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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

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.

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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

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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. Gluck begins her first poem, "The Wild Iris," with the assertion that, "At the end of my suffering/ there was a door." It's a fascinating lead, yet the second stanza reads, "Hear me out: that which you call death/ I remember." Such assertions are hard for readers to grasp and are a risky move at the beginning of a book.

What's interesting about "The Wild Iris" is the way Gluck tries to define the nature of God. As she states in the poem "Matins," on Page 12, "... I cannot love/ what I can't conceive, and you disclose/ virtually nothing...." At times the reader may feel that the poet is spiritually immature or is missing obvious answers, but it is rewarding to see her work out of one mindset where she refers to God as "unreachable father" and into another where she is grateful because "... this one summer we have enter ed eternity."

"The Wild Iris" is indeed a turning point for its author, a woman known for both her thematic obsessions and her distinctive use of language. Perhaps more important, the book tackles questions that need to be addressed both in the artistic community and in society at large.

Gluck's conclusion, at least in regard to the frailties of the physical world and the garden she cultivates with her husband, is found in her poem "The White Lilies":

Hush, beloved. It doesn't matter to me

how many summers I live to return:

this one summer we have entered eternity.

I felt your two hands

bury me to release its splendor.

Exploration takes a different form in Barbara Helfgott Hyett's "The Double Reckoning of Christopher Columbus." Here the reader becomes an unperceived member of Columbus's crew, a privileged observer on that early voyage of discovery. Hyett puts readers right on the ship's deck and gives them access to the admiral's personal log. The book is set up so that each poem is preceded by a brief quote from Columbus's notes, with the intention that the poems will flesh out the details.

The poet's goal is noble and intriguing, but the poems themselves are not as interesting as the idea behind the book. Unlike the log entries from which the quotes were taken, all the poems are virtually identical in appearance. Constructed of five stanzas each, almost always with four lines per stanza, they are visually disappointing. It isn't clear why Hyett chose a construction that suggests to the reader that the entire voyage will be rather monotonous.

The language in these poems also becomes predictable after the first few pages. While Hyett wanted to re-create the actual experience, her word choice forms a barrier that the reader can't get past. Her description is at times academic and formal, as in the poem "Before Sunrise": "... What he feels is vortex,/ or pinprick, he can't decide...." and at other times overly poetic, as in "The Volcano": "O fountain! O black smoke and loud report!" Even her description of Columbus feels distanced.

It is difficult to trust this narrator. Her portrait of Columbus as a believable persona is unconvincing, yet the success of the book relies heavily on the success of this basic premise. Descriptions such as "He scans the rich green valley, hills rounded/ as a sleeping woman's back..." from "Becalmed" were too easy. There is also no sense of resolution, either within a single poem or within a section of the book.

The book has attracted a lot of press attention, however, because of the accessibility of both the subject matter and the poems themselves.

Readers do not need to know much about the genre to understand poems like "To the Canaries":

It is always spring in the Canaries,

no seasons to make things change. The trees drop

their leaves at will. Thick fruits at once appear,

eloquent as his parrots in Funchal.

Freed from the cage, their wings green and beating,

they'd fly onto the tree of his shoulders, and stay.

The silver fish that tease the shoreline swim

in small, confining circles....

Hyett's book might provide a good introduction to poetry for some people. In the end, however, Columbus was more successful at telling this important story with all of the color and feeling that it deserves.

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