Saturday, April 17, 2010

December At Yase --- Gary Snyder


You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.

And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

---Gary Snyder

Recently I was speaking at a conference and I heard one of the fellow speakers mention that he didn't believe in fate or destiny. I'm passing this example along not to be critical of my colleague's beliefs, but to provide a beginning point for an interesting philosophical discussion. Are we fated or destined for certain things in our lives? Where we work, where we live, and who we love---are these all predetermined? If so, then there are two distinctly different outlooks. First, there is great comfort in knowing that no matter what you do or how you do it fate will play a role in your life. If it is meant to be it will be. Others look at this revelation and shudder with fear. With everything being predetermined, why should I even bother living? It's not like anything I do will make a difference anyways. If fate does not exist there is an equally contentious argument that comes into play. The same people who were excited by the prospect of fate are now left disappointed and feeling an empty hopelessness. Those who were terrified by the prospect of fate making their daily lives pointless are relieved to know that they have free will to make decisions without any cosmic interference. I'm not sure it's fair to summarize this complex argument into generalizations, but I see it as the romantic idealist versus the pragmatic realist. When I read and reread Gary Snyder's poem December At Yase I'm overcome by the mystery of fate. What might have been right at one point in life could be completely wrong at another point. You hear it so often, the timing just wasn't right. For such a fickle and interconnected thing, timing, or fate, can exert the ultimate influence over the most essential elements of our lives.

Snyder begins the poem with a breakup scene. It is not overly contentious or emotional, rather he is stoic in his analysis and description, probably because he's had years to think about it and hash through his feelings. The girl's decision is described as "deciding to be free" and she offers the consolation of "Again someday, maybe in ten years." Inherently human beings are selfish so asking for a decade of patience when it comes to love is ridiculous. It's her attempt at softening the blow when in reality it only does more damage by stoking a tiny slice of hope that the poet holds onto. Although he doesn't bluntly say it, the poet clings to the belief that if the timing is right and they are fated to be together that it will happen. But when they run into each other down the line there is no spark, no remnants of what they once had. "After college I saw you / One time. You were strange. / And I was obsessed with a plan." That's certainly the opposite of a pleasant reunion, showing how time, space and life experiences can drastically change people. The most damning evidence that this young love will never be rekindled comes in the following stanza. Snyder points out that the ten year sentence she imposed upon him has expired and while he "might have gone to you / Hoping to win your love back. / You are still single." What is stopping him? She is not attached or married and they once had an intimate connection, a connection that still haunts him today. Could it be his pride? Could he be afraid? Snyder gives us a half answer: "I thought I must make it alone. I / Have done that."

The language in this poem is stripped down even though the emotions being explored are complex and powerful. Notice how the diction and syntax are often simple, but occasionally a line break with pop up that throws us for a loop. Snyder's hard enjambments at the beginning of the second and third stanzas allow the lines to drop into the next, mirroring the dropping feeling that comes with remembering a lost love. This technique is cleverly executed, as is the enjambment on the answering line mentioned in the previous paragraph. When Snyder tells us why he hasn't made the courageous motion to win her back he is focused on himself and this is particularly apparent in his line break: "I thought I must make it alone. I / Have done that." It once was about them, but at some point he turned inward and it became about him, about the "I" instead of the "you" or the "we." Maybe his fate was to live on in the shadow of what could have been. Perhaps "the grave, awed intensity / Of our young love" is fueling and pushing him. Or it could be that all that he had and "left behind at nineteen" is a constant tormentor. Snyder feels "ancient" and is ultimately unsure if the path he's following is the right one. This isn't a poem that unravels the complex riddle of fate and destiny, but in the life experiences the poem reveals we gain a better understanding of how individuals react when faced with fateful challenges. Snyder ends the poem with a question of fate, wondering if he is "a fool / Or (has he) done what my / karma demands." I'm not sure Synder expects an least in this life.

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