[(essay date Winter 1985) In the following essay, Murphy analyzes Snyders' poem "Mountains and Rivers without End" in terms of Tzetvan Todorov's theories on the fantastic.]
Critics of the Fantastic tend to ignore poetry, overlooking poems from the mainstream of poetic tradition and dismissing, usually as facile, poetry appearing in science fiction and fantasy magazines. Serious work has been and is being done in the area of fantasy-oriented poetry, but this work rarely receives critical attention as Fantastic literature or as poetry using fantastic techniques for its effects. I do not claim that modern poets are turning to the Fantastic in some marked degree, but I do claim that they use the Fantastic, particularly mythic fantasy, for their artistic purposes and that such elements deserve serious critical attention. One reason that relatively little use of the Fantastic appears in current American poetry is that contemporary poetry still remains to some extent within a turning away from narrative forms. Some poets, such as Robinson Jeffers, who did manage to cling to narrative forms through the first half of the century certainly used the Fantastic, in its broad generic sense. After the war, Ginsberg's nightmares also produced some narrative fantasy, while other Beats used fantasy to express spiritual moments beyond rational description and invoked myth to enlighten readers to principles drawn from Taoism, Tantrism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Gary Snyder was part of the Beat movement as well as being influenced by Jeffers and such major figures as Lawrence and Pound. He was also influenced, through anthropological studies, by native American kiva rituals, shamanism, and myths which he saw linked with Eastern mystical philosophy. This mixture encouraged him to see religious visions and mythic fantasies as spiritual forces in a modern world without philosophical grounding. From primitivism, Snyder begins to see the poem as shaman chant, power vision, and healing prayer. From Zen Buddhism and its Hindu precursors, he begins to see poetry as harmonious sacred song and köan training. Focusing on Zen philosophy, Snyder has come to emphasize not Eastern teleology but the presence of the world, its tathata, or suchness, in which life is a wandering path through which one travels breaking down illusions and opening the mind to satori, the instant of spiritual enlightenment when the ego drops away and the individual recognizes the interdependence of the spiritual energy pathways of the universe. Snyder's poetry from the first has expressed his developing philosophical system and his belief that America needs a new guiding myth as the foundation for creating a new culture based on harmony rather than conflict with the universal life flow.
Snyder's "Mountains and Rivers without End," a long sequential poem on which he is still working, provides the most striking example of his efforts in this direction of opening the reader's mind to the possibility of spiritual enlightenment and his use of mythic fantasy and fantastic hesitation to achieve that purpose. Snyder draws deeply on Hindu-Buddhist and native American mythology to present his spiritual vision. Without the...