Teeing off on Snyder for all the usual earthly reasons

Posted on July 7, 2007


By Norman Ball

It’s getting so that the only people I trust anymore are the ones I’ve never heard of. This creates an a priori conundrum. Never acquainting with these latter types, I’m left not trusting anyone at all. But that’s just how cynical I’ve become, particularly of the reluctantly famous.

There, on the Golden Globes red carpet the other night, was one of those ubiquitous young actresses bemoaning the rigors of fame and how the thought of being an actress ten years hence was simply too much to bear. I felt my heart going out to this racked thespian as she did her best to avoid scrutiny in a $10,000 Armani evening dress. Watching this disingenuous ingénue rebuff the paparazzi, it occurred to me I was being treated to an on-camera repudiation of the camera. How self-referential! How crap! Please don’t take my picture again. Or if you must, make sure you get me from the left side.

No different from the Botox set, there is really only one strain of poet: the one that craves being noticed. This universal desire for recognition is by no means at odds with one of my favorite poetry seers Dr. C. E. Chaffin who divides all versifiers into two camps: deductive and inductive poets. As Chaffin describes it, deductive poetry is a creature wholly of the imagination. The outer world and its artifacts can populate the poem alright. But like theatre props or maybe launching pads, things are mere accoutrements to the imaginative faculty. Deductive liberties are gleefully undertaken, reality be damned. Never seen a Black Oak tree? No problem. Grow one from your boundless imagination, Bub. By way of analogy, Hitchcock loathed the outdoors for its willful arbitrariness. His outdoor scenes brim with a meticulous beauty that authenticity could never replicate, thanks to ingenious set design. Artificiality, properly handled, can yield spectacular results.

Inductive poetry’s central fixation is authenticity, followed immediately by more authenticity, sort of cinema verite run amuck. This strain of poetry has been on the ascent for the better part of a century. The word itself — authenticity — offers a bounty of salutary connotations: forthright, unflinching, clear-eyed, honest to a fault, truly a bumper sticker for the ages. In the movie world, the penchant for authenticity often morphs into Tarantino symphonies of extreme violence. People want gritty realism (at least, what they imagine gritty realism to be) as they sit there, devouring their popcorn in cushioned chairs. Couch potato-hood seems to welcome its opposition from the screen: exaggerated movements, exploding cars, improbably volumes of blood. Increasingly a passive society delegates reality, or its simulation, to the entertainment industrial complex. Entertainment responds in kind with a sort of nihilistic glee, slaughtering everybody.

As voyeurism claims more of our waking hours, authentic Walden Pond moments are increasingly displaced by cinematic pastorals, surrogates for the real deal. The inductive guys squirm. If you’ve never seen an otter, as Chaffin suggests, you have no business writing about one — or so an inductive poet might scold his deductive colleague. You are, as the inductive lexicon would have it, a frigging poseur, a bad actor just going through the motions. The imagination should drape authentic experience like a loose-fitting loin cloth, the better to let your balls swing as you walk. In this current age of inductive hegemony, deductive poets are written off as bloodless rhetoricians, mere wordsmiths; nature enthusiasts whose penchant for wildlife movies derives from a fear of wide open spaces. Taming a few real tigers keeps the body fit and the instincts keen. Chaffin cites Coleridge, Eliot and today’s Strand as among poetry’s more notable deductive poets.

But I wish to challenge this inductive bullying with two of our culture’s more formidable exemplars: Nietzsche and the Hubble telescope. First, the Hubble. Given the possibility — espoused by an increasing number of cosmologists — of an infinity of universes looming beyond our own (itself a expanse of 7 x 1022 stars), the practice of limiting oneself to ones own space-time nexus seems parochial in the extreme, especially when anything and everything that can be imagined exists — or has existed — somewhere and sometime before, as the Many Worlds school of physicists would have us believe. There’s also the matter of all those additional dimensions swirling in, through and around us. And black matter? Fugetaboutit. Talk about weird science. Indeed science fiction needs to get real sexy real fast if it wishes to avoid being buried by tomorrow’s Grand Unifying Theory.

Can we say then that imagination is experience in its fullest expression — the composite of all galaxies near and far? And doesn’t this radical boundlessness imbue any and all flights of pure fancy with a certain experiential gravitas? If this doesn’t knock the keep-it-real crowd down a peg or two, I don’t know what will. Nietzsche had it covered with his idea of eternal recurrence; that endless multiplex where all eventualities enjoy a brief run and an inevitable revival. Not only is all that can be imagined grounded (somewhere), but even worse, it will be experienced an infinite number of times. The implications are as inescapable as Nietzsche’s eventual madness: in the event it doesn’t sound dully repetitive already, you will find yourself reading this essay with perhaps the slightest twinge of déjà vu, not to mention weary regret, at some point in the future. So if I forget to apologize in another space-time corridor, you have my profuse apologies today.

But I belabor the Stephen Hawking shtick without the requisite research grants and higher math proficiency. The whole inductive trip, fighting real lions and such, sounds manly enough until we discover that the whole Tarzanian aesthetic is being pushed by a bunch of pencil-necked professors. Yes that’s right. Extrapolating Chaffin’s delineation, I am suggesting that poetry’s current quest for the real, authentic image — a perennial requirement of the inductive school — is a by-product of academic poetry mounting a tenured ascent up its own sphincter, what cosmologists politely refer to as the inner universe. After all, anyone climbing up his own ass is already climbing with the assistance of ropes. So already, authenticity has been left at the foot of the mountain. But here’s the rub: the more self-regarding and incestuous academic poetry becomes, the more its ardor grows for an ostensible authenticity. Thus the real grail sought by the professorial set is a contrived authenticity, if you’ll pardon a return to the Hitchcockian oxymoron. Modern poetry (already self-consciously academic or at least profoundly MFA-ized) would jettison any chance of taking itself seriously — even among its own self-serious members — if it compounded its irrelevancy with wholly imaginative (read: inauthentic) yarns. Thus inductive poetry moves away from the imaginatively splendiferous towards the stultifying and mundane. Think Ode to a Dixie Cup. This is how English Lit Ph.D’s keep it real. Word up. Yo. The inductive mantra hums like a diesel engine between the lines: we are professionals, not girlie-men. Flights of fancy are verboten in our Spartan realm.

Given the dialectical nature of such things, every monumental pile of shit attracts a countervailing pile of shit. This ballast requirement goes a long way to explaining the outsized allure of a Gary Snyder, elder Beat, who, we find, is always diving into mountain ponds, or traipsing around trees, in short, striving mightily to write from a pre-reflective, pre-constipated Yen state. Never mind the irony that he’s not diving in ponds, but rather is writing about diving in ponds. For all we know, he’s bone fucking dry. In the marketplace of poetical movements, Snyder is positioned as the analgesic to anal-retention. His antithetical value probably eclipses his singularity as a poet. In short, we probably need Gary Snyder more than we need his poetry, though this makes him no less essential to a comprehensive marketing campaign.

Snyder of course is a well-advertised Buddhist. Is anything in America not well-advertised anymore? But no sooner does Buddhism get talked-up than the squirrelly motives implied by someone ’emptying himself in a showroom window’ wants some immediate interrogation. Given the state of modern poetry, the urge-to-purge is an admirable one, provided it’s not simply a product placement strategy aimed at some unaddressed market niche. The real yen here may be filthy lucre, that is, selling to the saffron-robed demographic. So I ask: with Snyder’s poetry, are we party to a pose or rapt eavesdroppers on an impossibly private moment? This question poses the inverse of the falling tree in an empty forest, the universal touchstone for unexamined solitude. Without delving into Snyder’s personal motives, can a contemplative moment survive a bevy of page-turning voyeurs? This is the quantum dilemma exactly: what point is there describing a universe if there’s no one to observe it?

In Snyder’s case, let’s just say we’re privy to a helluva lot of him. I mean, he spouts an endless stream of babbling books. Why isn’t he wandering the wilderness like the Buddha boy, taking his measure in the carved-out hulk of a tree? We have every reason to believe the Buddha boy wants to be left alone. But the caravan of gawkers simply won’t let him be. His reluctance seems authentic. Then again, how the hell do I even know about him? Damn, I thought I’d sent my suspicions into a brief abeyance. The fact that we still hear from Snyder is cause for profound skepticism, especially in this age of hell-bent commoditisation. I don’t trust loquacious mystics. The undiminished desire to take up pen belies a still-restless ego.

Snyder the poet may be of unimpeachable integrity. Perhaps he detests our thirst for him. Perhaps he publicizes himself reluctantly, the better to control what, he has concluded, is an inevitable personality cult. Right enough, he seems devoted to his many causes. Indeed the market system may have seized upon a reluctant icon. I have an abiding faith, bred of abject cynicism, that there is no unself-conscious moment that the market does not thoroughly expropriate in the end. But doesn’t the marketplace require some level of compliance from the objects of its affections? I mean, you want to retain a certain authenticity? Then keep it to yourself Bucko. In a buttoned-down age parched for free-wheeling Bohemian narratives, people are ravenous for an iconic Beat figure. Hell, they’ll take him on t-shirts if that’s the only way to show their affinity. What is an icon after all but a commodity with a capital ‘C’?

Returning to the lost little actress who so reluctantly graced the top of this essay, she, like Snyder, employs the spotlight to express her unending ambivalence for self-exposure. In the final analysis, all that can be said for both is that they’re in the spotlight. But how hard can it be to duck that bloody light?

We must face the dispiriting prospect that Snyder may be a deft showman, a binge-and-purge shtick-meister who hangs out in the mountains gathering solitude like so many bushels of strawberries only to sell them in an eco-friendly kiosk via an endless stream of books, lectures and Beat documentaries. That, or he is a daredevil of the soul, risking a hard-won dharma vibe by dangling it endlessly in front of that most empty of capitalist inventions, fame. I say, why risk all that — unless of course there’s nothing to risk at all, i.e. it’s all a bunch of bullshit?

I dunno, this Snyder dude’s a veritable bleeding cacophony of worldly repudiation. In my book, he repudiateth a shade too much.


Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer and musician whose work appears regularly both on and off-line. Recent publications include Noo Journal, Identity Theory, Main Street Rag and Raintown Review.

Posted in: Essays