Look Out: a Selection of Writings, Gary Snyder
144pp, $10.95, New Directions Bibelot, New York, 2002.

Look out indeed, this small volume may not be quite what you'd expect at first glance.

New Directions started their 'Bibelot' series in 1993. Bibelots are 'inexpensive, pocket-sized volumes to serve as introductions to the great modernist authors of the twentieth century'. This small book sets Gary Snyder in the series alongside Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Thomas Merton, Octavio Paz, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound... and the selection is Gary Snyder's own.

So far so good. Here's the but: the selections (with the exception of a single poem) been put together from work Snyder originally published with New Directions, so this is a selection solely from the late 1960's and 1970's. Within those limits, it's fine. He's a passionate environmental poet, or a beat poet or Buddhist poet depending on how you want to read him. There are plenty of poems to give you the choice, as well as a feel for the haiku-like intensity of Snyder's writing style (this from 'Burning')

     The pure, sweet, straight-splitting
                                            with a ping
     Red cedar of the thick coast valleys

Included are some poems from Turtle Island, like 'The Hudsonian Curlew', a poem about which I still can't make up my mind, with it's detailed account of the evisceration of the bird for eating. No, I'm not squeamish (at least not about this) -I'm uneasy at the particular way the episode draws attention back towards the writer.

There are plenty of prose pieces too (the book's about half and half) which interest me: I don't have the book they're from,
Earth House Hold (1969). These couldn't be more varied. The first of them, 'Lookout's Journal' is just that: a sporadic journal from the summers of 1952 and 1953 when Snyder was firewatching in Mt Baker National Forest - a blend of landscape and reflection and talk (via radio contact). This is the Look Out of the title as well as the Lookout of what he's set as the book's epigraph: 'Poem Left on Sourdough Mountain Lookout' - a poem he wrote in 1953. In Left Out in the Rain (published by North Point - this is the import into New Directions) he notes that he was told by a later lookout that the poem 'was still pinned up in the cabin in 1968'.

Among the prose pieces is a detailed account of a week's meditation in a Kyoto temple: 'Spring Sesshin at Shokoku-ji'. (Brief footnotes help a reader unfamiliar with terms in Zen Buddhism.) Next, all the beat concerns are here; LSD; the breakdown of family, native Americans, hunting, shaman-poets... it feels like a classic period-piece.

In a 1973 'Craft Interview', Snyder answers all the usual questions. Yes he keeps notebooks. And journals. Yes they're organised. Yes he writes by hand, 'But before I write I do it in my mind many times.' He continues

     The first step is the rhythmic measure, the second step is a set of preverbal
     visual images which move to the rhythmic measure, and the third step is
     embodying it in words... I let it ripen until it's fully formed and then try to
     speak the poem out [p.130]

I wonder if this is a good way to read him? Step-by-step, rhythm, image, word? Because the poems are stripped-down images or snatches of talk that ask you to attend and be there:

     Six A.M.,
     Sat down on excavation gravel
     by juniper and desert S.P. tracks
     interstate 80 not far off
              between trucks
     Coyotes-maybe three
                         howling and yapping from a rise.
                                                            ['Magpie's Song']

The book begins and ends with tributes to James Laughlin, New Directions' founder. Snyder opens with a prose appreciation of Laughlin's support as a publisher - though the syntax gets a bit convoluted when he writes about changing publishers. The books closes with 'What to Tell, Still', a poem addressing Laughlin as a poet, which endears me to Snyder rather more:

     I think of how J. writes stories of his lovers in his poems--
                  puts in a lot,
                  it touches me,

     So recklessly bold--foolish--?
     to write so much about your lovers
     when you're a long-time married man. Then I think,
     what do I know?
                  About what to say
                   or not to say, what to tell, or not, to whom,
                   or when,


This book must be New Directions' answer to Counterpoint's 2000
The Gary Snyder Reader 1952-1998, which will cost you about twice the price - but then it covers twice as many years and is more than twice as big. But buy the New Directions one if you want a small one for your back pocket.

        © Jane Routh 2005