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A Poem by Gary Snyder


   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
September 6, 1998

Labor Day weekend. The heroic period of the American labor movement seems a long way off as the sports utility vehicles inch toward the beaches in the holiday traffic. So here's a reminder from Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts, one of the landmarks of the Beat Generation. The sequence of poems deals with Snyder's time working in logging camps and on Forest Service road crews in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s, when the stories of IWW organizers in the lumber camps were still a faint echo.

There are a lot of things I admire about the art of this poem, and there is something else about it that delights me. In those days Snyder, fresh out of Reed College with a degree in anthropology and literature, was reading Ezra Pound, the favorite poet of the avant garde, and adapted something of the rhythms of Pound's Cantos here. This was also the time of the folk revival in New York, when Bob Dylan was electrifying the young with versions of Woody Guthrie, who sang some of the IWW songs. This poem puts those two things together in the early vision of a young Northwest poet who would become the Thoreau of his generation. Funny in a way, given Pound's politics and his use of obscure Italian and Provencal history. It's as if Snyder said, "Ezra, meet Woody. Woody, this is Ezra." Here's the poem:

Felix Baran
Hugo Gerlot
Gustav Johnson
John Looney
Abraham Rabinowitz
Shot down on the steamer Verona
For the shingle-weavers of Everett
the Everett Massacre November 5 1916

Ed McCullough, a logger for thirty-five years
Reduced by the advent of chainsaws
To chopping off knots at the landing:
"I don't have to take this kind of shit,
Another twenty years
and I'll tell 'em to shove it"
(he was sixty-five then)
In 1934 they lived in shanties
At Hooverville, Sullivan's Gulch.
When the Portland-bound train came through
The trainmen tossed off coal.

"Thousands of boys shot and beat up
For wanting a good bed, good pay,
decent food, in the woods -- "
No one knew what it meant:
"Soldiers of Discontent."

(This comes from "No Nature: New and Selected Poems," published by Pantheon.)

From Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts. Copyright 1978 by Gary Snyder. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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