SNYDER (1968) Gary snyder's "Burning the Small Dead" is collected in his book The Back Country, published by New Directions in 1968. As in many of the poems collected in the book, "Burning the Small Dead" explores the character of a particular place, regardless of whether that is Snyder's home on Turtle Island in California, the Pacific Northwest, or Japan. Deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism and Japanese poetry and art, Snyder applies the tenets of mindfulness as he observes small branches burning in a fire, and the result is a poem that charts the connectedness of the human and the natural worlds.
"Burning the Small Dead" is included in the first section of the book, titled "Far West," and the poem suggests poetic affinities with other American styles—namely, the visually laden poetics of the imagist school, the sparse linguistic terseness of the objectivist SCHOOL, and the poetic dynamics delineated in Charles olson's 1950 essay "Projective Verse" (see ars poeticas). But the poem also invokes a Japanese sensibility in its tone, style, and subject matter and reveals an indebtedness to two of Snyder's largest influences of perceiving and honoring the natural world—American Indian and Zen Buddhist philosophies.
Set on Mt. Ritter in California, the poem focuses upon the natural landscape in order to unveil the ecological interconnectedness of all things. While such discovered connections have ecological implications, the poem seems more explicitly concerned with the spirituality implicit in honoring the natural world and celebrating what Zen Buddhism refers to as "interdependence." In this vein, the poem documents how everything that has sustained and helped a white-bark pine tree over its life of 100 years "hiss[es] in a twisted bough" as the branches burn. After this realization, the gaze of the poem shifts to include Mt. Ritter as part of the webbing that connects the branches to the world as well as to the cosmos, which is represented by the two stars Deneb and Altair and their seemingly separate, yet visually immediate "windy fire."
In this sense, the poem is a celebration of the natural world and the cosmos; like many of Snyder's best poems, it captures and honors the mysterious connectedness of the universe and argues for a more reverent and conscientious attitude toward the natural world that nourishes and sustains human existence.
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