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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

Steve Halpern’s audiocassette of Gary Snyder’s February 1956 poetry reading at Reed College restores an important piece of the college’s literary history and opens a rich vein in Snyder studies. Snyder scholars and buffs alike should take note: this recording is a major find, recovering not only the earliest audio of the poet reading his work, but the earliest work-in-progress version of Snyder’s long poem Myths & Texts in any format. The tape also contains six core poems from Riprap in completely finished form, four poems that would go into The Back Country, and eight from Left Out in the Rain. Finally, there are Snyder’s introductory remarks and asides to the poems, several of which will be of interest to scholars in and of themselves, especially his comments on Myths & Texts, which are lengthy and more revealing of his method and intentions than anything Snyder has subsequently had to say about that poem.

Snyder on Sourdough

Gary Snyder at Sourdough Mountain, 1953
Photo by ©Jack Francis

Altogether, Snyder reads for more than an hour. The first half is given to selections from Myths & Texts—26 individual poems (roughly half of the published work). Snyder had read some of these poems publicly before (it’s not known exactly which ones)—at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 (when Ginsberg first unveiled “Howl”); at the Poetry Center at San Francisco State on October 30; and at the University of Washington in early February 1956, 10 days before the Reed performance. No recordings have surfaced from any of the other dates, and it is believed none were made.

According to Snyder, the individual poems of Myths & Texts were in finished or near-finished form by the time he gave the reading at Reed. (Early drafts of some of these poems are also in Reed’s special collections, included with letters to Philip Whalen ’51.) What is of special interest on the tape is not so much the evidence of textual variations in these poems compared to their published versions (though there are a fair number), but the larger picture it gives of the late stages of creative organization of Myths & Texts. Snyder remarked in an interview some years ago that the final shape of Myths & Texts did not come clear to him until the “last lap.” What we are hearing on this tape is Snyder in that last lap, just weeks before the completion of the manuscript.

Snyder first began to fit the poems of Myths & Texts into an organic sequence in the run-up to the Six Gallery event in fall 1955. In a garage behind his Berkeley cottage, he spread out his poems on the floor and climbed up on a stepladder so that he could peer down on them—fire lookout-fashion, as it were—and see the broad sweep of his accumulated work. Discerning relationships, he began to group the poems under three main headings—“Groves,” “Beasts,” and “Changes” [“Logging,” “Hunting,” and “Burning,” respectively, in the published book]. At the same time, he hit on the title “Myths & Texts” for what he’d been doing—from the story collections of the Bureau of American Ethnology that he had studied heavily back in the days of ’49 and ’50 at Reed, including Haida Texts & Myths by John Swanton.

On the tape, Snyder says that he envisioned the three main sections of Myths & Texts as a progression “from trees and plants, through sentient animal life, to the highly variable, changeable, transformable life of human beings, finally…so that the final idea of ‘changes’ is the final big imaginative apocalyptic snap of the mind which makes one into a Buddha—an enlightened being.”

Myths and Text bookcover

Chapbook first edition of Myths & Texts, published by Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press in 1960.

At the time of his Reed performance, that progression was still coming together, and sounding quite different from how it would eventually look on the printed page. The “Beasts” and “Changes” sections especially bear little resemblance to the “Hunting” and “Burning” sections of the published poem. Snyder was still juggling the sequence of the smaller poems within the main heads, and in some cases moving poems from one section to the other, or even cutting whole poems entirely from the work. On this first part of the tape he’s very open with the audience about his process, sources, and plans for the poem, frankly presenting Myths & Texts as a work-in-progress, promising, at one point: “In the final poem, there are going to be a lot of other poems working in between these two, so the connections will be, I trust, clear.” Says Snyder, “I wrote these shaman songs high on peyote, I don’t know what they mean.”

The tape reveals something of Snyder’s longer process, too. Some of the poems he reads in the “Beasts” section—“Up the Dosewallips” and “Fording the Flooded Goldie River”—for instance, do not appear in the extant working draft of Myths & Texts, nor in the published version. Snyder, it turns out, would hold them back for fully 30 years before publishing them in Left Out in the Rain. Until this tape surfaced there was no indication that those poems were ever part of Myths & Texts.

No more than six or eight weeks after the Reed event, on the eve of Snyder’s departure for several years of Zen training in Japan, he completed the version of Myths & Texts that readers know today. He finished it in early April 1956, at “Marin-an,” his hermitage on the slope behind his friend Locke McCorkle’s house in Mill Valley. There, he made a double-sided typescript of the whole poem, with facing pages like a book dummy, and labeled it: “Sourdough Mt. 1953—McCorkle’s Shack 1956.” Sixty pages long, it contained 48 separate poems—a major work for a 25-year-old, or anyone.

Sourdough Ridge

Facing west down Sourdough Ridge, from the lookout.
Photo by John Suiter

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008