POETRY AND THE PRIMITIVE:
Gary Snyder argues in his essay "Poetry and the Primitive," in Earth House Hold, that poets, like primitive
men, live in a "mythological present in close relation to nature,"77 that they inspire the world (breathing
in the song of grass, wind, crow-breathing out the seed-syllables of power), that they sing in concrete images
the vibrant connection, what Snyder calls after Whitman "the inner song of the self, and of the planet."78
The poet's function remains that of the paleolithic shaman-he is a shaper whose "mind reaches easily out into
all manners of shapes and other lives, and gives song to dreams."79 In the dream world of concrete imagery,
the poet moves metaphorically toward the Other. Like the Old English riddler, he sings nightingale, fox, fish,
bow (once tree), and in singing "makes love to the animals."80 Primitive peoples, as Claude Levi-Strauss
has shown, weave a world order out of natural myth.81 The wildcat's relation to the deer or crow may be the metaphoric
embodiment of the relationship between tribes or individuals. But the stories of cat and crow are also celebrations
of man's meeting the Other. Snyder says:
People of primitive cultures appreciate animals as other people off on various trips. Snakes move without limbs,
and are like free penises. Birds fly, sing, and dance; they gather food for their babies; they disappear for months
and then come back. Fish can breathe water and are brilliant colors. Mammals are like us, they fuck and give birth
to babies while panting and purring; their young suck their mothers' breasts; they know terror and delight, they
Fish breathe water. Birds brood. Snakes move like a phallic mirror. The otter slips into his watery playground.
Nature sings with a man-shaped voice. The African poet Senghor calls this celebration recognition–being born with
Man lives symbiotically with the Other; he knows (con-nait) and is born with the Other in Paul Claudel's terms.
Subject and object are here dialectically face to face in the same act of recognition which is the act of love.
"I think, therefore 1 am," wrote Descartes. The observation has already been made: one always thinks
some thing. The black African might say, "I feel the Other, I dance the Other, therefore I am." For to
dance is to create, especially when the dance is a dance of love . . . .
This is an existentialism rooted in Mother-Earth, blooming in the sun of Faith. This world-presence is the participation
of the subject with the object the participation of man with the cosmic forces, the communion of man with other
men, and finally, with all beings from the smallest stone to God.83
This is similar to Richard Wilbur's notion that the poet is like a rain-dancer "trying to establish a relation
to the rain."84 The dance cannot literally create the rain– "it is not a mere imitation, but a magic
borrowing of the powers it wants to approach, and a translation of what is borrowed into the language of the dancing
human body."85 Inspiration is the breath of song. We breathe in the mysterious green-sunlight dancing on the
skin of tree or the belly of grass-and breathe out in images the blood-song of oak or the crushed whisper of noon
grass. In charging the universe with human shapes, we escape the bone-house to rage with the storm, mother with
the fox, clutch light with the moon, court death with the shield, and rise up with the onion or the Gospel skin.
Poetry is play, says Johan Huizinga, and never far from its riddlic roots.86 "Say what I mean"-"Say
who I am." In riddles we shape and celebrate the universe, see and become one with the creatures. We are symbol-makers.
We are also, as Snyder says, beautiful animals.87
Like the tree, the bird, the moon-we change, but we also chart the changing. We are metamorphic and metaphoric.
What we see is in part a function of the way we see. With riddles we celebrate the arms of oak, the horns of moon,
the wounds of chalice, the belly of bow, the pregnancy of rain. We rediscover what Whitman calls "God in every
object"88 and take delight in dancing the Other. This is not just the pleasure of poetry, but a means of metaphoric
learning. In the modern world we must riddle more and ruin less. Our task, as D. H. Lawrence says, is to relate
to the living universe:
If we think about it, we find that our life consists in this achieving of a pure relationship between ourselves
and the living universe about us. This is how I "save my soul" by accomplishing a pure relationship between
me and another person, me and other people, me and a nation, me and a race of men, me and the animals, me and the
trees or flowers, me and the earth, me and the skies and sun and stars, me and the moon: an infinity of pure relations,
big and little, like the stars of the sky: that makes our eternity, for each one of us, me and the timber I am
sawing, the lines of force I follow; me and the dough I knead for bread, me and the very motion with which I write,
me and the bit of gold I have got. This, if we knew it, is our life and our eternity: the subtle, perfected relation
between me and my whole circumambient universe.89
How do we find the right relation to the universe? By meeting the Other on a metaphoric playground, by making riddles,
by listening to crow. Two stories from separate cultures, each with its riddlic connection, point the way. Snyder
tells of an Arapaho dancer of the Ghost Dance who returns from his trance to sing:
I circle around, I circle around
The boundaries of the earth,
The boundaries of the earth
Wearing the long wing feathers as I fly
Wearing the long wing feathers as I fly.90
And Eido Roshi at a recent talk9l told a story about a Zen master who was walking along a country road with
|Suddenly they came upon a goose. The master stretched out his neck and watched intently–and so, watching the master,
did the student. The goose suddenly rose, wheeled, and was gone. The master smiled, the student pondered. Suddenly
the master turned and asked the student, "Where is the goose?"
Puzzled, the student replied, "The goose is gone, Master." The master grabbed the student's nose and
gave it a vicious twist. "Onk," cried out the student in pain.
"Exactly," said the master and walked on down the road.
How do we meet the Other? Wear feathers, tell riddles, imitate the goose. Honk and fly. Honk and fly.