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.'"

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Criticism Overview
Title Patrick D. Murphy: On "Axe Handles" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Patrick D. Murphy Criticism Target Gary Snyder
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Understanding Gary Snyder
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