Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Mountains and Rivers Without End

I was probably introduced to Gary Snyder’s work by the Donald Allen anthology. The first book of his that I owned was the New Directions volume The Back Country, followed by the earlier volumes Riprap, Myths & Texts, and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End. All these purchases would have occurred in 1970. In 1971 I took part in a festival held at the Australian National University in Canberra (Alan Wearne had been invited but couldn’t go so he’d given them my details). Despite its academic location this festival was the precursor to an altogether more ‘counter-cultural’ one held at Nimbin two years later. As well as reading my own work I took part in a session where people read their favourite poems. My choice was from Snyder’s newest book, Regarding Wave.

By the mid seventies I had moved away from this work, put off by the more overt ecological agenda in books like Turtle Island (I agreed with the ecopolitics but felt that the poetry had lost out to these concerns – much as it had with the very different Australian poet Judith Wright). I also moved away from Snyder’s variety of Buddhism. On Bread and Poetry, the book in which Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Snyder chew the fat about poetics and the right way to live seemed to me symptomatic of what had gone wrong with Snyder’s work in particular. The Zen thing in this volume is mediated by a very American kind of enthusiasm that the writers seem unaware of. Their philosophies come across with a kind of boy-scout earnestness while the sexual politics are still those of unreconstructed beatniks. Jack Kerouac’s novels dealing with the San Francisco scene of that time had also exhibited attitudes that would be considered naive by anyone from a culture that wasn’t irony-free. The Dharma Bums in particular seemed more cartoon than documentary to me (I can still imagine toon images of a cross-legged Japhy Ryder explaining ‘yabyum’ to his friends).

Nevertheless I bought Snyder’s selected volume No Nature when it came out, placing the earlier books in the archives (a limbo somewhere between the shelves and St Vincent de Paul). Mountains and Rivers, a work I still liked, seemed destined to be added to sporadically and quite possibly never finished. That could have been its nature, but it wasn’t. In 1996 it came out as a completed volume. And in the last few months it has appeared in a new edition from Counterpoint, Jack Shoemaker’s press. It’s an impressive book with an overall shape the earlier instalments mightn’t have suggested. A painted screen or scroll may extend a scene depicted in time as well as space. It may suggest the endless but it does this within limits as does this volume. Some of the work contained in Six Sections has been lost in transit. Other pieces, like ‘Bubbs Creek Haircut’ and ‘Night Highway 99’ have been shifted around as the whole work’s composition abandons a chronology that might have seemed arbitrary in any case. Strangely Mountains and Rivers Without End reminds me at times of the cinematic structure of Hart Crane’s ‘The Bridge’ with its movement across a continent (in Snyder’s case continents) and it’s shifting registers.

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