MARILYN CHIN v. GARY SNYDER: WE ALMOST HAVE OUR SWEET 16…

sourdough

The poet Gary Snyder—and mountains.

Marilyn Chin has three poems in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology and she defeated one of the Dickman twins (Michael) to get here.  She tries to knock off Gary Snyder with a late night mood piece from the Dove book:

COMPOSED NEAR THE BAY BRIDGE

(after a wild party)

1)
Amerigo has his finger on the pulse of China.
He, Amerigo, is dressed profoundly punk:
Mohawk-pate, spiked dog collar, black leather thighs.
She, China, freshly hennaed and boaed, is intrigued
with the diaspora and the sexual freedom
called bondage. “Isn’t bondage, therefore,
a kind of freedom?” she asks wanly.

2)
Thank God there was no war tonight.
Headbent, Amerigo plucks his bad guitar.
The Sleeping Giant snores with her mouth agape
while a lone nightingale trills on a tree.

Through the picture, I watch the traffic
hone down to a quiver. Loneliness. Dawn.
A few geese winging south; minor officials return home.

“Minor officials return home” is supposed to sound wistfully, yet coldly, heart-breaking in this modern Chinese American poem. We think it does.  We like it.

Gary Snyder has also been awarded three poems in the Dove.  Snyder escaped Sherman Alexie to advance to this contest with Chin.  In the world of poetry, Snyder is pretty famous, and here is the kind of poem (from Dove’s anthology) he is famous for:

MID-AUGUST AT SOURDOUGH MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Compared to Marilyn Chin’s poem, this just sounds like male bragging.  I don’t need no cities. I drink cold snow-water.  We also don’t understand the lack of punctuation.

Chin 87 Snyder 71

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE 32 POETS MOVING ON!

Enrique Simonet’s “Judgement of Paris”

They fought, they battled, they elbowed, they rebounded, they shot, they sweated, they passed, they jumped, they fell into seats trying to save a ball going out-of-bounds.  You know what they did.   Here’s the winners and their margins of victory:

East:

Ben Mazer (d. Ashbery 102-101, 3 OT)
Seamus Heaney (d. Carolyn Forche 65-61)
Franz Wright (d. Geoffrey Hill 58-42)
Billy Collins (d. Carol Ann Duffy 90-77)
Marie Howe (d. Jorie Graham 63-60)
Robert Pinsky (d. Charles Bernstein 80-47)
Mary Oliver (d. Charles Simic 67-53)
James Tate (d. Paul Muldoon 71-51)

Summary:  The beasts are in the East: Collins, Heaney, Pinsky, Oliver, Tate, Franz Wright, plus the upstart Ben Mazer, who has an aura of invincibility after knocking off Ashbery in triple overtime—but only one can survive to enter the Final Four!

South/Midwest:

Yusef Komunyakaa (d. A.E. Stallings 81-75)
Derek Walcott (d. C.D. Wright 91-47)
Patricia Smith (d. Mark Doty 80-69)
Rita Dove (d. Sandra Cisneros 64-60)
W.S. Merwin (d. Kevin Young 78-72)
Elizabeth Alexander (d. Carl Phillips 79-76)
Natasha Trethewey (d. Andrew Hudgins 69-68)
Terrance Hayes (d. Charles Wright 67-54)

Summary: the veteran Merwin is the only white poet to move on in this brackett.  Walcott is the Nobel Prize Winner, Patricia Smith, the Slam wild card, and Rita Dove, the Anthology editor.

North:

Philip Levine (d. Joanna Klink 88-67)
Richard Wilbur (d. Anne Waldman 101-70)
Dana Gioia (d. Brenda Shaughnessy 78-66)
Margaret Atwood (d. Bin Ramke 70-68)
Stephen Dunn (d. Glyn Maxwell 89-83)
Louise Gluck (d. Peter Gizzi 67-62)
Alice Oswald (d. Frank Bidart 55-54)
Cornelius Eady (d. Mark Strand 65-59)

Summary: Old school Richard Wilbur has to be the one to watch, after his dismantling of Waldman; also favored, the highly accessible Atwood, plus the imposing Dunn and Levine.

West:

Robert Hass (d. Cathy Song 67-63)
Sharon Olds (d. Li-Young Lee 79-77)
Gary Snyder (d. Sherman Alexie 80-72)
Heather McHugh (d. Rae Armantrout 66-54)
Kay Ryan (d. Cole Swensen 90-59)
Gary Soto (d. Ron Silliman 81-60)
Marilyn Chin (d. Michael Dickman 90-78)
Matthew Dickman (d. Joy Harjo 88-67)

Summary: Kay Ryan and Sharon Olds are strong women in this brackett; Gary Snyder has the savvy and experience to go all the way, and don’t count out young Dickman.

The raw numbers: 44% of the 32 poets still in the hunt are white males, and  41% are women.

The third annual Scarriet March Madness Tournament is using a different rule this year: winning poets bring a new poem with them into the next round.

Previously, Lehman’s  Best American Poetry, and Stephen Berg’s American Poetry Review were Scarriet sources; this year it is Dove’s 20th Century Poetry anthology (Penguin), with some exceptions (mostly British), and all living poets.

GARY SNYDER V. SHERMAN ALEXIE

alexie

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.

HAY FOR THE HORSES

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:

WHAT THE ORPHAN INHERITS

Language

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.

Names

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.

Alcohol

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

Time

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

Tradition

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

DOES THE LOCAL EXIST?

In his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry, the Sierra Club poet from Kentucky, invokes Thomas Jefferson:

“In the mind of Thomas Jefferson, farming, education, and democratic liberty were indissolubly linked.”

Farming and education?   Please explain.

But Berry uses Jefferson’s own words to build his case:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.  They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.  —Thomas Jefferson

This is Emersonian bullshit, from the euphemism “cultivators of the earth” for farmers, to the assertion that same farmers are the most “virtuous,” “independent,” “vigorous” and “valuable” people on the planet.   In fact, plantation owners (Jefferson was one himself) could be inserted more honestly.

Using a traditional icon (Jefferson) as a platform to build a radical thesis is a common strategy, but an inexcusable one; selective use of history is not history; it’s haranguing.

Here’s Jefferson updated (Berry riffing on Jefferson just quoted)  in modern Berry-speak:

There bonds were not merely those of economics and property, but those, at once more feeling and more practical, that come from the investment in property, but those, at once more feeling and more practical, that come from the investment in a place and a community of work, devotion, knowledge, memory, and association.    —Wendell Berry

Without getting into Jefferson’s  hypocritical politics (Berry slyly making acknowledgement of those with “not merely those of economics and property”) we are now in safer waters with a vague list of simple virtues which plantation owner Jefferson, a conservative Southern Agrarian like John Crowe Ransom, or a California Beat like Gary Snyder or Ron Silliman, can applaud: “a community of work, devotion, knowledge, memory, and association.”

“Work” and “devotion” are things the plantation owner will value. 

“Knowledge, memory, and association” can probably work for the plantation owner, too: plantation-knowledge, plantation-memory, and plantation-association, even though, with terms such as these, we are more in the realm of education and the now ubiquitous idea of local poetry and quaint regionalism—worlds away from Jefferson’s “economics and property” of plantations, colonial politics, Great Britain, and the United States.

Sure enough, Berry shifts into a discussion of education, and how Jefferson values it for discovering “genius” but how a “practical” approach relating to the “land” is better.

Berry quotes Jefferson again: “I consider the class of artificers the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are overturned.”

Now Berry adds: “[Jefferson] held manufacturers in suspicion because their values were already becoming abstract, enabling them to be ‘socially mobile’ and therefore subject pre-eminently to the motives of self-interest.”

Berry looks at land grant-colleges and how “agri-business” has corrupted the spirit of the original 1862 legislation, the Morrill Act, which set aside land for colleges of “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” and also the 1887 Hatch Act, which reads, in part: “to assure agriculture a position in research equal to that of industry…”

Here is Berry’s knock-out punch (from the same chapter of his 1977 book):

“The standard of [the land grant-college’s] purpose has shifted from usefulness to careerism…The legislation calls for a system of local institutions responding to local needs and local problems. What we have is a system of institutions which more and more resemble one another, like airports and motels, made increasingly uniform by the transience or rootlessness of their career-oriented faculties and the consequent inability to respond to local conditions.  The professor lives in his career, in a ghetto of career-oriented fellow professors.  Where he may be geographically is of little interest to him.  One’s career is a vehicle, not a dwelling: one is concerned less for where it is than for where it will go.”

“The careerist professor is by definition a specialist professor.  Utterly dependent upon his institution, he blunts his critical intelligence and blurs his language so as to exist ‘harmoniously’ within it—and so serves his school with an emasculated and fragmentary intelligence, deferring ‘realistically’ to the redundant procedures and meaningless demands of an inflated administrative bureaucracy whose education purpose is written on its paychecks.”

“Education is relieved of its concern for truth in order to prepare students to live in ‘a changing world.’  As soon as educational standards begin to be directed by ‘a changing world’ (changing, of course, to a tune called by the governmental-military-academic-industrial complex,) then one is justified in teaching virtually anything in any way—for, after all, one never knows for sure what a ‘changing world’ is going to become.  The way is thus opened to run a university as a business, the main purpose of which is to sell diplomas—after a complicating but undemanding four-year ritual—and thereby give employment to professors.”

Berry could be talking of the study of literature and MFA programs.

The crucial questions, though, are these:

Why does Berry feel an “airport” is just like any other, but a “farm” or a “plantation” is unique?

Is it naive to think that among the educated, the local should exist, can exist, or even does exist?

Is Berry too easily dismissing the “abstractions” of the “socially mobile” for what he feels are the more solid aspects of life on the farm?

%d bloggers like this: