Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

turtle island

You all may recall that I am NOT a poetry person. I may be a tad too literal; I loved Shel Silverstein but never graduated from there. Clearly it didn’t help that I attempted Gertrude Stein later in life; her poetry is analogous in my mind to modern abstract art. Either I am a hopeless moronic philistine, or these people are making fun of us to our faces with some of this stuff.

So how did I end up here? I didn’t do my homework. I had heard enough good about Gary Snyder from people I respect for long enough that I finally jumped on a title somebody referenced: Turtle Island. I requested it from my local library. (I LOVE this service.) I went to pick it up when they told me to; and sure enough, on the cover, “Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 1975.” Well, heck, I’ll give it a whirl. (Pops and I are planning a readalong of a Snyder essay collection, Practice of the Wild, coming up, so I’ll get the prose, too.)

Snyder’s poems are short – rarely over one page (in a small format book), and often shorter. They tend towards the natural world and our relationship with it, and these of course were the subjects I was looking for. He’s really pretty accessible – for a poet. I don’t follow the stream-of-consciousness sort of thing very well, but I tried to just let his words float over me when I lost the thread. To mix a metaphor.

I liked several quite well. “Control Burn” (not “controlled”) has a clear message, and one I can get behind; and it read fairly straightforwardly. [Actually, as I look again, it would make for a very coherent sentence if you just took out all the line breaks and added a little punctuation. Look at that. I like poetry when it most resembles prose. sigh] I liked “The Call of the Wild” for its message as well; I appreciated a list of “Facts” (including “General Motors is bigger than Holland.”) but again that’s cheating: it is not a poem. Is it? Hm. If a list of facts can be a poem, maybe I’m a little better off than I thought. “The Wild Mushroom” is a more traditional poem with a recognizable meter, and it rhymes! (I am a philistymes.) It could also serve you as an abridged guide to which wild mushrooms are edible, which poisonous and which might “bring you close to God”; utility in poetry is always welcome, yes please.

“Mother Earth: Her Whales” is a lovely ode to all the earth’s inhabitants and indictment of what we’re doing here. And I love the tale of an ancient turquoise ring from Jemez discovered under the ruins of an apartment complex in Kyoto: “The Jemez Pueblo Ring.” I also like when he writes about his family, mostly his young sons; his tenderness shows clearly through.

But naturally, for me, things really get good when he switches to “Plain Talk” (the final one of the book’s four main sections), which is also known as “prose.” Here Snyder identifies problems with our world – we’re talking about the big problems, like population, pollution, and consumption – and recommends big fixes – with actions organized by social/political, community, and “our own heads.” He is concerned with the relationship of humans to the rest of the world: water, earth, dirt, plants, animals, mountains, air. His prose arguments are beautiful, well thought out, well informed (although brief), and resonate with me perfectly. I suspect that they assume certain things (bison on the plains are a good thing. our kids should play in the dirt) that not everyone agrees with; but I’m on his frequency. The people who think the big car, the big house in the big city, kids who wear designer sneakers, and the fancy career are important goals may not follow along here.

Snyder’s philosophies strike me as abundantly obviously correct, but also (sadly) far too simple and hopeful to work in our complex and stubbornly wrong world. He has all the problems described correctly, except that everything is far worse now than it was when this book was published in 1974. In that respect, it’s not good news, but Snyder shows great foresight in predicting the ways in which we’re doing even more poorly now; and further, I think it’s remarkable how relevant and right he still is in 2014. If you read this book today with no knowledge of its publication date, I think you’d find it intelligent, only understated or optimistic.

This prose conclusion to Turtle Island is absolutely the perfect conclusion to the poetry that precedes it. I confess that if I had to rate the poetry sections, I would probably end up giving this book a bemused 5 feathers or some such, with the qualification that I’m pretty sure there’s more here that I missed. But with this conclusion in “plain talk” to tie it all up for me, Turtle Island becomes a philosophical achievement along the lines of Thoreau, Abbey, Jensen, Dillard, and the like. In fact, I was often reminded of Abbey (as when Snyder refers to growth as a cancer); Jensen (as when he refers to a need for total change and starting over), some thoughts I’ve come up with (“on my own,” in theory, but clearly informed by my reading & discussions), and also with Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters.

This conclusion to the book bodes extraordinarily well for my shared reading with Pops of Snyder’s essay collection. Stay tuned.

Rating: 9 Ponderosa pines.

3 Responses

  1. Wow: from 5 feathers to 9 pines in one big finale! That makes me want to go back and reread your review – which is perhaps what you should do with some of those poems; that often helps – though I admit I share many of your phobias about the form.

    p.s. – you may want to make a word-use correction: in saying “I may be a tad too literate” I don’t think you intended to seem conceited; I think you meant “literal?”

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