Three living legends in the world of poetry visited the Northwest as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) 2009 Poetry Series: W.S. Merwin, Jane Hirschfield, and Gary Snyder. Although all three practice Buddhism, says SAL Poetry Series Curator Rebecca Hoogs, “the Buddhist thread was totally unintentional.” All three had different reasons to tour: Merwin had just published a book; Hirschfield was much requested by SAL patrons; Snyder was returning to his roots in the Northwest environmental movement.
Still, says Hoogs, “the practice of poetry and the practice of Buddhism have much in common, I would think. Jane (Hirschfield) talks about this connection, the emphasis on paying attention, being in the moment, walking meditation.” Hoogs, herself a poet, intersperses walking with writing, “to listen, to loosen.”
Reading from Given Sugar, Given Salt, Hirschfield joked about the hardships of the simple life at a Zen monastery when she introduced “A Cedary Fragrance.” But at the final line, the audience breathed a soft “mmmm.”
That sound is “the noise of collective awe, of being moved as a group,” says Hoogs. “Literature in a vacuum is not that exciting, but that ‘mmmm’ is a yummy sound. The poets are always impressed that hundreds of people come together and interact, and then go out into the night.”
Gary Snyder elicited the same response when he read “Mid–August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” Co-sponsored by SAL and the North Cascades Institute, his talk drew hundreds of young people. He touched on his own childhood spent living on a homestead in what is now Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood, and later, in Portland.
When asked about the disconnect between young people and the environment, Snyder said, “Not only should you get your kids outside, they should have tools and they should work... In cultures close to nature and close to the bone, you’re always picking things up.”
He also connected his idea of sustainability — the assurance that “all the interacting parts of the ecosystem will be kept intact” — with his idea of a wild, or self-managing, mind: “A wild animal does not need instructions from human beings, nor does it need food put out for it. Your body is a wild system that manages itself. Ego sits in a tower and thinks it’s running things.”
“You don’t know what you’ll think next,” he added. The wild mind naturally creates art, “but you also need a cultivated mind, you need to learn good English, to know how to break the rules.”
As director of SAL’s Writers in the Schools (WITS), Rebecca Hoogs touches on wild mind when she describes the participating students: “They show empathy and compassion. They’re wild, creative thinkers, but they can also grasp abstract concepts.” At the start of each SAL Poetry Series event, one or two student poets read from their own work, inspired by the visiting writer.
Although he will be 82 in September, W.S. Merwin was both playful and laser sharp in his reading from his latest book, The Shadow of Sirius, published in 2008 by Port Townsend’s Copper Canyon Press. Just weeks later, it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Like Snyder, Merwin’s interests in Buddhist philosophy and ecology inform his poems, which often describe the lush landscape of his home in Hawaii.
During the interview after her reading, Hirschfield described to Hoogs how Merwin has helped her to develop as a poet, providing advice over the phone on shaping the final lines of a piece. Merwin himself described how, as a child, he was inspired to begin writing by an older boy. When Merwin asked, “What do you do?” he replied, “I write poems.”
“I thought that was the most extraordinary thing,” he laughed. At the close of the interview with Gary Snyder, North Cascades Institute Executive Director Saul Weisburg asked, “What gives you hope?” Snyder’s response seemed to embody the lives and work of all three poets. Pausing for just a breath, he said, quietly, “Every day.”