The Minimal, the Miniature, & the Little-More-Than-Nothing
When Robert Creeley passed away two years ago a number of his obituaries mentioned a wry comment once made about him by Richard Ellman—simply, that Creeley had played the role of “Minimus to Charles Olson’s Maximus,” a reference to the central figure in Olson’s epic series.
On one level, the joke is completely physical: in their intense friendship, they resembled a kind of Odd Couple of the avant-garde—with the heavy-set Olson, at 6’8”, dwarfing Creeley, who, though not short by any means, was slender and compact, an ebullient, companionable, and one-eyed sparrow hawk of a man. Of course it’s really an observation about their poetry. As Creeley says, Olson was attempting to encompass “the full range of human history in all the extensive facts of ‘place’”; what he was after in The Maximus Poems was more process than system, but in any case it was big and ambitious, undeniably so. Creeley, on the other hand, had early-on been called a “domestic poet” by Robert Graves—in his own words, his “muse therefore a domestic drudge within that proposedly small world,” though “no one who has ever so lived would feel it so, that is, a scrunched limit of possibilities.” Where Olson sprawled and foliated, Creeley stripped down and condensed his language. Where Olson wrote “The first fact of America is space,” Creeley said “I am committed to the hearth, and love the echoes of that word. The fire is the center.”
If you wanted to, you could make a metaphor of sorts out of this, one that would apply to a set of tensions that exist naturally in poetry, its somewhat opposed possibilities and means. You might also use the metaphor to frame the last thirty years or so of American poetry, a period when “maximalism” and its values have flourished.
The maximalism of this period shows up in diverse ways: in a density and complexity of narrative action and discursive reflection, in the deployment of elaborate dictions, in imagistic and metaphorical abundance, and in structural extensivity and complication. Post-modern, fragmented lyric or metered, linear narrative, in this poetry a value is placed on fullness and inclusiveness of feeling, thought and action. Much of the best and most interesting and daring poetry of our time has been written in this mode—think of how loaded to the brim and over-flowing some of the strongest books of the last 30 years have been: Ashbery’s Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror, Pinsky’s The Want Bone, Gerald Stern’s Paradise Poems, Graham’s The End of Beauty, C.K. Williams’s Tar, Larry Levis’s The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Lynn Hejennian’s My Life, Merwin’s Travels, Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World, James Tate’s Worshipful Company of Fletchers, Robert Hass’s Sun Under Wood, and so on. Poets of vastly different intents, styles, structures, and temperaments, but all splurgers.
It’s not that maximalism has been the only mode available to poets—for instance, Stern recently wrote a book of much more compressed and condensed poems, called American Sonnets (though it may be a symptom of the times that most of the poems exceed the length of a true sonnet). And there is certainly a sizable group of poets whose writings embrace characteristics you could call minimalist, some of whom have also written terrific poetry. Michael Palmer, Ralph Angel, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Jack Gilbert, Louise Gluck, Linda Gregg, James Galvin, and Creeley himself all come quickly to mind. But the maximalists have been dominant, in both critical and popular circles.
As Louise Gluck herself puts it in “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” one of the most astute essays from Proofs & Theorems: “In my generation, most of the poets I admire are interested in length, they want to write long lines, long stanzas, long poems, poems which cover an extended sequence of events….The argument for completion, for thoroughness, for exhaustive detail, is that it makes an art more potent because more exact—a closer recreation of the real.” For Gluck, this “cult of exhaustive detail” is identified largely with narrative impulses; against which she sets the characteristics of a certain kind of lyric, one that proceeds by implication, ellipsis and incompletion. “What I share with my friends,” she writes, “is ambition; what I dispute is its definition.” In examining poems by Rilke, Berryman, Oppen and Eliot, she argues for “the virtues of a style which inclines to the suggested over the amplified.” 1
While Gluck’s argument is characteristically exact and insightful, it strikes me as a little too dialectical. It seems to imply that narrative poetry and “poetry packed with information” are the same thing, and that the narrational voice largely dictates the deployment of maximalist virtues. But selectivity and elision—minimalist virtues—are essential to all poetry, especially to any that has roots in narrative, whether narratives of event or of thought. Everything that is in a poem should contribute to an action, the arrangement of whose force is the basic purpose of form or architecture. To know what is essential information and what is only incidental (and to be able to leave it out) is to begin know how to shape the response of the listener as much as the form of the poem.
It’s an impulse that most great narrative poetry employs, embodying principles that the late Thom Gunn described in an essay called “Hardy And The Ballads.” Here’s Gunn’s formula for how story-telling worked in the English and Scots ballad tradition:
“Omission, then, whether of incident, of motive, or of a whole social or religious context…(because these omissions) result in an atmosphere charged with mystery: we are given bare situations, but of such intensity that their implications are very wide.”
The greater the paring, the richer the implications…. The difficulty for a writer, for a poet sitting before his bit of paper, is to introduce such mysteries without his making them either into mere mystifications (and thus melodramatic), or into mere puzzles (and thus incomprehensible).” 2
In “Lord Randal,” one of the so-called Child ballads, the story is narrated through a classic device in the ballad tradition, a dialogue between two people, here a mother and son.
“O where ha’ you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young man?”
I ha been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I'm wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down.
"An wha met ye there, Lord Randal, my son?
An wha met you there, my handsome young man?"
"O I met wi my true-love; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm wearied wi huntin, an fain wad lie down."
“And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?
And what did she give you, my handsome young man?"
"Eels fried in a pan; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm wearied with huntin, and fain wad lie down."
"And wha gat your leavins, Lord Randal, my son?
And what gat your leavins, my handsom young man?"
"My hawks and my hounds; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down."
"And what becam of them, Lord Randall, my son?
And what became of them, my handsome young man?"
"They stretched their legs out an died; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down."
"O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!
I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!"
"O yes, I am poisoned; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down."
"What d' ye leave to your mother, Lord Randal, my son?
What d 'ye leave to your mother, my handsome young man?"
"Four and twenty milk kye; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down."
"What d' ye leave to your sister, Lord Randal, my son?
What d' ye leave to your sister, my handsome young man?"
"My gold and my silver; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm sick at the heart, an I fain wad lie down."
"What d' ye leave to your brother, Lord Randal, my son?
What d' ye leave to your brother, my handsome young man?"
"My house and my lands; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down."
"What d' ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal, my son?
What d' ye leave to your true-love, my handsome young man?"
"I leave her hell and fire; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I 'm sick at the heart, and I fain was lie down."
How pared down is this particular ballad? We jump immediately to the forest where Lord Randal has gone to hunt and meet his beloved. There is no set-up, no explanation of who the characters are, where the forest is, why this man and woman have gone to meet in this “greenwood;” there’s no actual recounting of the hunt, or what the characters are wearing; we don’t know why he’s served eels in particular. Huge amounts of time and action are elided, so that the story can be reduced to its essentials. This charges the drama—it makes the need to tell the story sound overwhelming. As Gunn says, ballads tend to have a primal feel, they plug into basic forces, “the beginnings of ourselves” both psychically and socially—in this case, sex, class, family, revenge, power.
In “Lord Randal” and most other ballads, the use of refrain reinforces this sense of dramatic mystery by giving the scene, the characters, and the telling a ritualized air. The revelation of the poisoning doesn’t come until the middle of the poem—there’s a series of smaller revelations, barely rendered, that create a delay whose purpose is to build anxiety and suspense. Again, there are large gaps in time in the narration, and it proceeds through intensely focused images—there’s no sprawl, no meandering. We are never told directly who the poisoner is. Of course, we understand that it must have been the “true-love;” but this comes to us through implication, through the indirection of the curse that concludes the poem.
The second half of the poem—a litany of inheritance details—is curious. Much of it may seem superfluous initially. Yet, it’s at the heart of the poem’s necessity. In terms of dramatic arrangement, it helps to delay the curse and the recognition that comes with it; it builds pressure, so that the turn in the last stanza puts even more force behind the revelation. The starkness of the detailing keeps the passage from becoming sentimental or melodramatic. But you can feel odd undercurrents of feeling at work here.
Those undercurrents have to do with the omitted motivations driving the events—the poem never explains directly why Lord Randall’s lover may have murdered him. It depends upon implication and suggestion. In doing so, it preserves urgency, speed and economy. One reading is that she murders him because she’s pregnant with his child and he won’t marry her. And think about the mother’s concern with Lord Randal’s deathbed will—it’s striking that she’s hardly interested in how he feels or what she can do to help him. The mother wants only to know how the property is going to be distributed, perhaps because she fears that it will all go to his bastard son. Actually, this suggests another reading of the events: that it’s not really the lover who has committed the murder, but that the family (perhaps the mother herself) has poisoned the eels and sent the woman to the woods, in which case she’ll be blamed for the murder and the child disinherited. Although this sounds, in paraphrase, rather soap opera-ish, you can see how right Gunn is to say that the ballad tradition is rigorous in its avoidance of melodrama. There are no over-wrought moments here; yet, there are enough clues for the story to be full of insinuation.
The deftness and completeness of suggestion in ballad narratives is remarkable. It gives them an odd expansiveness. If, for example, you were to paraphrase “Love Henry,” another of the Child ballads, it would read like this in outline: a knight on a horse comes to a wayside village, where he at first refuses the offers of a woman’s bed; seduced by her the gift of her gold jewelry, he then sleeps with her; after which she murders him with a penny knife, and throws him into a well; all of which is observed by a bird, a parrot who is also offered riches by the woman, if only he won’t tell anyone what she’s done—he’s smarter than the man though, and flies off. Here’s the richly weird interpretation given it by Bob Dylan in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, the CD on which he recorded it in the early 90’s:
LOVE HENRY is a traditionalist ballad. Tom Paley used to do it a perverse tale. Henry-modern corporate man off some foreign boat, unable to handle his “psychosis” responsible for organizing the Intelligentsia, disarming the people, an infantile sensualist—white teeth, wide smile, lotza money, kowtows to fairy queen exploiters & corrupt religious establishments, career-minded, limousine double parked, imposing his will & dishonest garbage in popular magazines. he lays his head on a pillow of down & falls asleep. he shoulda known better, he mustve had a hearing problem.3
Yes, this is Dylan being Dylan (and you probably shouldn’t try anything like this at home, kids); but it’s also the proof of just how deeply the ballads resonate.
The lessons of the ballad tradition show up in contemporary poems every once in awhile. They’re in Michael Ryan’s “Winter Drought,” one of the best narrative poems of the last 20 years.
First you cut your wrists and throat,
then after they had sewn you up,
after three months of hospitals and talk,
after those who loved you cried themselves out
and their faces changed to sculptures of mistrust
in the early light, in the breakfast nook,
as you told them each day point-blank
how you felt about this life,
after they could no longer answer or look up,
you stole your father’s car and drove it
to the bridge across the bay from Jamestown
where the police found it three days before
they found your body, bloated and frozen.
How could anyone so young want to die
so much? we asked, as if loneliness
tightens its death-grip gradually with age.
But we felt much older and lonelier ourselves
for a few days, until your terrible final image
began to fade and even your close friends
became again content enough
in that vast part of life
with families and earthly concerns
where your absence had never been noticed.
Such were the limits of friendship
you railed against, cursing its “ersatz intimacy”
one evening after a reading: in a crummy Cambridge bar,
with our uncomfortable group of ten
trapped in a half-moon booth,
you climbed onto the table and screamed,
and we heard you and could do nothing
but pick up broken glass and take you home.
Now it has been years.
You were nearly nothing to me—a friend
of a friend, a pushy kid who loved poetry,
one more young man alone in his distress—
but last week when I went out to where I sometimes walk,
across a field of chopped stalks yellowed and dried
by months of snowless winter,
you rose abruptly from the undercurrents of memory
dredged in a steel net, and I was there
where I never was, amid boat noise
and ocean stink, your corpse
twisting as if hurt
when the net broke the surface,
then riding toward me, motionless
pale blue against the ocean’s black.
And I’ve seen you here every day since,
as if I were walking the beach
the moment you balance on the iced iron railing
and jump. Does such rage for pain
give immaculate clarity to things?
Like winter sunlight day after day
showing the field for what it is:
dust and splintered stalks
about to become dust?
Tell me what you want.4
The syntactical sweep of the poem’s first long sentence gives the speech a powerful sense of inevitability. That this sentence has such an assertive syntactical force disguises the fact that most of the narrative information it conveys is anecdotal or expository. Normally, this sort of extensive “set-up” or preamble would be deadly, flattening. Here, the prepositions drive forward the movement of clauses and phrases, and in those clauses and phrases the boy’s life begins to add up to a “terrible algebra” of its own.
This patterning creates a dramatic tension that’s felt in the ear, like the pressure of diving into water. At the same time, the synoptic nature of the storytelling allows Ryan to undercut the natural melodrama of the material: there’s a resoluteness and directness to the speech in this first sentence, a declarative sensibility, and a wary urgency.
What’s also interesting in the poem’s opening is how much Ryan leaves out; in particular, how he avoids describing the boy’s actual suicide. There’s a jump-cut from the boy stealing his father’s car to the moment three days later when his body is found in the water. This gap has something to do with the undercutting of potential melodrama. But, structurally-speaking, it also allows the instant of the boy’s death to enter the poem later in a more haunting way, when the speaker will seem genuinely surprised by it. When in the second stanza Ryan says to the boy, “you rose abruptly from the undercurrents of memory dredged in a steel net,” the image feels as much of a surprise in the dramatic structure of the poem as it would have been in the psyche. The line glints with a drama that is charged and psychological. It’s less about the events and more about their after-effects: that overriding sense of the boy still being alive in memory, troubling, “twisting as if hurt//when the net broke the surface.” Then there’s the slight jump backward in time—“the moment you balance on the iced iron railing/and jump”—so much left out in that description, the image shaved to a harrowing simplicity, all the more frightening for how clarified and present that “iced iron railing” is.
“Winter Drought” is fashioned in such a way as to avoid the danger of explaining away the strange powers of time and death. We know little about this young man, his life and pain. The back-story is unavailable, the characters pared to an outline. There’s no attempt to interpret or analyze the boy. And yet he is wholly present. In the “moments of mistrust in early light,” in the theft, in his rage in the bar, and in the sorrowful, frustrated concerns of family and friends. “A pushy kid who loved poetry.” There are no answers. “How could anyone so young want to die/so much? we ask, as if loneliness tightens its death-grip gradually with age.” There is no reason why. There’s only a walk across a mown cornfield during a dry winter. Each of the narrative vectors in the poem, and each individual scene, is managed so as to preserve dramatic power and mystery. The story proceeds through an atmosphere of implications, as it does in “Lord Randal”—we know no more about why this “pushy kid” killed himself than we do about why Lord Randal may have been served poisoned eels. But both are vivid, and we care about them.
The practice of omission and elision that Gunn refers to can be taken much further. The French poet Jean Follain offers a great example. Often governed by parataxis and unpunctuated syntax, his poems seem to leap out of nether worlds of history—ghost villages and cosmic alley ways and wavering pastures—they operate on principles of simultaneity, plunging over distant horizon lines and ricocheting back. There’s something oddly intimate about Follain’s work, even though he hardly ever employs a first-person speaker. This intimacy arises out of touchingly ordinary human gestures and objects, things almost too familiar or common to be noticed.
Follain is a miniaturist—he condenses an enormous amount of narrational space and time into a very tight frame. As in a painted miniature (or for that matter, a ballad), the characters are archetypal, and largely anonymous. In Follain’s poems, though, the characters act in the most individual of ways. The central character often forms a kind of “negative space,” a space that is outlined and reflected by the images and figures he sets in motion around it. In “Father and Daughter,” a relatively linear poem for Follain, the daughter is invisible until the latter part of the poem; she’s defined by the father and his actions, which are set in swift juxtaposition to each other:
She was born in the midst of the black frock-coats
of the doctors who performed the caesarean,
her mother died,
her father kept his thunderous voice,
he gripped in his long fingers
the edges of tables ruled in gold
during his discussions with the cardinals;
alone at night he groaned
covered with patches of light by the setting sun
and with his cuff out of his sleeve
his glances would wander over the Chinese vases
but his daughter
at no time made much noise
by the long windows she sewed
haloed in the color of the day
her fingers with their desireless nails
gathered light fabrics
which she tore with her teeth.5
The opening four lines give you a sense of just how synoptic Follain can be, as he strands this baby girl in a world of male control and power—the world of the “black frock-coats” performing the caesarean. The girl’s life is ruled by her father’s “thunderous voice.” There’s no exposition or commentary; details have been chosen to present rather than explicate. Time seems to expand and contract at once. It’s time that brings you to the marvelously physical image of this girl with the cloth between her teeth—you read it and can’t help but feel that the poem has delivered you to an absolutely true place, the center of the girl’s being, an act of tearing.
Follain’s method is essentially cubist—he likes to abstract images and characters from multiple scenes and landscapes, removing them from their chronological embeddedness, collaging them together, along with bits of idiom and directive rhetoric. This makes for poems that are full of changes in the angle of perspective and in the scale of perception. It makes for speed, and a odd vertigo that’s a mix of wonder and existential alarm. As he says in another poem, “Everything is an event for those who know how to tremble.”
Despite its angularity and swiftness, Follain’s voice employs a syntax that controls as much as surprises. One of his favorite tricks is to use a Janus-faced bit of phrasing to create a vibrating, elasticized track from one fragment to another. In “Father and Daughter,” it’s the simple phrase, “by the long window,” that comes five lines from the ending. In other poems the construction can be much more radical, and he will use a series of these phrases to make time and space telescope in and out, as in “Season”:
By the oak tree stumps
are the footprints
of a robust runaway
under the sky of long ago
the chestnut bursts open
under the ashes of winter
exhaust the gardens
the sight of bread
makes the pauper’s child laugh
but the child of the wealthy
smiles at the rainbow
his mother in a mauve dress
taking him by the hand
they walk together
out into the open.6
The combination of this syntactical elasticity and the lack of punctuation works against the tyranny of the over-controlled sentence; yet the poems do track, and it’s this tracking of swiftly juxtaposed images that gives Follain’s speakers a powerful authority, an almost 360-degree compass. Even if it is quiet, the voice projects forcefully.
Follain’s narrational presence is established in other minimalist ways. Sometimes simply through the use of a suggestive adjective, like the “robust” in “robust runaway.” More often, by deploying a small patch of rhetoric or idiom at the beginning of a poem, he creates an odd point-of-view. On the black stone/says an Arab proverb/God sees the black insect move,” he writes at the start of “The Black Insect.” “How one loves/this great wine” begins “October Thoughts.” And then there’s the weird, slightly sci-fi address that opens “Signs For Travelers”: “Travelers from the great spaces/when you see a girl….” In all these cases, the initiating phrase presses the speech into action.
Strictly-speaking, the miniature is often the place where narrative approaches the condition of lyric. You could even think of certain haiku as extremely reduced miniatures (“Is there any good in saying everything?” asks Basho). As in this one by Issa—little more than nothing, but implying an epic of place:
This ruined temple
should have its sad tale told only
by the clam digger.7
Time swirls around the edges of poems in this tradition. Both the long-distance glimpses of time and the briefer, more intimate comings and goings of our day-to-day. Nowhere clearer than in this untitled piece by Tomaz Salamun:
One must cook well for one’s husband and pigs.
I comb my daughter’s hair.
Where are you going, stars?8
Compression of this kind makes me think of Lorine Niedecker too (she once said of her writing that she worked in a “condensary”). Niedecker sometimes uses metaphor and calligraphic notation as ways to delineate character and scene. And her voice often sounds both reticent and urgent. That tension is a heard thing, the dynamic of an interplay between perception and phrasal music. Each of her distilled lines seems formed by the very definite edges of the thing seen or felt, sculpted. Yet the shifting of the number and placement of accented beats from line to line gives a sense of motion, reinforced by doublings of words or the syncopations of assonance and slant-rhyme:
The men leave the car
to bring us green-white lilies
These men are our woods
yet I grieve
as against a large pine-spread—
his clear No marriage
Issa, Salamun, and Niedecker create the suggestion of story by moving associatively. Rather than spelling out the linkages between the pieces that compose their poems, they depend upon indirection and a sort of Wi-Fi networking. The relationship between the pieces need not be obvious, but it does need to exist at some level of perception, feeling, or thought. This sort of poem often aspires to a narration that mimes the way consciousness works; certainly, Niedecker’s did. The process calls for care and intuitiveness, a wandering attentiveness. This is why Kenneth Cox praised Lorine Niedecker for making poems “with the tremulous certainty of a compass needle.” If the care and intuition aren’t there, then the oblique becomes the obscure, and the necessary wildness never finds a shape. Syntactical and structural patterning become more and more important; which is why a stripped-down diction might be helpful, where a denser language would only blur the patterns, reducing the speed of the connections and draining the images and metaphors of dramatic power.
This kind of consciousness-as-voiceover finds one model in Gary Snyder’s “The Old Dutch Woman.” Its values being concerned with meaning made through immediacy, clarity, improvisation, and expansive presence. Its structure the one he learned through Pound and Williams: the rapid juxtaposition of sculpted fragments, and the use of a line based on what Pound called “abbreviated picture writing,” or ideograms. Snyder’s metaphor for the process was “riprap”—cobbling together a trail of stones for traveling in the mountains.
THE OLD DUTCH WOMAN
The old Dutch woman would spend half a day
Pacing the backyard where I lived
in a fixed-up shed
What did she see.
Wet leaves, the rotten tilted-over
Of domesticated flowers.
I knew Indian Paintbrush
Thought nature meant mountains,
Snowfields, glaciers and cliffs,
White granite waves underfoot.
Trained to the world of the garden,
lovers slippt in with at night—
My grandmother standing wordless
Between rows of loganberries,
clippers poised in her hand.
New leaves on the climbing rose
Planted last fall.
--tiny bugs eating the green—
Like once watching
Far over a valley
Half into the
shade of the headwall,
Pick their way over the snow.10
I like how—in a manner similar to Follain—Snyder puts the old woman in the middle of things but then diffuses the focus on her almost immediately. You could say that she’s “decentered” in the composition. He doesn’t really describe much of what the woman does during her “half a day” in the garden, other than “pacing.” The movement away from her starts quickly; and it’s signaled in the syntax of the first sentence, in how the phrase “what did she see” comes into the speech so awkwardly. It’s a question that isn’t quite a question, almost an after-thought.
The physicality of what follows in the poem doesn’t lie just in the accuracy of what’s observed (though that’s tremendous). It’s also in how rhythmically alive those observations make the speech—a mass of variably-accented syllables through which Snyder topples into a series of associations. In Snyder’s poems of this period, you can always hear how his voice is sounding out the thinginess of the world—so that, here, the iambic-sounding feel of lines like “Wet leaves, the rotten tilted-over/over-heavy heads” is played off of by the looser, faster-moving couple of lines that follow—lines that throw the tension between culture and nature out into the open. That tension moves the energies of the poem. You can hear it in clipped, accent-heavy, ideogrammic lines like “thought nature meant mountains” and “white granite waves underfoot.” The syntactical release that comes from omitting the comma after “Indian Paintbrush” speeds the motion of the sentence, but the timing is snagged and retarded by the accented beats.
These musical effects underpin a structure that makes startling changes occur through the juxtaposition of image blocks—the sudden, successive movements from Sierra topology to the court ladies of 9th century Japan to Snyder’s grandmother in a moment of pruning satori. He doesn’t say “I’m thinking of the erotic life of the Heian ladies-in-waiting because I’ve been reading The Tale of the Genji and The Pillow Book”—those women and their lovers seduced by poetry just suddenly materialize. He doesn’t say “I remember once my Grandmother stood among her berry bushes,” and he doesn’t put it in the past tense, he’s not pointing to her way over there.
Snyder wants the “is-ness” of life, the flow of appearance and disappearance. He makes a shape for it through associative structures like this, in which the logic of these seemingly disjunctive leaps is fairly easy to discern. It’s not a puzzle when he comes to that “climbing rose.” It may not be obvious where the plant is—in the distant past with his Grandmother? or the more recent past of the Dutch woman’s garden? or in some unfixed present?—but that rose (and its aphids) are seen things, no less so than the mountain goats arrived at through the simile. We’re surprised by these things, but the clarity of the language is so convincing that when you get to the end of the leaping it feels absolutely right, inevitable, even if unexpected.
One encounters those goats as they move across the snow as a flickering in consciousness, there and not there. Coming and going. Like the old Dutch woman and Snyder’s grandmother, not to mention the courtesans, the roses, the aphids and the mountains. The poem is a way of experiencing a Buddhist sense of the transience of all things and thoughts. “It/moved me, that/life after all/was like that,” says Robert Creeley at the end of one of his own poems—“The story is true.” And you feel that here with Snyder. The trueness is in the subtle but clear awareness of mortal loneliness you come to, and in the way it reminds you that this loneliness is bound up with wakefulness, a freshness.
1 Gluck, Louise. “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” in Proofs & Theorems (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1994), 73-74.
2 Gunn, Thom. “Hardy and the Ballads” in The Occasions of Poetry (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999), 85-86.
3 Dylan, Bob. “About The Songs (what they’re about)” in liner notes to World Gone Wrong (New York: Columbia Records, 1993), 2-3.
4 Ryan, Michael. New and Selected Poems (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).
5 Follain, Jean. Transparence of the World , Trans. by W.S. Merwin (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2003).
7 Issa, Kobayashi. In Hass, Robert (Ed. and Trans) The Essential Haiku (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1994).
8 Salamun, Tomaz. The Selected Poems, Ed. by Charles Simic (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1991).
9 Niedecker, Lorine. Collected Works, Ed. by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
10 Snyder, Gary. The Back Country (New York: New Directions Press, 1968).