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Honoring an American poet

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Gary Snyder

Today is poet Gary Snyder’s 90th birthday, as Garrison Keillor reminded us on The Writer’s Almanac.  I first read and loved his poetry when I was a college student in California in 1969. Here is a poem of Snyder’s from his book AXE HANDLES, copyright 1983 by Gary Snyder.

AXE HANDLES

One afternoon the last week in April

Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet

One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.

He recalls the hatchet-head

Without a handle, in the shop

And go gets it, and wants it for his own.

A broken-off axe handle behind the door

Is long enough for a hatchet,

We cut it to length and take it

With the hatchet head

And working hatchet, to the wood block.

There I begin to shape the old handle

With the hatchet, and the phrase

First learned from Ezra Pound

Rings in my ears!

“When making an axe handle

the pattern is not far off.”

And I say this to Kai

“Look: We’ll shape the handle

By checking the handle

Of the axe we cut with–”

And he sees.  And I hear it again:

It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century

A.D. “Essay On Literature”–in the

Preface: “In making the handle

Of an axe

By cutting wood with an axe

The model is indeed near at hand.”

My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen

Translated that and taught it years ago

And I see:  Pound was an axe,

Chen was an axe, I am an axe

And my son a handle, soon

To be shaping again, model

And tool, craft of culture,

How we go on.