American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Emerson’s Blight

with 3 comments

The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:

JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.

GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.

JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?

GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.

JS — Plants too?

GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …

JS — What about rocks?

GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”

JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.

GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”

The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names.

Jonathan Skinner with Carla Billitteri peeking from around the corner

Jonathan Skinner (with Carla Billitteri peeking out from behind the corner)

Snyder doesn’t make the latter point directly, in part because the interview moves so quickly, in part because his pragmatism — his footing in the solid world — is so strong. Though he loves words, he cares much more about the world. When Skinner asks him about writing, he skips directly over to nature. He doesn’t say, “I take names seriously. … It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters,” he says “I take animals seriously.”  But the skipping over, the substitution of “animals” for “names,” is not just a prioritizing; it indicates a train of thought, as Snyder more or less confirms by citing with approval Koyukon sensitivity. In writing, he suggests, one should not “point” rudely at animate or even inanimate objects, since not only animals and plants, but rocks, outboard motors, indeed “Anything” (as Snyder emphatically tells Skinner) can be hurt as a consequence. [1]

I would not be as confident as I am in this interpretation had I not read Carla Billitteri’s book on Cratylism and American poetry (reviewed by Charles Bernstein here). Cratylism — named for Plato’s Cratylus dialogue — is a belief in the natural propriety of language: of language understood as a collection of names and of names understood as the authentic expression of things. Since Plato’s dialogue is already a critique of this belief, its persistence into our own, post-Saussurian era speaks directly to its enormous appeal, especially to poets. In Billitteri’s account, the basis of that appeal — at least in American poetry — is the generative power Cratylism offers utopian social projects pursued within the horizon of language. After all, if words and things are intimately connected, the poet’s actions on the one should have a direct effect on the other. The renewal of the world begins, one might say, in the discriminate use of names.


As Billitteri shows (through her reading of Plato’s dialogue and its recapitulation in three poetic projects — those of Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Olson), Cratylism is impossible to sustain in its purest form, which means that Cratylist poetics inevitably incorporate or coexist in potent tension with other ideas about language. As she writes in her coda (on Language poetry as a kind of neo-Cratylism):

Whenever linguisticity and social vision are conjoined in poetry — whenever “a more than ordinary consciousness of how to do things with words” takes the world as well as language as its object — impulses toward Cratylism will inevitably arise. These impulses may be resisted, they may be entertained playfully as tropes, they may become temptations difficult to avoid, but the very fact that they arise will in itself be noteworthy, an indication of the poet’s desire to act on the world by acting on language. [2]

There are, we learn from Billitteri, several versions of Cratylism, and several forms of Cratylist fantasy. In one of these fantasies, words disappear altogether, into the things of which they speak, allowing poetry to become a kind of thing-language. Billitteri’s principal example of this fantasy is Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Rolling Earth,” about which she writes, “A hymn to the materiality of things and words, the poem begins by dismissing written language as mere squiggles, affirming that the real language abides in the substance of the earth and in human corporeality.” Here are the poem’s opening lines:

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.

Were you thinking that those were the words, those delicious sounds out of your friends’ mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they.

Human bodies are words, myriads of words,
(In the best poems re-appears the body, man’s or woman’s, well-shaped, natural, gay,
Every part able, active, receptive, without shame or the need of shame.)

Air, soil, water, fire—those are words,
I myself am a word with them—my qualities interpenetrate with theirs…


Gary Snyder

And here is a Snyder poem from Turtle Island that gives expression to the same fantasy, and must, indeed, be indebted to Whitman’s prior formulation:

As for Poets

The Earth Poets
Who write small poems,
Need help from no man.


The Air Poets
Play out the swiftest gales
And sometimes loll in the eddies.
Poem after poem,
Curling back on the same thrust.


At fifty below
Fuel oil won’t flow
And propane stays in the tank.
Fire Poets
Burn at absolute zero
Fossil love pumped back up.


The first
Water Poet
Stayed down six years.
He was covered with seaweed.
The life in his poem
Left millions of tiny
Different tracks
Criss-crossing through the mud.


With the Sun and Moon
In his belly,
The Space Poet
No end to the sky —
But his poems,
Like wild geese,
Fly off the edge.


A Mind Poet
Stays in the house.
The house is empty
And it has no walls.
The poem
Is seen from all sides,
At once.

This is playful, of course, not a statement of belief. [3] For a statement more in keeping with Snyder’s actual commitments, one should turn instead to a poem from Regarding Wave, “What You Should Know to Be a Poet.” As in the poem above, though very differently, words are ultimately disparaged in favor of the world they address. Despite the title, the only advice offered about language is to know the correct names of things. But the abandonment of words does not occur for the sake of materiality alone. Spiritual considerations are also given their due:

What You Should Know to Be a Poet

all you can know about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
the names of stars and the movements of the planets
and the moon.

your own six senses, with a watchful elegant mind.

at least one kind of traditional magic:
divination, astrology, the book of changes, the tarot;

the illusory demons and the illusory shining gods.

kiss the ass of the devil and eat shit;
fuck his horny barbed cock,
fuck the hag,
and all the celestial angels
and maidens perfum’d and golden —

& then love the human: wives   husbands   and friends

children’s games, comic books, bubble-gum,
the weirdness of television and advertising.

work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted
and livd with and finally lovd.   exhaustion,
hunger, rest.

the wild freedom of the dance, extasy
silent solitary illumination, enstasy

real danger.   gambles.   and the edge of death.

Knowing for Snyder also involves doing, hence the injunction to kiss, eat, fuck, and love at the center of the poem. This is his pragmatism, expressed with greater force and clarity than the magic it accommodates, which makes sense since magic points toward the inexpressible. Dance and solitude, ecstasy and illumination. Language is not the horizon here, not even a language of things.

Cratylist touches aside, in other words, the magical aspect of Snyder’s project has less to do with the properties of language than it does with what language fails to encompass. And in this respect, he reminds me much more of Emerson than Whitman. In Emerson too pragmatism and magic are brought together, and in Emerson too, despite Cratylist touches, the adequacy of words and things is not, finally, the point. The point is the world, and those who forget the point are fated to know the world from surfaces only, from a “thin and outward rind” depleted of all its worth:


Give me truths;
For I am weary of the surfaces,
And die of inanition. If I knew
Only the herbs and simples of the wood,
Rue, cinquefoil, gill, vervain, and agrimony,
Blue-vetch, and trillium, hawkweed, sassafras,
Milkweeds, and murky brakes, quaint pipes, and sundew,
And rare and virtuous roots, which in these woods
Draw untold juices from the common earth,
Untold, unknown, and I could surely spell
Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply
By sweet affinities to human flesh,
Driving the foe and stablishing the friend, —
O, that were much, and I could be a part
Of the round day, related to the sun
And planted world, and full executor
Of their imperfect functions.
But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes.
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.
The old men studied magic in the flowers,
And human fortunes in astronomy,
And an omnipotence in chemistry,
Preferring things to names, for these were men,
Were unitarians of the united world,
And, wheresoever their clear eye-beams fell,
They caught the footsteps of the SAME. Our eyes
Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars,
And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,
And strangers to the plant and to the mine.
The injured elements say, ‘Not in us;’
And night and day, ocean and continent,
Fire, plant, and mineral say, ‘Not in us,’
And haughtily return us stare for stare.
For we invade them impiously for gain;
We devastate them unreligiously,
And coldly ask their pottage, not their love.
Therefore they shove us from them, yield to us
Only what to our griping toil is due;
But the sweet affluence of love and song,
The rich results of the divine consents
Of man and earth, of world beloved and lover,
The nectar and ambrosia, are withheld;
And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves
And pirates of the universe, shut out
Daily to a more thin and outward rind,
Turn pale and starve. Therefore, to our sick eyes,
The stunted trees look sick, the summer short,
Clouds shade the sun, which will not tan our hay,
And nothing thrives to reach its natural term;
And life, shorn of its venerable length,
Even at its greatest space is a defeat,
And dies in anger that it was a dupe;
And, in its highest noon and wantonness,
Is early frugal, like a beggar’s child;
With most unhandsome calculation taught,
Even in the hot pursuit of the best aims
And prizes of ambition, checks its hand,
Like Alpine cataracts frozen as they leaped,
Chilled with a miserly comparison
Of the toy’s purchase with the length of life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

One could quibble with Emerson’s high-handed denunciation of “unhandsome calculation.” Isn’t his “full executor” of nature’s “imperfect functions” but a bolder engineer, a more handsome calculator? What he decries, however, is not the mastery of nature, but the ignorance and wantonness with which the mastery is accomplished. Blighted and blighting, Emerson’s invading scholar and ravaging engineer “Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,” which makes them ancestors of Snyder’s exploiter, who treats animals as mere “counters” and points rudely at the rock, castigating the outboard motor. Such people exhaust the world of all its natural and spiritual resources, and exhaust themselves as well, becoming “Like Alpine cataracts frozen as they leaped.”

As for language: the truest facility with words, the deepest knowledge, comes not from speech or writing here, but from the practice of living. For Emerson, as for Snyder, knowing correct names (even in Latin!) is not enough; nor is it enough to know the things they name. One must know them in the correct manner, which is to say by taking correct action. Only in this way can one learn to “spell” the “fragrance” of “the herbs and simples of the wood.” Only from this source can one learn to take possession of nature’s actual bounty.

In Snyder, then, I see the persistence of an Emersonian poetics, a project distinct from the Emerson-inspired projects of Whitman and Dickinson, which is mostly what we find in later poets who trace their lineage back to Concord. Call it the Emerson of Thoreau, but more accommodating to magic. A poet with his feet in the solid world, but his mind attuned to worlds of dream. With a craftsman’s respect for language as tool, and a moralist’s impatience for tools without purpose. Loving the flower he plucks, the tree he cuts for fuel, even the machine that breaks down on a busy morning. [4]


1 [Back to text] Of course, if one should avoid exploiting anything in the world, poetry has to be included, which means that one shouldn’t treat poetry as a means to an end either. It’s the problem of actualizing Kantian ethics, dramatized with great humor by Mary McCarthy in Birds of America, one of my favorite novels.

2 [Back to text] “Linguisticity” is a term coined by Michael P. Kramer; the quote comes from his book Imagining Language in America (1992).

3 [Back to text] In his interview with Lyndgaard, Snyder talks about this poem and it becomes clear from that discussion that he means for his metaphors to be paths for thought, not endpoints where thought might rigidify into belief. This is probably the aspect of Snyder’s work I most appreciate: his dedication to thinking as a lifelong process, his curiosity, his willingness to revise or adapt his formulations.

4 [Back to text] See in this regard Snyder’s “Stories in the Night,” in the new issue of Ecopoetics:

Big Green Onan — fueled by propane — wouldn’t start —
(one time turned out there was a clogged air cleaner; oil-drops blow back up
from deep inside)

(I try to remember machinery can always be fixed — but be ready to give up the
plans that were made for the day — go back to the manual — call up friends who
know more — make some tea — relax with your tools and your problems, start
enjoying the day.)


3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. At a reading in Seattle in the late 80s, Snyder addressed his comment, and I paraphrase, that even the bulldozer has the Buddha nature. The Earth Firsters and other assembled anarchists were not pleased with what they read as Snyder’s caution against the destroying of the tools of environmental degradation. He was no monkey-wrencher. I think there’s also a sense of “doing” as opposed to “undoing,” of action over reaction. At the same reading he flashed anger at the current vogue of literary theory and slapped the table with a resonate open palm. The noise of that slap was all the proof he needed of the failure of deconstructive theory (the same argument is used in an essay with the slam of a beer mug, but I can’t quickly find the essay.) Anyway, there’s an essay in Practice of the Wild called “The Words Nature, Wild and Wilderness” that underlines much of what you say here.

    Brian Lampkin

    September 29, 2009 at 10:14 am

  2. thank you for this ben, fabulous. it makes me think of goethe’s “delicate empiricism” way of knowing the world by mingling with it, which deeply influenced emerson and which goethe proposed as a counter to newtonian science, which abstracted specific phenomena to study in isolation. i’m also reminded (thanks to Alicia Cohen, who pointed it out to me) of Levinas’ critique of Western metaphysics as a kind of violence that approaches the world like a hunter and demands “reveal yourself to me.”

    allison cobb

    September 29, 2009 at 10:38 am

  3. Brian:

    Thanks for the confirmation! I don’t seem to have Practice of the Wild any more,and it’s checked out of my school library, but I’ll look for that essay. There’s one in A Place in Space called “Language Goes Two Ways” that also relates to — and complicates — what I say above. It doesn’t focus on words and their magical properties, but instead looks at language as whole as a natural and wild system.

    I was reading some of it aloud to Carla this morning and she noted the exclusive focus on language as a means of knowing the external world. What about language as a means of binding people together and making it possible for them to inhabit the world in societies? Is the absence of that in Snyder’s essay a sign that he doesn’t, at long last, care about society? I said no; he’s critiquing anthropocentrism, not human society as such. But it did seem surprisingly Emersonian how focused he was on the individual and his or her solitary engagement with the world. Perhaps it’s his spiritual practice that leads him to think about language in such resolutely individualist terms.

    There’s another essay in A Place in Space, “Unnatural Writing,” where he takes his shots at literary theory. But his view of that seems to have mellowed. In Ecopoetics, taking off from that very essay, he says to Jonathan Skinner, “I think that the critical theory and postmodern way of looking at those things — some of the questions they raise — are good questions, which should be taken into account.” I wish he said more about that, but the conversation, alas, moves on.



    You make me want to look into Goethe — and I don’t have time! (But I’ll have to make time.) “Mingling” is such a great word in this context. It adds a Whitmanian sense of loafing to the more usual term “participation.”

    Levinas poses a peculiar problem for environmental ethics, as he is resolutely anthropocentric even as he upholds radical alterity. John Llewelyn wrote an essay (or was it a whole book?) trying to work through this problem. But even if Llewelyn is right and Levinas’s “face to face” applies to animals as well as people, we’re left with the problem of conceiving of land practice, say, in ethical terms. The environment as a whole, nature as system, would fall under the heading of “totality” in Levinas’s thought, which he emphatically treats as the setting of ethics, not its object.

    In grad school I wrote a paper for a Levinas conference with a philosophy friend (Andrew Schmitz, for those who know him) on this very problem. We drew attention to the distinction Levinas makes between ethics and justice. The latter, he says, occurs whenever we find ourselves in society, where the other’s absolute claim on me has to be balanced with other, equally absolute and competing claims by other others. Reason here plays a determining role, but that reason can only be just when informed by ethics (by mercy, compassion, love, self-sacrifice, etc.). Anyway, my friend and I argued that a Levinasian environmentalism would have to be conceived of as an “environmental justice,” not an “environmental ethics.” I wonder what Alicia would think about that.

    Ben Friedlander

    September 30, 2009 at 7:59 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: