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
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,
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. …