JMW: We’ve both been back in Seattle of late. I went in search of Gary Snyder’s boyhood home from the 1930s, which turns out to be a mile or so from where I grew up and about a mile from where your in-laws now reside? Would you discuss what Snyder’s poetry meant to you and how that changed over the years?
PO'L: I spent a crucial year in my poetic development at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, from 1988-89. During that year, I lived with poet Philip Jenks in an unruly house of students and vagabonds. As I already mentioned, I was studying with Jim Powell, who introduced me to Duncan’s work. But I also discovered Snyder’s work that year. Snyder had been an undergraduate at Reed where he famously roomed with Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. In the Thesis Tower in the Reed Library, you could pull down copies of each of their senior theses. Snyder, who studied anthropology, wrote about Haida mythology. There was something impressive about pulling down the bound manuscript of the thesis Snyder had turned in to earn his degree at Reed. He was already so serious, even in college!
On the same token, growing up in Michigan, the suburbs of Detroit specifically, I hadn’t yet encountered any poetry that engaged the environment of the Great Lakes in any significant sense. (It would be a few years still before I would discover Christopher Dewdney’s fabulous work about Southwestern Ontario, or Furnace Harbor, Philip Church’s epic poem about Lake Superior; my year at Reed, I discovered Lorine Niedecker’s work in the library of Portland State University, where I would go on Sunday afternoons to study.) Snyder’s work directly engaged the landscape I found myself hiking through the year I lived in Portland. Thanks to the advice of a prescient Reed professor who talked to new students, I found myself every Saturday I could manage driving to Mt. Hood, to the coast, to eastern Oregon exploring this strange new land. Snyder’s work spoke directly to this experiential mode of learning with intelligence and care.
For me, Snyder is one of the living masters, a direct link to the modernists but one who transformed their teachings into a poetics of his own. Ingeniously, he models in his poems both Pound’s Cubist strategies and engagement with Chinese forms with Rexroth’s more Wordsworthian nature explorations matched with his equally sensitive reading of Asian classics. I think Riprap matched with Cold Mountain Poems is one of the great volumes of American poetry, an opinion I hold as well for Myths & Texts, both of which he wrote in his twenties. I love the hippie work of the 60s and 70s, especially the prose meditations in Earth House Hold. And the plain lucidities of Axe Handles in the 80s.
But I take Snyder’s more recent resurgence as one of the great boons to American poetry. In the late 90s, after forty years in the making, he finally published Mountains and Rivers without End, one of the great serial poems of the ecologies of the Pacific Rim, just a truly beautiful work page after page. (The poem is mentioned as early as 1958, when Kerouac in The Dharma Bums describes Japhy Ryder, Snyder’s stand-in, working on the poem.) In 2004, Snyder published another excellent collection, Danger on Peaks. The first section of the poem is a treatment of Snyder’s visits and summits of Mt. St. Helen’s when he was in his 20s. Really striking work. While I was out west this past July, I took an incredible day hike with poet Joel Felix in the eastern Olympics, climbing through old growth forests overseen by ancient Douglas Firs rising up alongside the Quilcene River, up into expansive alpine meadows rioting with wildflowers, grazed on by mountain goats and black bears, and then rising finally up to the top of Mt. Buckhorn (6900 feet), with incredible views of the Brothers, Mt. Constance, and Mt. Deception surrounding us, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to our north, and back to the east, like some slanting telescope, all the way down to the Puget Sound with towns and cities glimmering on its edges. All the way up, looking at the crowns of the sublime Olympics, I kept thinking “Danger on peaks!” And looking back down to the Puget Sound, I couldn’t help but think of Snyder’s masterpiece, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” which ends, “Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup / Looking down for miles / Through the high still air.”