — with wild eyed confusion. This frightful Bodhisattva is on display in The New American Poetry: Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues opens the Beat section of Allen’s anthology, twelve choruses which recall the Buddha inflected delirium of his world.

These choruses embody the capacious vision of the anthology: the Buddha talk embraces everything and nothing, leaping “Across Arabies of hot/ meaning.” [6] Oriental sagacity is shot through with the blues in Mexico City: these poems assume the meeting of east and west, north and south. For many of the poets in Allen’s anthology, the open space of poetry was part and parcel of a spiritual conversion. To read Kerouac’s entry is to recall how astonishingly open this practice was — and to remember a longing for self-transformation inseparable from social transformation. Bob’s appreciation of The New American Poetry crucially noted that the anthology was not capacious in terms of gender or race; instead, Kerouac and his ilk layered modernism’s formal modes of inclusion with the Whitmanian fantasy of incantatory social inclusion.

Cacoethes’s censure of Ray Smith demonstrates the baton passing from an arbiter of poetry to an imbiber of it. Donald Allen’s 1998 afterword to The New American Poetry discusses its reception, concluding with a vitriolic review: “as for the majority of Mr. Allen’s poets they are kids who took up poetry the way one takes up marijuana, Buddhism, switchblade knives, wife swapping, or riding in boxcars, neither more nor less seriously than other ‘kicks.’ Happily, however, they are no threat to poetry.” [7] A remarkably accurate depiction of Kerouac, down to the end: Kerouac gave up Buddhism the way he abandoned everything else. But, as he writes in his 179th Chorus, “I was the most beautiful / Boy of my generation” — a child “waiting for philosophy’s / dreadful murderer / BUDDHA.” [8] In the late 1950s, Rexroth was holding on to “real poets,” but he could only look on while Kerouac demonstrated that it was all for kicks.

Allen’s afterword recalls his initial plan to lead off with the first two generations of American poets, which was nixed by Olson, who said, “If the thing we are now in is it is just in its own character.” [9] In The New American Poetry, the strange profusion of “it” in Olson’s insistence on excluding “grandpas” opens into Kerouac’s “It” of transcendence: of course, they couldn’t help but install themselves within a poetic lineage, but Allen’s anthology freed them from their predecessors. These new American poets were drrronk with a new beauty that awaited — and invited — dreadful murder.

[1] Bob Perelman, “The New American Poetry.” Lecture presented at “Poetry in 1960 — A Symposium,” University of Pennsylvania, PA, December 6, 2010.
[2] The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960), xi.
[3] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: The Viking Press, 1958; New York: Penguin, 1976), 14, 11.  Citations refer to the Penguin edition.
[4] Ibid., 193–94.
[5] Ibid., 194.
[6] Jack Kerouac, “113th Chorus,” in The New American Poetry, 168.
[7] Don Allen, afterword to The New American Poetry, 450.
[8] Jack Kerouac, “179th Chorus,” in The New American Poetry, 170.
[9] Don Allen, afterword to The New American Poetry, 448.

On Ed Dorn, 'The Newly Fallen'

I’d like to insert Dorn’s first book, The Newly Fallen (Totem Press, 1961), into the Symposium to address an element I felt missing in the original presentation of texts. Senses of space and seemed crucial to the new news about poetry I encountered at age twenty-one, living in Vancouver and having grown up in the Kootenay mountains in the southeast of British Columbia. The New American Poetry anthology tapped into a need to identify the “local” as an aesthetic that was just blossoming in the northwest, and was of great interest to us Canadian postcolonials. Olson’s poetic mapping of Gloucester was as overwhelming as our concurrent discovery of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. But younger, and more western poets like Dorn, Whalen, and Snyder suggested a geographically closer-to-home and local flavour. Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” in the Allen anthology was, for me, a gem of affirmation, a poem about the kind of work I had done in the kind of place I came from. The “home of my mind” seemed eligible for the world of the poem.

The Newly Fallen was published by Leroi Jones’s Totem Press in January 1961, just before Dorn turned thirty-two. It represents the initial staging of Dorn’s work and, it seems, (from the correspondence between Jones and Dorn) that Jones had the manuscript in hand by December 30, 1960. [1] Black Mountain cohort Fielding Dawson did the cover for the book and his drawing plays off of the book’s title (in turn, the last line in the book): it is of an aerial contraption used for transporting manure on a farm (can’t recall why I know this). In any case, Dorn’s first book is central to any assessment of American poetry from 1960.

Dorn had been living in the Pacific Northwest since the midfifties, the setting for his autobiographical novel By The Sound, and was in Sante Fe, New Mexico in 1959–60, in the midst of a poetic community that included Robert Creeley, Max Finstein, and Judson Crews; Gil Sorrentino and Allen Ginsberg were visitors. He had been published in Paul Carrol’s Big Table, courtesy of a push from Creeley, The Evergreen Review, John Wieners’ Measure, Migrant, Ark II, Moby I, and had work solicited by Jones for Yugen. A twenty-two-year-old Tom Raworth, in Britain, had just started publishing Outburst and solicited poems from Dorn in late 1960.

1960 was very much in the era of a lot of nuclear bravado (French nuclear test, US Polaris missile underwater test, Atlas and Titan missiles, and so forth). That year Leroi Jones travelled to Cuba, met with Castro, and published “Cuba Libre” in Evergreen Review. By 1960, living in Sante Fe, New Mexico, the middle of the continent, in the middle of what Olson called “SPACE […] the central fact to man born in America,” Dorn depends on the shared poetic interest of an expansive community of writers from New York to San Francisco. [2] He accepted a teaching job at Idaho State in Pocatello in 1961 where he wrote his stunning journey poem, “Idaho Out,” which I first heard in February 1962 when Creeley, who taught at The University of British Columbia that year, brought Dorn to Vancouver for a reading. I was enthralled by a poetry that foregrounded place and class and fleshed out a range of attention to the local, the sensuous, the political, and the national that I could feel somewhat at home with. Soon after, I managed to pick up a copy of The Newly Fallen.

Dorn tells Jones that his selection for the manuscript will be earlier works, “None of the things there were in Don Allens’s antho,” but scattered magazine pieces. And, he tells Jones, “the chore of selecting from my own work will be a headache”. [3] The selection seems a little tentative, considering the more specifically “western” poems in the next book (Hands Up!). A few of the poems incline to an easy kind of lyricism, but more generally they move through what he calls “the great geography of my lunacy” (“Geranium”), a range of love song, the domesticity and furnishings of what he saw as Williams’ “grand / commonplace” (“The Open Road”), some biotextual references to growing up in midwest Americanism, farm stuff, Illinois, Sousa, etc. [4] The collection contains no grand address to the geographical but a number of inclinations that a little later, in something like “Idaho Out,” shape Dorn’s ambivalent tension between the freedom implicit in Olson’s capitalized (and open) SPACE and the west as a site of poverty and estrangement, “mad elements to be scrutinized” (“The Open Road”). [5] And an uncollected poem, “The Mountains,” likely written in 1960 in Sante Fe, ends with the lines “there is no coming back from the space / you make,” a rather sardonic ambiguity so characteristic of Dorn’s view of space. [6] The poems in The Newly Fallen intuit his impending observation that the outsider, the stranger in town is the one to pay attention to, “He’s the man who knows where he’s come from” (The Poet, The People, The Spirit, Berkeley, 1965). Or maybe not:

I go on my way frowning at novelty, wishing I were closer to home
than I am. And this is the last stop before Burlington,
that pea-center, which is my home, but not the home of my mind.
That asylum I carry in my insane squint … [7]

Along with the poems in the Allen anthology, The Newly Fallen signals Dorn’s presence in the 1960 roll call of New American Poetry.

[1] Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative 1, no. 1 (Winter 2009).
[2] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Grove Press, 1941), 14.
[3] “Correspondence, 12-1-60,” Baraka and Dorn, in Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960.
[4] Edward Dorn, “Geranium” and “The Open Road,” in The Newly Fallen (New York: Totem Press, 1961), 4, 10.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Originally published in the “New Poetry 1963” issue of The Yale Literary Magazine; also reproduced on Isola di Rifiuti; “New Poetry 1963,” blog entry by John Latta, July 13, 2010.
[7] Dorn, “Geranium,” in The Newly Fallen, 4.

1960 A First Remembrance

On the New Year’s Eve between 1959 and 1960 I met Diane Wakoski — a night spent between Armand Schwerner’s place, whom we knew, and LeRoi Jones’s, who was still remote from us.  I had begun to move beyond my familiar New York quarters the year before — a trip by bus and car to dazzling San Francisco — and found a poetry world there (a world, in short) that beckoned us to enter. My first real book — translations, to start things off — had been published in 1959 by City Lights, and traveling home from San Francisco, I looked through the rear window of the bus and saw what seemed like a white sun, flat and cold, overhead. That was enough to serve as a title for White Sun Black Sun, a first book of my own that I would publish in the new year — 1960 — through Hawk’s Well Press, cofounded with David Antin a couple of years before. It was also the year in which I published Jess’s O!, having met him and Robert Duncan the year before in Stinson Beach, California, followed shortly thereafter by Robert’s visit and monthlong sojourn at our apartment in New York.

A year of expansions, as I remember it, when expansiveness was possible, even while holding one’s own ground, or trying to. There was an inner circle for sure but its boundaries were increasingly permeable. The ones I worked with most closely were Antin, Robert Kelly, Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, and Diane Wakoski, all of whose first books I published. Kelly and George Economou (another key figure) were then publishing Trobar, and my own magazine of that time was Poems from the Floating World, which I subtitled “an ongoing anthology of the deep image.” And in 1960 we were joined, significantly, by Clayton Eshleman fresh in from Indiana, Paul Blackburn, connecting us to the poets of Black Mountain, and Jackson Mac Low, then operating near the heart of Fluxus. Their part in the discourse — each in his own way but ultimately connected — led us into enough new directions to last a lifetime.

“Deep image” was a rallying cry for several of us, more questionable for several others. It was a term of my own devising, a cover-up perhaps for the continuity of a way of writing and thinking characteristic of French and international Surrealism. Thinking back to it now — a half century later — what seems most meaningful was how it led us into ethnopoetics, the search for a new/old poetics related to or imbedded in the deepest and most distant of human cultures and languages. In the third issue of Poems from the Floating World, I made that search explicit (as Kelly and I had both done in Trobar), and started on the road to Technicians of the Sacred at the end of the decade — not as a way of writing, Tristan Tzara had once taught us, but as a state of mind (esprit).

What was truly remarkable here — at least for me — was how our different pathways, our different means as poets, converged once origins were summoned, and how much depth of human experience those pathways shared. David Antin catches that later in an account of how our ethnopoetics, rather than a yearning for the past, “provided a lens through which it became possible to see some of the possibilities of a truly Postmodern American poetry.” If we hadn’t gotten there yet by 1960, if there was still a way to go toward anything like fullness/wholeness, the participants were already in place, and the battle, as Picasso said of his own collaged beginnings, was now engaged.