December 14, 2012

Gary Snyder and Lessons Learned

 Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
    ... there's no through trail
    In summer, ice doesn't melt
    The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
    How did I make it?

Another year ends. What have we learned?

This is a time of year when we see many reviews of the year's events, movies, books etc. But you don't see many reviews of what we have learned. I suppose that is a topic for personal contemplation rather than public expression. Still, with the proliferation of blogs and status updates via social media, many of us seem to be continuously reviewing on our lives. Some denigrate this as "navel gazing"but when it is done well, it is much more than that.

In the two poems by Gary Snyder we use as models this month, he looks at lessons learned

Snyder is still associated with the Beat Generation poets. In 1955, he read with Allen Ginsberg at the famous October Sixth Gallery Reading where Ginsberg read "Howl" for the first time, and the two poets became lifelong friends. Jack Kerouac based the The Dharma Bums’ Japhy Ryder character on Snyder.

Unlike the other Beat poets who were city kids, Snyder grew up in the woods of Washington and Oregon and was interested in nature, anthropology, Asian culture and was a dedicated Zen Buddhist. Lawrence Ferlinghetti called him “The Thoreau of the Beat Generation.”

When he took lessons in landscape painting as a meditative practice, he tried to translate the concept to poetry. This led to his epic myth-poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, which he sees as a kind of literary equivalent of a Chinese or Japanese scroll painting. He worked on it over the course of 40 years.

He attended Reed college where he started reading Asian poetry. In the summers, he worked in logging camps, on trail crews, and as a fire lookout in the mountains.

His poem "Hay for the Horses" came out of those summer experiences, and it is one that I have loved for many years. It is the poem of a younger person who is learning from the life of someone else. The lesson learned from the hay truck driver is that we often end up in a life that we swore we would not end up in. Does that mean the life is bad? Not necessarily, but a caution nevertheless to a younger person at how easily we can fall comfortably into a life that we never intended. 

Hay for the Horses

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
---The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds---
"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."

In the poem, we learn a lesson from the truck driver who after 51 years knows clearly what lesson he did not learn early enough.

But what do we do with lessons we learn, but learn too late?

Snyder spent about twelve years studying Zen Buddhism in Japan. But most of our lessons learned are not learned in formal study or in classrooms.

A later poem of his directly addresses our writing prompt for this month.

What Have I Learned

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

     —the first Calochortus flowers
     and in all the land,
              it's spring.
I point them out:
the yellow petals, the golden hairs,
              to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

     you pass it on.

In "What Have I Learned," it is the voice of a older person looking at the lessons of their own life. Here, the lessons are small and the speaker is almost dismissive.

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

That "but" is a kind of apology for what was learned. And yet, we know the speaker cherishes not only the lessons but the opportunity to pass them on. (In the poem, to Snyder's own son, Gen.)

And a second use of that "but" turns this around:

but when you get it right,
you pass it on.

Our prompt for this month is a poem about a lesson (or lessons) learned, either from someone else or on your own - but a lesson that was passed on to another.

The deadline for submissions to this prompt is January 6. 2013.

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