Closer Readings Commentary

Gary Snyder Found His Voice as a Poet with Poems Set in the American West

Is there anything more distinctive in American poetry than hearing a recording of Robert Frost reading one of his own poems? Video clips and recordings from the sixties capture the distinctive voice at public readings, where Frost’s voice and the poem he’s reading aloud become one and the same. The lines, we feel while listening, were written for Frost, not just by him. Frost, much earlier, had discovered what he had to say as a poet—he had discovered his voice. The elderly Frost reading with such ease belies the painstaking efforts a young poet must take to find his or her own voice.

Contemporary American poet Gary Snyder, born in San Francisco in 1930, and often associated with the Beat Generation, wrote a poem in 1955 entitled “Milton by Firelight,” which contains terse diction, concrete logic, conscious rejection of the Western literary canon, high regard for Native Americans, and concern for the natural world—all of which started as early concerns and attributes in Snyder’s work and have carried through over a decades-long career. The poem, later published in Snyder’s first volume of poetry, Riprap, is in his voice and no one else’s and in all likelihood is the poem in which he discovered his voice as a poet.

As a young man and while studying anthropology and English literature at Reed College in Oregon, Snyder worked summers in forests, on farms, and at sea. He had developed a keen awareness of the natural world and became involved in ecology. In the mid fifties he studied Chinese and Japanese at Berkeley and later studied Zen Buddhism in Japan. “Milton by Firelight” comprises all these source values. One critic has observed that Snyder’s poetry presents “states of awareness through strong images given without commentary.”

“Milton by Firelight” opens with a quote from a pivotal point in the epic Paradise Lost and then abruptly changes setting to the mountains of the American West, where a day’s hard work seems recompense enough. The rhythm of life in the four-stanza poem, “under the beat of snow, thaw, mule-hooves” has little to do with the cadences of Milton’s epic and, in fact, asks, “What use, Milton, a silly story / of our lost general parents, / eaters of fruit?”

Snyder found the traditional Western approach to understanding and living with the natural world to be inadequate. In embracing an ecological viewpoint that encompassed not only Native American viewpoints but Buddhist ones as well, he broke with some of the Western traditions he had studied earlier as an English lit major at Reed College and in so doing discovered his own voice as a poet.