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Notes Unity and the Power of Imagination in Gary Snyder’s “The Elwha River” Of the poets to emerge from the Beat movement of the 1950s, Gary Snyder may prove to be one of the most durable. Long popular as the com­ poser of skillfully crafted verse, he has recently maintained his popularity by writing poetry which is more ecologically oriented, and by taking an active role in the ecology movement. Zen Buddhism is still a major influ­ ence on Snyder’s poetry, and it fits easily into his new ecological vision. “The Elwha River,” a poem from his “work in progress,” Mountains and Rivers Without End, is a good example of how Snyder combines the Zen concept of the unity of all things with his belief in the sacredness of nature. The poem also deals extensively with the power of imagination to create its own, distinct reality, a reality which is no less real despite any differences it may have with the “real” world.1 The first section of “The Elwha River” is a prose poem written in short, simple sentences, very reminiscent of Hemingway. It is also typically Snyder; there is an emphasis on what is happening — only action is de­ scribed. Until the speaker meets the school teacher, no adjectives at all are used in the first “paragraph.” Snyder assumes the persona of a teenage girl who is pregnant and waiting for her boyfriend to show up, and, one assumes, take her away from home and marry her. However, the boyfriend does not arrive, and the girl wanders down the road over a bridge on the Elwha River. She comes to a grade school where she sits down with school children who have been assigned to write an essay on “What I Just Did.” The essay that the girl writes describes what she had just done all right, but at the same time it presents a totally different experience. The bridge is described in detail, just as everything else in the second “para­ graph” is vividly described. By adding color, detail, and even qualitative judgments such as, “it smelled good,” the girl has essentially created a new and distinct experience. 1Gary Snyder, Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End (London: Fulcrum Press, 1967), pp. 15-17. 318 Western American Literature As the girl later explains, there actually is an Elwha River, but the Elwha she described is not the real Elwha. The river of her essay was not the real Elwha because “The Elwha doesn’t fork at that point,” and also because in the last two lines of this section, one is given the idea that there are no redwoods at that point of the river. She provides the redwood bridge, the redwoods under which the man sleeps, and the fork of the river through the power of her imagination. This first section establishes the imagination’s creative power. The imagination is powerful enough to create a world with enough reality for the creator of that world to replace the “real” world. In the section before the concluding statement about the redwoods, the girl has to remind herself that there really is an Elwha River somewhere that has no connection to the Elwha River which she created in her dream. That there are no redwoods north of southern Curry County, Oregon, can be seen as the proof, or the reassurance, that the girl makes to herself to prove that the Elwha she created couldn’t possibly exist. A definite Zen influence can also be detected in this talk about the two rivers. To one who is uninitiated in Zen, rivers are merely rivers. Once one has moved, however, towards an enlightened state, rivers become part of the whole, or the One. The river of the first paragraph, then, is the river as a river. The river of the essay is more than a river. Finally, as the girl begins to become confused over which is which, we see her movement towards reconciling the two and her ultimate enlightenment. In the first section, there is a puzzling exchange of dialogue between the pregnant girl and the teacher. The girl receives a C-minus on her essay...


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pp. 317-319
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