Notable Utterances: “Language that has been saved rather than forgotten”–Gary Snyder
Pulitzer Prize Winner Gary Snyder visited the Jack Kerouac School on November 16th and 17th, as the Frederick P. Lenz Distinguished Lecturer in Buddhist Studies and American Culture and Values. A lecture, a chat, a reading. With more than 1000 in attendance over the course of two days, Snyder left numerous “notable utterances.” His web-like lecture reminded me of Silko’s notion on storytelling: “unpremeditated and unrehearsed,” creating a structure of new patterns in thought. After the lecture, a devoted fan gave me a small jar of Rocky Mountain honey to give him. For a moment I thought, how trustworthy is random honey from a random person…
His chat included a departure on Japanese syllabary and Duncan’s statement that “poetry must have music and magic.” When asked if he could explain the magic, Snyder said: “The magic is a big topic; that’s why I was talking about the music”; then laughed. As it turns out, Duncan’s magic is an amalgam of traditional magic and the metaphoric, that which is unpredictable and surprising.
On two occasions, I picked up Snyder from his hotel to drive him to and fro. Both times, he was in the lobby, partaking in the free coffee and cookies. Prior to the reading, we sat in oversized faux leather chairs and discussed “Axe Handles”–its pedagogical significance. The way the text creates a through line from Ezra Pound to Shih-hsiang Chen, from his son Kai to himself. The poem is both precise in the present moment of shaping the axe handle and expansive in its historical movements. He thumbed through the index of one of his books, then marked the page. When he read the poem during the reading, a murmur spread through the darkened room:
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattem is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with-”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-in the
Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.-
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
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