I went to a reading by the poet Gary Snyder last night at Plymouth Congregational Church, one of Minneapolis’s great liberal churches. It was standing room only, and I was one of those standing.
Imagine your platonic ideal of a beloved, revered, erudite but approachable (male) professor of literature and that is what Gary Snyder, white hair and beard, a white shirt, tie and dark coat, looks like. Born in 1930, he seemed hardy and vital, and cast a warm, benevolent spell over the audience, some of whom in the packed sanctuary were sitting in the choir loft, though they were not required to sing. (Poetry Reading Alert: Robert Bly is reading at Plymouth on May 9th. I plan to camp out the night before to make sure I get a seat).
He started with older poems, some written when he worked in Yosemite and the high Sierras in the mid-fifties. After reading “Piute Creek,” with the lines “A clear attentive mind/has no meaning but that/which sees is truly seen. No one loves rock, yet we are here.” he commented that the line about rock was not true, that many people love rock, including him, so “Why did I say that? — Ah, rhetoric.” When he paused to make sure that people in the balcony could hear, he acknowledged that churches were not designed to be really audible—they could get in trouble if they were. He had a gentle humor, reminding the audience that Basho distilled many hundreds of pages for his haiku, so “All you journal writers don’t have to publish everything…cut it all down…save us all a lot of trouble.” I should take that advice with my blog…
He read several of the Cold Mountain poems, his translations of an 8th century Chinese poet, Han Shan, who may not have been just one person—no one knows for sure who wrote the original poems. Snyder’s comment to this was, “If Homer didn’t write the Iliad, someone named Homer did.” The Cold Mountain poems are beautiful, metaphoric, and have been used as koans. Here’s one he read:
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders
The wide creek,
The mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though
There’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
He read several “daily life poems,” including this lovely, simple work/love poem:
The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog
I pull out your blouse
warm my cold hands
on your breasts.
You laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
hot iron stove.
Bring in the axe, the rake
We’ll lean on the wall
against each other.
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark
(Apologies for my spacing and capitalization errors…) His poetry was so concrete, accessible, the world closely and simply observed, and very little of him in the poems, it seemed. He was there, in the world, but not the center of it.
Toward the end of the reading there was a little commotion as four paramedic/firemen appeared in the sanctuary, dressed as if they were about to run into a burning building or leap into a swollen river. Someone had fallen ill in one of the pews. Snyder, not noticing, read on, but it is impossible, if one is a distractible sort, to hear a poem while there is such a disturbance. (One’s first, fleeting thought was whether this might be a Bel Canto moment, the magnificent novel by Ann Patchett, in which the audience at an opera performance suddenly realize that they are being taken hostage by terrorists—a ridiculous connection but there you go: literature informs life.) The reading was brought to a pause, but then the woman, appearing flushed and woozy, left under her own steam, and Snyder continued, but the distractible one continued to ponder the episode. It could happen to any of us, that growing sense that something is going terribly wrong in one’s body, but how wrong, and what to do? And the people who are with you, their concern, then their growing alarm prompting a call to 911…
Perhaps the fragility of life was on my mind all the more so because Snyder read several poems pointing to just that, including a moving one about his sister’s death in a freak automobile accident, and a short, 9/11 poem called “Falling from a Height, Holding Hands” with the lines “Better than burning/hold hands. We will be/two peregrines diving/ all the way down.”
Driving home after the reading, it seemed to me that my mind was full of poetry or rather, completely emptied out by it. I felt more observant of the world around me. Driving down Lake Street, I noticed the name of a tanning salon, Darque Tan. Who had thought of that name, and who would want a darque tan these days? Hadn’t they heard of skin cancer?
Stopping at the light at the intersection of Lake and Hennepin, our busy Uptown area full of shops, restaurants and nightlight, which I have crossed on foot and in car a million times, I thought of the accident that had occurred there just a few nights before, in which a taxi driver had hit four women crossing the street. One was now on life support. I thought of the driver and what he must feel, the women who in one moment had probably been laughing, having fun, maybe crossing illegally (though I didn’t know) and the passengers in the taxi horrified by the turn of events. Driving on, the song “Fragile” (which he pronouces with a long “i”) by Sting about 9/11 was playing in my mind:
On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are
How fragile we are how fragile we are