BOOK REVIEW: Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

Turtle Island (Shambhala Pocket Classics)Turtle Island by Gary Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


If you’re not a reader of latter-20th century American poetry, then maybe you’ve heard of Gary Snyder’s fictional doppelgänger, Japhy Ryder, even if you haven’t heard of Snyder, himself. Ryder appears in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” as a friend and mentor to Kerouac’s own fictional persona, Ray Smith. If you do remember Ryder, you have some insight into the themes that recur throughout this collection. Said themes include reverence for nature and an appeal to Eastern philosophical and religious traditions–most specifically Zen. Though there are other themes that you might not be expecting, such as fatherhood and the overarching theme of North America.

This collection consists of 63 pieces divided into four parts. Except for those of the last part, the pieces are all poetic. In other words, there are 58 poems and five short prose essays. The poems cover a lot of ground, though they are all free verse. Some of them are spare and others are prose poetry. They range from a few lines to a few pages. The vast majority of the poems put nature at the fore. Some have the tone of haiku—though not its form. By that I mean the tendency to describe without letting in analysis or judgement, attempting to offer a pure reflection of scenes from nature. There are some points at which Snyder veers into political commentary, e.g. with lists of statistics—some of which have no meaning as written (see: “Fact” the first piece in the section “Magpie’s Song”) and rants against the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR)–a technology that one suspects the poet knows no more about than does the reader. But for the most part the poems are portraits of North American wilderness, and can be enjoyed as such.

I found this collection to be enjoyable and evocative. Snyder transports one into North America’s great outdoors. I’d recommend this work for poetry readers.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Collected Poems 1947 – 1997 by Allen Ginsberg

Collected Poems 1947-1997Collected Poems 1947-1997 by Allen Ginsberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This “collection” is actually 13 collections bound together in one volume that presents much of the published poetry of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg over the second half of the 20th century—till his death in 1997. Ginsberg is probably best known for “Howl,” which is both the name of the third collection in this book and the poem for which it was named (i.e. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,…”) However, Ginsberg’s work is extensive, and one can find many a lesser known gem inside.

Ginsberg’s body of work isn’t just copious; it’s also highly varied stylistically. While Ginsberg most commonly uses free verse, he also uses rhyming / metered poems, shaped poems, variations on haiku, musical lyrics, and–in rare instances–prose form poems and puzzle poems.

While Ginsberg’s work is also thematically varied, there are a number of recurring themes. First, as one might expect of the author of “Howl,” Ginsberg’s work is highly politically charged. One gets a history review of the latter 20th century from reading this volume. Ginsberg rails against the war in Vietnam, against the Iran-Contra affair, and against alleged CIA drug dealing at home and abroad. It should be noted that while Ginsberg’s views are expectedly counter-culture, there isn’t the delusional glorification of the opposition that one often sees from many political writers. That is to say, as Ginsberg rebukes capitalists and conservatives, he also takes on the Soviets and other leftist regimes who engaged in human rights violations or war-mongering.

Second, as one might expect from the inspiration for Alvah Goldbook in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” Ginsberg frequently references Eastern spiritual traditions—notably Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. There are a number of poems set in places like Varanasi (Benares) and Siem Reap (Angkor) that reflect Ginsberg’s traveling exploration of these systems. Of course, Ginsberg was a traveler in general, and so there are a number of poems set in the Western Hemisphere and Europe as well. Ginsberg also writes a little bit on his birth religion, Judaism, but usually in a secular manner and sometimes while rebuking the actions of Zionists.

Third, there are many [mostly homoerotic] sex poems in the collection. For those who are sensitive about such matters, I don’t use the term “sex poem” as a sloppy substitute for the word erotica. These aren’t erotic love poems in the conventional sense, they are usually graphic and Ginsberg purposefully uses provocative, shocking, and sometimes lurid wording to evoke a response in the reader. If reading about Ginsberg’s sexual adventures will cause you emotional trauma, be forewarned.

There are end-notes that can be quite helpful, particularly if you’ve forgotten some of your 20th century history, are unfamiliar with Beat trivia (all of the characters from Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” make an appearance), or aren’t familiar with the various yogic and Buddhist gurus who Ginsberg refers to. (The first set of notes oddly comes after the 10th collection. that’s because this collection is actually even more of a matryoshka doll than I suggested. The first 10 collections are actually collections inside a collection (“Collected Poems 1947 – 1980”) that’s inside a collection (“Collected Poems 1947 – 1997”.) The last three collections have their own end-notes immediately following them.

There are few graphics, mostly the music to poems that are—or can be—set to music.

I’d recommend this collection to poetry readers, particularly those who enjoy Beat period language. As I mentioned, the delicate political or sexual sensitivities of some readers may be offended. On the other hand, as I always say: If you’re not reading outside your comfort zone, you shouldn’t consider yourself so much educated as indoctrinated.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


What one needs to know to get a feel for this book is neither a summation of events nor the description of some crisis that sets up those events; instead, one simply needs to know who dharma bums were. This may or may not be self-evident, despite the fact that it’s essentially what the two words crammed together suggests. Dharma Bums were members of the Beat Generation (i.e. Beatniks, the 1950’s predecessor counter-culture to the hippies) who followed (or were enamored by) Buddhism, and who eschewed a materialistic lifestyle—which is to say they worked only when they needed to in order to put bread on the table or when they found it [autotelicly] satisfying to do so.

The book is literary fiction and places more emphasis on character than plot, and–furthermore—the events of the book read as though loosely autobiographical. Therefore, the happenings of the book are as scattershot as real lives tend to be.

The book begins with Ray Smith (the fictional counterpart to the real Kerouac) hopping a freight car in the manner of Jack London’s “The Road” (not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” nor Kerouac’s own “On the Road”)

The book then spends time with a series of characters who map to real life members of the Beat Generation. The most important of these individuals (besides Smith / Kerouac) as far as the book is concerned is Japhy Ryder who represents the Zen poet Gary Snyder. Ryder is a mentor to Ray Smith. First, Ryder’s knowledge and practice of Buddhism is much more advanced than Smith’s—though they occasionally disagree because Ryder is a Zen Buddhist and Smith has an affinity for a more mainstream sect, Smith learns much about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy from Ryder. Second, Ryder is a mentor in sharing various life lessons with Smith, including introducing him to mountaineering. A short expedition up a mountain is among the most memorable parts of the book.

I’ll mention one other of the characters, Alvah Goldbook, who stands for Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg may be the most famous of these individuals (other than Kerouac, himself) today, owing largely to his poem “Howl.” Ginsberg is more agnostic where Buddhism is concerned. He enjoys ideas from it but doesn’t jump in feet-first in the manner of Smith—let alone Ryder. There are a number of well-known beatniks who feature more or less prominently (e.g. Neal Cassady and Philip Whalen.)

The book’s end features Smith working alone as a fire lookout on another mountain—Kerouac readers later learned that this was the aptly named Desolation Peak. Japhy’s hand can be seen in this as well, as he recommended the job to Smith.

This is a book for the thinking-person. There is really only one dramatic event that stands out in my mind as the source of tension one normally seeks in a novel. The joy of the book comes from joining the characters in bouts of philosophizing, in the creative use of language, and in reflecting upon an approach to life that exists outside the conventional.

I’d recommend this book. Personally, I enjoyed it more, and found it more thought-provoking, than “On the Road,” which I suspect is the work for which Kerouac is more known and which is also a good read.

View all my reviews