Sherman Alexie: will try to advance in the West against the no. 3 seed.

Gary Snyder, who always wanted to be an Indian, takes on Sherman Alexie, who is an Indian.

Obviously this is putting it crudely: ethnicity can be as crude as sexism—these things are what poetry tries to escape.

Not expressing oneself, one is an individual; as soon as one expresses oneself, one loses all individuality.

In the following poem, Gary Snyder, the poet, the expressive one, let’s someone else do the talking.  It’s probably Snyder’s most anthologized poem, perhaps the one poem, slaving all those years, earning all those awards, that he was meant to write, who knows?  It’s in Dove’s anthology with a couple others, which are more haiku-like.  Snyder is like Williams and Creeley, and pound for pound, foot for foot, he might be more consistently enjoyable to read than those guys; Snyder might be a little underrated.


He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
— The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds —
“I’m sixty-eight,” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”

This poem needs no commentary we suppose, and yet, like Columbo lazing himself out of a room, we might turn back and just ask one thing.  If one put that memorable speech at the end of this poem in a paragraph and  one read it just as dialogue in some novel, would it have the same weight?  Probably not.  And if it doesn’t, aren’t we fools to be impressed by speech because of the way the words happen to be printed?  Aren’t we sacrificing our Milton to the printer’s devil?

Or would only the devil ask such a question, knowing that our humanity is nothing but a way to cut cloth, and to persist in such a question would lead us to hate all cutting and all cloth?

Sherman Alexie counters Snyder with the following, found in Dove’s book:



I dreamed I was digging your grave
with my bare hands. I touched your face
and skin fell in thin strips to the ground

until only your tongue remained whole.
I hung it to smoke with the deer
for seven days. It tasted thick and greasy

sinew gripped my tongue tight. I rose
to walk naked through the fire. I spoke
English. I was not consumed.


I do not have an Indian name.
The wind never spoke to my mother
when I was born. My heart was hidden

beneath the shells of walnuts switched
back and forth. I have to cheat to feel
the beating of drums in my chest.


“For bringing us the horse
we could almost forgive you
for bringing us whisky.”


We measure time leaning
out car windows shattering
beer bottles off road signs.


Indian boys
sinewy and doe-eyed
frozen in headlights.

This poem is obviously speaking to a lot and speaking legitimately, but it feels too conscious of itself to have much of an effect on those not caught up in the circumstances which the poem describes.

Snyder 80, Alexie 72



  1. April 17, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I’m torn here. I wish another of Snyder’s poems had been used. He such a great eco-poet (puts Merwin to shame, in that regard), but this is not one of his better pieces.

    In terms of body of work, it’s Snyder, hands down, who, as you mentioned, could be compared favorable to Creeley.

    But in terms of the two poems presented, I guess I’d vote for Alexie.

  2. James C. Conner said,

    January 19, 2014 at 2:37 am

    I went into the Maverick bar in Farmington ,New Mexico and drank double shots of bourbon backed with beer…

    This poem might be more to the point here. It deals with the seductive appeal of the American materialist dream and enlightenment and salvation from it ..We left,onto the freeway shoulders, under the tough old stars,in the shadow of the bluffs/I came back to myself,to the real work, to what is to be done.

    A deeper poem than “hay for the horses”__this poem offers a path forward and it has moved away from nihilism and back to tradition.(see Eugene Rose’s great essay on-line-“nihilism” }. Hay… is a wonderful poem though, a classic,a pereniel fruit for the spirit ,juicy and life sustaining.

    Sherman Alexie’s work is exciting and fun to read but one wants to be sure not to be cahght in it. It’s like Vegas, or the Maverick Bar and despair and the American Blues are the flip side of it’s coin.

    All the best to warrior Alexie–may he fight himself free of America’s web-modernity’s web,so well portrayed it the Jackson film “the Desolation of Smaug ” ,based on the work of the tradition -affirming elder J.R.R.Tolkien.

    And profound gratitude to the wise and persevering elder Gary Snyder,who has been pointing the way “to the real work, to what is to be done,”to generations of nihilism’s broken children.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    January 19, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Looking back at this, now I think Alexie should have won. That Snyder won only proves that an official’s errant decision (ump, ref) really does affect the result of every game of complex team sport. Any one moment changes the result of the game and anyone who denies this and says the best team always wins is naive. So this makes poetry matches, determined by the poems’ worth and some official’s call all the more similar to pro sports. If that pass interference/holding is called/not called, the whole game is different—True.

    Oh—happy birthday Eddy Poe.

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