Mark Gonnerman was a participant in SPLAB’s Becoming Cascadian retreat last spring. In 1997 he organized a yearlong research workshop on Gary Snyder’s long poem Mountains and Rivers Without End. Writers, teachers and scholars from North America and Japan discussed various aspects of Snyder’s most important work of poetry. The product that came from that effort is the book A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End.
Gonnerman’s introduction is very helpful and, like his website suggests, filled with “high quality information.”
Some of that high quality information comes in this paragraph:
If Mountains and Rivers has an overriding purpose apart from the aesthetic pleasures it provides, it is to engender a conversion in the heart-mind of the reader. The desired shift is from identification with outmoded nation-state systems to participation in local community life, from centralized hierarchy to decentralized collaboration, from the stresses of competition to the satisfactions of mutual regard and cooperation, from modern monocultural monotheism to promiscuous postmodern polytheism, from consumerism to conservation, from fragmentation to a sense of the whole (18).
One of Gonnerman’s conclusions after a year’s worth of intense study of Snyder’s poem is that our culture requires a “spiritual education that helps children appreciate the full interconnectedness of life and encourages a biologically informed ethic of non-harming” and that the workshop “suggests that one way toward such awareness of through deep hanging out with fellow travelers and challenging works of art” (22).
This is a corrective measure for the lack of an awareness of interdependence, a quality that should be “an unsentimental common sense” one that has been obscured by “the last two hundred years scientific and social materialism [which] have declared our universe without soul and without value except as given value by human activities.” Gonnerman’s introduction concludes by suggesting that positive action would be to get involved in local “place-specific politics of our own households, neighborhoods and bioregions”, employing wisdom and compassion by “walking, meeting our neighbors, cleaning up creeks, and following the poet’s example of singing out with and for the wild” (23).
You can see why Gonnerman would be attracted to an event that sought to investigate the intersection of poetics and bioregionalism. When spiritual seekers and deep intellects end up with conclusions so similar to your own, affinities are made. We live in a time when the biosphere may not continue to provide the basic needs of human life on this planet. At the retreat Gonnerman put it this way, paraphrased, that we (human beings) are the first species that can prevent its own extinction. It raises the stakes for humans and certainly for artists, who are expected to be ahead of the culture to be worth their salt.
The first essay provided a breakthrough for me, personally. I have been studying spontaneous poetry composition since 1995. Names for it over the last 60 years include: Projective Verse, Organic Poetry, The Practice of Outside, the received poem and other phrases. I have written about this essay by Tim Dean recently, such was the excitement of seeing what I had already intuited being articulated so capably.
I propose a more thorough understanding of Mountains and Rivers Without End may be achieved if we bear in mind that it is not composed or spoken in his voice. In this paper I want to show how the poem’s creation of an impersonal voice enables the work of art to engage ethical questions concerning nonhuman nature and our relations with it… only through a fully impersonal voice can art apprehend the otherness of nonhuman nature without transforming nature into something that merely serves human ends… There are resources within poetic traditions of both the East and West that provide techniques for this kind of impersonal voicing — and hence relating.. (46).
Later in the essay, in the context of the section of the book entitled: “The Hump-backed Flute Player,” Dean writes: “This kind of openness to the nonhuman or impersonal represents a first stage in transforming human relations with the world around us” (57). This is of course related to one’s own individuation. I remember discussing the practice of Projective Verse to a poet friend, telling him that one master poet told me “I can’t read non-projective poetry anymore.” That was seconded fifteen or so years later by another master poet, but that’s a sidebar. When told of this, the poet friend responded: “Not every poet has to write like [Charles] Olson!” That wasn’t my point but you see how you either have to take a leap of faith and trust your informant (or mentor, teacher, &c) or imagine that you know enough to be happy in your own writing life. Now I’ll not only think this way about the impersonal voice in poetry, but will add that we do not have the luxury of poetry not written from this perspective. The stakes now are too high with biosphere instability, rampant income inequality, race relations, the global refugee crisis and the general treatment of all those at societal margins, end-stage empire, peak oil and numbers of other issues. As Dean puts it: “Ecological consciousness can thus be understood as profoundly impersonal” (67).
Jim Dodge, who is a long-time bioregionalist with extensive knowledge of Southern Cascadia, is the next essayist to appear in the book. One of the poets in Make It True: Poetry From Cascadia, he also provided a great amount of high-quality information for the introductory essay for that book. An excerpt from that contribution:
Bioregional Poetics/Aesthetics: Some Tentative
Tenets 1. The bioregional aesthetic is community-based, and yields completely to the central precept that community is not limited to the human, but includes all the flora and fauna, the core “cycles of sustenance” (like the water-cycle, or carbon-cycle), and the larger “figures of regulation” (geological forces like plate tectonics, solar income, air and oceanic currents, and other biospheric forces and phenomena). The overarching principle informing bioregional poetics is sometimes called the “biocentric” or “ecological” view, where life in all its forms and myriad relationships is central to all aesthetic considerations. This paradigm of existence is obviously and staunchly opposed to the prevailing viewpoints of the “anthropocentric” (human centered) or “egocentric” (centered on the individual human psyche, also known as a self). When fossil sea lilies were discovered near the peak of Mount Everest, we started calling bioregionalism “tectonic existentialism,” and laughed at ourselves for having the temerity to call it anything.
In his essay on Snyder in A Sense of the Whole, he adds on to the notion of “poetic impersonality” by suggesting it:
could also be seen in the shamanic or pantheistic sense, as extended or shared identity through the agency of the imagination. If the role of the sensory imagination is to perceive the other, the intellectual imagination to know the other, the role of the spiritual imagination is to become the other, to experience that shared identity and in a very real sense erase the distinction — or at least appreciate that each and all are as inextricably linked as compassion and wisdom (88).
David Amram’s essay suggests Snyder is doing with this book is “renewing oral culture.” Indigenous people have oral cultures and Amram writes: “to shove an oral people out of their ancestral homeland is, effectively, to shove them out of their mind. Because the land is what they think with” (101).
Amram does not suggest we renew oral culture at the expense of literate culture, but “underneath” it. He believes that there is no way of alleviating the ecological crisis without rejuvenating oral culture.
Wendell Berry has had a forty year correspondence with Snyder offers this meaty notion:
Mr. Snyder’s poem will be disturbing also to people who think of the English sentence as an ultimate or adequate model of reality. What we have here, instead, is a syntax of verbal strokes, gesturing toward a reality that is not linear and directly causative like a conventional sentence, but instead is multidimensional and accumulative, is influential in all directions, like a geological formation, an ecosystem, a city, a culture. The difference is like that between the structure of a factory or a modern school and that of a family or forest (141).
This in a way, is a nod again to Projective Verse, in which Charles Olson says is a style of composition that is a “use of speech at its least careless and least logical.” Again the orality is emphasized, along with the nonlinearity. Snyder is on the record as being a practitioner of Projective Verse. In his book Look Out: A Selection of Writings, there, right at the beginning of a 1973 craft interview by the New York Quarterly, he is asked about lineation, which he considers “very elemental.” The arranging of poetry on the page is to be a score for how the poem is to be read aloud, that “space equals time” and the marginal indentations are an indication of voice emphasis, breath emphasis and Ezra Pound’s notion of “logopoeia.” He also goes on to say that he writes the poem many times in his head, which strikes me as a more conservative approach than other projectivists who may start a poem with a line or image but find that the force of language itself (or many other sources) provides the path of the poem “under hand.” The spontaneous aspect of the notion of poetic impersonality is part of it, but when you’re someone like Snyder, who was climbing mountains when he was in his teens and has extensive experience in the wild, you can imagine how much THAT experience aids his practice of impersonality, not to mention the Buddhist aspects.
This brings us to Robert Hass’ contribution to A Sense of the Whole. It is clear to me that he is one of this continent’s most brilliant poetic analysts. He knows this field and the essay is a lightly edited transcription of his talk, for which he required no notes. Quite impressive.
What was most crucial about Hass’ contribution to me was about the role of myth. In the following paragraph, he gets into what for me has been one of the great perplexities of critical theory. Now mind you, I’ve not read a lot of it and there are very bright people who I respect a great deal who seem to have gotten a lot out of the wave of post-structuralist theory that manifested itself in poetry in the 70s and 80s via the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. Hass on Synder:
Which brings us to the role of myth in his thinking. This is especially interesting to think about now when myth as a way of approaching literature has more or less disappeared from university curricula. If postmodern thought — or critical theory — means anything, it means radical skepticism about any story of origins. The classical site of this is Nietzsche’s remark that there are no facts, only interpretations — which is to say there is no truth because there is no one true world. Snyder had undergraduate training in an anthropological tradition that took myth to be the primary meaning-making activity of the human imagination. Robert Duncan in those years — late 1960s — could write, “Myth is the story told of what cannot be told, as mystery is the scene revealed of what cannot be revealed, and the mystic gnosis the thing known that cannot be known.” This was appealing to poets, of course, because the traditions of symbolist and modernist poetry conceived the task of poetry to be saying the unsayable. And this unsayable was imagined to be a kind of truth, not interpretation, but the things itself, communicated perhaps only gesturally, but communicated and passed on because it reflected the deepest structure — and therefore, according to Jung, say — the deepest tasks of human beings (157).
Hass goes on to say, about the notion of meaning-making as described by contemporary critical thinking, is that people make up narratives and certain ones become master narratives for purely ideological reasons, fostered by power structures like universities. Hass compares Snyder and John Ashbery, by suggesting Ashbery operates from a “profound and utter epistemological skepticism” which has no ground and Snyder has, one way or another, “an idea of ground.” Thus we see the manifestation of the split of the two main divisions of the New American Poetry in the decades since its 1960 publication in a time when Snyder is one of a handful of poets published in that anthology that is still alive. Is it too easy to say the split has Langpo and its remnants on one hand and the projectivists on the other? Probably. Hass is smart enough to stay out of it, at least here. As a bioregionalist, you can imagine what I think about this. Hass also says that Highway 99, which has a prominent place in Snyder’s poem, no longer exists, which is true on one level, but not true here in the Puget Sound region and markers noting Snyder’s mentions in Mountains and Rivers Without End of the road ought to be erected on spots along the highway here.
We FINALLY get a woman’s voice in here and it is troubling that bioregionalism and Snyder studies are dominated by men. Is this masculinism or just considered old hat by the next generation of women scholars? I am interested in finding out. Stephanie Kaza says Mountains and Rivers Without End has three fundamental instructions:
- Where we are.
- How to behave (ethical instruction).
- The true nature of reality.
She writes that the scale in this book is HUGE! Big Time (three billion years), Big Place (Great Basin, Canyon de Chelly on the east/west line, Baja, Alaska, Haida Gwai as the north/south line). She says good manners are an embodiment of good ethics and that “people can reinhabit a place if they simply learn proper manners.”
I love her take on Dōgen’s three stages of learning or awakening, relating of course to mountains which, in stage one are simply mountains. In stage two one sees the mountains in a different way, as incredibly impermanent (among other things) and more importantly, the self seems a lot less central than it did in stage one. Mountains are not mountains like they one were. In stage three mountains are mountains again, but from a completely non-dualistic point of view and you see yourself, like you do the mountains in stage two, as “swirling and changing and it is all one big impermanent brew.” Her familiarity with Zen is quite helpful in understanding what Snyder is trying to do in this poem.
There is so much more to highlight, but I’ll stop with two more notions form Snyder himself as related in the book’s closing interview conducted by Eric Todd Smith.
The overriding thrust of our mass-culture, capitalist society is such that everybody wants to make more money, period. Nobody wants more time. Nobody wants more leisure. Nobody wants more time with their family. They want purely and simply more money. Until we break the stranglehold of that on the consciousness of the culture — now it’s gone all the way through the society — we’re going to be nuts. We ARE nuts (276).
In responding to a question about the difference between Eastern and Western religions, Snyder says:
Another way of distinguishing those Eastern religions from the West is: religions of faith as against religions of wisdom. They are, in essence, gnostic; they seek gnosis, rather than a relationship with a deity established by faith and trust. They seek to know the deity, or the truth of things, not to believe in the deity. There’s a very special distinction there. There have been people like that in Christianity, and they are generally in trouble, historically (277).
Snyder’s last word is on Hua-yen (Avatamsaka) Buddhist philosophy in which he says “the whole phenomenal world is the community” and that “to have deep perception of this interconnectedness itself is liberating.” I’ll take it a step further and say that NOT having deep perception of this is toxic. When we make some beings “other”, and that extends to all sentient things, that includes all of creation, we suffer. Plants and animals can be used to sustain our own human lives, but with proper etiquette as Stephanie Kaza points out. Protocol (integrity) is essential. That the 45th President embodies the opposite of this philosophy at this time is in one way, a huge blessing and wake-up call to those who would doubt what Snyder says about interconnectedness. He and his ilk are the opposite pole. This materialist tendency has been part of the USAmerican psyche from the beginning and the world is counting on us to recognize it and release it and not from a position of hate and opposition, but from an embrace of a deeper, healthier and liberating perspective.