Patrick D. Murphy

Patrick D. Murphy: On "Axe Handles"

If the dedication, "This book is for San Juan Ridge," can be said to emphasize place, then the epigraph can be said to emphasize time, specifically the transmission of culture down through generations. Snyder identifies his epigraph as "a folk song from the Pin area [of China], 5th c. B.C." Rather than "high" literature, he draws on popular tradition, orally transmitted. The opening two lines indicate that the new is crafted on the basis of the old and that such transmission of knowledge requires models. This lesson is then applied to marriage, so that craft and culture, as well as the older generation, the present generation, and the one yet to come are all implicated in custom and ritual. The "go-between" identified in the epigraph is literally a marriage broker. In a broader cultural sense, one could say it is also the artist or poet who, through his or her role as a communicator, brings different people together and educates them about each other.

Robert Schultz and David Wyatt comment that "instruction is at the heart of this book, emphasized in its beginning and returned to frequently." In essence, "Axe Handles" provides a contemporary version of the epigraph's lesson, with the emphasis on generational communication. The "hatchet-head" lies dormant, awaiting a handle, until the poet's son Kai remembers it and wants to own a hatchet in imitation of his father. We could think of Kai as also being a hatchet-head, full of potential for useful labor but lacking the vehicle for translating that promise into practice. As Snyder shapes the hatchet handle, he is serving as a handle of knowledge that Kai can grab onto in order to use the hatchet properly when it comes his turn to labor. Snyder makes this point through his own recollection of Pound and the saying that Pound derived from the ancient Chinese, that when making an axe the model is close at hand. Snyder, in his youth, served as a hatchet-head in need of a handle and found the handle and the pattern to become a handle in turn in the poet Ezra Pound, the essayist Lu Ji, and the college professor Shih-hsiang Chen. At the same time, Snyder is shaping Kai so that he will also become a handle, as indicated near the end of the poem.

Snyder does not call Pound or Chen either a hatchet-head or a handle but calls each an "axe," because in their lives they joined together the potential of the head and the knowledge of the handle in poetic and educational practice. Snyder in his fifties has also become an "axe," complete in both functions as a "model" and as an instrument in the service of the "craft of culture," and he appears confident that Kai will become an "axe" as well. As Katsunori Yamazato succinctly explains it, "Snyder's commitment to the wild territory and the subsequent inhabitory life leads him to understand a cycle of culture--flowing from Pound, Chen, the poet himself, and to his son Kai--in which one is both 'shaped' and 'shaping,' a cycle preserving and transmitting 'craft of culture.'"

Patrick D. Murphy: On "I Went Into the Maverick Bar"

"I Went into the Maverick Bar" has received considerable attention, both positive and negative. In it Snyder recognizes that his own heritage is the same as that of the people he encounters here . . . .

In the end, however, he emphasizes the difference between him and them: he denounces that cultural heritage because it has become destructive, xenophobic, and repressive. The speaker realizes that his responsibility to Turtle Island and to these people--although they are not yet ready to recognize or accept it--requires that he continue to promote his alternative vision. That this vision involves nothing short of complete social transformation is suggested by his defining the "real work" in terms of " 'What is to be done,' " the title of a major theoretical work by Lenin on the necessity of a Marxist revolution led by a vanguard party in Russia at the turn of the century.

Patrick D. Murphy: On "Riprap"

"Riprap" speaks of how to live as well as how to write and read poetry. Poetry as a material thing, in the form of the written poem, the performed text, and as a relationship, forms part of the world in which humans find themselves and is a source of clues by which they may interpret that world and their place in it. But place is also a relationship, an activity, a "Game of Go." This poem, while embodying in its theme and form the aesthetic concepts displayed throughout Riprap, also embodies a way to learn the world, and a world by which to learn the way. This way is nothing short of "being-in-the-world," a constantly transitory process. It is crucial to realize that the Riprap collection ends with an emphasis not on coming to terms with the world but on the recognition that the world constantly changes, and humans must change their perceptions to keep pace. As Snyder says in his afterword to the 1990 edition of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, "the title . . . celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing" (65-66).