Images of Now and Then in Poetry's Mirror Two Collections and an Epic Narrative by Well-Known Poets Offer Fresh Reflections on the Natural World and Individual Experience

By Elizabeth Lund. Elizabeth Lund is on the Monitor . | The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Images of Now and Then in Poetry's Mirror Two Collections and an Epic Narrative by Well-Known Poets Offer Fresh Reflections on the Natural World and Individual Experience


Elizabeth Lund. Elizabeth Lund is on the Monitor ., The Christian Science Monitor


POETRY has always been a mirror of society that can teach us much. Two new collections by well-known poets explore the relationship between the individual and the natural world, while a third book details an experience of epic proportions. Gary Snyder and Louise Gluck, who were both nominated for the 1992 National Book Award in Poetry, have each produced a milestone work. Barbara Helfgott Hyett's book was nominated for last year's Pulitzer Prize.

"No Nature: New and Selected Poems," by Gary Snyder, brings together generous selections from this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet's eight previous books, as well as 15 new poems. This collection shows the development of a writer who is a nature poet, was a leader of the '60s and '70s cultural revolution, and has been hailed as a voice of reason calling for the reexamination of Western culture's spiritual and political values.

Despite its title, "No Nature" is an attempt to define both Snyder's individual nature and the collective nature of the human species. The reader walks with Snyder as he attempts to find perfection in the natural world and then translate that perfection into human experience. At times he also seeks his own identity in the practice of Zen Buddhism, romantic love, his family, and various jobs he once had in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the years, Snyder's skills have sharpened, and this volume shows both his triumphs and his failures as a writer. Many of the early poems included here do not go much beyond the level of description and often sound like Chinese or Japanese poetry that didn't make the mark. In his first two books especially, "Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems" (1958) and "Myths & Texts" (1960), Snyder's punctuation and line breaks were inconsistent and distracting, and the narratives were less lucid and clear than they c ould have been.

"Turtle Island," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, is the prime example of Snyder's work. Previous books were preparing him to write this collection, and later ones are trying to match it in depth, clarity, and vision. The "Turtle Island" poems reveal a more tender, humble side of the poet, and Snyder himself is more of a presence in his own work. The result is more meaningful poetry.

Taken as a whole, Snyder's work could be described as a series of peaks and valleys. His shorter poems consistently outshine his longer pieces, which often ramble and become self-consciously clever. His work is strongest when he is in harmony with himself and his surroundings, as in the poem "We Make Our Vows Together With All Beings," first published in "Left Out in the Rain" (1986).

Eating a sandwich

At work in the woods,

As a doe nibbles buckbrush in snow

Watching each other,

chewing together.

A Bomber from Beale

over the clouds,

Fills the sky with a roar.

She lifts head, listens,

Waits till the sound has gone by.

So do I.

It is disappointing to end with the poems in the last section, some of Snyder's newest but flattest work. Rather than discovering fresh facets of the themes that have evolved over many years, he leaves the reader with no further understanding of his poetic vision. The poems merely recycle old techniques and language. The last poem, "Ripples on the Surface," just begins to explore questions and themes that should have been fully developed.

Louise Gluck's "The Wild Iris" tries to answer the questions "Who am I?" and "What is the nature of God?" Most of the poems use a flower as both metaphor and indirect subject, yet the collection is more like a record of the speaker's prayers. Readers unfamiliar with Gluck's crisp, sparse language may have difficulty finding their way into these poems.

The first few pages do not provide enough of a narrative, and it would be easy to conclude that the writer's vision is too personal and cryptic for others to share.

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