Bonnie Costello: On "Straight- Creek-- Great Burn"

Gary Snyder's bold project is to restore the imagination to the stance of the primitive. He has come closer than any other American poet to imagining the world as one of Stevens's future primitives in "Sunday Morning," "chanting orgy to the sun," might. Communal, ritualistic, boisterously physical, utopian, this is a consciousness fully occupied by the present, ecstatically embracing necessity. It is a form of vision which Stevens prophesies but never adopts, his Platonism and his need for poetic authority always balking at such reductions. But Snyder is not altogether different from Stevens in this, for his "primitive" imagination and the body in which it is invested remain figurative in his best work. The need for poetic authority struggles with his poetic thesis so that the poems often equivocate as to whether the body is material or tropological. When it is material, poetic authority is reduced but replaced by prophetic, ideological authority.

What Snyder's theory does not account for, but what his poetry at its best demonstrates, is that his primitive is inescapably rhetorical. His cultural and poetic project is one of reinhabitation (to become natives rather than invaders of the earth).


"Straight Creek—Great Burn" (Turtle Island 52-53) is a clear example of the spatial imagination and its treatment of history. It also indicates Snyder's gradual movement away from objectivist configurations and his turn to a passive, scenic mode. The first part of the poem characteristically describes a landscape without inhabitants or witness, a vision free of human agency:


Lightly, in the April mountains—

                    Straight Creek,

dry grass freed again of snow

& the chickadees are pecking

last fall's seeds

            fluffing tail in chilly wind,

Avalanche piled up cross the creek

                and chunked-froze solid—

water sluicing under; spills out

             rock lip pool, bends over,

             braided, white, foaming,

returns to trembling

             deep-dark hole.


The description, like others by Snyder, emphasizes movement: solid elements are included in order to be enfolded with the general flow. We see a tableau of frozen chunks the result of avalanches, boulders indicating flow near lines, and later "tumbled talus rock / of geosyncline warm sea bottom."

This poem also illustrates again the tension in Snyder's work between materialist and mythic vision and between the cure of the ground and the urge to transcendence. The eye moves naturally, but also rhetorically, from the sense of the past arising out of spatial awareness to the "eternal / azure," and it is in this mythic realm that the beholder is mentioned:


us resting on dry fern and



Shining Heaven

change his feather garments



A whoosh of birds

swoops up and round

tilts back

almost always flying all apart

and yet hangs on!



never a leader ,

all of one swift



dancing     mind.


They arc and loop & then

their flight is done.

they settle down.

end of poem.


Shining Heaven becomes momentarily figurative, a Keatsian bird born out of the particular birds that launch the poem with the processes of nature: "pecking / last fall's seeds." But Snyder quickly returns from this mythic moment to another naturalistic one, grounding the poetic imagination in the material rather than identifying it with some eternal principle, as the young Keats might have done. The poetic mind attempts to identify itself with the "empty / dancing mind" of the birds, to yield to instinct and resist its will to dominate ("never a leader"). The poem ends with the arc of the birds' flight, though it had not been controlled by it earlier. The symbolist eternal azure cannot become the focal point; earthly birds, not celestial ones, provide the model for poetic invention. But a lively tension develops in the poem among three points of view -that of the heaven gazers, that of the birds, and that of the poet, which is reduced to that of the birds at the end, but only then.

Snyder's relaxation of figurative invention, and his forsaking of it at extreme moments, leads him in his most recent work to a laconic and even prosaic style, and increasingly to the substitution of ideological for poetic authority. What used to be organizing tropes are now reduced to images or subjects in an anecdotal frame. The structure of the poem "River in the Valley," for instance, in some ways resembles that of "Straight Creek," but the poem rests passively in the scenic mode. Stanzas begin "[1] We cross the Sacramento River at Colusa . . . [2] Gen runs in little circles looking up . . . [3] Kai leans silent against a concrete pier . . . [4] I pick grass seeds from my socks" (Axe Handles 58).

It is hard to muster enthusiasm for the symbolic action of someone picking grass seed from his socks. Snyder seems compelled to make a bald statement of his theme at the end, uncertain of its presence in particulars, unassisted by poetic authority: "the river is all of it everywhere, / all flowing at once, / all one place"

For Snyder the poetic mind is fundamentally passive, "Like Compost," he says (Axe Handles 75). Williams, too, saw poetry in agrarian terms and called for an attachment to soil, but the poet was for Williams a composing antagonist. Snyder's entire project hopes to end such antagonism, to harvest the very different fruits of an unalienated intelligence.


Title Bonnie Costello: On "Straight- Creek-- Great Burn" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bonnie Costello Criticism Target Gary Snyder
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Soil & Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets
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