Likely Stories: Back on the Fire by Gary Snyder

Apr 5, 2018

Pleasant series of essays on topics ranging from immigration to the environment.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

A few years ago, I met Gary Snyder at an event at Baylor.  I had read some of his poetry, and I was in awe of all those I had.  A friend passed along a copy of his volume of essays, Back on the Fire.  He has authored numerous collections of poetry and prose.  He won the Pulitzer prize in 1975 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992 and 2005.  He has also won the prestigious Bollingen Poetry Prize among others.  He has lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada since 1970.  Many of the essays in this collection from 2007 are quite relevant today. 

The first deals with “Migration/Immigration.”  He writes, “There are those who argue that since the majority of the North American population is descended from immigrants it would be somehow wrong to change past policies and try to slow immigration down or even bring it to a halt.  This backward-looking position fails to see that, although people do move to new places, they can be expected in time to become members of that place and to think in terms of the welfare of the place itself.  People who have moved do not remain immigrants, with ‘Old Country’ nostalgia, forever—when our loyalties are to the land we live on, the debate changes” (17).  If only we could have a real, honest, humanitarian debate.

Preserving the environment is important to Snyder.  He writes, “We may speak of ‘public land’ or ‘private land,’ but the truth is we are in the presence of an ancient mystery—life itself—and the great life-communities within which all beings thrive and die.  The pines were contemporary with the dinosaurs; the sequoias were a dominant forest that swept across the north Pacific rim and into much of Asia, long ago.  Oakes are in several genuses found on every continent except Antarctica.  Indeed, ‘distinguished strangers from another world.’  They are all amazing.  We live in a lovely and mysterious realm” (37).

Of course, Snyder must weigh in on poetry.  He writes, “People are always asking ‘what’s the use of poetry?’  The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight.  One hesitates to ask for more” (60).  What a lovely way to explain poetry!

During an interview, Snyder explained poetry this way, “The act of making something, bringing elements together and creating a new thing with craft and wit hidden in it, is a great pleasure.  It’s not the only sort of pleasure, but it is challenging and satisfying, and not unlike other sorts of creating and building.  In Greek ‘poema’ means ‘makings.’  It doesn’t change with the years, or with the centuries.” (99).  My large collection of poetry—dating back almost 8,000 years—can attest to the truth of Gary Snyder’s words.

Gary Snyder is an interesting, gentle, soft-spoken lover of nature and all its wonders.  He advocates for the environment and mourns the loss of species, habitats, flowers, and trees.  His slim volume of essays, Back on Fire, is an interesting look at the world we inhabit.  He is not pedantic, but he rather gently gathers words and phrases to support the importance of this tiny blue dot.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!