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John Muir on Mt. Ritter -- Gary Snyder

Guest poem submitted by Kaustubh Rau:
(Poem #1541) John Muir on Mt. Ritter
 After scanning its face again and again,
 I began to scale it, picking my holds
 With intense caution. About half-way
 To the top, I was suddenly brought to
 A dead stop, with arms outspread
 Clinging close to the face of the rock
 Unable to move hand or foot
 Either up or down. My doom
 Appeared fixed. I MUST fall.
 There would be a moment of
 Bewilderment, and then,
 A lifeless rumble down the cliff
 To the glacier below.
 My mind seemed to fill with a
 Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
 Lasted only a moment, when life blazed
 Forth again with preternatural clearness.
 I seemed suddenly to become possessed
 Of a new sense. My trembling muscles
 Became firm again, every rift and flaw in
 The rock was seen as through a microscope,
 My limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
 With which I seemed to have
 Nothing at all to do.
-- Gary Snyder
I recently picked up a wonderful book titled 'The High Sierra of
California'. The book contains woodcut prints of the Sierra Nevada by Tom
Killion in the manner of the Japanese masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. The
beauty of the prints is further brought out by notes, commentaries and poems
by Gary Snyder. The poem really brought out for me the fine line between
control and diaster that a mountain climber deals with, along with the waves
of panic he has to stave off to get to the  top. That it is about John
Muir's first ascent of Mt Ritter is of added significance.

Gary Snyder's biography:

Snyder was born in San Francisco, and brought up in Oregon and Washington
State. He received his BA in anthropology at Reed College, Portland, in
1951. His subsequent career has been a remarkable combination of the
academic and the contemplative, spiritual study and physical labour. Between
working as a logger, a trail-crew member, and a seaman on a Pacific tanker,
he studied Oriental languages at Berkeley (1953-6), was associated with Beat
writers such as Ginsberg and Kerouac, lived in Japan (1956-64), later
studied Buddhism there, and won numerous literary prizes, including a
Guggenheim fellowship (1968) and the Pulitzer Prize (1975). He now teaches
literature and 'wilderness thought' at the University of California at
Davis.
        -- http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/snyder/life.htm

Kaustubh Rau.

44 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ian Baillieu said...

A memorable, well written prose account of a crucial moment.
IMO it isn't improved or made into poetry by being given
line breaks.

Fred Simon said...

First of all, I've loved Gary Snyder and his poetry for decades.

But here's what I wanna know: come on, admit it ... who else besides me
wondered about a hypothetical companion poem to John Muir on Mt. Ritter,
titled John Ritter on Mt. Muir?

Then again, maybe it is just me.

Fred Simon

Robert said...

I presented this Gary Snyder poem, John Muir on Mt. Ritter, in my tai chi classes at the University of Puget Sound. There was a rock climbing practice wall just outside the door to the dance studio I taught in. Snyder didn't write the words; they came from one of John Muir's journals. Gary Snyder saw it as a found poem and transcribed it from prose to verse with stunning success. I used it as an entry to the concept and experience of chi or universal breath, but it mostly said to describe Grace or the Holy Spirit descending when Muir accepts the inevitability of his demise.

Robert Ewing

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