dinsdag 10 juni 2014

Distant Neighbors, the letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder.

Of all books that I have read last decade Gary Snyder's 'Practice of the Wild' has made the most impact on me. The selected letters of Allen Ginsberg and Snyder came out in 2009 (edited by beat pinata Bill Morgan) and it failed to impress on every level: the letters were short, contained barely any new info, did not make up for it with slylish panache. If you did not know who Ginsberg and Snyder were the letters would have never given you the idea that they were friends, more poet-celebs maintaining a beneficial node in their social network. That book was just another piece of worthless beat nostalgia to rip off the fans. When I saw Distant Neighbors advertised, the selected letters of Snyder and Wendell Berry (edited by Chad Wriglesworth), however I knew that I would get something much better. 

Both Wendell Berry (that eloquent secular-Amish farmer-intellectual whose stodgy perspectives on (agri)culture and nature always seem realistic, conservative and radical at the same time) and Gary Snyder (that zen-mountaineer-poet with a surprisingly small oeuvre) are never going to be Horace Walpole's but then Walpole was not homesteader.
If you think about picking up this book to learn more about the beats then you do not need to bother.

My main problem with Snyder is that never seems to put himself in a position of being under serious scrutiny. His published interviews all have the interviewer assuming the position of humble acolyte listening in awe while the Master sits and teaches with timeless abandon. In that Snyder has with grace reinvented the Confucian (no: Kungian) form for the age of Aquarius. I don't mind it but for an intellectual he has engaged himself in surprisingly little discussion and polemics. His position on overpopulation for instance he has made for at least 40 years but no one has ever made him elaborate on how the population decline he so much desires could be enforced without draconian measures. He takes the position, declares it central, but fails to substantiate it and nobody ever seems to have challenge him about it. But in Distant Neighbors we find Berry critiquing him for it and asking him to clarify his position. I was anticipating a polite but fierce discussion but what does Snyder do? In a next letter he merely shrugs. It confirms the hunch I have about Snyder: he takes critique very badly.

The book begins with a letter from 1973 and ends with a letter from 2013. From a distance we see the man float through life: working the land, traveling to and from public ado's, discussing the seasons and the weather, suggesting books and sharing poems and essays, sometimes they tease. For instance when Snyder in response to Berry's essay on why he will never use a computer sends him a love poem about text processing.

In the background the extended families act as background radiation: children and grandchildren, disease and death. Who would have though that Snyder would so gently break the news to Berry about him swapping wifes with real concern for Berry's more conservative antics on such matters.  Berry takes it well and seems to have taken more to the new partner than he ever did to the old. But that is conjuncture, these are man from  I you think about picking up this book to learn more about beat-matters than don't. Mars, silent on emotions.

So what do we have here: 40 years of correspondence, that show two distant friends keeping in touch. Sometimes they argue, sometimes they ask for advice, often they are planning how and when they are going to meet. I would not call this great letter writing but you see something of the pace of life of both authors and you get a sense of what life was like for them as they were writing their books. I learned something new about how The Practice of the Wild was written. That alone is enough for me.

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