KR BlogWriting

The Lonesome, Crowded Northwest

Columbia River

After reading this piece in the Sunday Oregonian on William Stafford, with whom Portland is obsessed, and after learning, on the same day that Gary Snyder has won the Ruth Lilly prize, I got to thinking about legendary Oregon poets, and the difficulty of living and writing in a much-written landscape.

Gary Snyder especially makes writing about nature–especially this nature–problematic, makes it hard to have coyotes, cedars, the mountains, or the rain in your poems. Here’s a poem of his from a fan’s site, the title of which, perhaps not coincidentally, is a small town in Oregon as well as a lovely, lovely plant that grows on the coast:

Before dawn the coyotes
weave medicine songs
dream nets -- spirit baskets --
milky way music
they cook young girls with
to be woman;
or the whirling dance of
striped boys --

At moon-set the pines are gold-purple
Just before sunrise.

The dog hastens into the undergrowth
Comes back panting
Huge, on the small dry flowers.

A woodpecker
Drums and echoes
Across the still meadow

One man draws, and releases      an arrow
Humming, flat,
Misses a gray stump, and splitting
A smooth red twisty manzanita bough.

Manzanita     the tips in fruit,
Clusters of hard green berries
The longer you look
The bigger they seem,

`little apples'

In Snyder’s landscape poems, the very Existence of the landscape is entirely the point. As Christian Wiman said, “Gary Snyder is in essence a contemporary devotional poet, though he is not devoted to any one god or way of being so much as to Being itself. His poetry is a testament to the sacredness of the natural world and our relation to it, and a prophecy of what we stand to lose if we forget that relation.” As the judges who gave him the Ruth Lilly said, “…he never uses the natural world simply to celebrate his own sensibility.” In fact, it seems to me that he doesn’t use the natural world at all. It is just there, and the poems ask that we, beatifically, regard it.

I grant that this work, this movement, this attitude probably seemed revolutionary in its time, and I can enjoy some of the poems. But I argue that it could only be done once, and living in the geographic and generational wake of this poetry’s popularity means you, as a writer, have to invoke nature very carefully to make it effective, fresh, and powerful. It is not enough just to render the moment by naming, in sacred tones, what occupies the landscape, no matter how awe-inspiring the landscape actually is.

Makes it tempting to stop writing about nature entirely. No more trees in my poems, no more rivers, no more fields.

But then I remember James Galvin. He’s not a Northwesterner, but (the Western) land and landscape figure prominently in his poems. (According to the Academy of American poets, “he has worked as a rancher for part of each year all his life.”) The difference is that in Galvin’s poems the landscape works with metaphor and thought. What makes this poems poems is that he does use nature. Here’s one from Lethal Frequencies (1995):

Small Countries

In defense of whatever happens next, the navy of flat-bottomed popcorn clouds steams over like they are floating down a river we’re under. To the west, red cliffs, more pasture, the blue Medicine Bow with stretchmarked snowfields, quartzite faces like sunny bone. I’m worried about Lyle getting back from town with his oxygen, but then I see him through binoculars turn the Studebaker, antlike, off the country road and up the four-mile grade, so small down there that I want to imagine his hands on the wheel, still strong, his creased blue jeans and high-top shoes I know he wears to town. He turns off the road on a small knoll about halfway up and stops the truck, facing the mountains. He still looks small against so much space, but I can see his left arm and shoulder and the brim of his hat lowered as he lights a smoke and looks off toward the mountains, the small countries of light and dark rush across the prairie towards him and over him.

From that first clause, the poem calls up human frailties and vulnerabilities–vulnerability to the land and its weather, but also to our own bad habits. Also these things are beautiful. The landscape is the material with which Galvin tells this story.

Now, a purely speculative thought. The famous nature poetry of the Northwest comes from a time when the mainstream societal and governmental relationship to the land was one of extraction. The land was to be tamed to further the harvest of natural resources. Our regional economy was based on logging, mining, fishing, and ranching. Notice, in Gary Snyder, both lookout cabins and logging trucks. The counter-cultural attitude toward the land was one of reverence, but this was just the flip side of the mainline attitude. Now that the land has become quaint in most lives, something to be recreated upon and conserved, now that our collective prosperity is driven by technological innovation (at least in the case of Seattle; Portland’s collective prosperity seems driven by inbound wealth), now that technological innovation (in the form of renewable energy) is our great hope, maybe formal innovation will become the Northwest poet’s trademark. Bring on the wind farms.