Fiddling with the Archetypes

Gary Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-1979

I first learned of Gary Snyder in fictionalized form as the hero Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Therein, as in real life, the character was at work on translations of Hanshan. I went on to read Snyder’s translations, as well as those of Burton Watson, and committed many of the poems to heart.

From The Real Work I’ve culled the following passages on the theme of poetry, which may be of interest to my friends who love reading poetry, spend time doing any kind of writing, and make effort at going through their days in states of equanimity, compassion, sympathetic joy, and all-around friendliness.


The thing that keeps me from someone else’s poem from working for me most often is too much ego interference, too much abstract intelligence, too much striving for effect; there’s a lack of contact with the inner voices. 4-5

I’d emphasize the importance of a sense of community, a need for the poet to identify with real people, not a faceless audience. There should be less concern with publishing, more with reading. A reading is a kind of communion. I think the poet articulates the semi-known for the tribe. This is close to the ancient function of the shaman. It’s not a dead function. The poet needs a long view. He can’t just plan in terms of a few poems to be done immediately. He may be eighty years old before he’s ready to do his masterwork. The creative imagination doesn’t stop growing like the body. It keeps growing and getting ready to strike deeper into the basic relationships between the personal perception, the social ritual movements, and nature. Poetry is a life’s work. 6

Or like the great enlightened poet saints like Milarepa or Zen Buddhist masters who wrote poetry. They wrote poetry at the height of their delight, the sheer play of their being. 19

The first step is the rhythmic measure, the second step is a set of preverbal visual images which move to the rhythmic measure, and the third step is embodying it in words… 32

… what I call prose does not have the musical phrase or the rhythm behind it. Nor does it have the content density or the complexity… 36

I feel that one should learn everything about poetry, that he should read everything that he can get his hands on, first from his own tradition and then from every other tradition that he has access to, to know what has been done, and to see how it has been done. That in a sense is true craft: that one learns by seeing what the techniques of construction were from the past and saves himself the trouble of having to repeat things that others have done that need not be done again. And then also he knows when he writes a poem that has never been written before. 38

Poetry is not a social life. Nor is it a career. It’s a vocation. To be a careerist and to make a social life out of poetry is to waste the best of your opportunities, probably, for doing your work. 40

There is an intuitive aesthetic judgment that you can make that in part spots phoniness, spots excess, spots the overblown, or the undersaid, the unripe, or the overripe, and feels its way out to what seems just right, and that balance is what I work for, just the right tone, just the right balance, for the poem to do just what I wanted it to do. 43

Metrics and stanzas are matters of periodicity, establishing recurrences, and those established recurrences take place in very short lengths, like one line at a time: iambic pentameter, whatever it is. 45

I can sing about two hundred folksongs by heart, and I used to do that at hootenannies. 47

Poetic influences: Stevens, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Yeats

What it means to be serious about your craft and no bullshit. Not backing off any of the challenges that are offered to you. 61

Inspiration: The two simplest and best ways to get it are to go on a long walking trip by yourself, or take a sweat bath. This will inspire you for poetry. 62

What we think is, “How deeply I am touched.” 64

Poetry is intimately linked to any culture’s fundamental worldview, body of lore, which is its myth base, its symbol base, and the source of much of its values—the myth-lore that underlies any society. That foundation is most commonly expressed and transmitted in the culture by poems, which is to say by songs. 70

Poetry effects change by fiddling with the archetypes and getting at people’s dreams about a century before it actually effects historical change. 71

… bringing us back to our original true mind, seeing the universe freshly in eternity, yet at any moment. 72

What I read Whitman for is for inspiration. He’s inspiring. I love to read “The Song of the Open Road,” or “By Blue Ontario’s Shores,” or “Passage to India”—I love to read ‘em aloud, to a small audience. 75

To be a poet you have to be tuned into some of the darkest and scariest sides of your own nature. And for a male, the darkest and scariest is the destructive side of the female. 80

But of the work of the poet is to intensify and clarify the existence musical sound-possibilities in the spoken language. 121

Voice itself is a manifestation of our inner being. 121

Zen and Chinese poetry demonstrate that a truly creative person is more truly sane; that this romantic view of crazy genius is just another reflection of the craziness of our times. 123

In poetry we all know we are free to lovingly use anything that’s available…. As artists we are all free to write about anything we like. And if it is inauthentic it will show up sooner or later. If it really works, then people will trust it. 155

My generation found that boldly, to put it bluntly, having something to say helped with audiences. 163

Building that audience is done in part by going on the road and using your voice and your body to put the poems out there; and to speak to the people’s condition, as the Quakers would say, to speak to the condition of your own times and not worry about posterity. 163

Poems go through revisions, adaptations, and enhancements following on the sense of how audiences have been hearing you. 163-164

A bare stage is all you need. 165

Poetry as a tool, a net or a trap to catch and present; a sharp edge; a medicine, or the little awl that unties knots. 167

But there is room for many singers, and not everyone need aspire to national level publication, national reputation. 168

Poetry is written and read for real people: it should be part of the gatherings where we make decisions about what to do with uncontrolled growth… 168

If you start poetry teaching on the grade school level, use rhyme, they love it. Go with the flow, don’t go against it. Children love word play, music of language; it really sobered me up to realize that not only is rhyme going to be with us but it’s a good thing. 170

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