I recently bought a couple of used poetry books by Gary Snyder from Thriftbooks.com to add to the collection I already have of his. Gary was one of my first literary role models, although I did not know him as a Gary or as much of a poet. I knew him as Japhy, a pseudonym that Jack Kerouac gave to him in his book The Dharma Bums, which I first read in high school and have read several times thereafter. In the book, Japhy lives an alternative Zen Buddhist lifestyle, working in the woods and climbing the mountains of California. This was in the 1950's, and at the time, nobody was just out there climbing mountains for kicks, so he was considered an eccentric, but Kerouac-- a mad poet and eccentric himself--took up with Japhy and adopted some of his ways and started climbing mountains and working in the woods himself. As an 18 year old in the midst of rebellion against middle-class suburban culture, I thought this was exactly what I wanted to do too.
So I have Gary Snyder to thank, in part, for the direction my life has taken, and since reading Dharma Bums, I started reading Gary's work and learning a little more about his background and the ideas that influenced him. According to Wikipedia, he was born in 1930 in San Francisco, but he moved at a young age with his mother and sister to Oregon where he worked as a camp counselor, started climbing mountains, and took to the sea as a sailor. Presumably, the sea life gave him confidence to travel, because after graduating from Reed College with a degree in anthropology and literature, he sailed to Japan and lived there for a period studying Japanese language and Eastern philosophy. This philosophy he'd infuse with much of what he learned at school and from visiting the Native American tribes in his area, and that leads me back to his poetry collection.
The collection is called Axe Handles, and I think the best way to get a sense of the poem is to first consider the collection's cover...
The image on the cover is interesting. There is woman playing what looks like a flute on a sailboat. It looks Eastern influenced which makes sense given Gary's background. I don't know any more about the picture so I flip to the copyright page. What will that tell me?
The copyright page tells me that the cover painting is "Treasure Ship, Goddess of Snow," by Mayumi Oda, who a google search reveals to be a contemporary Japanese artist with a website I will link here: mayumioda.net/. Very cool.
The copyright page also tells me that this was printed in Berkely, California by North Point Press in 1983, and according to a news article in the LA times dated 1990, North Point has stopped publishing books because of financial troubles. So, people weren't reading or supporting poetry and local literature enough. Very uncool.
But okay...I am not those people. I read and support poetry dangit! So on to the poem...
The poem takes its name from the collection's title (or vice versa). It is also called Axe Handles, and just a foreword--this is not a poem I would typically share from Gary Snyder. I am more drawn to some of his other, more working-class writing that describes the natural environment. But I was drawn to this poem, because it describes a scene between Gary, who is the first person speaker, and his son, Kai. Plainly, it is about a father, child relationship and the transference of knowledge, and I had to think about the poem for a while before it really clicked.
I hope other people read and think about this poem too. Poetry will strike people in different ways, and often it's very personal. Researching the background of poem and its author can help, but there is not one way to read it, nor is there often a very good way to articulate how one feels about it. A person just feels it. Like a song.
What caused this poem to finally click for me? ...Well, I was sitting with my daughter and I've been trying to teach her to be more independent, which includes putting on her own shoes. Being the three year old that she is, she sometimes puts the shoes on the wrong feet. Yesterday I sat down with her and handed her the shoe. I wanted to explain to her how to put the shoe on the correct foot, but understanding right foot and left foot is a little advanced. How do I teach her this? I thought. And it struck me. We'll match the form of her foot to the pattern that's already close at hand. "Look," I told Maryanne, "See the curve of your foot. It matches the curve of this shoe. That is the shoe that goes on this foot." She understood.
Just like the axe handle in Gary Snyder's poem, the pattern for what I was trying to replicate was already close at hand.
I will leave you with one more inscription from the page preceding the poem; something that also helped influence the poem; another thing to think about. It is a Japanese folk song from the 5th century before Christ...
If you read and enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or a like. Thank you!