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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

Snyder threw himself into his thesis, immersing himself like an overheated alchemist in nights of non-stop reading: Boas and Swanton, Stith Thompson; Sir James Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison; Jung and Kerenyi and Joseph Campbell; Robert Graves and Heinrich Zimmer; Radin, Kroeber and Malinowski; Cassirer and Langer. It was a period of “hard drinking and hard reading,” he told Hymes, which left him in an “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum.” Out of this creative cauldron came not only his thesis, but also the first live pieces of Myths & Texts.

By Christmas Snyder decided on the Haida tale “He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village,” with its Swan Maiden motif, as the subject for his thesis. The Swan Maiden is one of the oldest and most widespread folk tales, told across the world in ballet, Noh, and around fires. The Haida version, though transcribed and presented by Swanton in prose, is really poetry:

She flew around above the town for a while
Her heart was not strong to fly away from her husband
By and by she vanished through the sky.

Snyder was drawn to the poetic possibilities of such ethnological material, but was committed to handling “He Who Hunted Birds” strictly from the anthropology side. At the same time, the burgeoning poet in him was pulled to an even stranger and more powerful story called “Big Tail,” which is, according to Swanton, “one of the most important for understanding shamanism among the Haida.” With its numinous lines—What will you do with the human beings? Are you going to save the human beings?—“Big Tail” was the impetus for a new kind of poem for Snyder. After reading it in late December 1950, he wrote in his journal:

“Idea for dealing with Haida mythology (and others, perhaps). The narrative structure in many of the myths is such that it follows poorly for western reader. Blocks of vivid, unexplainable episodes.
It would be valid practice to try and transmute such a myth into poetry [italics mine] which by virtue of its form carries a higher effectiveness for the contemporary reader; incorporating such aspects of imagery, rhythm, meter, etc. which are not contained in literal anthropological translation. Pound has done this effectively; why cannot I do the same?

In the same journal entry he then enumerated a half dozen excerpts from “Big Tail” that he thought might be likely candidates for such poetic transmutation—every one of which would eventually be incorporated verbatim with memorable effect into various individual poems of Myths & Texts.

Snyder’s first success at this was “Songs for a Four-Crowned Dancing Hat” (the title, too, is from “Big Tail”), which proved to be a breakthrough poem for him, and a prototype for the kinds of heavily allusive poems that would make up Myths & Texts. Written at Lambert Street in the winter of 1950–51 during the same months that he was finishing his thesis, “Songs for a Four-Crowned Dancing Hat” turned out to be the first finished poem of Myths & Texts (“Hunting 11” in the published book). He sent it off with a letter to Hymes in April, just after finishing his thesis, with the promise, “Bigger stuff also cooking.” Six years later, Snyder read the poem at Reed. We hear it on the tape, unchanged from its published version.

Years ago, in one of the interviews in The Real Work, Snyder described his poems as falling into two broad categories—short, lyrical, song-like poems “that people can get into right away” and longer, more complex ritual-and-magic works such as Myths & Texts and Mountains and Rivers Without End, that took years to write and perhaps demand years—or at least many readings over time—for readers to fully enter and explore.

Both types of poem are well represented on the recovered tape. After reading from Myths & Texts for the first half of his set, Snyder balances out the second half with shorter poems—poems that were written, he says on the audio, “in a very simple, direct, rocky sort of style.” The best of these will be well-known to Snyder’s readers: “The Late Snow and Lumber Strike of the Summer of ’54,” “Mid-August on Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” “For a Far-Out Friend,” “Milton by Firelight,” “Praise for Sick Women,” and “Piute Creek”—much-anthologized poems from Riprap, his first published book, which at the time of this tape, was still three and a half years from publication.

Fans of Snyder’s early work will be pleased to hear how these poems that have been around for quite a while sounded when they were new—and might be surprised to hear that they are not one word different from the versions we have known all along. Years before publication they were already stone finished. Snyder reads them here exactly as they would later appear in print, down to the word. It’s his voice here that makes them new. The hour-long tape captures that voice in its full range, providing a vivid portrait of the poet at 25—perhaps the best documentary take on Snyder from that time in any medium.

John Suiter is the author of Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades. Excerpts and photographs at He is currently working on a biography of Gary Snyder, to be published by Counterpoint Press.

interior of Sourdough Lookout

Interior of Sourdough Lookout, where Snyder wrote many of the poems of Myths & Texts.
Photo by John Suiter

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008