Sunday, November 9, 2014
MYTHS & TEXTS
MYTHS & TEXTS
Ive signed & inscribed it "from Retta, Myer's sale, Feb. 68" --amazement & glee when she presented Gary Snyder's little book, Myths & Texts, to me. Avant-garde hunter gatherers in them thar days. The shining lights of the New Writing ever in our sights. Golden season of Franklin's bookshop in Russell Street throughout '66, first year of my emigration, when every visit turned up something --a paperback Kerouac, Holmes or Brossard, Broyard, Cassil, Mandel (a hardback), Salinger, Mailer et al… And continued after I met Loretta, --through '67, '68, all & any of the many Melbourne bookshops --Gaston Renard, the Russian Bookshop, Cheshires, the Anchorage, --but Franklin's by far the best 2nd hander…
In February '68 I'm in the lap of luxury having been let go by the Education Department (Technical Division), advised before end of term, December '67, that I wouldn't be re-employed at Williamstown Tech after the summer holiday, yet fully paid for the entire period! Friends told me to go to the Teachers Union and fight it. The Union said it was a strange case since a sacking before end of school year normally meant no holiday wages at all. Unless I seriously wanted a teaching career they advised me to take the money & run! I'd known from the moment I set foot at Williamstown Tech that the Principal couldn't handle my looks or my books --long hair in a pony tail, poetry anthologies & anarchist tracts --and the Teachers Union anti-conscription petition I pinned up on the staff notice-board the last straw --unless it was the cricket match I unilaterally abandoned (defacto sports master & umpire in addition to my English & Social Studies brief) when one team's Anglo-Australian boys and the Greeks & others of the opposition attacked each other with bats & stumps --'race riot' as I declared it, occasioned by the Greeks belting the Aussies around the park, wielding cricket bats as though baseball clubs, not guarding their wicket, no technique, solely eye & instinct… Next day at the staff meeting, a more liberal minded teacher than most, a literary man, Tennessee Williams enthusiast, interceded in my castigation. If Mr H agreed, he said, he'd gladly cane the perpetrators, beat some respect into them! Culture & race had nothing to do with it, discipline was the key, he said!
Another teacher I occasionally spoke to, Mrs Brass, sympathised with me about the incident. Over the years I've thought her husband was the journalist Douglas Brass because of their shared name and memory of her reading & discussing articles in The Australian for which he was a columnist, but it isn't so. Additionally Ive found her on the Web described as teaching at Williamstown High, so perhaps she was only temporarily at the Tech school. Like me she wasn't trained but hired on interview in that uncredentialed era. Ruth Brass was from Germany and if we spoke in the staff-room I'm sure my friendship with Inge Timm & visiting her in Soest, Westphalia in '65 would have cropped up. She was connected with the Goethe Institute in Melbourne and the thought begins to percolate that late '70s, when Walter Billeter introduced me to its splendid library, I may have talked to her there and perhaps brought up our earlier Williamstown connection!
Peter Norman was my head of humanities, an athlete, to whom I told the story of visiting the great Percy Cerutty at his famous Portsea training camp, under the wing of my friend Kelvin Bowers, British middle-distance junior champion, whom I'd met on the migrant boat in '66, & who'd been invited to train there. I remember Peter as often around the corridor in track suit as in shirt & tie. I probably thought he was quicker on his feet than tongue. I'd picked up he was Christian and though he generally agreed with my anti-war politics, didn't sign the anti-conscription petition. I was appalled. Only a year later imagine the surprise when I saw my regular-guy colleague in the Black Power protest on the hundred metres medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics? A la Spike Milligan, had I played a part in the Aussie sprinter's radicalisation? Nah! That was the era and zeitgeist impossible to buck, or what?
I'd've been home in my tiny rented terrace cottage in Canning Street, Carlton, next to the all-night thumping of the bakery and its permanent bread-dough aroma, almost suffocating in mid-summer, the bread smells trapped in the airless heat. I'm typing poems or letters, being paid by the Education Department essentially to sit on my arse, read, study, be a poet, when Loretta came in with her prize! Perhaps I'm psyching myself up to fulfil the curtain-raiser for Michael Hudson's production of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre at the La Mama cafe-theatre around the corner in Faraday Street, Betty Burstall's good idea to justify the night's billing of such a short play, and redeemed she was when our poetry began pulling an audience in its own right. It grew another leg when Bill Beard joined me, so that Mike's Bread & Puppet appeared to be supporting us! But here it is, my God, Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts, published by Corinth Books, "in conjunction with Totem Press/Le Roi Jones" --wow-ee! What on earth was it doing, engulfed by bad popular fiction, romance, thrillers, on a sale table in the book department of Melbourne's flagship department store? The only copy, the only poetry book! What were the odds that Retta should find it? Incredible!
On misty, damp, after-rain morning, writing as I stand in doorway section of smooth-running stop-all-stations train from the 'Garth & Creek's quasi rurality into the Big Smoke, surrounded by pleasant hum of commuter small-talk --like I'm Walt & not Gary Snyder, subject of the memorandum I'm heading to, --Walt & not Gary, definitively, because in Gary's poetry the daily milieu is foil or natural context but its candour never so grown & substantially remarked as in Walt's inexhaustible ledger, small glint of which is mine here --and plainly isn't the point of it, isn't his ideology, like Walt's Song of this and Song of that, determined to include everyone & everything within the call's special ring, like an auctioneer in Kentucky or, nodding back through the years to my sister Monique who sent me its postcard, the Appleby Horse Fair, long long ways as these may be from Camden, New Jersey --hoo! Gary, hoo!
And chatting with Chris Wallace-Crabbe one morning in the Shop, on his way over the river to the William Blake exhibition at the NGV, --bright as a button, dapper as Barry Humphries --in response to his polite question about reading &/or writing, --Snyder I said, and searched for the right word to describe him --irony? no, --separateness? exclusivity? --And though we're all carried by Walt's democratic ebullience, this civic ecstasy not expected in Snyder contrary to an image perhaps preceding him? --because Snyder is found in singleness, singularity, singing also but to distinguish not occlude --each natural jewel of rain sun forest (--this is some conversation! ) --I just happen to be supervising a student in Snyder at the moment he says --laugh : let's tutor him/her together, I say! -- What I like, I say, is the simultaneity of American & Japanese --Chinese, Californian, Chris adds laughing --
But stay with the double outline, the casual slippage of ancient & modern, registered as here & now --no more arcane than acorns are --seamless collage --logger, Marxist, Wobbly, hitch-hiker. folklorist, Native-American, Chinese, Japanese, Buddhist, lover, shaman --
"Bodhidharma sailing the Yangtze on a reed
Lenin in a sealed train through Germany
Hsuan Tsang, crossing the Pamires
Joseph, Crazy Horse, living the last free
starving high-country winter of their tribes.
Surrender into freedom, revolt into slavery--
Confucius no better--
(with Lao-tzu to keep him in check)
"Walking about the countryside
all one fall
To a heart's content beating on stumps." [from part 6, Burning; Myths & Texts, 1952-56]---
Snyder, --like at Collingwood Farm I told Chris, drawing the cabbage with two pencils in my hand, the blurs outlining instant contradiction, adding dimension, so is our subject all-over, all-around, always, expressed as the simultaneity of alternating here & now --
1968 reading Myths & Texts same age as when Snyder began writing it. What accomplishment, teens & twenties! --especially as the post WW2 generations become younger, suspended by personal prosperity/social welfare in new norm cotton wool adolescence. Reading Snyder, there's no discount for youth -- realise Snyder is as Snyder does, was ever who he is --which is how one appreciates all notable & memorable writing in the retrospect one never thought twice about at the start of it. Not that '60s reading was at the beginning of anything other than that season of English & Australian youth's education. But if only for Myths & Texts, Snyder could uncontroversially have qualified for Robert Duncan's class-roll, The Lasting Contribution of Ezra Pound (Agenda vol 4, no 2, 1965), wonderful to read in Melbourne in '68 --describing the importance in the late '40s, early '50s, of Pound & Williams in opening "the way for a group of younger writers --Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Larry Eigner, Paul Blackburn, Gael Turnbull, Theodore Enslin, Cid Corman and myself --who were concerned with immediacy and process in the development of their poetics." Pound & Williams are unambiguously sounded by Snyder --and the only magpie would be seen & heard along what's become his very own way, killing the Buddha at every bend.
Walking/working backwards from his influence --on Franco Beltrametti's Nadamas for instance --I cant put my hand on the chapter he published (his own & Judith Danciger's translation) in the Grosseteste Review, '72, so refer to the section I published in Earth Ship #10/11 (Southampton, August, '72, just prior to returning to Melbourne), summed up in this sentence : "Here we are again in the swing of the events following each other always more rapidly so that you don't have to be interested if they overlap or ride over one another." As Beltrametti so Snyder --the absolute presence of the narrative, no progression only what's current, and time passing's subsumed within the concurrence or simultaneity. Beltrametti's 'additional handwritten poem' in the signed edition of Face to Face (Grosseteste Review Books, 1973) makes the same call :
"reckonings don't come even
roughly on the same latitude as
Seville / Richmond / Wichita / Nigata /
Seoul / Askhabad
from one carob tree
to the next"
And though Snyder's Myths & Texts does 'contain history' after Pound, Williams' grafting (for example the young feller Ginsberg's correspondence included in Paterson, which serves to bless the incidental with the historical) is a propos --real bits of world, documents, quotation, letters as they come, as world comes, observed, overheard, perceived. (No reason to be peeved, if he really was, when his own stuff landed up in Kerouac's Dharma Bums. Material is material and the private subordinate to a larger literary good?) All of which suggests the fluidity or openness of the poem as the measure of experience yet the Snyder poem is also composed --much more of a made poem, confirmed by standard capitalisation & lineation, than the rangy field-work of the first poems of Mountains & Rivers Without End which chronologically follow Myths & Texts.
What to say of his Jewish joke not quite lost in the anti-Christian jibe :
"Them Xtians out to save souls and grab land
'They'd steal Christ off the cross
if he wasn't nailed on'
The last decent carpentry
Ever done by Jews." [from Logging, section 10, Myths & Texts]?
Sure, Snyder's target is both bible-bashing colonialism and the theologically guaranteed human dominion over nature, the bete noire of the ecological philosophy & politics he champions. An example of casual anti-semitism maybe, and only funny within it. Sure, hearsay, quoted speech, but seamless in Snyder's drawl-scrawl, his droll-scroll…
P. S. : Rip Rap
Permit mind blown in the fatal collision of wilderness & industrial civilisation --"I cannot remember things I once read / A few friends, but they are in cities." Consider the few days between worlds, and all gone that other one --and what another one "Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup / Looking down for miles / Through high still air." --what room for anything else when this other imposes such permanence that the very notion of contrast shrivels, no register except "caught on a snow peak / between heaven and earth" --except the lad is a scientist, can unsentimentally state "in ten thousand years the Sierras / will be dry and dead, home of the scorpion." And the Milton he's pulled out of his ruck-sack's (as last of August light extended by camp-fire's) "Too dark to read". Hah! --pun into blackguard Milton aka Western dramaturgy, --but as though autobiography, Cold Mountain's just the place to slough off "Damn me a fool last night in port drunk on the floor & damn / this cheap trash we read. Hawaiian workers shared us / beer in the long wood dredgemen's steel-men's girl-less / night drunk and gambling hall, called us strange sea- / men blala and clasped our arms and sang real Hawaiian songs " ---Ah, right royal navvy's days & nights…
In Rip Rap's 50th Anniversary edition there's long footnote apology for a phrase in the poem, For A Far-Out Friend. He confesses it's earned him flack over the years but now it's time to clarify. "Because once I beat you up / Drunk, stung with weeks of torment / And saw you no more", was an untruth right from the start he explains. She was the violent one, not he. "She started beating on me in some anger and I let her whack me (protesting) till I got her into the car. (….) I thought that saying I'd hit her was the more manly, or even gentlemanly, thing to say, an idea that comes from chivalry, perhaps. I never laid an ungentle hand on her. My critics, especially my colleague Sandra Gilbert, have said that there is no excuse for treating violence against women casually, and they are absolutely right. This note seems the best way to deal with the problem rather eliminate the poem or change the line in silence." Hmmm. Didn't want to change the original poem he says but bows now to feminist pressure and seeks to 'explain'…There you go. But surely, what's good for the goose is good for the gander? Snyder evidently doesn't blush for the "kulak" reference describing farmers & landowners in one of his much admired Han Shan translations, Cold Mountain poem # 16.
"Cold Mountain is a house / Without beams or walls. / The six doors left and right are open / The hall is blue sky. / The rooms are all vacant and vague / The east wall beats on the west wall / At the centre nothing. // Borrowers don't bother me / In the cold I build a little fire / When I'm hungry I boil up some greens. / I've got not use for the kulak / With his big barn and pasture - / He just sets up a prison for himself. / Once in he cant get out. / Think it over -- / You know it might happen to you."
'Kulak's traditional meaning is "a tight-fisted person"; "a peasant wealthy enough to own farm and hire labour" (Concise Oxford). But it's inextricable from the vicious Soviet connotation. This term from the Stalinist lexicon refers to as wicked a pogrom as any in the USSR, its horror & madness if anything magnified when the attitude was inherited by Maoist China. What did Snyder intend? "You know it might happen to you" a little more sinister than a comment on personal salvation? Simplest & kindest to say that in the '50s, as a young man of the left, revolting against the American way, he's amenable & acquiescent to leftist gloat and a say-what-I-like macho glib… Fiftieth anniversary or not, time's ripe, methinks, for more clarification of such hot & cold war attitudes & language… The Right is unfailingly called to proper account for its reflections of Fascism & Naziism, but the Left hardly at all for its toeing the line of iron fist Communism, Stalinism, Maoism and whatever flows on through contemporary Socialist reflexes & assumptions…
The older & younger survivors of the ideological storms are we, especially as the poets we're able to be… Time to be poets & not suckers & saps… hoo! hoo! hoo!
The issue of what is or isn't 'politically correct' is prickly enough in the present day. And there's a greater problem with the retrospective judgement of previous generations, earlier societies & epochs, according to contemporary attitude & belief, and not least because the legitimation of such attribution implies a standard set, unchanging through time. This installs the progressivist depiction of human affairs as the only one, coacervate, indeed, with history itself. On the other hand, reform & repudiation of atrocious acts is generally laudable & necessary. I guess expression, whether or not literary or artistic, being what is held, spoken, depicted, is rightly personal --eccentrically formed, not legislative whatever its aspiration. So the question I ask of Gary Snyder is as reader-writer of a colleague poet, though he be exemplary, & one who hasn't confined his work to the literary domain. If you like, when reader-writer addresses another it's poetry & literature of which the question is asked, asked whatismore within & behalf of poetry & literature.