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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The protocols of freedom


THE ETIQUETTE OF FREEDOM: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild. Edited by Paul Ebenkamp. This is a companion to the film "The Practice of the Wild," directed by John J. Healey, produced by Will Hearst and Jim Harrison with San Simeon Films. Counterpoint, 2010, 160 pp., $28 (cloth/DVD)

Snyder has been, at least since the publication of "Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems" in 1969, among America's — and the world's — most important poets in the sense that his concerns have never been trivial, and that he's able to address those concerns in poems that are, in every way, satisfying.

Jim Harrison is also a poet — in fact, he believes poetry to be his primary calling — but novels such as "Dalva" and "The Road Home," among many others, have left no doubt that he is one of America's foremost novelists.

Not only are Snyder and Harrison eminent artists, but they are also also outdoorsmen much troubled by the war on nature. They have aired these concerns in statements rich with art, intelligence and insight.

One would think that bringing these two paragons together for several days in an unspoiled bit of central California and documenting the encounter on DVD and in print would result in something that avid fans of Snyder, Harrison or both (one suspects that most people who are fans of one are fans of both) should rush to get their hands on. This is not the case.

Those who know Snyder's work will find little here that is new, and those as interested in Harrison as Snyder will be disappointed that this is not a conversation but an interview.

Harrison — though some of his interjections are priceless — for the most part asks brief questions and lets Snyder take center stage. The novelist seems to understand what too few professional interviewers grasp: it's not about them. This is laudable, but Harrison's fans will regret his reserve.

"The Etiquette of Freedom" is not a failure. It succeeds in a way we might not expect from a production featuring writers who believe that "your personality becomes less valuable as you age," and that "it's a source of irritation when you have to do interviews" (Harrison), or who deplore American interviewers' obsession with "personal oddities and quirks, and errors" (Snyder).

The charm of Etiquette, especially the DVD, is, as with the readings and staged discussions to which authors sometimes subject themselves, extra-literary.

It is not the writing but the writers, their oddities and quirks — endearing to be sure — that draw us in. We slide in the DVD of Etiquette not in search of these men's art or ideas, but rather in search of the men themselves.

We laugh when, at what looks like a very convivial dinner with the crew, Snyder tells Harrison about his wife's surprise that the bearlike and bearded Harrison could be the author of "Dalva," a novel in which, Snyder says, Harrison had "captured a certain kind of female consciousness like nobody else had."

"She thought you were. . . ," Snyder begins. "A beast," finishes Harrison.

We chuckle again when, explaining the genesis of his fascination with Asia. Snyder confesses, "I got interested in Asia for the wrong reasons." Harrison cuts in with, "Were you attracted to the women?"

This is funny because Snyder is known for his earnestness (his ex-wife, poet Joanne Kyger, remembers that "Jack Spicer used to call him the Boy Scout"), and also for the seriousness of his engagement with China and Japan.

Readers who are not fans of the authors, but for whom Etiquette is an entryway into their work, will find it provides a fine introduction to Snyder's writing and thought, and in Harrison's earthiness, a tantalizing hint of what his novels have to offer.

The book includes, in addition to transcripts of some of Snyder and Harrison's exchanges, 12 of Snyder's poems which, though they have been published elsewhere, are a pleasure to encounter here again (and again).

Readers who relish these offerings will certainly seek out the volumes from which they are drawn.

Likewise, many will be taken with the intelligence and erudition of Snyder's conversation and also of the excerpts from previously published essays that form part of the book.

His remark that "a lot of anthropology is just humanities in a bigger sense — a humanities that includes non-European people, noncivilized people, and includes deep history," is just one example of the fresh angle from which Snyder views things.

"In North America we don't have cathedrals and architectural monuments, or huge public works like the Great Wall of China — we have wilderness areas," is another, a pearl that is germane to the endless battle to preserve the bits and pieces of wilderness left on Turtle Island.

Etiquette is not for longtime Snyder fans; there's too much recycling of old material and repetition of thoughts elucidated in books they will already have.

It's a fine primer for those new to Snyder's work.



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