- “August on Sourdough”An Archival View of Gary Snyder’s Intercultural Poetics
A Glimpse into Literary Production
Archived in the Gary Snyder Papers at the University of California, Davis, are five distinct drafts of the poem eventually published under the title “August on Sourdough: A Visit from Dick Brewer” in Gary Snyder’s 1967 collection, The Back Country. The various reworkings of this poem provide a fascinating view into the poet’s process of creative production, but they also provide new insights that intervene in scholarly critiques of Snyder’s intercultural poetic innovations. For one thing, the set of drafts underscores the poem’s participation in the Chinese poetic genre of hermits being visited by old friends and/or new acquaintances. Snyder, however, transforms the genre into an intercultural version, and one specifically of the Pacific Rim, by blending twentieth-century US form and content with the Chinese tradition. In particular, the different drafts show Snyder exploring different concepts and representations of subjectivity. In addition to the generic insight, the drafts also reveal that Snyder initially wrote the poem to fit exactly into a seven-syllable traditional Chinese poetic form. Only over the course of subsequent drafts did Snyder reshape the visual layout of the lines on the page to fit into the switchback or zigzag appearance that is widely recognized as a signature of his poetics. To see this dual technique of rigorous calculation and design, followed by a formal shift that retains yet transforms the underlying framework, creates a dissonance that calls us to reread Snyder’s intercultural poetics.
Collectively, these insights intervene in Snyder criticism in two key ways. First, Snyder and his poetry have long been haunted by challenges that arise with intercultural approaches to art. Leslie [End Page 135] Marmon Silko and Geary Hobson among others have accused Snyder of appropriating Native American cultural traditions, and Ling Chung has posed similar questions regarding Chinese cultural heritage.1 I argue that these and other lingering accusations of cultural exploitation can begin to be reframed in light of the intercultural dynamics made visible through this set of drafts. Such reframing connects to the second intervention this essay is waging. The sophisticated exploration of subjectivity revealed through these drafts advances our understanding of Snyder’s contribution to ecological poetics and thought. The intercultural approach Snyder forges perturbs conventional notions of human subjectivity, not by proposing a simple escape hatch through which to slip out of the self, but through the arduous work toward dissolving self. Unlike those Western deployments of Buddhist ideals and practices that seem to offer a readymade and simple solution to social and ecological crises in the West, Snyder’s intercultural poetics confront the horizons of our ability to think through the self, to empathize with others, and to think ecological thoughts. By perturbing subjectivity through his particular intercultural poetics in the mid-1960s, Snyder was at the vanguard of aesthetic approaches to perceiving and representing the overlapping contours of ecology and globalization as a means to transcend the destructive aspects of the increasing planetary interconnectedness.
Generic Tradition of Visiting a Hermit
Robert Hass has remarked that “August on Sourdough” “belongs to a tradition of poems of leave-taking in China and Japan” (109). Hass is correct, but it is useful to define this intercultural poetic relationship with still finer precision. Thematically, Snyder’s text resonates with a Chinese generic tradition prevalent among Tang and Song Dynasty poetry. Each poem in this tradition narrates either a brief meeting between a hermit in reclusion and a friend from the social world or the friend visiting the hermit’s abode but finding him gone. Beyond mere leave-taking and the distance across which relationships endure and grow, poems of the visiting-a-hermit genre tend to meditate on the vicissitudes of the hermit’s life, being drawn at turns toward the eremitic world and the social, revealing a renewed commitment to the meditative and [End Page 136] contemplative work facilitated by reclusion in the mountains but never completely removed from the social, historical world. Such hermits do not endeavor to remove themselves from the world and worldly things entirely.
Refining Hass’s generic classification...