In his “Introduction” to Pharmako-Poeia by Dale Pendell, Gary Snyder expatiates brilliantly on what he recalls as William Blake’s remark that “poets are of the devil’s party” (Blake actually wrote that “Milton was a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it,” but for a half century critics have been quoting him Snyder’s way):
Poets, needless to say, are not Satanists, so what does Blake mean? I think he is saying that for those who are willing to explore the fullness of their imagination—mind and senses fully engaged—there are great risks, at the very least, of massive silliness. Farther out is madness. No joke. But forget about the devil: poets and such travelers also bring a certain sanity back home. Here is a look at half-understood truths and serious territories of remaining mystery.
What Snyder says of Pendell is true of his own short, capacious book. Its panoramic scope is suggested by his remark, “Let’s say we’re about to enter not the twenty-first century but the fiftieth millennium.” While others worry about Iraq or peak oil, Snyder is concerned in a broader way about overdevelopment and the decline of the albatross population; and he meditates seriously about a “Thousand-Year Forest Plan” to prevent California from becoming as denuded as the Mediterranean. An essay on his “Smokey the Bear Sutra” sees Smokey as a vehicle for the Great Bear—who, as the Buddha, “only delivered her teachings to mountain and river spirits, wild creatures, storm gods, whale ascetics, bison philosophers, and a few lost human stragglers.” The Aurignacian cave paintings in Lascaux lead him to speculate that “if the paintings were so good, the poems and songs must have been of equal quality. . . . I fancy wild horse chants, ‘salutes’ (as are sung in some parts of Africa) to each creature.”
Of America’s burgeoning troupe of Buddhist poets, Snyder is perhaps the only one whose meditative practice has led him to live away from the electric grid, supporting his computer’s needs with solar panels and an emergency backup generator. Thus, the book is written from outside the normal concerns of tenured academics. It is a collection of recent occasional essays, many of them introductions to books by others. It is, however, a remarkably coherent mosaic on matters ranging from the practical—pulaski axes and controlled burns—to deep ecological prophecy—“A great Sierra-wide fire will come, and so will the flood that will make the Great Central Valley into a lake again.”
Perhaps Snyder is the only American poet who could have written the following:
A central teaching of the Buddhist tradition is nonviolence toward all of nature, ahimsa. This seemed absolutely right to me. In the Abrahamic religions, “Thou shalt not kill” applies only to human beings. In Socialist thought as well, human beings are all-important, and with the “labor theory of value” it is as though organic nature contributes nothing of worth. Later it came to me, green plants doing photosynthesis are the ultimate working class. . . . Almost all of the later “high civilizations” have been the sort of social organizations that alienate humans from their own biological and spiritual heritage.
This essay on nonviolence toward nature follows a related one on the “haiku sensibility”:
The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight. One hesitates to ask for more.
Clearly Snyder’s speculations about the wild horse chants of 20,000 years ago lie beyond empirical verification. But readers of this book will feel their minds enlarged and restored to the dimensions that true sanity and equanimity require. Snyder takes Blakean risks; not all will agree that offshore immigrants should “be called on to learn . . . the landscapes, watershed, plants, and animals of their new home.” But we should all be grateful for the sagacious register of one of America’s most original and authentic voices in an inauthentic and dispirited age.