Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”

22151002_28767 Edward-Abbey-TerraSight_A152

In Putin’s Nationalist Russia, a Tolstoy as Cultural Diplomat

It is not a surprise that literature aids all countries in showing a human face in the midst of 
hard-edge politics and ideology.This piece is from The New York Times. Follwing the NYT piece is aninterview with Putin and Tolstoy concerning the culture policy document.
RLW

20150321TOLSTOY-slide-19NS-jumboCreditJames Hill for The New York Times

By RACHEL DONADIO, MARCH 20, 2015

YASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On a sunny winter afternoon here, Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an adviser on cultural affairs to President Vladimir V. Putin, strode up the birch-lined path that leads to the bucolic family compound where his forebear wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” It is now a state museum. At each step, he was greeted by staff members heading home for the day.

“Good evening,” Mr. Tolstoy said with a warm smile. “Good evening,” the museum employees, mostly women, responded. “Please send our best regards to our czar and tell him we respect him very much,” one woman told Mr. Tolstoy, who nodded cheerfully.

At once friendly and feudal, the scene at this estate some 125 miles south of Moscow captured something of the mood in Russia today, where Mr. Putin is regarded as a czar, especially outside the big cities, even as the liberal intelligentsia reviles him and laments his popularity. It also reflects the benefits for Mr. Putin of enlisting the support of a member of an illustrious family as he continues to strike notes of national pride.

Since being tapped by Mr. Putin in 2012, Mr. Tolstoy, 52, has emerged as the more conciliatory, highbrow and Western-friendly face of Kremlin cultural policy. He works with, but is temperamentally different from, Russia’s more combative culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, who is known for aggressive assertions of Russian superiority and conservative values.

Mr. Tolstoy said he had worked to remove language from a ministry policy draft that was leaked last year stating that “Russia is not Europe.” But, like most Russians, Mr. Tolstoy is full-throated in his support of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, a territory that many Russians believe should not have been ceded to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954.

“Leo Tolstoy was a Russian officer who defended Russia in the Fourth Bastion in Sevastopol,” he said, speaking through a translator over tea in a cafe near the museum. “For us, in our mind, this has always been Russia.”

He was referring to the siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55 in the Crimean War, in which Russia fought the allied forces of France, Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire and ultimately lost control of the city. “Of course, as a descendant of the Russian officer Leo Tolstoy, I cannot have any other attitude toward that,” he added.

Mr. Tolstoy was raised in a middle-class family in the Moscow region and trained as a journalist. In 1994, he was named director of Yasnaya Polyana, which is centered on the house where the novelist wrote and has been preserved as it was at the time of his death, in 1910. There are also a working farm and orchards, and Tolstoy’s grave is in a wooded glen that the writer associated with his beloved older brother, who died young.

Mr. Tolstoy improved the quality and range of activities at the museum, adding lectures, a literary prize and Russian-language classes. His wife, Ekaterina Tolstaya, took over as director after he became an adviser to Mr. Putin.

Continue reading the main story
Mr. Tolstoy said that Mr. Putin had offered him the post after a meeting of museum directors in April 2012 at which Mr. Tolstoy criticized the government’s cultural strategy and the president’s advisory council for culture as ineffective. “When the meeting was over, the president asked me to stay for a bit and asked if I was so critical, could I do this job better?” Mr. Tolstoy said. Now, he briefs Mr. Putin on cultural issues and acts a bridge between Russia’s cultural world and the Kremlin.

On a recent afternoon, he was fielding calls from Irkutsk, Siberia, for help with funeral arrangements for the writer Valentin Rasputin, who died last week at 77 and had expressed a preference to be buried in Irkutsk, his birthplace. Mr. Tolstoy said he regarded Mr. Rasputin as the best writer of the past half-century. He was known for his vivid portrayals of the environmental devastation caused by industrialization in rural Russia and also for his conservatism: He called for prosecuting the punk activist group Pussy Riot after its provocative performance in a Moscow church and inveighed against perestroika, the liberalization initiated under Mikhail S. Gorbachev before the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Not long ago, the sense that Russia had somehow lost its way after the fall of the Soviet Union was pervasive here, but Mr. Tolstoy and other Putin loyalists have succeeded in reviving a sense of national pride expressly through cultural policy.

Guided by Mr. Tolstoy, a committee of leading cultural figures and state officials ultimately produced an 18-page policy document that defines culture broadly, saying it is as valuable to Russia as its natural resources. It also touches on moral precepts, the importance of religion in shaping values and the place of the Russian language in uniting a country of more than 140 million people and diverse ethnicities. The document also highlights Russia’s distinctiveness “as a country which unites two worlds, East and West.”

Some cultural figures have criticized the document for not addressing the pervasive influence of Russian state television, which operates as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Many didn’t pay it much attention. “It’s abstract, like a biblical text,” said Kirill Razlogov, a prominent film historian.

Far more concrete is the impact of laws that ban obscene words in the theater, films and public performances and that criminalize giving offense to religious believers, both of which were passed after Pussy Riot’s members were jailed in 2012.

While Mr. Tolstoy may agree with the general direction, his approach is more tolerant. “I believe everything has a right to exist unless it’s a provocation,” he said. “I think art shouldn’t be offensive.” As for Pussy Riot, he said: “I don’t support them, but on the other hand I also believe the reaction was inappropriate. An artist shouldn’t be punished in court.”

He described himself as a moderate who could “find balance” between traditionalists and liberals looking Westward. “On the one hand, Russia is open for cooperation,” he said. “And on the other hand, we have our own perspective on good and evil.”

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Mr. Tolstoy seems to be generally respected by the intelligentsia. Victor Erofeyev, a writer who has been critical of Mr. Putin, said he thought Mr. Tolstoy was “a smart guy” who also reflects a growing tendency since Mr. Putin’s re-election in 2012 to see Russia as somehow purer than the West.

“They really believe in it,” Mr. Erofeyev said. “It’s not like during Communist times under Brezhnev” when “people say, ‘I love Communism,’ but we never believe in it. Here they play with a notion of Russia in a more delicate way. They say, ‘You know, Russia is still is a country of big culture, it’s a country of big human relationships, friendship, love affairs and so on, and that’s why we are more interesting than the West.’ ”

Back at the cafe, Mr. Tolstoy grew animated in talking about Russian pride. “Today’s Russia cannot be forced to do what it doesn’t want to,” he said. “It’s impossible to achieve either by sanctions, or even by an overt attack. Russia respects itself, and it wants only justice, nothing else.”

On that wintry afternoon, dozens of visitors flocked to Yasnaya Polyana. There was snow on the ground and gray ice on the pond, and the birch trees caught the afternoon light. The spirit of the novelist’s former home “is love,” Mr. Tolstoy reflected.

In Tolstoy’s novels, “there are no characters who are complete villains,” his great-great-grandson said. “All of his characters are real people.”

Correction: March 21, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a Russian writer who died last week. He is Valentin Rasputin, not Vladimir.

__________________________________

Working meeting with Presidential Adviser Vladimir Tolstoy

April 23, 2014, 15:45 The Kremlin, Moscow

41d4d5ed89dacd5317ce

photo: The Presidential Press and Information Office.

 

Mr Tolstoy presented to Vladimir Putin the draft Basic Principles of State Culture Policy.

PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Tolstoy, is the concept document for developing the culture sector ready now?

PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes. Above all, thank you for entrusting us with its drafting. The result is an unprecedented and very interesting piece of work.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: As far as I know, it has aroused a lot of debate.

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, it is the subject of active public debate right now, though what is being discussed is not the document itself, but the preliminary materials that made their way via various sources to the press and have indeed sparked a huge public discussion. This shows that the time is indeed ripe to address the various issues in the culture sector, and that the public wants a serious debate at the national level on this matter.

A working group headed by [Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office] Sergei Ivanov was established. We held two meetings, which produced the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy. The draft document, if approved, will then be presented for broad public discussion at various forums such as the Public Council, the State Duma, the Federation Council and youth forums, and the results of these discussions will then be taken into account in drawing up the final text. We will be ready to ask you to approve the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy in autumn, perhaps with its presentation for joint discussion by the Presidential Council for Culture and the State Council, as it is also extremely important to take regional aspects into account too, since the next stage of the work will involve these finer points. This is a national-level document and naturally it outlines the general framework.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: What are the main points, as you see them?

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: I think the most important point is that we need to see culture in much broader terms than just the sector covered by the Culture Ministry: theatres, archives and libraries. Culture is a basic concept, a fundamental part of a person’s identity and the foundation of the national character and even of the state. It includes moral values, broader public education, youth policy issues, and the kinds of cities and villages we live in. We have tried to take an all-encompassing approach to culture. We realise at the same time that managing this process requires a special approach, and this will all be the subject of further discussion.

Culture has a particularly important historical role to play at this moment in our country’s life when we face a complicated foreign policy situation and special circumstances at home. Culture should play a consolidating and unifying role in this situation. Appeals – what I would call inflammatory appeals – that would lead to isolation are very dangerous in this context. We cannot allow internal divisions to emerge. We have a common cultural space, and we have talented people, who perhaps do not all share the same points of view, but it is important that the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy should unify the nation. This is what the document aims to do.

As far as foreign policy goes, you have probably heard from Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Spivakov and many of our other cultural figures about how many provocations take place before their concerts in the West, but how when the concerts are over, audiences of thousands of people give them standing ovations. This is exactly the kind of soft power that should be one of the state’s biggest priorities today, and this is the role that our national culture can play. This will send an important signal to our country and the world that Russia is a nation famed for its great culture and will continue to look for and encourage new talent, especially creative talent.

It is very important for us to keep producing talented composers, writers and directors. This requires a state support system. Talented people develop in their own right of course, but if we do not notice them in time and give them the support they need, we could be losing a national genius who would bring the country fame.

It is very important to educate viewers and readers. People are reading less these days, but Russian literature is a foundation for our moral qualities. We need not just talented performers but also talented listeners and viewers, who know and love music, theatre and film. Perhaps only one in 10,000 people accepted to arts schools will go on to become a real creator, but the other 9,999 people will be talented viewers and will fill up our concert halls.

We have just shown the whole world that we know how to build magnificent, outstanding sports facilities. We have shown that we know how to nurture and develop exceptional athletes who become Olympic champions. I think it is important that the world also see our ability to build equally magnificent theatres. This is already happening. We have the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre, theatres in Astrakhan and other cities. It is important that other regions should also become home to strong cultural venues of this kind. We can show the whole world that the flow of creative talent in Russia will never dry up and will always delight the world with new works.

I think the document reflects all of this. At least, it contains the premises that could help our country’s culture to flourish.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I agree with you that culture is our main, unifying national substance. What is important is not people’s official ethnic identities, but how they perceive themselves, who they consider themselves to be, which basic cultural principles were instilled in them from childhood, what kind of environment they were raised in, and what moral and ethical references they follow.

In this sense it is very important to create a common cultural space. I expect that this is the document’s basic aim, but we also need to put in place good conditions for developing cultural institutions and ensuring timely financing for priority areas. This is very important for developing culture as a sector. I hope the document will cover these matters too.

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, of course. The document is also concerned with the importance of the information space and the content of television programmes and the Internet. Young people spend more and more time on the Internet today, and what they find there is very important. This is also the concern of culture policy.

We hope very much that these principles will be supported. This is a long-term programme, of course. You are right to note that it addresses primarily children and young people. We can expect to see some substantial results. Some say it will take a generation – 20-25 years – to really get results, but I am not convinced. I think that we could start seeing the first tangible results within 5-6 years or 10-12 years.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let’s take a more detailed look. As I said, this is the main component and main substance for our self-perception and sense of identity as a nation. This is why it is so important that the document be balanced, and I hope it will be. Let’s take a closer look at it now.

<…>

April 23, 2014, 15:45The Kremlin, Moscow

Garry Wills – American Thinker & Iconoclast

cn_image.size.garry-wills-1001-01

Photograph by Gasper Tringale.

CT  CT CT prj-garry-wills-002.JPG

 

(photo – Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Mr. Wills is the foremost literary journalist and thinker of our time. This article is a tribute to this iconoclast, one who has followed his own path to understanding America with intelligence, tenacity and grace.

The American Mind

The historian Garry Wills has written better than anybody else about modern America

by Sam Tanenhaus / March 11, 2013 
Published in March 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine

204_feature_tanenhaus
Wills is an outsider: a practising Catholic, a proud midwesterner, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends on both the left and right © Gasper Tringale

Sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills. Not that it’s easy to do. The books are demanding enough—not the prose, which is graceful and elegant—but the arguments, which are unfailingly original, often provocative, occasionally subversive and, now and again, utterly perverse, yet stamped every time with the finality of the last word.

In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.

On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).

The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.

It was Wills who saw, long before it became accepted dogma, that Richard Nixon, the bête noire of American liberals, was himself the “last liberal,” ferociously clinging to the national myth of “the self-made man.” It was Wills who cleared away the nostalgic mist surrounding John F Kennedy and exposed him as the originator of the modern “insurgency presidency,” addicted to reckless “covert actions” that paralleled his illicit bedroom adventures. “For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Wills hates Kennedy,” a political scientist and adviser to Kennedy once told me. “Then I got it. Wills is the good Catholic, and Kennedy was the bad Catholic.”

A good Catholic who nonetheless has declared war not only on church elders but on the Vatican itself. When the sex abuse scandals erupted a decade ago, and others writhed in torments of apology or denial, Wills coolly explained that what seemed like desecrations of the faith were in reality outgrowths of its most hallowed rituals. “The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory… The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry.”

To a non-Catholic like me, Wills was performing a heroic civic deed, prizing open the dank closet of alien experience. He had come not to condemn but to explain. But many believers were outraged, not least because Wills is “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” as the National Catholic Reporter has put it. In his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills is at it again, cataloguing church hypocrisies, false teachings, the litany of bloody crimes. “The great scandal of Christians is the way they have persecuted fellow Christians,” he writes, “driving out heretics, shunning them, burning their books, burning them.”

Wills himself came very close to entering the priesthood—indeed, he had to be released by Rome from his vows when he decided to be a writer instead. He attends Mass on Sunday and still says the rosary every day. These early and continued devotions, more than anything else, set him apart from almost every other major American intellectual—“somewhat outside the national mainstream, ready to look inside without going there,” as he has written. For Wills, to think hard is a vocational exercise, and it has given him the confidence to ignore the provincial Manhattan “scene,” with its publishing events and circuit of media parties that reinforce a brutal pecking-order.

It has also given him something even more valuable: rare access to everyday experience, real and felt, in what remains the most religiously devout of all the advanced western democracies. Unlike other presidential historians, Wills immerses himself in the interior religious worlds of his subjects—the sacred texts, the Sunday-school dogma. He knows how close all this lies to the pulsing life of the nation. He knows too that the farm and the village square, nostalgically mourned today—vanishing features of our giant landscape—incubated American democracy, with its evangelised politics, its tightly sealed repressions and sudden violent outbursts, its nightstand with a handgun tucked in a drawer alongside the family Bible. Not all great American writers have understood this. Henry James didn’t. Neither did Edith Wharton. But the outsider “primitive” Walt Whitman did. So did Mark Twain, reared on the banks of the Mississippi. And HL Mencken, the sage of Baltimore who seldom left that sleepy overgrown town. And of course the college dropout William Faulkner, with his arsonist Snopeses and swampland aristocrats.

Each of these native geniuses was essentially self-taught but was also steeped in regional lore, custom, and habit. Each knew the American dream has been handed down in its original pastoral rhythms. Wills is the great living heir of this America of the mind, a man of the middle west—born in Atlanta, raised in Michigan and Wisconsin on either side of Lake Michigan, the fresh-water immensity, shaped like a giant finger, that starts just south of Chicago and extends all the way up, almost 500km, to Canada, its shoreline touching four Midwestern states.

It is this background, as much as his mastery of religious history, that enabled Wills to see in his book Under God—published in 1990, 10 years before the advent of George W Bush’s “faith-based” politics and the mad “Bible Belt” campaigns to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools—that every American generation struggles anew to absorb the facts of secular reason and to swallow the bitter truth that all nations, even republics founded (or, as Wills puts it, “invented”) on abstract principles, come with expiration dates and no claim of “American exceptionalism” can hold the dogs at bay.

Wills—with his boxy spectacles, his Midwestern locutions (“not a one”)—declines to be the great man of letters in the kingly manner of, say, Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren or even the Harvard-tooled heart-lander John Updike. It’s not a question of modesty. Wills is supremely self-assured. He has written two memoirs, the second of them a catalogue of his encounters with presidents, activists, mentors, professional American football players, the opera singer Beverly Sills, each evoked with uninflected precision. In conversation too Wills inclines toward the taxonomic, for instance when he recalls the “Integralist Catholic Church-State Caesaro-Papists” who formed a small renegade faction at National Review, the conservative journal-cum-hothouse where he got his start as a 23-year-old prodigy in the 1950s.

All these years later, Wills’s indifference to his cultural standing seems the hard-headed calculation of a combatant wary of the perils of growing soft. Argument is his nutriment and has been since his teens, when he was an accomplished schoolboy debater at the Jesuit high school he attended in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. For Wills to argue is not to quarrel, accuse, or even opine. It is to state a hypothesis and then work through it with Euclidian rigour and arcane examples. “People tell me I should read Hilary Mantel’s novels,” he says, “but I’m not interested in the writer’s imagination of history. I want to see the evidence!”

He himself drains vats of it. “I require many hours for reading,” he says, and when he can’t grab a book—in the car, for instance—he listens to the audiotapes he keeps in ready supply. It all goes into closely reasoned assertions, one after another, marching across the page in the stern ranks of Jesuitical logic.

Wills has lately been blogging for the New York Review—sending forth not “posts” but miniature essays, tiny epics on the American mind (“The south,” he wrote in January, “escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking.”) His gleeful post-election swatting of Mitt Romney (“Things he was once proud of—healthcare guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination”) brought a rush of web traffic, yet another brave new world for a scholar-journalist-provocateur who until recently drafted his manuscripts in longhand and declined to purchase a computer until his students forced him to. “They were angry that they couldn’t email me,” he says.

It’s no longer a problem. Fed up with academic politics—squabbling over hires, trudging through unpublished dissertations—Wills voluntarily gave up tenure, although he still teaches, and supports himself by combining books with related lectureships. He lives in a large yellow house, near the Great Lake, with his wife, Natalie, whom he met in 1957, when she was a flight attendant, and then married in 1959. “[She is] the only person with whom I have ever had sex,” he has written, one of the more curious boasts in recent literary annals.

* * *

When I visited Wills, it was a relief to see how robust he still looks, despite a health scare last summer, so serious that obituarists at the New York Times, where I work, were poised to “update”—they had to mention all those new books!—while bulletins came in from Wills’s daughter Lydia, a literary agent in Manhattan, and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review. When Wills recovered, I sent him a note. He ignored it, characteristically, and now brushes the episode aside. “I had a gall bladder operation and got an infection in the hospital, so I spent about three weeks in the hospital.” He is now fully recovered, though he has other ailments. “I’ve got a bad back. I’ve got a little gout—everything you’ve got when you’re old. But I’m mobile and I work all day, one way or another.”

The house, purchased after the Wills’s three children were grown, is arranged for maximum comfort. The living room, which looks toward the lake, is gracious and spare, with a grand piano Wills tinkers at. These comforts provide cover for trouble-making: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert counselled long ago, “that you may be violent and original in your work.” For Wills ordinariness comes easily. He confesses to being “a conventional person,” “square,” “middle class,” “so unnoticeable that I have trouble getting waited on in stores.” Raised by not especially educated people—his father was an appliance salesman and college boxing coach—Wills belongs, for all his bold intellectual exploits, to the obedient, respectful “silent generation” that came of age after the second world war. His boyhood was spent in classrooms and churches—and sneaking in reading on the bleachers at American football and basketball games. He himself resembles a youth sports coach, burly and bland-featured, and he dresses like one too: pullover, plaid shirt, soft-soled shoes. He speaks in the ageless tones and, much of the time, the diction of a regular Midwestern guy.

All this too is camouflage. Wills came into his selfhood by tangling with tough-minded elders—his father, who forced him to watch boxing matches (Wills has called for the sport to be banned), the “fathers” who drilled him in the church teachings he now demolishes, the department chairman at Johns Hopkins who long ago warned Wills he would not get tenure, ostensibly because he was doing too much outside writing, but actually, Wills believes, because of his association in those days with National Review, the conservative journal, and his friendship with its editor William F Buckley.

That was in the early 1960s, before Wills was radicalised—jailed for protesting the Vietnam war (he was an ally of the Berrigan brothers, radical priests hunted by the FBI after they napalmed draft files) and keeping company with civil rights activists. In thrall to Martin Luther King, Jr, Wills flew to Memphis the morning after King’s assassination in 1968 and was one of the very few whites, all journalists, present at the funeral. The mourners were black. “All were, absolutely all,” he says, still shocked. One wall of his study has a framed photo of King in his coffin signed by the Life magazine photographer Art Shay.

The other adornment—also honouring a national martyr—is an “absolute facsimile” of the Gettysburg Address, a gift from the Library of Congress in recognition of Wills’s book Lincoln at Gettysburg, about the 272 words that “remade America,” summoning it forward out of slavery toward “a new birth of freedom.” One of Wills’s signature achievements, it combines literary and historical detective work, and moves from a learned discussion of classical rhetoric to a brooding meditation on Lincoln’s mind and character, his profound yearnings and hard calculations, his romantic-melancholia, his obsession with death. “Slavery is not mentioned, any more than Gettysburg is,” Wills writes of the great speech. “The discussion is driven back and back, beyond the historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in an airy battle of the mind. Lincoln derives a new, a transcendental, significance from this bloody episode.” And yet, “by turning all the blood and waste into a hygienic testing of an abstract proposition [ie, all men are created equal] he may have ennobled war, the last thing he wanted to do in other contexts.”

Wills is a pacifist and this formed the basis of his tense exchange with President Barack Obama that led to much gossip afterward. This was in June 2009. Obama, newly in office and acutely aware of his place in history, wanted to hear what experts had to say. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals Obama drew on when he assembled his cabinet (the book also inspired Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) arranged for eight historians to join Obama and a few staffers for dinner in the White House. The guest list included, among others, Robert Caro (the legendary biographer of President Lyndon Johnson), Robert Dallek (biographies of Kennedy and Johnson), and inevitably, Garry Wills. “It’s a strange thing,” one of the group told me afterwards. “You imagine you have a lot to tell the president. But as soon as you’re with him, all you can think to do is tell him how great he is.”

* * *

Not Wills. When Obama professed surprise at all the hostility he was getting from supporters on the left, Wills recalled, “I said you’re going to get more if you keep doing signing statements”—that is, issuing policy orders directly from the White House circumventing Congress or adding his own interpretation to approved legislation. Wills, an authority on the constitution, is one of many who think these orders violate it. Obama once did too, in his Senate days when George W Bush used the statements to slip items past Congress, just as Obama has been doing. Now Obama finds himself falling into the trap of the imperial “insurgent” presidency—and not simply on matters of domestic policy. Three months before the dinner Obama had announced he would send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and there were strong hints of further escalation to come. At dinner’s end, Wills recalls that Obama “went around [the room] and said, ‘Before you leave if you have one more thing you’d like to tell me…’ That’s when I said if you get back into Afghanistan you’ll never get out. You can’t put that country together.”

The lessons of Vietnam could not be avoided. That war had destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, whose vision of a “Great Society” Obama hoped to build on. Wills was not alone in making this point. But he was the most emphatic, though it was to no avail. At the end of the year Obama announced another 30,000 troops would be sent in—a “surge” like the one George Bush had ordered in Iraq. In the spring of 2010 the total number of “boots on the ground” reached 100,000. “Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early,” Wills blogged in July 2010, almost exactly a year after the White House dinner. “It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one.”

“Everyone else at that dinner was invited back,” Wills told me. “I was not. Most of [the others], by the way, were very sycophantic.” He says this evenly, though with a touch of wounded pride. But in the end, Wills was vindicated. Obama has been quietly whittling down the US “presence” in Afghanistan and early this year announced 34,000 troops will come home by January 2014.

In any case, snubbing Wills was a mistake. When Obama summoned the historians a year later, worried now about the Tea Party, Wills could have told him more than all the others combined. His book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, published during the Clinton years, is even more timely today, as the Republican party lapses into retrograde obstruction. The bigger irony is that Wills has written admiringly on Obama and has compared him more than once to Lincoln. But Wills is no longer infatuated. Asked recently what book Obama should read, he replied, “Garry Trudeau’s Signature Wound, to see what damage Obama has done to thousands of our young people with his stupid wars.” Wills might have chosen Thucydides or Machiavelli or Tolstoy. Instead he chose a collection by the left-wing Doonesbury cartoonist who remains a hero of American youth culture.

That same culture informs Wills’s greatest work, Nixon Agonistes, still the one indispensable primer on modern American politics après le déluge of the clamorous 1960s, part Mencken, part Aristotle, part Moby Dick. It is an eyewitness account of the 1968 presidential election, the most tumultuous in modern times—two assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert F Kennedy); riots in the cities (Chicago and Miami) where the parties held their nominating conventions.

Others wrote about it, but it was Wills alone who foretold that the next phase of American politics would be shaped not by campus protest and black revolt, but by the threatened and angry middle class—Republican delegates, the Sun Belt physicians and small-town bank presidents, “gladsacks, as it were,” who crowd Miami Beach’s resort hotels, their main topic of conversation the exorbitant prices, even as they are unsubtly bullied by the hotel management. “No one is presumed to know the rules of tipping: a note in each room gives the ‘suggested gratuity’ for maid service.” Later, Wills finds a taxi and crosses the bridge in Miami proper, where a riot has broken out between blacks and the police, with looters running wild. “There were no signs of fires, no report of guns, so the driver dipped down onto city streets, and we followed the path of wreckage in toward the centre of things—a weight machine thrown through a store window, the cash register wrestled to the floor, the window of a wig shop broken and stripped, ladies’ heads bowled here and there in bald disgrace.”

Published in 1970, when he was 36, Nixon Agonistes is above all the record of Wills’s transit from right to left; from bright young conservative to man of the left. (It also earned him a place on one of Nixon’s “enemies lists,” because, among other offences, of its unflatteringly detailed portraiture.) A few years later, when Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency, Wills’s book was read as a kind of prophetic decryption. It remains the most encompassing of all electoral campaign writing, a journey into the tangle of American excess and equally into the deep tangle of modern liberalism. Wills’s prose seethes with taxonomical fervour as he pins each specimen to the wall: “Henry Kissinger, who looks like a serious Harpo Marx, haunted the outskirts of power in Kennedy’s day, but was too dour and Germanic for Camelot. In Nixon’s sombre capital he has the reputation of a wit—elfin, sly, a bit of a ‘swinger.’” There is also the raunchy Alabama populist George Wallace: “He has the dingy attractive air of a B-movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome garage attendant.”

Amid the character sketches are summary cadences that might have come from writing on the Peloponnesian war. Thus Wills on the anxieties of the early cold war: “The bomb and its control, peace terms and new alliances, divided-occupation duties, the UN, ominous little bristlings against Russia at the Paris peace talks… Truman had seized the railroads and threatened to draft the workers… The war had ended without ending—and who was to blame? No one, of course. History. The gods.”

This wasn’t political journalism. It was tragic drama. We’re still living with the consequences. Obama is too. Yet Wills seems curiously free of the history he has told better than anyone else.

At the end of my visit—after the crabcakes Wills had promised, and the delicious soup, and the wine I spilled in a torrent on the dining room table—Wills offered to take me to a hotel in Evanston where I might get a taxi to O’Hare Airport. On the short drive I told him I am one of the many who discovered politics in the pages of Nixon Agonistes. I recited the terse sequence quoted just above, about blame, history, and gods. Did he remember writing that? He shook his head. “No. But I remember the Thomas Nast cartoon.” Every schoolchild is taught (or used to be) about Nast, whose muckraking caricatures of Gilded Age satraps helped expose the corruption of urban “machine“ politicians. Did Wills mean to say Nixon’s villainy is comic? Grinning, Wills, without quite taking his hands off the wheel, crossed his arms over his stomach and pointed a finger in either direction.

Back in New York I looked up the cartoon, a classic from 1871, “Who Stole the People’s Money?” (above). Unsavoury waist-coated thugs, pockets bulging, form a great circle. Each points to the man beside him. The caption reads “’Twas Him.”

Unknown Unknown-1

Robert Bringhurst – Language, Myth and Poetry

I find that Robert Bringhurst brings to the world a unique perspective of humans and their role in nature. He argues the idea that humans are merely part of nature and the idea that we are here to rule nature and to separate it from our lives will not only remove us from reality but also move us along the path of extinction.  His is a powerful treatment and integration of story, myth, poetry and language, related to biology and physics. A book of collected essays and talks is in his “The Tree Of Meaning”.
 

robert-bringhurst 7722 7749 dscn2030-5b8cx50

6624348

From the Poetry Foundation:

Robert BringhurstJason Vanderhill

One of Canada’s most revered poets, Robert Bringhurst is also a typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist. Born in 1946, he studied comparative literature at Indiana University and poetry at the University of British Columbia. Bringhurst’s own poetry draws on his experiences with Native American myths and storytelling, as well as his training in philosophy, comparative literature, and linguistics. Bringhurst’s poetry is known for its wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and linguistic clarity. He is eclectic in his approach to literature, taking inspiration from sources as diverse as the Bible, the ancient Greek poets, and the epics of the Haida, one of Canada’s native tribes. In the Observer, Kate Kellaway described Bringhurst’s poetry as “rare but never rarified.” She continued: “Bringhurst aims high: he attempts to grasp the essence of what it is to be alive… He also has the curiosity of a scientist. He never overindulges in emotion. His writing is at once lyrical and spartan. And yet he is witty. And while he has no taste for lamentation, many a poem catches, calmly, at the heart.”

Bringhurst has published over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (1982), The Blue Roofs of Japan (1986),Conversations with a Toad (1987), The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995), and Selected Poems (2009). In an interview with Intelligent Life, Bringhurst spoke about his poetry’s interest in philosophical questions rather than personal exploration: “I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire, as I was saying, not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession—or to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations too, and had serious questions to ask themselves—but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”

Bringhurst’s book The Elements of Typographic Style (1992) is considered one of the most influential reference books on typography and book design. The work has been translated into ten languages, and is now in its third edition. Reviewing the book, the writer Roy Johnson noted that Bringhurst “can conjure poetry out of the smallest detail, and he offers a scholarly yet succinct etymology of almost every mark that can be made—from the humble hyphen to the nuances of serifs on Trajan Roman or a Carolingian Majuscule.”

Bringhurst has also published many books of prose, including mediations on philosophy, language, music, art, and ecology. Recent titles include The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (2006) and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2009). A translator and cultural historian as well as a poet, essayist, and typography expert, Bringhurst’s  work with the Haida, a Canadian tribe, includes helping to translate their epics into English. His books on Haida mythology and story-telling include The Raven Steals the Light (1984), A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers (1999), and Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2000), which was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Bringhurst’s other awards include the Wytter Bynner Fellowship, awarded by US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. Married to the poet Jan Zwicky, Bringhurst lives on Quadra Island, British Columbia.

CAREER

Worked as journalist in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965-66, and in Boston, MA, 1970-71; dragoman in Israel and Palestine, 1967-68; law clerk in Panama Canal Zone, 1968-69; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting lecturer, 1975-77, lecturer in English department, 1979-80; School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta, poet-in-residence, 1983; Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, adjunct lecturer, 1983-84; Ojibway & Cree Cultural Centre Writers’ Workshops, Atikokan & Espanola, Ontario, poet-in-residence, 1985; University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, writer-in-residence, 1986; University of Edinburgh Scotland, Canada/Scotland Exchange Fellow and writer-in-residence, 1989-90; Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Ashley Fellow, 1994; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, writer-in-residence, 1998-99; Frost Centre for Native Studies and Canadian Studies, Trent University, conjunct professor, 1998—. Military service: U.S. Army Intelligence, seconded to Israeli Defense Force, 1966-68; Judge Advocate General’s Corps., 1968-69.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

POETRY

  • The Shipwright’s Log, Kanchenjunga Press, 1972.
  • Cadastre, Kanchenjunga Press, 1973.
  • Deuteronomy, Sono Nis Press, 1974.
  • Eight Objects, Kanchenjunga Press, 1975.
  • Bergschrund, Sono Nis Press, 1975.
  • Jacob Singing, Kanchenjunga Press, 1977.
  • The Stonecutter’s Horses, Standard Editions, 1979.
  • Tzuhalem’s Mountain, Oolichan Books, 1982.
  • The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-82, McClelland & Stewart, 1982, Copper Canyon Press, 1985.
  • Ocean/Paper/ Stone, William Hoffer, 1984.
  • Tending the Fire, Alcuin Society, 1985.
  • The Blue Roofs of Japan, Barbarian Press, 1986.
  • Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, McClelland & Stewart, 1986, Copper Canyon Press, 1987.
  • Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters, Alcuin Society, 1986.
  • Conversations with a Toad, Lucie Lambert, 1987.
  • The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto), 1995.
  • Elements, with drawings by Ulf Nilsen, Kuboaa Press (New York City), 1995.
  • Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press (Kentville, Nova Scotia), 2009.

PROSE

  • Boats Is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language, and Design, Edition Rhino (New York City), 1997.
  • A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
  • (With Warren Chappell) A Short History of the Printed Word, Hartley & Marks, 1999.
  • Thinking and Signing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy, Cormorant Books (Toronto, Canada), 2002.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, 3rd edition, Hartley & Marks (Point Roberts, WA), 2004.
  • The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, Counterpoint Press (Berkeley, CA), 2006.
  • Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking, Counterpoint Press, 2009.

OTHER

  • (Editor with others) Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver), 1983.
  • (With Bill Reid) The Raven Steals the Light, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1984.
  • The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, photographs by Ulli Steltzer, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (television documentary), CBC, 1992.
  • (Editor, and author of introduction and notes) Bill Reid, Solitary Raven: Selected Writings, Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.
  • (Translator and editor) Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2000.
  • (Editor and translator) Skaay Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, Canada), 2001.

Guest editor of Arabic literature and Greek issues of Contemporary Literature in Translation, 1974, 1976; contributing editor, Fine Print, beginning 1985. Author of Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America, 2004; and The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning, 2004. Contributor to anthologies including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, The New Canadian Poets, Inside the Poem, and World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time.

FURTHER READING

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Inside the Poem, edited by W. H. New, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario), 1992, pp. 93-100.
  • Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1997.

PERIODICALS

  • Antognish Review, volume 85-86, 1991, Peter Sanger, “Poor Man’s Art: On the Poetry of Robert Bringhurst,” pp. 151-169.
  • Books in Canada, 1995, Scott Ellis, review of The Calling, pp. 30-31.
  • Canadian Dimension, July-August, 1996, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Black Canoe, p. 42.
  • Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 24, 1983; June 24, 1995, Chris Dafoe, “Robert Bringhurst: In Ink and Paper,” pp. C1-C2.
  • Journal of Canadian Poetry, volume 12, 1998, Iain Higgins, review of The Calling, pp. 27-46.
  • Library Journal, volume 101, 1976, Norman Stock, review of Bergschrund, p. 819.
  • Maclean’s, July 12, 1996, John Bemrose, “The Timely Wisdom of Traditional Tales,” p. 56; July, 1999, John Bemrose, review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife, pp. 56-57.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986, Jorie Graham, “Making Connections,” pp. 32-33; February 9, 1992, Karal Ann Marling, “A Noah’s Ark of the North,” p. 13.
  • Poetry, volume 144, 1984, Robin Skelton, “Recent Canadian Poetry,” pp. 297-307.
  • Quill & Quire, volume 61.5, 1995, Michael Redhill, review of The Calling, p. 36.
  • Star (Toronto), April, 1995, Philip Marchand, “Simplicity Motivates Poet’s Work of a Lifetime,” p. H6.
  • Whig-Standard Magazine (Kingston, Ontario), March 26, 1988, Larry Scanlan, “Notebook: Interview with Robert Bringhurst,” p. 25.

OTHER

  • The Reader Winter 1995—Robert Bringhurst, http://collection.nlc-bnc.ca, (March 6, 2000).
  • Review of The Elements of Typographic Style, http://www.mantex.co.uk/reviews. (March 6, 2000).

New Yorker Article – MARCEL REICH-RANICKI (1920-2013) – German Literary Critic – by Sally McGrane

Polish-born German literary critic Marce

 

On the cover of this weekend’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungs feuilleton, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s “Literary Pope,” gazes out from the center of the page. The table at which he sits, alone, is set for a formal dinner; his silk tie is rakishly askew. His expression is sovereign but kind, thoughtful, knowing. Below the photo—taken three years ago, when Reich-Ranicki was ninety—in nearly two-inch bold font, is the word “DANKE.” Thank you.

Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s most important contemporary literary critic, died on Wednesday. The next day, Germany’s two most important daily papers put his portrait on their front pages—tributes to a man who, having survived the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to have an unparalleled impact on postwar German writing. He was famous for his rapier wit, his telegenic charm, his passionate championing of the writers he loved, and his very public excoriation of new books—even from his favorite writers—when he felt they did not deliver. “No one,” in the words of the F.A.Z., “did as much to impart, to an entire society, the importance of literature.”

The man who, as one author put it, “ruled the literary world from a fifteen-square-metre office” led a life more full of pain, wonder, and irony than most literary heroes. Born in Poland in 1920, Reich-Ranicki was sent to Berlin to study as a boy. “With every year that he discovered more joy in, and love for, Thomas Mann and Brecht and Gründgens and Goethe, there also grew hate,” wrote Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the influentialF.A.Z., where Reich-Ranicki headed the literature section in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. “The hate of an entire nation and all its bureaucracy for the young Jewish man who just wanted to go to the Deutsche Theatre.”

After being denied a university spot in Berlin, Reich-Ranicki was arrested and deported to Poland. (As he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “My Life,” “I had a ticket for [a] première that evening. I wouldn’t be needing it.”) He and his family were sent to the Warsaw ghetto, where, at nineteen, he became a translator for the Judenrat (the Jewish council, the ghetto’s administrative body) because his German was impeccable. There, he also met Teofilia, or Tosia, his future wife, when her father hanged himself. “My mother told me, ‘Look after the girl,’ ” said Reich-Ranicki, in an interview filmed shortly before Tosia’s death in 2011. “I’m doing that to this day.”

Reich-Ranicki’s acute sense of literary judgment was always active. Describing an incident in which he had to transcribe an order that all inhabitants of the ghetto were to be sent to the death camps, he said, “As I sat there … and the order was dictated, through the open window I heard a Viennese waltz. Down below, the soldiers must have been playing a gramophone. Even as I wrote, I had to think, What a literary situation! What a monstrous symbol! I knew I was writing something that meant death for my parents, for my girlfriend, whom I immediately married, even my own death. But I couldn’t stop thinking, This is actually theatre.”

Despite overwhelming odds, he and Tosia managed to escape. “Remember the Dostoyevsky anecdote,” says the Reich-Ranicki character in a 2009 film based on his autobiography. Tosia nods, and they run for it. In a later scene, the Reich-Ranicki character explains what he meant: “Just before the execution of Dostoyevsky, when his eyes were already blindfolded, came the sudden cry, ‘Stop!’ The Czar had ordered a more lenient sentence. I wanted to tell Tosia, ‘Don’t give up too soon.’ ”

In hiding, too, literature played an existential role. Every night, while Tosia and the poverty-stricken Polish tobacco sellers hiding them rolled cigarettes, Reich-Ranicki entertained them by recounting stories from classical literature. Like Scheherazade, he helped insure their safety with his tales of Hamlet and young Werther.

The couple survived the war, but were not out of danger. After joining the Polish diplomatic corps, where he worked for Polish intelligence, Reich-Ranicki and Tosia were sent to London. There, their son, Andrew, was born. On their return to Poland, Reich-Ranicki was arrested, as part of an internal purge. In his cell, he read Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel about a prison break, “The Seventh Cross.” It was a turning point: “I decided, if I’m going to get out of here, I will dedicate my life to literature. If possible, to German literature.”

Ejected from the Communist Party, Reich-Ranicki embarked on a career as a literary critic, writing in Polish. In 1958, he and his family fled to West Germany, bringing Chopin scores as gifts for their hosts. With the help of writers like Heinrich Böll and Erich Kästner, Reich-Ranicki soon found work as a literary critic at Die Zeit, where his colleagues included former S.S. men. He became a fixture at the literary meetings of the influential Gruppe 47—a group of postwar writers who had nearly all been in the Wehrmacht. They talked literature, not the past.

But the past was not always possible to avoid. Shortly before he started his job at theF.A.Z., Reich-Ranicki was invited to a party for a new book about Hitler. The host failed to mention that Albert Speer would be there (“It did not occur to him that I did not feel like sitting and talking to the murderer of my mother and my father,” recounted Reich-Ranicki). At the time, he said nothing. “A fight with [F.A.Z. publisher Joachim Fest] was inopportune,” wrote the literary critic Volker Weidermann. Instead, “he found his salvation in literature. As always.” Later, in his autobiography, in interviews, and in speeches like the one he gave last year to the German Parliament, he did describe the crimes of the ghetto—a place where he and Tosia read poems, not novels, because they did not know how much time they had.

Over the next decades, his reviews would help make writers like Günter Grass and Martin Walser household names. But from the beginning, Reich-Ranicki’s critiques drew blood. Böll, for example, was not pleased when Reich-Ranicki, by then a personal friend, wrote a scathing review of his new book. When they met at a cocktail party, Böll approached and, while publically embracing him, whispered in his ear, “Asshole.”

“From Böll’s perspective, if he didn’t like it, couldn’t he have at least have remained silent?” wrote the literary critic Volker Weidermann. “After Böll had been so friendly to him? He couldn’t. He didn’t want to. Böll was too important to him, to say nothing. Literature was too important.”

While Reich-Ranicki’s falling-outs were legendary (Martin Walser created a scandal with his 2002 book, “Death of a Critic,” a thinly veiled revenge fantasy), he also encouraged his favorite writers, calling on the phone and even sending money if he felt it had been too long since the German reading public had had a chance to get their hands on a new work.

With the “Literary Quartet,” a television show launched in 1988, in which he and three other critics spiritedly defended or condemned new books, Reich-Ranicki set out to interest a larger public in reading. “It was for people who have nothing to do with literature,” said Reich-Ranicki, whose exuberant style, which involved much finger shaking and smacking of the arms of his chair, made for great TV.

“Marcel Reich-Ranicki achieved something astounding: turning critical literary cogitation into a popular pastime,” wrote Heinrich Detering, president of the German Academy for Language and Literature. The show, which ran until 2001, reached millions.

Reich-Ranicki continued to agitate for literature, with passion, humor, and arch, comprehensive erudition, to the last. A column where Reich-Ranicki answered readers’ letters ran in the F.A.Z. until this year. One asked why Philip Roth had been ignored for a Nobel Prize. “I would also like to know the answer to that,” responded Reich-Ranicki, who considered Roth a great novelist. “It was said of Graham Greene, that he never received a Nobel Prize because he had slept with the wife of Stockholm academician. With whom has Philip Roth slept? If you would like to know the answer, I suggest you address yourself directly to him, or to his agent.” To a reader who suggested changes to “Doctor Faustus,” he wrote, “Perhaps you have heard that [Thomas Mann] is taken to be the greatest stylist of the German language since Goethe’s death? I must say, you’re gutsy.” “Can a man like Gottfried Benn, who sympathized with Fascism, also be a good poet?” “Unfortunately, yes.”

In the remembrances broadcast and published in the past week, joy that this man existed runs through sorrow at his loss. “That a Polish Jew, who went through the hell of the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to become the most important literary critic in the German-language world, is in itself a Jewish fairy tale,” wrote the Austrian writer Robert Schindel, who, born in 1944 to Jewish Communists, narrowly escaped Auschwitz. “What a man, in his contradictions! Where he is now—will he be preaching Thomas Mann to the heavenly hosts? May he have a good journey!”

Sally McGrane is a journalist based in Berlin.

Photograph by Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images.

Zen Master – Gary Snyder and the Art of Life.

DSC_017314

Zen Master

Gary Snyder and the Art of Life.
The New Yorker
October 20, 2008
By Dana Goodyear

Gary Snyder, the Zen poet, lives on a hundred backcountry acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, meditates mornings, and thanks his food before he eats it, clapping his hands together and saying “Itadakimasu,” which is Japanese for “Thank you very much.” He likes a boilermaker at dinnertime (a shot of bourbon and a tall glass of beer) and, on occasion, the bullfrogs from his pond. “I follow the ‘Joy of Cooking,’ ” he says. “You’ve got to skin them and brine them overnight. She recommends rolling them in bread crumbs and frying them.” He finds that vulture feathers make the best pens for calligraphy, and collects them when he hikes. Some nights, he takes a blanket and a thermos of sake and a star map, walks along a gravel riverbed not far from his house to a spot among the mounded diggings left by the gold-mining ventures of the past two centuries, and, by the light of a red torch, works on the constellations.

Snyder, who is seventy-eight, has written nineteen books of poems and essays that are engaged with watersheds, geology, logging, backpacking, ethno-poetics, Native American oral storytelling, communal living, sex, coyotes, bears, Tibetan deities, Chinese landscape painting, Japanese Noh drama, and the intimacies of family life. His reach extends far beyond the usual small audience for poetry; “Turtle Island,” a collection of poems that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, has sold a hundred thousand copies. (“Turtle Island swims / in the ocean-sky swirl-void / biting its tail while the worlds go / on-and-off / winking.”) He is, notably, a poet of the Pacific Rim. He told me, “I think of my territory as that which I have walked in person and know the weather at a given time of year, know a lot of the critters, and know a lot of the people. That would be from around Baja up to Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands, then pick up again in Hokkaido, down Japan and into Taiwan and the south coast of China, and the Pacific, which I know pretty well, having sailed it half a dozen times by a nice slow boat going fourteen knots, day and night.” But if you met him in a bar in Japan or China or Korea, and asked him what he did, he’d probably say, “I do my best as a teacher and I’m kind of a clumsy farmer.” (He taught in the English department at the University of California at Davis from 1986 until 2001, and has a small orchard.) The last book he wants to write, he says, is a “personal dharma memoir,” a chronicle of Buddhism in the late twentieth century. “Like the rock climbers say, having fun doesn’t mean you have to have fun,” he says. “Being a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a good Buddhist.”

A few months ago, looking over the wine list in a fine restaurant in nearby Nevada City, Snyder said, “I’ve got a twenty-five-year-old Cab I’m saving for venison-for when we get a deer again, on the road. In the winter season, I always drive with a giant black garbage bag in the car and a hunting knife or two.” He pulled out a thick-bladed knife and laid it on the table. An appetizer of goat-cheese cakes, dotted with arugula pesto, kalamata tapenade, and roasted red peppers and truffle oil, arrived. Snyder lifted the knife and cut the cakes precisely in two. Later, when he got up from the table for a moment, a young, heavily lipsticked waitress came over and said excitedly, “He’s one of my absolute heroes.”

Snyder is shortish and solid and exudes physical confidence. A boy of the Pacific Northwest-born in San Francisco, brought up outside Seattle-he climbed Mt. St. Helens at fifteen; as a young man, he worked in Indian logging camps and fire-lookout cabins in the wilderness and on a trail crew in the Sierra Nevada, where he wrote the first poems that he wanted to keep. He wears a beard and has a turquoise stud in his left ear-it’s been pierced since 1950-and has gray-green eyes that disappear into the planes of his face, like puddles in a dry season. One of his incisors is capped in gold, which gives him the rascally look of an old mountain man when he smiles. When I repeated the waitress’s remark, he said, “You shouldn’t have told me that.”

Masa Uehara, Snyder’s wife, sits on a rock-pretty, pregnant, her hair covered with a bandanna, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. The green Yuba River swirls around her. Snyder is in the water, naked, hoisting a naked baby boy (their first son, Kai) over his shoulder. The photograph ran as a centerfold in Look in 1969, with a caption that read, “Author Gary Snyder and family, in the Sierras, look forward to a new Neolithic age that will combine the love of nature, sex and life based on mythical truths.”

Snyder was just back from Japan, having spent much of the late fifties and the sixties in Kyoto, undergoing formal training as a Zen monk. He had left the West Coast in the spring of 1956, several months after participating in what to many remains the defining poetic event of the previous half century: the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, at which Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in public, while Jack Kerouac shouted, “Go! Go! Go!” Snyder read “A Berry Feast,” an ode in praise of Coyote, a trickster figure from Native American myth: “Coyote the Nasty, the fat / Puppy that abused himself, the ugly gambler, / Bringer of goodies.” The poem, which traces the destruction of forests to the building of the suburban house-“a box to catch the biped in”-is infused with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. It forecasts a time of “People gone, death no disaster,” and ends with Coyote surveying a depopulated city where resilient nature still thrives-“Dead city in dry summer, / Where berries grow.”

Kenneth Rexroth-the m.c. of the Six Gallery reading and a renowned poet, critic, and translator-was the presiding elder of the city’s poetry scene, gathering young disciples around him for Friday-night instruction. Snyder had studied Native American oral traditions in the anthropology department at Reed College, and when he arrived in Berkeley to pursue graduate work in East Asian studies a friend took him to Rexroth’s house. They hit it off right away. Snyder was translating the poems of the T’ang-dynasty mountain hermit Han Shan-an exquisitely terse and funny suite later published as “Cold Mountain Poems”-and studying sumi painting with the artist Chiura Obata. The conversations at Rexroth’s ranged from discussions of Pound and Williams, both of whom he knew, to “The Tale of Genji” and the perfidies of Trotsky. “Rexroth was a great mentor,” Snyder told me. “He was a polymath, universalist, critical thinker, and he declared himself an anarcho-pacifist.”

Snyder’s politics were similarly radical. He had grown up poor in Stumpland-logged-out country that backed up onto second-growth woods, in what is now a suburb of Seattle. His grandfather was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies); his father, a sometime dairy farmer, was a union organizer on the Grand Coulee Dam project, and hosted meetings for a local league of unemployed workers, which was labelled a Communist front. At eighteen, Snyder joined the far-left Marine Cooks and Stewards union, and shipped out to the Caribbean for a summer.

Snyder dressed in thrift-store clothing and was proud of his working-class sympathies and his wilderness experience. Jack Spicer, another poet in Rexroth’s circle, called him the Boy Scout. The day after meeting Snyder, Ginsberg described him in a letter as a “laconist, but warmhearted, nice looking with a little beard, thin, blond, rides a bicycle in Berkeley in red corduroy & levis & hungup on indians (ex-anthropologist student from some indian hometown) and writes well, his sideline besides zen which is apparently calm scholarly & serious with him.” Kerouac-whose manuscript “On the Road,” about his travels with the feckless Neal Cassady, had just been accepted by Viking when he met Snyder, in 1955-was sufficiently smitten to write a novel based on their friendship.

In “The Dharma Bums,” Japhy Ryder, a sprightly, cocksure poet with a background and a set of interests striking similar to Snyder’s, introduces the narrator, Ray Smith, to Zen Buddhism and mountaineering. The story revolves around an expedition led by Ryder to the peak of Yosemite’s Matterhorn, a trip that Snyder and Kerouac made together in the fall of 1955. Kerouac’s exposure to Snyder’s self-discipline and know-how inspired more than literary productivity: he decided to become a fire lookout himself, and spent a summer on Desolation Peak, in the North Cascades, near where Snyder had worked several years before. Describing Snyder’s deep effect on the Beats, the poet and playwright Michael McClure said, “Just look at Kerouac. He didn’t go back on Route 66, hugging Neal and weeping big sad tears. He climbed a mountain.”

In the novel, Alvah Goldbook (a character based on Allen Ginsberg) says of Ryder, “He’s really the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met. And what I love about him is he’s the big hero of the West Coast. . . . Besides all the background he has, in Oriental scholarship, Pound, taking peyote and seeing visions, his mountainclimbing and bhikkuing, wow, Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture.” Ryder was also something of a satyr, and, in a memorable scene, demonstrates with a limber, gray-eyed woman named Princess the Tibetan cross-legged sexual position yabyum. (Princess is obliging, and everyone has a go.) Later, Kerouac wrote to Snyder about signing a release form. “As you see, I’ve got you down pretty accurate but I made some changes in your personal life, girlfriends, etc. . . . to throw off the scent.”

“The Dharma Bums,” which was published in 1958, incited a “Rucksack Revolution” and fed a craze for Zen. It made Snyder famous, but he was not particularly grateful. “Since Dharma Bums came out I feel that you’ve been silent and disappointed about me,” Kerouac wrote to him. “I dont think the book was as bad as you think; when you look at it again in future years, when the world will’ve gotten worster, you’ll look back and appreciate the job I did on ‘you’ and on Dharma Bumism.” Snyder says now that although Kerouac’s description of the climbing trip was essentially accurate, the rest grew out of his friend’s imagination. “The sex scene in ‘The Dharma Bums’ was the result of me describing for Jack Kerouac Tantric sex in Tibetan Buddhism,” he told me. “Jack was fascinated by that. I always say, ‘Give the guy credit!’ He could write a novel. He wasn’t just always a journalist.” That point was a shade too subtle for the rest of the world. In 1960, when Snyder got married in Kyoto to Joanne Kyger, an American poet whom he had met in North Beach, the display type in one newspaper notice read, “Zen Poet Wed / Kerouac Character / SF’s Gary Snyder Married in Japan.” (They broke up a few years later, though they remain friends, and in 1967 he married Uehara, a Japanese graduate student.)

Snyder’s years in Japan were consumed with koan study. For his first, which took him a year and a half to answer, he was instructed to show what his face looked like before his parents met. He took the Buddhist name Chofu and early on fell in with some yamabushi-followers of an ancient folk religion that centers on mountaineering-who took him climbing. Snyder says, “They said, ‘O.K., we’re going to see if you are one of us.’ They told me to climb up a five-hundred-foot vertical rock pitch while chanting the Heart Sutra. Luckily, I knew the Heart Sutra, so that was O.K. Then they said, ‘Now we’re going to initiate you.’ They tied a rope around my ankles and hung me over a cliff and said, ‘We’ll drop you if you don’t tell the truth,’ and they started asking me questions. After that was over, they took me to a mountain temple with a dirt floor-it was small and dark and all smoky with incense-and we blew the conch for hours. I have some very wonderful overalls from them.”

As a student of Zen, Snyder lived an existence that was austere, and sometimes humorless. Once, after he had finished a week of intensive meditation, Kyger wrote in her journal, “Gary came home last Tuesday after the sesshin and said he had passed his koan plus 3 auxilliary ones. He refused to contract verbs-saying I will do it, instead of I’ll do it etc.” When they went to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Kyger told me recently, she coveted a “beggar’s necklace” made of dozens of semiprecious stones-red, orange, green, creamy, amber-colored. Snyder let her buy it only after she had memorized the name of each one.

In 1959, Snyder published “Riprap,” a group of short, tough poems composed, he wrote, to the rhythms of physical labor, and informed by his work laying cobblestones on the granite slab of the Sierra as part of a trail crew. The language itself is stony, a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon workingman’s vocabulary that reverberates when struck: “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks. / placed solid, by hands / In choice of place, set / Before the body of the mind / in space and time: / Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall / riprap of things.”

“I felt absolutely at home with the colloquial voice and the honest-to-god, honest-to-earth elemental content-the things of the poems,” Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, said about his initial encounter with Snyder’s poems. “There is something unleavened about that first book. The elements of the poems are trustworthy, and you feel there’s a real coherence in the sensibility that’s transmitting them to you. And, in the primal, mythic-poetry sense, he’s back on the Hill of Parnassus.”

In the middle of June, Snyder visited New York for a long weekend. With his younger son, Gen, who is thirty-eight, he went twice to the Met. They looked at rare pre-Columbian feather-working, Himalayan art, and samurai gear, and visited an exhibit on Chinese painting and calligraphy. “For one who knows the nature of the East Asian brush and what’s possible, it was somewhat elementary, but very useful for the usual viewer,” he wrote to me later.

On the Saturday of the trip, wearing jeans, a vest, and a long skull-and-bead necklace-a symbol of impermanence that he picked up at a Buddhist supply shop in Kyoto-Snyder reported to the Asia Society, on the Upper East Side, for a symposium devoted to his travels through India with Kyger, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky. “One of the most significant and transformative things for me was discovering the depth of time in the mythologies of India,” Snyder told the audience. “That we live in a universe of millions of universes that has gone through millions and millions of years, kalpa after kalpa, aeon after aeon.” Then he told a story about how he once blew the mind of Francis Crick, over lunch, when he explained to him that the Indian belief in reincarnation demonstrated an understanding of deep space and the history of the universe.

Performance is an essential part of Snyder’s poetry; it was the Six Gallery reading, he says, that first awakened him to the possibility of an oral poetry in America. “It made us realize that poetry was a social experience, more like storytelling,” he says. Reading aloud is crucial to his process; he improvises, makes substitutions, supplies glosses on difficult words. Sometimes he sings a poem, or gestures with his hands, like a conductor before an orchestra. In India, he attended an all-night poetry reading, and several years ago he tried one himself, with dancers, musicians, and costumes. At the Asia Society, he was brief, reading one ten-minute poem: “An Offering for Tara”-the Buddhist goddess of compassion. The poem is one of his more esoteric works, a multivoiced, choral setting, but he didn’t worry about comprehensibility. He says, “When people tell me they don’t understand a poem, I say, ‘Fine, just listen to it. The exposure to it is part of its power. Don’t vex yourself with an intellectual understanding of it.’ We don’t expect to understand graphic art that way.” Snyder read with his heels clicked together in back, a dancer in first position. He leaned into the stresses as if boosted by an updraft, making of each word a surprising curiosity. When he got to a Sanskrit prayer, “Om tare tuttare ture swaha tare tare tare,” he chanted it-resonant, rapid, low. The audience was suffused with happy, baffled pleasure and good vibes.

Snyder sat down in the audience. Ed Sanders, of the Fugs, sang a reedy song to Ginsberg, “He was one of me hee-eeee-roes.” There was talk of “Omic laryngitis” and the Human Be-In, which Snyder opened by blowing on a conch. Ginsberg’s old harmonium was trotted out. Meanwhile, Snyder got to work. He put on a pair of glasses, and took a small notebook from the front pocket of his shirt. He paged through it, periodically jotting something down. Every once in a while, at the end of a number, he’d look up, remove his glasses and rub his eyes, and then resume note-taking.

“I live in the present. That’s why I get things done in the present,” Snyder told me later, explaining his impatience at being called a Beat writer. “I’m not a Beat in a literary sense,” he said. “I’m a historical part of that circle of friends, and I was part of the early sociological and cultural effect of it. My work did not fit with the critics’ and the media’s idea of Beat writing, ever. We were all so different from each other, all these unique cases. That makes it really kind of untidy.” Another time, he said, “Why I distanced myself from the Beats? Allen and I had that out even when we were in our twenties. We had mutual respect, and mutual disagreement. I am very symptomatic of the West Coast, and the West Coast is a slightly different culture from the rest of the country.”

Kitkitdizze, named for a local plant, is Snyder’s place. It is on the San Juan Ridge, in the Yuba River watershed. “My pond runs right past San Francisco,” he says. “It goes into the creek downhill, from there into the South Yuba, then to the Feather, the Sacramento, through the delta to San Francisco Bay, and on out to the Pacific.”

Snyder bought the land in the mid-sixties, with Allen Ginsberg and Richard Baker, then the president of the San Francisco Zen Center. (Snyder bought them out, and Gen now lives in Bedrock Mortar, the twenty-by-twenty cabin that Ginsberg built, inscribing “HARE KRISHNA HARE KRISHNA JAI GURU RAMA OM HUM” on its foundation.) Snyder’s house is low-browed, and roofed in red tiles; the stain is grayish to match the woods around it, and the trim is the orange-red of manzanita bark. (He took a branch to a paint store and had the supplier mix the shade accordingly.) The floor in the kitchen is made from sandstone that Snyder harvested from California’s White Mountains, at nine thousand feet. “The job is very amateurish, not as smooth as it could be,” he said when I visited him there in late June. “It’s the first stone floor I ever laid.” The center of the house, now occupied by a dining-room table stacked with books and periodicals, was once an open fire pit, over which a huge kettle would hang, suspended from a hook that Snyder had carved out of an oak crotch that he found. A gable covers the old smoke hole.

In 1969, Snyder sought ten volunteers to help him build a home that was to be part Japanese farmhouse, part Indian lodge. They came-some from Berkeley, some from Antioch College-in the summer of 1970, and, with Snyder and Uehara, built the house in a few months, using ponderosa pines from within three hundred feet of the site to frame, and local incense cedar for siding. The foundation stones came from the middle fork of the Yuba River. There was no electricity (Kitkitdizze is still off the grid, and nowadays runs on solar and generators), so they felled the trees with a two-man handsaw. Days were hot and nakedness prevailed.

Many of Snyder’s poems come straight from his life. The topless women carpenters inspired “Alabaster,” published in a mid-eighties collection, “Left Out in the Rain”:

 

Tanya’s bosom like a drawn bow
Holly like a load of flowers
Ann’s gracious fruits
Masa brown and slimming down
from milky dark-veined weight
and, slighter than the rest,

But strongly dappled in the
sweltering-shady mind,
Edie’s alabaster breasts.

 

 

Many of the volunteers-Holly and Tanya among them-decided to stay on San Juan Ridge. Some pooled their resources and bought the adjacent property, and this community became Snyder’s testing ground for the ideas he was beginning to explore in print. In “Four Changes,” a widely circulated environmental treatise he published in 1969 and made available for free, he warned of the dangers of overpopulation, pollution, and consumption-particularly of fossil fuels. Some of his ideas seem implausible now-polyandrous marriages as a remedy for overpopulation, walking the Coast Range as a way to get from San Francisco to L.A.-while others are straight out of the post-Gore environmental consciousness: bring your own bags to the grocery store, use natural fertilizer, recycle, carpool. He says, “It is not particularly gratifying to have been right.”

“Gary was in the thick of Bay Area green activism at a time when it was being invented,” Stewart Brand, the publisher of the “Whole Earth Catalogue” and one of many people who published “Four Changes,” told me. According to Snyder’s old friend Jack Shoemaker, of Counterpoint, his publisher since the early eighties, ” ‘Four Changes’ really elevated him to be an environmental leader of the counterculture. It wasn’t a hippie-dippy, feather-wearing poem. It was a manifesto, and the national environmental movement had to take it seriously.” Snyder began to be recognized as a public intellectual, lecturing at universities and appearing at environmental conferences, including the historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in 1972. Shoemaker said, “The environmental movement needed a celebrity-like person, someone charismatic. The others were dull as paste. They needed someone attractive, and Gary understood something about his own attractiveness. He had a sense of his life as style, long before we had that term ‘life style.’ ”

Informed by the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, or non-harming, and also by Native American religious thought, Snyder argues that humans must take the nonhuman elements of the planet into account, not for our sakes but for theirs. Using Kitkitdizze as a prototype, he encourages others to inhabit more fully the places they live-settle down, get to know the neighbors (including, in his conception, the plants and animals), join the school board and the watershed council, and defend the local resources and way of life. Place, he writes, should be defined by natural indicators, like rivers and the flora and fauna they support. “The watershed is the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable,” he wrote in an essay in the early nineties. “If public lands come under greater pressure to be opened for exploitation and use in the twenty-first century, it will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense.” Bill McKibben, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1991, asserted that “Snyder has emerged as perhaps the most eloquent American champion of what is called ‘bioregionalism,’ the idea that political boundaries should reflect the land we live on, and that decisions within those boundaries should respect that land.” He went on, “The long-held aesthetic arguments for a simpler life are suddenly being seen to coincide neatly with the hard-headed calculations of the atmospheric chemists. Snyder is among the first to sense this conjunction.” Snyder’s take on climate change is, however, typically independent. Humans may be in for some difficult times, but nature will take care of itself, he says. Accept impermanence.

In the early days, Snyder and his family hand-pumped their water, and lived by kerosene and firelight. In summer, they cooked outside and ate in an open-sided dining room. Uehara made her first birthday cake, for Kai, in a Dutch oven, over campfire coals. And, readers of “Turtle Island” know, they all bathed together in a sauna, an everyday experience that, in “The Bath,” Snyder transforms into a meditation on the sexual interconnectedness of father, mother, and child. (When the boys were old enough to care, they banned him from reading the poem on the West Coast.)

 

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines out
sierra forest ridges night—
Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath
And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of
shoulder, breast, and belly,
Washes deftly Kai’s head-hair
as he gets mad and yells—
The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle             a hand of grail
The gates of Awe
That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?

The sauna still stands. Snyder told me that it can fit five or six comfortably, though it has sometimes held many more. Inside is a shelf of special objects-a piece of white brain coral, a perfectly round stone, and a little brass figurine of a man and a woman in yabyum. “But it’s much too hot in here to do anything like that,” he said. “You’d have a heart attack!”

Uehara and Snyder divorced in 1990; she is remarried, and lives on a piece of land next door. “Gary was so social-still is,” she told me. “Out of seven days, maybe five of them we had someone for dinner. A natural, organic poetry salon was constantly happening in our living room. Ferlinghetti came, Ginsberg came, McClure, Lew Welch”-a poet Snyder had known since Reed. “They were in and out all the time. Gary would invite the neighbors who were interested in their ideas. I was doing all the cooking, with two little kids in diapers.” Snyder, she said, did the dishes.

In addition to the welcome guests, there was a stream of uninvited and, according to Uehara, ill-mannered hippies, who would arrive expecting to be edified and fed. Joanne Kyger told me, “There were an awful lot of Gary Snyder wannabes. His style of writing was very appealing in the seventies to young men looking for a poetic identity. He was a good example of a greened-out, dropout way to live.” The world of Kitkitdizze also attracted a more sophisticated type of seeker and scenester. “Gary became one of those figures, one of those cultural touchstones,” Shoemaker said. Robert Crumb, the cartoonist, visited with his band, and played a gig at the North San Juan Volunteer Fire Department Hall. The actor and writer Peter Coyote, who was living on a commune in West Marin with some of the Diggers, an anarchist group from Haight-Ashbury, met Snyder through Lew Welch and became a regular. “I began to study Gary,” Coyote told me. “I looked carefully at his house, at the level of thought that went into it. It’s so elegant, and has everything he needs without being expensive.” Following Snyder’s example, Coyote took up the practice of Zen. The only person I heard about who did not relish going to Kitkitdizze was James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, who published Snyder from the sixties through the eighties. Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me, was “a total Ivy League gentleman,” afraid to sit cross-legged on the floor in his wingtip cordovan shoes, much less take the shoes off, in compliance with the household’s Japanese rules.

In the early eighties, when Snyder built Ring of Bone, a beautiful zendo in the meadow behind his house, Jerry Brown, then the governor of California, came to meditate, and one time brought Snyder a sculpture of Fudo-the ferocious, sword-bearing, lariat-swinging deity. (“He’s a mountain figure,” Snyder says. “A kind of tattered, workingman’s Buddha. He’s always been one of my allies.”)

Brown visited Kitkitdizze occasionally in the seventies and eighties-it was just two hours from Sacramento-and appointed Snyder the first chairman of a new artist-run state arts commission. Brown liked the literary conversation-Snyder’s easy, learned references to Chinese and Japanese poetry-and valued their discussions of Zen and ecology. He even bought a parcel of land near the ridge. “What I really appreciated particularly about Gary was his knowledge of the land-the flora and fauna and what it could be,” Brown told me. “It was a perspective outside the hustle of political and business life. I like what he does. It’s very concrete. He knows how to sharpen an axe, and all those things you don’t learn in the city, or in school.” Snyder’s relationship with Brown represents the most classically Chinese moment in his career, and one that is extremely rare in America: the poet as a servant of the state. He got a few poems out of it, including one, collected in “Axe Handles” (1983), that describes how, after he and the Governor “spoke of farming, / of oil, and what would happen to the cars,” he took out a bow and arrow, and they started shooting at straw bales near the barn.

One day, visiting Snyder at Kitkitdizze, I met a young man who was working in the garden, Matthew O’Malley, from Sandwich, Massachusetts. He had moved to the ridge two years before, drawn to the community that has grown up around Snyder. “There’s a kind of lore about the reinhabitory culture there,” he told me a few weeks later, off the ridge. “I wanted to see if I could become part of it.” In college, at Villanova, he and his friends had a kind of philosophers’ circle where they read Snyder’s poems-“No one’s teaching that stuff in the Northeast!”-sat in meditation, drank red wine, wrote, pondered the idea of blue-collar poetry, and went backpacking together. When he graduated, he went to work on a trail crew. “Gary’s kind of an exemplar,” he said. “It’s not just the poems. A lot of it is how he’s lived his life.”

O’Malley has reddish-brown hair and a beard, wears little glasses, and keeps a notebook and a pencil tucked into the front pocket of a button-down shirt. His manner is serious; he is an elderly twenty-six. He said he was studying at Ring of Bone and living in a school bus on China Flats, just below Uehara’s house. He had got solar panels but hadn’t hooked them up. “I have kerosene and candles,” he said-enough light to read and write poems by. “It works. So many people up there were on kerosene for years.”

Driving, Snyder dictates poems into a little tape recorder, along with their punctuation-double indent, space, comma, point. To him, the written texts of poems are musical scores; on the page their forms are fluid, loose, irregular. Blocks of indented lines indicate a shift in voice, and often a slight conceptual change, as when, Snyder says, “You’re telling two closely related stories.” White space in the middle of the line is for a caesura more substantial than a comma or a semicolon; white space between stanzas allows time to elapse. “His reasons are never visual, but arranging the line as he does is a way of announcing, ‘This is less regimented, more dance-like,’ ” Robert Hass, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, said. “Letting the poem breathe is another way of putting it.”

Snyder’s rhythms are accentual; like Pound, he hears stresses rather than stresses and syllables, as metrical poets do. To describe his mode as lyric does not quite capture it. Even Snyder’s most intimate poems can have an impersonal quality: the “I,” sometimes suppressed, is unobtrusive-a vehicle for exploring the world, not a world in itself. Snyder sees his poems as “mytho-poetic, magical-lyrical-oral, in a line from Blake.” Seamus Heaney said, “Snyder is a poet of mind. The bare-handed encounter with the actual does not preclude a clearheaded vision of what’s called for.” The poems do feel instructional; the poet Brenda Hillman thinks of Snyder’s body of work as a “Georgics.” Reading him, you encounter a massive, assimilating intelligence, with a startling command of natural and human history. He possesses a scholar’s exactitude, and occasionally a scholar’s pedantry and attraction to the arcane fact-providing the Japanese translation of “boar meat” or positing the Finno-Ugric origins of the word “hemp.” “It’s a professorial thing to do,” he says. “I realize that it’s not going to be of use to a great number of people. However, it’s part of the history of language, and it enriches how we understand language.”

The poet Thom Gunn, in an admiring review of Snyder for the BBC’s The Listener, remarked that the poems were “deceptively simple.” Even an apparently obvious, diaristic poem like “Burning the Small Dead,” from “The Back Country”-a volume, published in 1968, that prompted the Partisan Review to call Snyder’s work “monotonous, flat and superficial”-is rich in information. The entire poem reads:

 

Burning the small dead
branches
broke from beneath
thick spreading
whitebark pine.

a hundred summers
snowmelt             rock            and air

hiss in a twisted bough.

sierra granite;
Mt. Ritter-
black rock twice as old.

Deneb, Altair

windy fire

 

 

The poem is an evocation of the expanse of geological time, and an exploration of the forces that shape the landscape. Its observations, so lightly offered, are accurate. Hass said, “Whitebark pine is a little scrubby pine that only appears at the tree line. If you know mountains, you know you’re probably at ten thousand feet. He’s picked off the dead branches and is making a fire, and he thinks about its life span. Then, thinking about things that burn, he says ‘sierra granite’-granite is twice-burned rock, forged out of fire. Looking south from the gray granite of Yosemite, you see a chocolate-colored rock-‘Mt. Ritter / black rock twice as old’-and it is twice as old. In summertime, you locate yourself by the summer triangle, two points of which are the stars Deneb and Altair. He goes from looking at the little fire he’s made to thinking about fire that forged the granite, to the stars, and says what Buddhists say: everything is burning.” I’d add that Vega, the third point in the summer triangle, is a star that, in Yosemite, appears to be directly overhead, making the “windy fire” its imaginative as well as its syntactic stand-in.

Although in recent years Snyder’s prose has been discovered by the emerging discipline of eco-literature-Lawrence Buell, a professor at Harvard, is one prominent critic in the field who teaches him-Snyder says that there has been, about his poetry, “a lot of silence from some quarters” of the literary establishment. “There are people who just don’t want to deal with it,” he says. “More in the East than in the West. A certain percentage of my poetry requires for a scholar to become more acquainted with Native American and East Asian thinking. It is considered somewhat marginal to mainstream America. Fair enough. The poetics itself is a little marginal, too, in that I have consciously been more aware of the oral tradition than other poets.” Another problem is that he is sometimes categorized as a nature poet-“the kiss of death, actually.” He says, “Being called a nature poet is like being called a woman poet, as if it were a lower grade of writing, and one based in romanticism. I am a poet who has preferred not to distinguish in poetry between nature and humanity. Just like I would argue as a bioregionalist that all of these beings are part of my community, and I would like to be able to say hello to each of them.” But Snyder does not stand completely outside the mainstream poetry world: he is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and this year won the Ruth Lilly prize from the Poetry Foundation, one of several prestigious awards he has received.

Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting. “I’ve done a lot of short lyric poems and those are widely read, but my real challenge and what really interests me is the long narrative poem,” he told me. “The burden of information and story it can carry is huge. These poems can be about a whole tribe or clan or world.” The poem-which was published in 1997 and moves through terrains as varied as the Northwestern highway 99, New York City, and Kathmandu, invoking Buddhas, telling old folk stories, explaining geo-history, tracing rivers, meeting talking animals-is structured, to some extent, like a Noh play. “It follows jo-ha-kyu,” Snyder said. “Jo means ‘serene introduction.’ Ha means ‘extended and detailed narrative information.’ Kyu means ‘an ending which is surprisingly sudden.’ It’s much more interesting than the Aristotelian model of a beginning, middle, and end. The Japanese say, ‘Listen to the birdsong, it has a jo, a ha, and a kyu.’ To them it’s completely natural.”

“Mountains and Rivers” is Snyder’s most sustained effort at representing a bioregional world view. In an accompanying “making of” essay, he writes that the poem began to take shape when he arrived in Japan for the first time. “In Kyoto I lived in the Rinzai Zen temple compound of Shokoku-ji. I immediately entered the local hilly forests, found the trails and shrines, and paid my respects to the local kami. In my small spare time I read geology and geomorphology. I came to see the yogic implications of ‘mountains’ and ‘rivers’ as the play between the tough spirit of willed self-discipline and the generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings.” He continues, “I could imagine this dyad as paralleled in the dynamics of mountain uplift, subduction, erosion, and the planetary water cycle.” The poem’s journey ends in the Black Rock desert of northwestern Nevada, a place beyond the project’s terms: “no waters, no mountains, no / bush no grass and / because no grass / no shade but your shadow. / No flatness because no not-flatness. / No loss, no gain. So- / nothing in the way! / -the ground is the sky / the sky is the ground, / no place between.” The final image is of a sumi paintbrush, lifting off the page.

The first weekend in August, Snyder was in the High Sierra of Yosemite, giving readings at Parsons Lodge, a one-room structure of granite porphyry and lodgepole beams designed by the Arts and Crafts architects Bernard Maybeck and Mark White for the Sierra Club, in 1915. The lodge was half a mile from the road, across a bright meadow studded with glacial erratics and tall lodgepole pines and pale-green sagebrush, through which the Tuolumne River ran. Snyder, in a crisp white shirt and hiking boots, and wearing a red backpack, set out across the meadow in the evening, as the light was growing cold and golden and the lodgepoles were beginning to cast long shadows. He knew the terrain well. Tuolumne Meadows, as the area is known, was the point from which his trail crew set out, in 1955, and he has been back, camping and hiking and climbing-researching-many times. “This is another sort of home, this country is,” he said.

More than three hundred people crowded in the large arched doorway of the lodge and leaned through the open French windows-the young and scruffy, the rangers in their uniforms, the old-timers in Tevas with braided hair. Two Park Service poets-Guy McClellan, just graduated from Lewis and Clark, and Nick Ross-Rhudy, still at Reed-sat on a ledge under a window, elbows on knees. They were both aficionados of “Riprap.” Ross-Rhudy-tall and gangly with soft blue eyes and a conch pierce in his ear-was on a trail crew for the summer. “Something I really appreciate is that the language is our everyday language,” he said later. “He talks about things like the singlejack and pack strings-as a poet, those words just sound good. Doing trail-crew work, you love those words and what they represent.”

Snyder opened by reading “Off the Trail,” an easygoing love poem celebrating spontaneity, independence, and companionability. He dedicated it to his late wife, Carole Koda, a Japanese-American woman he married in the early nineties and who died two years ago. After the poem, he offered a short lesson on its moral, drawn from anthropology. “Throughout human history and prehistory, the trail was only to get you somewhere,” he said. “What was important was what was off the trail. Food, roots, berries, dye plants, glue plants, poisonous plants, recreational-drug plants, squirrel nests, bird nests, everything you might think you’d need. What’s way off the trail are the places you go to be alone and have a vision and your own spiritual trip, maybe with some of those recreational plants”-knowing snickers from the kids-“and then you come back.” For the rest of the night, he read from “Mountains and Rivers.” In response to a comment from the audience about the Heart Sutra, he recited it. Afterward, he retraced his steps across the meadow in the dark, stopping every few minutes to look up: Scorpio, with Antares, the fire star, burning orange; the polestar, which in ancient China was a symbol of the emperor; Vega, in the center of the sky.