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Left Out in the Rain by Gary Snyder (North Point: $14.95; 212 pp.)

December 28, 1986|Schuyler Ingle | Ingle is a writer and critic living in Seattle. and

With "Left Out in the Rain," Gary Snyder gives us 153 poems from his life as a poet, 1947 to 1984. None of these poems has ever been published before. They are what a poet leaves in his notebooks, for one reason or another, when he sweeps together those poems that go into the making of collections like "The Back Country," "Earth House Hold," "Turtle Island" (awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974), and the most recent and perhaps the most centered and strong collection of Snyder's work, "Axe Handles."

"Left Out in the Rain" follows a chronological path, from student and early poet days in and around Reed College in Portland, Ore., where Snyder grew under the careful waterings of the likes of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, to the poet's rambles in the West, then his leap East by freighter to Japan. Included are the poems that bring him home to the considerations a poet has as he lives on and works with and raises a family in Northern California. The reading is something like archeology, sifting the layers that have built up over the years to find the source of a familiar voice. There may be more value in that exercise than there is in many of the poems themselves. If these are, in fact, poems left out in the rain, it may be for good reason.

I respond to poems first in the gut and heart, then in the head. My prejudices, rather than thinning with age, have become as comfortable as old boots. I like best the Snyder voice in "Left Out in the Rain" that I recognize from "The Back Country" and "Axe Handles." Lines from love poems: "I lost her softly through my fingers, / Between my ribs in gentle gusts she / Sifted free, polishing the small bones." But there isn't a whole lot of that to be found, despite the size of the collection. "Left Out in the Rain" is a valuable curiosity clearing the way for fresh work.

I am most familiar with the Snyder poems found in "The Back Country," a collection of work written, according to the copyrights, between 1957 and 1968. I flew out of Los Angeles with the book in my bag in 1970, then landed in Bombay. I knew enough to travel light. I took only two books on the road. "Moby Dick" was the other one.

Melville carried for me the weight of all that America had been, a clear voice singing out of a New England past. Snyder had a different voice ringing in my ear. He used words out of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest and teen-age rambles in California: the names of trees and birds and places. He wasn't just an American poet to read in India, he was a poet from the West. He knew about chainsaws and axes and cattle, about how big a land can be, how long a mountain ridge can stretch, how cold a mountain stream can feel. I could sense him in his lines, all long-haired and denim-clad, laced-up high-top logger boots. He was an educated, curious man comfortable with his own sexuality. I could hear him chanting sutras.

And that was the big catch. The endless debate among the would-be, self-realized hipsters in India settled on sexuality, that old Hindu bugaboo. Either a householder or a saint one must be, but never the twain should meet: Such was the conundrum of the Be Here Now generation who took their search East, forgetting too much of where they had come from. How relieving it was to close the door on the endless God rap and read Snyder love poems written during his years of Buddhist rigors in Japan: "Eight years ago this May / We walked under cherry blossoms / At night in an orchard in Oregon. / All that I wanted then / Is forgotten now, but you. / Here in the night/ In a garden of the old capital / I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao / I remember your cool body / Naked under a summer dress."

"Left Out in the Rain" demonstrates that such a body of work--those careful, concentrated collections of poetry that continue the power lines generated by Chinese poets as old as land-- don't just happen because a writer has the best intentions, but come to us from work we often never see. "Left Out in the Rain" shows us the footsteps in the wet meadow grass, gives us the vocal exercises a fine Western poet like Snyder practices to achieve a voice as distinct and resonant as his own can be.

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