Gary Snyder and Galway Kinnell

I conclude with a somewhat briefer discussion of two other meditative poems from the late 1950s and early 1960s: Gary Snyder's "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" and Galway Kinnell's "Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock." Kinnell's poem, published in 1964, can be seen as a midway point between the Deep Image poems of Bly and Wright and the more overtly surrealist mode of a poet like W. S. Merwin; Snyder's poem, from his 1959 volume Riprap, moves toward a kind of linguistic clarity and simplicity that can be associated with the practice of Zen Buddhism.

Snyder's "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" presents its first-person speaker in understated terms and emphasizes the simplicity of his needs:

Down valley a smoke haze Three days heat, after five days rain Pitch glows on the fir-cones Across rocks and meadows Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read A few friends, but they are in cities. Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup Looking down for miles Through high still air.

Snyder's speaker is not overawed by his natural surroundings; instead, he seems completely at peace with them. His actions are simple: drinking water, gazing down from the mountain. In this way, his method resembles that of Zen Buddhist meditation, in which insights can occur in the course of the most mundane activities. His language avoids the kind of abstractions that characterize Kinnell's style, remaining close to the physical details of his surroundings. (Snyder was in fact working as a forester in the Pacific Northwest at the time the poem was written.) In the first stanza, he describes with precise detail the pitch on the fir-cones, the humidity coming up from the valley, and the swarms of flies in the August heat, not embellishing the images through the use of figurative language.

In this sense, Snyder's technique is a radical departure from the tradition of Eliot, Roethke, and the Deep Image poets: Snyder's aim is not to make metaphors or symbols out of the images he presents, but simply to capture the particularity of a feeling or sensation. This idea is stated more explicitly in the second stanza, where Snyder contrasts the intensity of physical sensation (drinking "cold snow-water from a tin cup" and looking down "through high still air") with the seeming transcience of human and intellectual contact (friends far away in cities and forgotten books). Like Bly in his car and Wright in his hammock, Snyder is presented in a state of isolation; but Snyder is far more explicit in his polarization of the human, civilized world with the world of nature.

Snyder's poem gains much of its effect through its verbal compression and ellipsis of unnecessary words. The speaker conveys everything he needs to say about his physical situation and state of mind in ten relatively short lines. In the first two lines, for example, the compression of language is almost Poundian. "Down valley a smoke haze" presents a clear visual image, leaving out the connective words of a more typical sentence such as "Down in the valley I see a smoke haze." Similarly, in the second line, Snyder leaves out the verb, giving us only the bare statement of two types of weather (heat and rain), divided formally by a mid-line caesura. Rhythm and sound are also used effectively in the poem. Snyder's free-verse lines are irregular in length - ranging from four to ten beats - but each of the two stanzas ends with a line of four monosyllables, giving added emphasis to the images he presents. The sounds ofthe poem are densely packed and resonant: the use of sybillants, along with the repetition of long vowels in the first stanza (haze -days - days - rain, down - glows - smoke - cones) create a richness ofsound that reflects the richness of the poet's sensory experience.

In "Flower Herding on Mount Manadnock," Kinnell narrates a physical and psychic journey up the side of a mountain. The mountain itself is located in southern New Hampshire, but Kinnell's mountain is as much a symbolic as a geographical place. The poem begins before dawn, as the speaker awakens and chastises himselffor the nightmare he has experienced: "Damned nightmarer!" As in the poems ofBly and Wright, the time of day is important. Bly's poem takes place at night, and Wright's at the moment when afternoon turns to evening. "Flower Herding" is a morning poem, suggesting the hopefulness of the speaker after his nightmare-filled sleep.

The structure of the poem - with its ten short free-verse sections -suggests the passage of time as the hiker ascends the mountain. One moment appears to follow the next without interpretive or narrative connection, the flow of the speaker's experiences and associations taking us from one image or thought to the next. When time does appear, it is expressed through the rhythms of nature rather than through human measurement: for example, in the first two stanzas, the nighttime song of the whippoorwill is replaced by the morning song of the "peabody bird." The poem's narrative is told by the passage of discreet moments, as experience leads to memory and back again. The sweat in the speaker's nostrils as he climbs triggers a memory of the sea, which in turn causes a confusion of sea and land, past and present:

One summer off Cap Ferrat we watched a black seagull Straining for the dawn, we stood in the surf,

Grasshoppers splash up where I step, The mountain laurel crashes at my thighs.

In section 5, time enters the poem in a different way, as the poet imagines the birds' songs as elegies. From this point on, the tone of the poem becomes more serious, as images ofloss, decay, and mortality predominate. In section 6, the poet rests at a pool of water and thinks he sees bacteria beneath his reflection. In a haunting image, the poet sees a vision of physical decay and dissolution behind his self-reflection: "My face sees me, / The water stirs, the face, / Looking preoccupied, / Gets knocked from its bones."

The speaker perceives the mountain now, not as a place of stillness and permanence ("dimensions of depth"), but as a place of emptiness and disintegration. The vines encircle him so that he must "turn" and "crane" in order to make out the "shimmering nothingness" of the sky. The trees take on an almost surreal appearance as "Green, scaly moosewoods . . . tenants of the shaken paradise." The utter stillness of nature is replaced by the wind blowing, and the water from last night's rain comes "splattering" down to the ground.

In the final two sections, the poet struggles between the need for transcendence and the realization ofmortality. The flight ofbirds is offset by the "hug of the earth," which "wraps / with moss their graves." The ending of the poem is particularly striking in its use ofthe natural world as a reflection of the speaker's own troubled psyche:

In the forest I discover a flower.

The invisible life of the thing

Goes up in flames that are invisible

Like cellophane burning in the sunlight.

It burns up. Its drift is to be nothing.

In its covertness it has a way

Of uttering itself in place of itself,

Its blossoms claim to float in the Empyrean,

A wrathful presence on the blur of the ground.

The appeal to heaven breaks off.

The petals begin to fall, in self-forgiveness.

It is a flower. On this mountainside it is dying.

The speaker finds the flower to be representative of the dual forces he finds in nature. Its blossoms "claim to float in the Empyrean," but in fact the flower is subject to the same process of physical decay and death as the speaker. As in the poems of Roethke, Bly, Wright, and Snyder, a concreteness in the description of the physical world leads to an apprehension of deeper levels of experience. Here again we find a moment of epiphany, but it is of a more philosophical and less direct kind. The speaker realizes that life and death are inseparable, defined by each other. As Kinnell wrote in his 1971 essay "The Poetics of the Physical World," the knowledge of mortality can enhance our experience of life: there is "a kind of glory in our lives which derives precisely from our inability to enter . . . paradise or to experience eternity." The desire of the poet to see the flower as an object of perfection, as some kind of "appeal to heaven," is shattered by the realization that the only thing we can hope for is "self-forgiveness."

Chapter 10

Empty Mind Meditation

Empty Mind Meditation

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