Turtle Island

by Gary Snyder
   Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975, this volume of poetry brought expanded national attention to gary snyder. While in his previous two collections of poetry, The Back Country (1968) and Regarding Wave (1970), he tended to delineate himself as an international traveler and transient counterculture practitioner, he defined himself unmistakably as an inhabitant of North America, a person who was settling in for a long process of cultural transformation through the promotion of reinhabitation. For the first time since Myths & Texts (1960), Snyder published a collection that consists of poems that were written entirely in the United States from the point of his permanent return from Japan with his wife Masa and their son Kai through 1974. This sense of reinhabitation is reinforced by some of the prose pieces that make up the final section of the volume. The title of the book alludes to Native American depictions of the North American continent as a giant turtle, and its symbolic function as a counter to the concepts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico are made explicit in Snyder’s “Introductory Note”: “the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millennia. . . . The ‘U.S.A.’ and its states and counties are arbitrary and inaccurate impositions on what is really here.” He also clarifies the purpose of that title and his orientation in the book toward reinhabitation as a political and environmental strategy: “A name: that we may see ourselves more accurately on this continent of watersheds and life-communities—plant zones, physiographic provinces, culture areas; following natural boundaries. . . . Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.” Turtle Island contains nearly 60 poems and is divided into three sections: “Manzanita,” “Magpie’s Song,” and “For the Children.” The prose section is titled “Plain Talk.” Snyder mixes together a variety of poetic styles in these pages, including the two very distinct kinds of poems that are displayed first in Riprap and Myths & Texts but also other types of poems, such as songs (for example, “Without” and “Magpie’s Song”), prayers (for example, “Prayer for the Great Family”), and histories (for example, “What Happened Here Before”) as well as diatribes (“Front Lines” and “LMFBR” and narratives (for example, “Two Immortals” and “The Call of the Wild”). Readers will also find here the majority of the Snyder poems that are most often quoted and reprinted in anthologies, such as “I Went Into the Maverick Bar,” “Front Lines,” “For the Children,” and “Tomorrow’s Song.”
   The “Manzanita” section was originally published as a separate chapbook and has a clearly Western focus. The first two poems look back to the history of the Anasazi in the American Southwest and then link Native American history with the circumpolar bear cult, emphasizing the global linkages of primitive cultures, which nevertheless remained highly place specific. He also has a pair of poems that contrast the use of road kills as an act of conservation and ecological responsibility in opposition to the wasteful and cruel treatment of animals by modern agribusiness and sport hunting. The fifth poem of this section, “I Went into The Maverick Bar,” is a bit unusual for Snyder in the way that it emphasizes the “I” of the poem from the outset. In this poem, Snyder both describes his differences as a long-haired, earring-wearing freak from the heartland cowboys in the bar, but he also emphasizes his kinship with them and their shared heritage. They are not the enemy, on the one hand, but his invocation of Lenin’s revolutionary politics in the closing quote of the poem, “What is to be done,” on the other hand emphasizes his sense of the need to transform the contemporary culture that he believes they blindly uphold. Snyder also reiterates the importance of harmonious family life in “The Bath” and extends that sense of family to encompass other creatures in “Prayer for the Great Family.” In the middle of the “Manzanita” section, Snyder reprints “Spell Against Demons” from The Fudo Trilogy, a chapbook that was originally published in a limited edition in 1973. Both humorous and serious in intent, it is a Buddhist-based poem that is meant to exorcize the demons that are plaguing this continent, reminding readers that Snyder intends to integrate his practice of Buddhism with the native spiritual beliefs that he has upheld in the earlier poems. But let there be no doubt: Snyder has not eschewed direct action, as evident in the poem “Front Lines,” which opposes destructive urban development and concludes: “And here we must draw / Our line.” But Snyder is careful not to suggest that militancy guarantees victory, as evidenced by the concern reflected in “The Call of the Wild.” In this poem he worries about the destruction that is already being accomplished by contemporary consumer culture’s “war against earth.” The last three poems of this section, “Source,” “Manzanita,” and “Charms,” taken together, suggest that salvation, victory, and true knowledge will come from close attention to the nonhuman world that people must reinhabit in order to transform the United States into Turtle Island.
   This attitude is further developed through many of the poems of the next section, “Magpie’s Song.” Here the magpie has a function similar to that of the coyote as a trickster who speaks to and interacts with the human world. As with the first section, this one contains an eclectic mixture of different types of poems. The second and third poems of this section are “The Real Work” and “Pine Tree Tops.” The first poems emphasizes the idea that all life is engaged in survival and is just getting by, whether they are seagulls or humans, riding the waves and looking for food. The second poem ends with the ambiguous line, “what do we know.” If read in complementary fashion, the two likely meanings of these words combine. The first functions as a summary of the descriptions in the poem of the speaker who is out at night, paying close attention to the life in the woods and learning the details of Turtle Island. The second can be understood as a question through which the speaker admits that regardless of how much we learn we will remain students of the wild, always ignorant of the mysteries that surround us. This admission of ignorance, then, becomes one of the things that “we” must know if people are to reinhabit the land. “Night Herons” continues this type of theme. The speaker is visiting San Francisco and while he and his friends go for a walk at night, he notices all of the animals living amid the machinery of modern society. As the poet celebrates the coincidence of his return to the city alongside the return of the night herons, he feels an optimistic sense of self-renewal as a result of the possibility for ecological renewal.
   The poems mentioned in the previous paragraph all reflect a meditative mood on the part of the poet. With “The Uses of Light” he shifts into a more playful, rhyming poetry. Heavily indebted to Buddhism—particularly Vairocana, the sun Buddha—the poem also reflects the recognition that the sun remains the primary source of energy and, therefore, food and links virtually all life on the surface of the planet in one interconnected web. But the poem does not stop there. In the final stanza, it invokes a Chinese saying about climbing up one level of a tower to expand dramatically one’s perspective on the surrounding world. This stanza, then, comments not only on the rest of the poem and its point about recognizing the interdependence of human life on other life-forms but it also reiterates the point in “Pine Tree Tops” and other poems in this section regarding the new to break out of the perceptual habits promoted by contemporary culture and to look at life in fresh ways, such as being thinking of the sun in terms of the reactions of the “stones,” “trees,” “moths” and “deer” of the poem. Part of this new perception is reflected in “It Pleases,” where the poet dismisses the apparent power of Washington, D.C., because it does not hold jurisdiction over the material world that “does what it pleases.”
   “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” the most far reaching of the political poems in Turtle Island, however, does not take such a sanguine view of the power of wild nature in the face of governments and bureaucracies. As Hwa Yol and Petee Jung note, “It began with a terse foreword in which he said that everyone came to Stockholm not to give but rather to take, not to save the planet but to argue how to divide it up. . . . The poem meant to defend all the creatures of the earth.” It does so by pitting the lives in nature against the destruction of various civilizations, both historic and contemporary, east and west as well as north and south. It is important to note that Snyder closes with attention to the survival of animals, while nation states are represented by a dead knight whose eyes vultures are homing in to eat.
   The third section of Turtle Island, “For The Children,” contains just nine poems. Here Snyder wishes to pass on something to the next generation and so focuses not on condemnation, concern, or doubt but on reassurance and practical wisdom. The opening poem, “O Waters,” functions as a prayer that invokes rituals of purification and concludes by declaring that all planetary life shares a mutual fellowship. “Tomorrow’s Song” then turns to the future. It begins by declaring that the United States has lost its alleged “mandate” as a governing body because it refused to include the nonhuman in its deliberations and laws. The future, therefore, must rectify this omission and also move beyond a fossil-fuel-based excessive-consumption culture. The new future in which the children “will grow strong on less” will require hard work that is based on a wilderness-centered philosophy of life. The next poem, “What Happened Here Before,” provides some historical background for how human beings came to live the way they do in the part of California that Snyder, his family, and his community are seeking to reinhabit. The “white man” is specifically criticized for his exploitation of nature and the destruction of native cultures. The poem ends with a challenge: “WE SHALL SEE / WHO KNOWS / HOW TO BE.”
   “Toward Climax,” which logically follows from the preceding poem, responds to this challenge through a set of contrasts between a historically destructive way of looking at the world and an alternative life-affirming—all life, not just that of humans—worldview. The penultimate and title poem for the section, “For the Children,” presents a lyrical utopian view of the future and contains an often repeated closing refrain: “stay together / learn the flowers / go light.” Some critics have scoffed at the simplicity of this slogan, but it contains just the kind of statement that is appropriate for its audience. The next generation must unite and remain united through all kinds of political, economic, and cultural adversity and setbacks; they must learn where they live and what else lives there and through that learn to respect that life; and they must abandon the consumerism that is literally choking Americans to death. “As For Poets” ends this section and the poetry sections of Turtle Island in much the way that “Riprap” ended Snyder’s first volume. It makes a metapoetic statement about the role of poems and their diversity through the images of a variety of poets, who are not people so much as they are whorls of energy in the larger flow of matter that is seeking consciousness. “Plain Talk,” the prose section that closes Turtle Island, contains five short pieces, with the longest one, “Four Changes,” also being the most important. Snyder provides a brief introduction to this essay, which was originally written and distributed in 1969 by means of some 50,000 broadsides and pamphlets that were distributed freely across the United States. Here Snyder reprints the original edition with bracketed comments that were added in 1974. Through sections titled “Population,” “Pollution,” “Consumption,” and “Transportation,” he first describes the crisis in each category as he sees it unfolding, and then he posits a guide to action for each. Many of the statements in this essay elaborate on or clarify themes that are explored in the Turtle Island poems.
   “ ‘Energy Is Eternal Delight,’ ” although alluding to William Blake, does not focus on romanticism or poetry, but instead it addresses a general issue that is already raised throughout the volume—the looming energy crisis and the danger of a turn to nuclear power—as well as a specific action—the resistance of Native Americans to uranium mining in the U.S. Southwest. “The Wilderness” focuses on the issue of figuring out how to represent the interests of the nonhuman in governmental deliberations and turns to the examples of so-called primitive cultures for examples of proper practice. This essay in many ways prefigures the slim prose collection The Old Ways, which appeared in 1977, and is reprinted as a section of A Place in Space. “What’s Meant By ‘Here’ ” makes an excellent companion to the poem, “What Happeed Here Before” and serves as a demonstration of bioregional history. “On ‘As For Poets’ ” provides a gloss of the poem that ended the “For the Children” section of the volume and functions, as well, as a commentary on the volume as a whole. Snyder concludes, “The power within—the more you give, the more you have to give—will still be our source when coal and oil are long gone, and atoms are left to spin in peace.” As Katsunori Yamazato so eloquently sums it up, “ ‘how to be’ is the central question that Snyder asks and tries to answer throughout Turtle Island,” and clearly this closing sentence defines a certain mode of being. Turtle Island is unquestionably the most programmatic of all of Snyder’s collections of poetry; nevertheless, it displays a wide variety of poetic styles and devices, as aesthetic as it is thematic. Also, it is as humorous and visionary as it is serious and focused on the moment.
■ Jung, Hwa Yol, and Petee Jung. “Gary Snyder’s Ecopiety.” Environmental History Review 14.3 (1990): 75–87.
■ Murphy, Patrick D. A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder. Corvallis: University of Oregon Press, 2000.
■ Snyder, Gary. The Back Country. New York: New Directions, 1968.
■ ———. The Fudo Trilogy. Berkeley, Calif.: Shaman Drum, 1973.
■ ———. Myths & Texts. 1960. New York: New Directions, 1978.
■ ———. The Old Ways. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1977.
■ ———. A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995.
■ ———. Regarding Wave. New York: New Directions, 1970.
■ ———. Turtle Island. New York: New Directions, 1974.
■ Yamazato, Katsunori. “How to Be in This Crisis: Gary Snyder’s Cross-Cultural Vision in Turtle Island.” In Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, 230–247. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
   Patrick Murphy

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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