Gary Snyder’s New Beginner Enlightenment

Patrick James Dunagan

What I think is a useful definition is to use the word “nature” to mean all of the phenomenal universe. As it is used in science; then cities are natural, machinery is natural, everything that exists within the potentiality of the laws of nature is natural…then the question is what is that is “wild?” Wild is the territory outside of human agency.
                                                    - Gary Snyder, “lunch poems” reading UC Berkeley Mar 5, 2009

That’s what movie-making is all about. It’s about steering the flow of the viewer’s imagination, to awaken the imagination, to sensitize them to sound, to sensitize them to life in general.
                                                    - Werner Herzog, On the Birth of Art, Archaeology Mar/Apr 2011

It’s an absolute pleasure that The Etiquette of Freedom hits high marks on all counts and does so without any sort of visual trickery or needless distraction. There’s no pandering. While Snyder does read from his work there are thankfully no attempts at a dizzying array of overburdened collage of images thrown at the viewer. Instead there’s a down home feeling of humorous good will and cheer spread throughout the film alongside a serious consideration of where poetry and ecology might meet and coincide in determining how one lives in a place amongst others, interacting in good faith towards the common good.

The film (a dvd of which is included with the book) is a series of edited conversational exchanges between poet-friends Jim Harrison and Gary Snyder. Whatever setting they may be in, whether strolling in the rolling California coastal hills of the Hearst ranch, sitting relaxed in front of fireplace, or gathered round the table in after dinner reflection with a group of friends, the discussion of the hazards and necessity of responsibility-minded relationships of care is constant. The book itself is a rock solid transcription of the film (unfortunately, you don’t quite get the joy of Harrison’s grunts, but his delicious “yeahs” are included) along with transcriptions of numerous extra discussions between Harrison & Snyder that didn’t make the final cut.

Healey also recruits fellow poets Joanne Kyger and Michael McClure to offer appropriate contextual and poet-depth insight into Snyder personal history. McClure comments on the infamous sixth gallery reading of Beat Generation acclaim as only he’s able and Kyger gives the more personal anecdote in her humanely calm manner, such as, “Jack Spicer used to call him the Boy Scout. ‘You’re off to Marin County with the Boy Scout, huh?’ ” And publisher Jack Shoemaker situates Snyder’s place in his own reading of the North American literary tradition: “Snyder so clearly came from Emerson, Thoreau, Rexroth—the lineage was very clear.” You need have no prior knowledge of Snyder’s work to enjoy this film, but at the same time possessing such knowledge doesn’t make the film a bore.

The overriding message, if it may indeed be said to have one, of Snyder’s work is based upon being both responsible and aware. That is, to put it more bluntly, knowledge is worth searching out and further investigating. His collection of essays, Practice of the Wild (which serves as companion–piece to Etiquette of Freedom inspiring the title of the project) covers the themes Harrison and Snyder discuss, and is a platform in which he delves deep into the concerns which sum up his writing life as being one where the practice of writing is—of course—one integrally tied to that of living. A thoughtful, caring consideration of how we go about being who we are where (locale, place) we are; how we treat ourselves and each other (i.e., how we live), in response to the environment (be it urban or rural) around us.
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