May 8, 2004

We Make Our Vows Together with All Beings

by Gary Snyder

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Poem: "We Make Our Vows Together with All Beings," by Gary Snyder, from No Nature. © Pantheon Books. Reprinted with permission.

We Make Our Vows Together with All Beings

Eating a sandwich
At work in the woods,

As a doe nibbles buckbrush in snow
Watching each other,
chewing together.

A Bomber from Beale
over the clouds,
Fills the sky with a roar.

She lifts head, listens,
Waits till the sound has gone by.

So do I.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Gary Snyder, born in San Francisco (1930). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Back Country (1968) and Turtle Island (1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In the mid-1950s he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He participated with Ginsberg and Kerouac in the poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco that launched the Beat movement. Snyder and Kerouac later lived together, and Snyder was the model for one of the main characters in Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums.

Snyder went on to study Zen Buddhism in Japan, and he also traveled to India with Allen Ginsburg and met the Dalai Lama. He fills his poetry with references to non-Western proverbs and folklore. He said, "As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth . . . the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and the wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times."

It's the birthday of novelist Thomas Pynchon, born in Glen Cove, Long Island (1937). In college at Cornell University, he majored in engineering physics. He got straight A's in all his engineering and physics classes, but after taking a class from Vladimir Nabokov, he decided to switch his major to English literature.

After college, he got a job working as a technical writer for the Boeing aerospace company. Employees there described him as incredibly quiet and diligent. He worked at the company for two years, and then traveled to Mexico, where he produced his first novel, V. (1963), about drunken former sailors, alligator hunters in the sewers of New York City, and the search for a mysterious female spy. V. was one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the 1960s, and Time magazine sent a photographer to Mexico City to find the author. According to legend, Pynchon jumped out the window of his apartment and fled into the mountains to escape the photographer. Since that day, he has never willingly submitted to a photograph, given an interview, or appeared in public.

His second novel was The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), about a woman's effort to uncover a secret international postal service called W.A.S.T.E., which uses a muted trumpet as its logo. The novel became a cult favorite among college students, and fans of the book began to draw muted trumpets on bathroom walls and subway corridors, to suggest that the fictional postal service actually existed.

In 1973, Pynchon published Gravity's Rainbow, which many consider his masterpiece, the story of a secret society of rocket scientists conspiring to take over the world in the closing days of World War II. He didn't publish another book for the next seventeen years, and he became a kind of mythical figure. People said that he lived on the run, giving out false names wherever he went. Some claimed he had joined a band of Mexican rebel fighters. Others claimed that he and J.D. Salinger were actually the same person. And near the end of the 1980s, there was speculation that he might, in fact, be the Unabomber.

Then, in the late 1990s, an article in New York magazine revealed that he lived in New York City with his wife and son. He wasn't hiding out in an underground bunker; he just wasn't seeking publicity. He published his most recent novel, Mason and Dixon in 1997, and he has since written the liner notes for a rock band called Lotion and provided an introduction for a new edition of George Orwell's 1984. In January of this year, he played himself on the animated TV show The Simpsons, wearing a paper bag over his animated head.

It's the birthday of Edmund Wilson, born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1895). His mother had nicknamed him Bunny when he was a baby, and people kept calling him that for most of his life, because the name captured his shyness and nervousness. At Princeton, he spent most of his time reading alone, but he eventually began making friends with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he started writing for campus magazines. In the Princeton yearbook, he was voted his class's worst poet and most eligible bachelor.

He always had a wide variety of interests. After he got his undergraduate degree in literature, he studied sociology for a summer at Columbia, and then got a job writing about politics for a newspaper. He was disappointed to find that being a journalist in New York City was just like being in college all over again, surrounded by the same kinds of people. To get away from that, he enlisted in the military when World War I broke out, and he specifically enlisted as a private, rather than enrolling in officer training school, because he wanted to get to know ordinary men. During the war, Wilson fell ill, and it was while he lay sick in a hospital bed that he realized what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He said, "I swore to myself that when the war was over I should stand outside society . . . do without the comforts and amenities of the conventional world [and] devote myself to the great human interests which transcend standards of living and convention: Literature, History, the creation of Beauty, the Discovery of Truth."

Beginning in the 1920s, he began writing for Vanity Fair, the New Republic and The New Yorker, and he wrote about everything. He reviewed books, plays, vaudeville performances, circuses, magic shows, and comic strips. He reported on crimes and trials, protests, politics, and popular culture. He traveled around Appalachia, witnessing mining strikes and riots, to write his book The American Jitters (1932). He went to communist Russia and learned both Russian and German to write about the history of socialism in his book To the Finland Station (1940). He wrote about Russian poetry, Haitian literature, the Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the literature produced during the American Civil War. On top of all his journalism, he was also writing poetry, plays, and novels. His collected journals were eventually published in five volumes.

Wilson introduced Americans to writers like James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov. He almost single-handedly resurrected the reputation of the novelist Henry James, who had been forgotten for years. He championed new writers like Ernest Hemingway, and it was Wilson who persuaded American readers that F. Scott Fitzgerald had been a genius, and that The Great Gatsby was an American classic.

What made Wilson unique as a literary critic was that he published almost all of his work in popular magazines. He never took a teaching position and rarely gave lectures. He never founded a school of literary criticism, and his books are not usually assigned in college English classes. But he is generally considered the greatest American man of letters of the twentieth century. After his death in 1972, an obituary for Wilson in the New York Times said, "If there is an American civilization, Mr. Wilson has helped us to find it."

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