The Etiquette of Freedom

This essay originally appeared in The Kyoto Journal, issue No. 76.

The conversation between poets Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison in The Etiquette of Freedom, based on several days spent together while walking over the hills of southern coastal California, is a rare meeting of minds and personalities. A DVD film, The Practice of the Wild, co-produced by Will Hearst and Harrison, accompanies the book, which also contains a generous selection of poems that illustrate Snyder’s ideas. What we have here is a treasure: a rambling conversation between two of America’s most original poets––clear-eyed, unsentimental outsiders, both outdoors men who have spent their life probing the nature of nature.

In Asian terms, Snyder, 80, is the host of the book and film, and Harrison, 73,  is the guest. A lifelong fan of Snyder’s work, Harrison assumes a dual role of interviewer—drawing Snyder out, opening up themes, offering him a stage to hold forth, which he does in his usual sharp, light and clear way. We know this encounter is the real thing when Harrison tosses out one of his favorite quotes of D. H. Lawrence that he frequently uses on his own interlocutors: “The only aristocracy is that of consciousness.” It’s easily passed over, but Snyder bites into the moment and their two minds engage:

GS: What do you think he meant by that?

JH: I think he meant that the person who is most conscious lives the most intensely––if “intensity” is the real pecking order, since life is so limited in length, as we are both aware of vividly––

GS: The most vividly. I’m not sure I agree with how he meant that, but that’s a good question.

JH: Why do you disagree?

GS: Oh, because it’s too spectacular, too romantic.

JH: Well, so was he.

GS: Of course. At any rate, you could set that beside an East Asian idea of the aristocracy of consciousness, and a Chinese or Korean idea of that would be much calmer, much cooler. Not like a hard glowing gem-like flame, not like a flaming candle burning out––

JH: That’s what Kobun Chino Sensei said; they criticized his friend Deshimaru because he said, “You must pay attention as if you had a fire burning in your hair.” And Kobun said, “You must pay attention as if you were drawing a glass of water.

GS: Oh, that’s better.

JH: The concept of the divine ordinary.




The title, The Etiquette of Freedom, comes from one of his early seminal essays, at the heart of The Practice of the Wild (1990), which explores his ideas behind the terms Nature, the Wild and Wilderness. In their fullness, the three terms are meant to encompass all aspects of phenomenal life, the whole of creation, a process in which humans are one part (though vastly threatening to the other parts). He wrote: “The lessons we learn from the wild become the etiquette of freedom [for humans].” Approaching Nature from the largest perspective, says Snyder, has sometimes caused him to be misunderstood.

GS: People, including environmentalists, have not taken well to the distinctions I tried to make between Nature, the wild and wilderness. You know, I want to say again, the way I want to use the word “Nature” would mean the whole universe.

JH: Truly.

GS: Yes, like in physics.

JH: Right, exactly.

GS: So not the outdoors.

JH: No. That’s a false dichotomy.

GS: Yes.

JH: –or a dualism.

GS: Yes, Nature is what we’re in.

gary snyder

The term “wild,” as used by Snyder, is a metaphor for the natural processes within Nature when least affected by man’s disproportionately heavy hand (but even our destructive, consumptive role is part of the natural process, as Nature, in the broadest sense, is constantly engaged in a vastly complicated destruction, consumption and renewal). Fully understanding these terms is conjoined by the role of time as measured in hundreds of thousands and millions of years and not at the rate of humankind’s anthropocentric perspective. For more on these terms, see The Practice of the Wild, where he wrote, “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home,” and, in a prophetic stroke: “It is the present time, the 12,000 or so years since the ice age and the 12,000 thousand or so years yet to come, that is our territory. We will be judged or judge ourselves by how we have lived with each other and the world during these two decamillennia.” For more on his ideas on bioregionalism and environmental issues, see Turtle Island(1974), his homage to North America, and his other essay collections and talks: The Real Work (1980),A Place in Space (1995) and Back on the Fire (2007). All of Snyder’s essays are gems. Those on Buddhist themes are filled with poetic prose rising to the level of inspired teishos.

The title, The Etiquette of Freedom, functions as a loaded metaphor, speaking of the importance of living in Nature with a humbleness that reflects humans’ disproportionate role—and responsibility—within the natural processes of creation and life and death. Etiquette means to show respect to a person or  occasion. We see this attitude reflected worldwide in ancient cultures when someone asks for understanding before taking a creature’s life or before felling a tree for a home. By exercising an “etiquette” relationship with Nature, we can realign our sense of place and in turn, we experience a greater correctness in a more responsible relationship with Nature. Snyder himself has come to personify a meme which evolved out of the counterculture movment and has been absorbed into mainstream culture: the way to a richer life is to settle in, to reinhabit a rural area, to learn the names of the plants and animals, the geology, the history of the indigenous people, to study the folklore, to engage in civic life, to pay attention to the schools, to deepen one’s sense of self, to live life fully as a thoughtful member of a bioregion in which one strives to play a grateful and productive role. It is a meme for a practical, reality-based approach to life, and one which he played a major role in creating.

Poets Snyder and Harrison with Snyder’s dog Emi

The interplay between the individual and Nature has been Snyder’s subject since his first translations of Cold Mountain (Han-shan) poems as a student at Berkeley. For more than 50 years, he has been the American poet who has most fully embraced the subject of Nature, and the nature of consciousness. In 1955, he left America for Japan to study Zen. His public life began, in a way, as a fictional character in the novel Dharma Bums (1958), in which Jack Kerouac created a charismatic, heroic character named Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder)—a young, self-assured American poet and outdoors man. In the late-60s, when he returned from Japan to live in America again, he immediately became a central figure in the evolving counterculture. His influence was based on his poetry and  his practical ideas of returning to the land, which were embraced as a rallying cry by many young people, and canny elders. His approach was an extension of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas on self-reliance and nature, and Buddhist philosophy. Wary of becoming a counterculture spokesperson, he quickly retreated to live in the isolated Sierra foothills near Nevada City, where he worked on his craft. After Turtle Island, he assumed a role of poet and environmental social critic. In his late period, he taught at the University of California at Davis, while continuing to publish poems and essays. Since then, the mythology surrounding him as a teacher has deepened. Over the coming decades, his work will travel well beyond America’s shores, and one feels the mythology has only just begun.

Snyder’s work has always been aligned with his commitment to Zen. Looking back now, his poetry and essays fan out like one long scroll of his life, a record of what he’s seen and felt and learned. To throw him together here with Jim Harrison’s highly refined Ikkyu-like spirit is a gift—two American poets who have extended the lineage of Emerson and Thoreau (Dogen and Han-shan)—two old men, well-seasoned and free, walking and talking, and turning the wheel.

Review photographs copyrighted San Simeon Films.

Zen Baggage by bill porter (red pine)

This review is scheduled to appear in The Kyoto Journal.

Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China by Bill Porter. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 359 pp., $16.95 (paper).

You wonder how a book like Zen Baggage could be written. First, who would have guessed that China’s legendary Zen temples would rise from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and prosper in the new century? And second, what Western writer could pull off a history of Zen in China and then go on to paint a vivid picture of contemporary life in China’s most legendary Zen temples and monasteries?

bill porter in Port Townsend, Washington (2010). photograph by Julie Anand

The only writer I know who could do that justice is Bill Porter, also known as Red Pine, the éminence grise of translators and commentators on Zen and Taoist poetry and texts. In this latest, most personal, travel book, Porter is back on the fertile ground he covered so well in Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

Thanks to that book, we know that Taoist hermits continued to practice and live in their remote huts in the Chungnan Mountains throughout the era of China’s Red Guards.  The book was a revelation to Westerners and it seems to have fascinated many Chinese as well: the Chinese translation is now in its sixth printing under the title Hidden Orchids of Deserted Valleys.

Porter makes it clear that the average Chinese doesn’t quite know what to make of the legendary Zen temples and monasteries that have become heavily visited pit stops on a sort of Zen Tourist Highway running from Beijing to Hong Kong. Most of the temples are thriving: attracting more monks, building academies, expanding zendos, and refurbishing, enlarging, and promoting themselves in close—maybe too close—cooperation with the Chinese authorities, all under the auspices of a program that seems more intent upon raking in tourists’ money than in preserving the cultural legacy of Zen. The current government’s new relationship with Zen temples seems to be motivated in part by a desire to be more respectful and tolerant than the Communist regimes of the past, and its view that Zen is a non-threatening, home-grown, institution that promotes responsibility and discipline.

Zen being Zen, the abbots of these ancient temples are only too happy to accept whatever benefits accrue from the government’s new view of things. They remember all too well the days when monks were rounded up and abused, and temples were gutted or shut. Now abbots can easily meet the government’s modest expectations while also scooping up hoards of badly needed yuan from the bus loads of Chinese tourists who flock to the temples’ trinket shops to buy T-shirts, tea sets and kitschy souvenirs. The money is wisely used to build sub-temples in remote locations where monks can practice without being put on public view.

Porter’s personality comes through vividly in Zen Baggage, and it contains sketches of his earlier life in Taiwan, his frequent travels to China, and, most revealingly, his on-the-road personae as he makes his six-week, 2,500-mile, temple-hopping pilgrimage, which was largely a catch-up journey to supplement his many previous visits. He is on intimate terms with many of the temple abbots and others that he meets on his trip. In contrast, in Road to Heaven, during his forays into the rugged Chungnan Mountains (home of the hermits), he was on new ground ferreting out the names of hermits and the mountains where they were living, and then he tracked them down. What was most surprising about his first encounters with these Taoist solitaries, both men and women, is how seldom they showed surprise at the appearance of this bearded foreigner–if, indeed, they perceived him as a foreigner.  He seemed to have been expected.

Zen Baggage is soaked in wisdom so subtle it is almost invisible. I was three-quarters of the way into it, for example, when I realized I’d easily absorbed a chronology of the major Chinese Zen patriarchs along with the distinctive swerves and turns that collectively make up Zen’s birth, its crucial philosophical debates, its divisions, its flowering in the sixth century, its slow decline, and its diffusion in the world.

Porter’s personal Taoist/Zen style of travel gives his journey an interesting edge. Whether he’s interviewing the abbot of a legendary temple or eating sweet cakes at a truck stop, he lashes it all together in a bundle of concrete details that help illuminate the tales, metaphysics, koans, and esoterica of early Zen. He has read so deeply in Zen, Taoism and Buddhism that he could be the abbot of any of these legendary temples––to the benefit of the temples and monks––but it’s clear that most, if not all, of the abbots and monks he talked with would laugh at such a suggestion. Throughout Asia, Zen too often remains the “property” of individual countries, whereas in the West it’s readily perceived as open to all equally. In all his encounters, you get the feeling that in only a few cases was there a true meeting of minds. Many Chinese sized Porter up as just another Westerner who spoke good Chinese, and had no knowledge of his translation work or of his life (not that he cared), and most probably weren’t interested anyway. The prevailing orthodoxy seemed to be: “We’re the only ones who can translate the texts, who understand Zen––Westerners can’t get it.”  But as history reminds us, Buddhism is international: the Chinese texts the abbots depend upon were carried back to China from India by Chinese pilgrims and translated from Sanskrit and other languages.  In Porter’s many trips to China over the past two decades, we have an apposite addition to the history of Buddhism: a Western pilgrim who traveled to the East to get Chinese texts to translate into English.

On this latest trip, he bounced down China’s buzzing highways in buses to report to the world (or the English-speaking West), on what grew from those early Chinese translations into Zen. This recounting of how Zen was born and thrived in China (for a while), then died out, and is now being reborn closes China’s Buddhist/Zen circle, for the time being at least.

Along with his translations (11 so far), Porter’s two travel books are singular achievements that break new ground in our understanding of Zen and Taoism in contemporary China. My guess is that we can expect more travel books from him that will flesh out the on-the-ground story of Zen and Taoism, and that they will showcase his two greatest assets as a writer: his independence as a scholar and his practical knowledge of whatever he calls his personal blending of Taoism and Zen.

The travel books most closely resemble the work of his mentor John Blofeld (1913-1987), the British writer and translator of Buddhist texts, who gave Porter  the encouragement that led to his first translation in 1983, Cold Mountain Poems. Like Blofeld,  Porter uses his unique skills as a translator and his talents as a travel writer to bring to life Buddhism’s past and present.

searching for Orwell

This is a revised version of a review published in The Kyoto Journal prior to the 2010 national election which led to the creation of a parliament and the opening up of Burma to democracy.

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”––Nineteen Eighty-Four

By Roy Hamric

Early into Emma Larkin’s extended stay in Burma while she was gathering material for Secret Histories, she visited a Burmese scholar and brought up George Orwell’s name.

“You mean the prophet!” the man exclaimed.

In Burma today, rechristened Myanmar in 1989 by a military junta that has methodically repressed the country and turned it into a pariah state, there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one book about the country, Burmese Days, but two more: Animal Farm, the tale of a socialist revolution in which pigs overthrow human farmers and set about to destroy the farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the story of a heartless dystopia. The trilogy depicts a before-and-after picture of Burma-Myanmar.

a bus stop in Rangoon in front of the venerable Strand Hotel

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym of an American journalist, born in Asia, who has spent long stretches of time living in Burma, a rarity for Western writers these days. Her book has added luster now because Burma is has undergone profound changes since the 2010 elections, in which the junta handed over power to a parliament and began a rapid move to establish a democracy, a normal civil society and open up its closed culture to foreign investment and businesses.

Larkin’s book is now a time capsule on what Burma was like under a bloody totalitarian military regime, which massacred many students and other in demonstrations over a two decade period. She wisely steered clear of the tourist trail, preferring quiet visits with ordinary Burmese in the former capital of Rangoon or in towns and villages in the north and south. The result is unsurprisingly a book that feels Orwellian, a sad testament to the fact that Burma hasn’t progressed much in nearly 90 years, when Orwell was serving unhappily as a policeman for the British crown, in the waning days of its Asian empire.  The Burmese eventually threw the British out, but what they got in return has been a dismal chronicle of brutal, incompetent, repressive military dictatorships which have driven the country into the ground.

Reading about life in Burma in the hands of Larkin is a pleasure on many levels. She writes a gentle prose which, largely free of polemical arguments, lets the Burmese people speak for themselves. For those who are unaware of Burma’s recent history, the book is a primer on the woeful battering suffered by its citizens at the hands of cold, ruthless military regimes that first took power in the 1950s, and is known most recently for the 1988 massacre of an estimated 3,000 people–– students, monks, citizens and children––who took to the streets to protest nearly three decades of military rule and neglect. Burma, during the time of Larkin’s book, was  the same Burma of long ago. It had undergone little change. The infrastructure is still in shambles, electricity was non-existent or rationed, the press was censored, individual initiative was discouraged, political speech was repressed and pro-democracy activists were routinely rounded up and sentenced to prison on draconian charges grounded on state control. Commodities were scarce, but mostly just non-existent. Jobs were  scarcer. Reliable information couldn’t be found. An ever-present fear of informers hovered over all conversations, especially with foreigners, and the fear was captured in the expression pasien yo, literally “the handle of the ax”––signifying the tool used to chop down a tree is made from the wood of the tree itself. The people are kept in line through fear of their fellow citizens.

a colonial era government building in downtown Rangoon

On another level, the book is a detective story, as Larkin  searches out the places where Orwell, as a young man, lived and worked. She visits all the towns where he was posted as an officer in the Imperial police force, starting in 1922: Mandalay in the country’s center; Myaungmya and Twante, in the Delta swamplands; the capital of Rangoon (now called Yangon by the junta); Moulmein, on the eastern peninsular; and Katha, in the foothills of northern Burma, which became the fictional setting for Burmese Days.

In her travels, she finds that many of the dwellings and buildings where Orwell lived and worked are still in use or now lie abandoned to dust and weeds. In each town, the people who befriend Larkin are etched in vivid portraits.

Lastly, the book is a chilling picture of what life is like on the Animal Farm in post-Nineteen Eighty-Four. Inertia, gloom, paranoia and absurdity color the days. The country stagnates, a tangible entropy unwinds downward, progress is systematically retarded: ancient taxis, held together with wire and prayers, rattle around potholes, all print and broadcast media are policed, information from the outside world is sketchy, tourists must register passports at hotels and guesthouses and state their next destination (duly recorded by the desk clerk). The Burmese themselves must inform the local authorities if anyone––Burmese or foreigner––stays overnight in their home. In such an environment, the people are expert at reading and decipher rumors, for they are often the most reliable clues to important events the government tries to suppress. Leaders of opposition groups, all brave souls, are routinely spied on, intimidated or jailed, and on and on. In one town, Larkin was required to visit nine governmental agencies to inform them that she had arrived in the town. In spite of the obstacles, the Burmese people somehow struggled on, carving out pockets of happiness in simple pleasures.

an outdoor bookshop in Rangoon

Larkin’s sympathies  for the Burmese people stand out, but she offers little hope for a better life anytime soon, and recent events confirm her pessimism. China, Russia and South Africa’s recent vetoes of the U.S. and British resolutions to place Burma’s human rights record on the U.N Security Council agenda confirms that brutal regimes have friends in the world. Asean, the organization of Southeast Asian nations, had a dismal record on Burma, defending its timid stance under its “softly, softly” rubric of Asian values and non-interference in a brother state’s internal affairs.

Meanwhile, millions of Burmese were displaced over five decades by a cold-blooded military machine, whose soldiers routinely rape women and burn villages and homes of ethnic citizens, causing them to flee to the safety of the jungle and border areas.

Burma under the bloody military regime was almost beyond belief, but then again, no. In colonial Burma, George Orwell first glimpsed the dark shadows where greed, lies and governmental repression can lead. Larkin takes us farther down that totalitarian road and deep into Burma’s darkness under the military regimes which turned Orwell’s prophetic nightmare into a frightening, daily reality.

bedside books

Novels and Novelist by Harold Bloom; his essay connecting Hemingway to Emerson, Whitman and Stevens, and to Pater’s theme that we have an interval  and then our place knows us no more, sums up why Hemingway’s stories and several novels are quintessentially American. Bloom writes judicial estimations of virtually all of the Western canon in this and another complementary volume.

Must We Mean What We Say by Stanley Cavell; his first book, written in a burst of manic philosophical  creativity shortly after his doctoral dissertation and before his  The Claim of Reason; his essay on Lear’s avoidance of love makes a nice bookend to Empson’s essay on Lear seen as renunciation of responsibility (see below). I like one review that said this work “reintroduced the book [literature] to philosophy.”

The Renaissance by Walter Pather; beautiful, well-carved prose in the service of the fully tasted, lived life through the prism of Europe’s intellectual and artistic flowering.

From the Land of Shadows by Clive James; I’m fascinated by his prosecutorial technique of finding a moral or intellectual opening and building the opposite case. The very high end of personal journalism/essays.

How the Swans Came to the Lake by Rick Fields; a history of Buddhism in America; affirms an Asiatic bedrock in American culture, especially as literary influence.

Pieces of My Mind by Frank Kermode; finely seasoned and reasoned literary essays.

Pleasing Myself by Frank Kermode; refreshing for nuanced judgment and lack of critical malice.

Emerson’s Fall by B. L. Packer; a dissection of the arc of Emerson’s heroic intellectual packaging of an American mind.

Back to the Sources edited by Harry W. Holtz; a thorough guide into the Kaballah, Talmud, Midrash, Hasidic masters,  Biblical narrative and poetry, and more.

The Books in My Life by Henry Miller; personal, unbounded prose energy focused on a search for kindred spirits in print.

The Gary Snyder Reader by Gary Snyder; a sure-footed, pure American spirit in service to literature and community.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; pent-up revenge, traces of fear, defensiveness and edenic loss; a sad song to consciousness in the spirit of the Romantic poets by a writer who places emotion beneath the surface of his prose.

The Structure of Complex Words by William Empson; a down-to-earth linguistic, literary criticism, bracing for the attention it demands; I’ve already downloaded free copies of Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral; such an original sensibility.

Zen koans

a rock on the ground in the Big Bend near the Rio Grande (photograph: roy hamric)

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Kyoto Journal.

The Blue Cliff Record: Zen Echoes by David Rothenberg; Codhill Press, 2001

the Zen koan

By Roy Hamric

But the poetry that thinks is in truth the topology of being.—Martin Heidegger

David Rothenberg’s book of poetry is based on his response to “The Blue Cliff Record,” the venerable koan collection, and has been launched with kudos from Sam Hamill, Frederick Franck and Mark Rudman, all esteemed poets.

Rothenberg is a poet and muscian, the author of “Sudden Music” and “Hand’s End,” and he is the founding editor of Terra Nova, a magazine devoted to deep ecology. A contributing editor at Parabola magazine,  he also teaches philosophy.

Hamill, the poet and translator, notes in a foreward the long tradition of writers reinterpreting the work of other writers, giving renewed life to key ideas and images. Rothenberg labels his poems “echoes,” and he freely plays with the Blue Cliff Records’ koans and the “pointing” verses, spinning off his own interpretation and images based on his perspective and poetic sense. As students of Zen learn, koan “cases” are presented in a straight forward narrative by the writer, and they’re usually followed by commentary and short verses intended to highlight aspects of the case, a sort of coda that offers the student a breakthrough perception or idea.

illustration by Jim Crump

Here is Rothenberg’s poem  “The Cat Could Have Lived,” based on  Case 63:

I took off my sandals, placed them on my head.

If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.

Of like hearts, like minds.

You two on the same road would know that.

You may murder the cat, it’s none of my business.

The sandals don’t purr, and torn they won’t scream.

If someone dies for them these puzzles matter.

You must try to care, if you wish to live.

Cumulatively, this type of Zen verse works something like a waterfall in Nature. We see the surface, and we are sometimes anesthetized by it, but we’re eventually led to wonder what’s behind this flow of words that sparkle inside our mind and endlessly circle around. These poems challenge, cajole, dare and nudge us deeper inside our mind and are worthy esthetic companions to the seemingly impenetrable koans.

Rothenberg knows his Zen esthetics. Slashing directness, grandiose overstatement and sharp minimalism are esthetic staples, and they are frequently used back to back in a line of Zen poetry. He understands the affect and mines this tension­­––”The great waves rise up a thousand feet”––but ”only a single shout is needed”––leading the reader one way only to be snapped back to simple reality.

Poems based on these fine points of Buddhist esthetics offer glimpses of mind working: mind rooted in a self viewing the world. Koan collections are primers on the affects of language on the mind, on the affects of language as the dancer-magician between our sense of external and internal.

Certainly, the best Zen poetry rests on compression.  For that reason, koans and poetry have always had a kinship in the hands of people like Rothenberg, who have something to say beyond mere words.

An excerpt from “It Takes A Word,” based on Case 11:

One right word is all it takes

it can smash the chains and break down he gates

Who knows such words?

––Look around you and see,

What’s the use of today?

shock the country, stir up the crowd

swallow all in one gulp and dwell in the clouds

Look back at that monk who could walk across water

Don’t let him get away with it:

“You smug fellow, if I had known you could conjure up wonders,

I would have broken your legs!”

Then he who speaks disappears

(he has said the word).

Zen teaching has always divided its methods between the body and the mind. Break down the body in unrelenting, regular sitting––allow the body to come to silence like a horse to water. Break down the mind in linguistic disjunction––allow the mind to severe the bind of language to meaning; make language revelatory: allow it to reveal the truth of being. Such approaches, throughout Zen history, alternate between using non-sensical language constructions and sublime poetic beauty. Take your pick, either one might do the job.

illustration by Jim Crump

Walter Benjamin, the astute critic of culture and mind, saw language itself as the primary subject of interest––and not just its role in creating a subject and object. He preferred to see language as a medium (in his case spiritual) where the absolute and the relative might be/are bridged. Rothenberg’s sense of poetry fits this view.

These poems have a sure, unforced lyrical touch.  But they are not about lyricism. They are about our unending mentality, about the mind’s inate naming and circling from the expressible to the inexpressible. They take the reader on an exhilarating ride through knotty koans and Zen poetry.

Their goal is small, to give pleasure, and large, no less than to reach the other side of the river of words run by so many poets over the centuries.

A war story

This review originally appeared in The Journalism Quarterly.

The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story by John Laurence. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002. 851 pages; $30 hbk.

A little War Goes a Long Way

By Roy Hamric

A later cover

John Laurence was among the best, the brightest, and the most unique of all the American war correspondents who reported from Vietnam. He arrived in Vietnam in 1965, in his early ‘20s, and he went on to work as a correspondent for CBS and ABC News. Laurence looked frail, more like a graduate student than a war correspondent, but few journalists took more risks or covered Vietnam longer–Peter Arnett and Horst Fass come to mind. Very few covered as many of the well-known battles, and–just as important–the deadly, daily skirmishes.

Covering so much combat, Vietnam-style (from the jungles to the Continental Hotel), cost Laurence dearly in emotional turmoil. His personal view of the war paralleled many of the troops’ attitudes. He began with absolutely no doubt about America’s role and ability to win. Later, both he and large numbers of troops felt differently–shifting from winning to just surviving and coming home. Few works of nonfiction (or fiction) have so much human drama, pathos, bravery and professional and human lessons embedded into the story. We also get an invaluable lesson manual on how war correspondents should, and should not, cover war.

GIs were regularly astounded that TV and print correspondents would voluntarily come in to  battlefields while troops were taking fire. The reports Laurence and his team (particularly cameraman Keith Kay and soundman Jim Clevenger) did for CBS television were staples of Walter Cronkite’s evening news broadcasts, riveting a national audience that was experiencing its own anguish over the war’s meaning and costs.

Strewn with laurels comparing this memoir to the war correspondence of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, the book is more artistic and powerful than one would expect.  It is likely to become a classic in Vietnam War literature. A seasoned storyteller, Laurence’s story was backed up by hundreds of sound tapes and film reports which he has used to reconstruct vivid prose scenes that carry a descriptive punch that pays  homage to what the camera and recorder can capture, and memory and emotions can recreate.

Few memoirs rise to such clarity in conveying the exhilaration, fears and rewards of war reportage, or the uplifting and heartbreaking memories many correspondents carried home, only to deal with privately away from the war. Laurence had his peers’ respect, especially the circle known as the “crazies” as opposed to the “straights.” The decompression base for the “crazies” was British photographer Tim Page’s Saigon apartment, known as “Frankie’s Place.”

The later years of the Vietnam War were equal parts marijuana, rock and roll, irony and cynicism for many in the military and press, along with professionalism, loyalty, devotion and bravery. Laurence’s professional and personal life navigated all those shores.

He  includes warm sketches of his fellow colleagues: Page, freelancer Michael Herr, CBS correspondent Hughes Rudd, writer Frances Fitzgerald, a contingent of British journalists, and, especially, Look correspondent Sam Castan (who died in combat), and freelance photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn (who were killed in Cambodia). Someone in that crowd, at some point, said, “This is our Paris.” They were right, only it was more dangerous.

Some gleanings from Laurence:

–The full truth of the Vietnam War (or any war) is never reported. Just one area: the carnage regularly inflicted on innocent civilians. In spelling out some reasons, Laurence takes you several notches up on the complexity scale of war coverage.

He was young, but older than most of the troops

–“The language of our daily journalism was insufficient,” Laurence says. “For all the facts we poured out of Vietnam, we might better have served the truth by broadcasting some of the letters the GIs wrote to their families.”

–“Of all the media,” he says, “perhaps still photography came closest to showing the truth.The best photographs captured a precise moment, holding it there for inspection, offering each image as a fragmentary symbol of someone’s reality. By the nature of their ambiguity, those pictures gave viewers the privilege of using their imaginations to interpret the reality.”

–Michael Herr’s masterwork “Dispatches” may have benefitted from sound recordings Laurence sent him that were made during a night battle involving a rowdy Army company at “Firebase Jay,” which–symbolically–could stand for “joint,” as in marijuana. To Laurence’s surprise, large numbers of GIs relaxed at night with dope, booze and blaring rock and roll–it was a template for “Apocalypse Now.

–In times of danger, war correspondents should follow the sergeants–they know what they’re doing. Officers may or may not.

Laurence digs deepest into his three tours in 1965-66, 1967-68 and 1970, but he takes his story up to his 1982 return to Vietnam and the country’s march to renewed prosperity. Students, war colleges, journalists and news organizations’ management can learn immense lessons from Laurence’s story.

If the newest crop of war correspondents read this book, they–and the public–will be well served.

Vietnamese writers

This review originally appeared in The Kyoto Journal.

Manao Journal

New Vietnamese Writing
from America and Viet Nam
Summer 2002 (vol. 14, no. 1)
186 pages

Two Rivers: Vietnamese writers

By Roy Hamric

Even as more recent wars and conflicts push memories of the Vietnam War farther into the past, the effects,  though lessening with time, go on within Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. “Two Rivers”  is an apt title for an issue of Manao, the literary journal published by the University of Hawaii, whose mission is to publish literature from Asia and the Pacific region.

This issue, featuring the work of 23 writers – in poetry, fiction and critical essays – captures the ironies, passions and lifestyles among Vietnamese in the homeland and the United States. Contemporary Vietnamese literature is as varied and complex as the country’s winding history – ranging from classical romantic poems to gritty nonfiction tales of Vietnamese gangs in the industrial suburbs of California.

The title “Two Rivers” carries multiple symbols: for the past and the present, for the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south, and for life today, as lived in Vietnam and in the United States. At its core, literature always carries a political-cultural subtext, and these stories and poems are no exception. Younger Vietnamese today in both countries are less attached to the nostalgia and loss experienced by their parents or grandparents but even so, their lives have been profoundly affected by the war.

Older Vietnamese-Americans were uprooted, fleeing the country in 1973, forcing many intellectuals and educated professionals into new lives, where they worked in menial jobs to survive in a new country. In the late 70s and early 80s, a second wave of “boat people” endured horrific experiences of brutality, rape, starvation, abandonment and long processing in refugee camps. In the late 80s, another wave immigrated, including political prisoners and offspring of American soldiers. Today, there are a little more than one million U.S. Vietnamese, compared to 80 million in Viet Nam, and another one million scattered around the world. The past’s shadow casts a stark dividing line across the work of many of these Vietnamese writers.

The poems of Nguyen Duy, one of Vietnam’s most respected writers, mourn the fading of traditional Vietnamese village culture, the source of so much wisdom and folklore.

“Viet Nam is, in a way, the name of a poem, not a war,” he writes in an essay, adding that Vietnam, in its rush to forge a more secure future, has itself contributed to cultural erosion while at the same time improving the economy. Traditional family life breaks down , as well as in the new-found homelands in the West, leaving the “deepest imprint on each one of us.”

Lyrical power flows through the work of many of the writers in this collection. The stylistic contrasts are greatest, perhaps, in the poetry of the homeland and the United States. Much of the homeland poetry is imbued with the echoes, imagery, flavor and wisdom-tradition that goes back to the “One Sourced Triple Teaching,” a treatise which united Viet Nam’s Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Zen and home-grown wisdom traditions during the Ly Tran dynasties (11th to 15th centuries). Anti-romanticism and a more post-modern tone flavors the US-based poets.

The last stanza from the “Cricket Song” by poet Lam Thi My Da of Hue, who served in a youth brigade engineering unit, reflects elements of the traditional style:

Please just let me be a cricket
Lying down in the green cradle where I began
While the dying day releases a single dewdrop
That trickles into my soul as a kiss, a tear.

Generally, the poetry and literature of the diaspora is more sardonic and clinically objective. The first stanza of the poem “In the Silicon Valley” by Phan Nhien Hao, who was educated in Saigon and Los Angeles, reflects a more detached, ironic view:

There are climates that can wear out shoes like acid
The view out the window is always cut by rain and sunlight,
And fuzzy calculations on a computer. I live in a valley where people will saw off their own leg to sell to buy a house.

The American poet and translator, Nguyen Ba Chung, in a critical essay surveying the past several decades, notes that overseas Vietnamese have recently acknowledged the blooming of a probing, more critical literature by Viet Nam writers, such as Nguyen Huy Thiep, Bao Ninh, Pham Thi Hoai, Nguyen Duy and Bui Ngoc Tan, dispelling the view held by some that the overseas community was the main hope for an esthetic and critical advance in Vietnamese literature.  The younger U.S. generation of writers, such as Barbara Tran, Christian Longworthy, Le Thi Diem Thuy, Mong-Lan, Le Bi, Thuong Quan and Khe Iem, are more focused on writing about their dual-identity lives than the political issues of the past.  Both approaches are serving to enrich Vietnamese literature.

Chung points out that the work of both groups, the two rivers, comes together in the overseas Vietnamese journals, such as Hop Luu (Confluence) Van Hoc (Literary Study), Van (Literature) and Tho (Poetry), which publish the work of both  homeland and overseas writers plus translations into Vietnamese of essays on Western critical theory, an important source of new ideas for Viet Nam writers.

Manoa editor Frank Stewart and his guest editors, Kevin Bowen and Nguyen Ba Chung, have assembled a rich sample of creative and critical literature that captures the crosscurrents  of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American writers.

The journal itself plays a significant role in putting back together at least some of the pieces of a literary culture that was shattered by decades of war.

Information on Manoa can be found at

gary snyder: Danger on Peaks

This review appeared in The Kyoto Journal:

Gary Snyder: Danger on Peaks

By Roy Hamric

“There is a point you can make that anything looked at with love and attention becomes very interesting,” – Gary Snyder. *

Gary Snyder’s Danger On Peaks, his 10th book of poetry, is further proof that since he first published Rip Rap in 1959 we’ve been in the midst of a rare weaving of life and art.

In a few more decades, it will probably be clear that Snyder has claimed the role of world icon of American poetry, bridging East and West, and his life will be a potent force as a model of committment to community and the natural world.

But what will become even clearer is that Snyder’s closest peers are  not only Han Shan, Stonehouse, Bassho, Ikkyu and the other red-blooded, Zen poets whose voices Snyder has extended into modern times, but also Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stephens and his close fellow Beat poets.

gary snyder

Snyder’s cultural impact in America and beyond has been two-fold – practically useful and spiritually useful, in the sense of giving coming generations a model of creative responsibility and right thinking. Over time, my feeling is that his poetic and social influence will likely trump even Thoreau’s place as a writer and man of nature. It will, at the least, be seen as a twentieth century extension of Thoreau’s fierce independence of nature. Such is Snyder’s accomplishment since his famous reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco 50 years ago.

Danger On Peaks is probably the most free and  personal of his poetry books so far. It’s not Old Man Snyder’s wisdom finally revealed, but it is wise. In his poetry, he’s never preached. Each poem hoes the Zen line in each line – naming and pointing. Simple, and yet…

Snyder’s poetry, even for America, is rigorous and hardy, a West Coast counterpart to a venerable American-consciousness lineage, inaugurated by Emerson. And yet, Snyder is also a true man of Zen. How the two esthetics mix is up to each reader to decide. But by looking at his poetry and his writing about poetry, we do get a clearer understanding of his art.

For starters, go back to a criticism that Emerson made, measuring the poets of his day. He said poetry should be written so that meaning trumps meter, which is not to say that poetry should be without meter. Real meaning must carry the day. But what is real meaning? Beside Emerson’s esthetic, which he struggled to apply in his own poetry, largely unsuccessfully, let’s place a question Snyder asked in an essay in A Sense of Place: “Is art an imposition of order on chaotic nature, or is art [also read language] a matter of discovering the grain of things, of uncovering the measured chaos that structures the natural world?” Add to that his view that the world is itself an on-going “making poem,” and we’re off into new esthetic territory. Snyder has laid down markers on how and why his poetry works. Naturally, it is closely linked to his spiritual search, which eventually led him, in 1956, to Zen practice in Kyoto. Extended zazen practice makes one extra sensitive to the role of words and language and their effects on mind. From there, it’s a small step to see the practice of poetry as words that find their right place, which approach consciousness, rather than are made by consciousness.

Snyder would, of course, cringe at being called a Zen poet. He is a poet in the fullest sense, writing in an American-Asian poetry lineage of anti-romanticism and modernism –no matter how far back Zen poetry extends in historical time, it is esthetically modern because it doesn’t rely on symbolic, theological or mythological influences.

Before he had met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and before he had arrived in Kyoto, Snyder, at age 24, had already seen his course: in a letter to his Buddhist pal PhilipWhalen in1954, fives years before Rip Rap was published, he wrote:

“I come to think more and more, poetry is a process and should be, in a Buddhist sort of way, didactic and sensual.” It all comes down to that: a  poetry of attention, almost invisibly instructive, and usually without a pronounced message – a fundamental reliance on words and ordinary reality to carry the “message” rather than tropes or symbols. Let “just that” create the meaning, thank you. The world “making” itself through open mind. The wise and instinctive will see.

While this is an old chestnut in Zen, it was no small feat for an unpublished, young American poet to base his esthetics on – “just that,” freshly seen and vividly laid down.

Snyder has always been wisely reticent in talking about his Zen practice. If we are lucky, though, we someday will get an autobiographical account of his Zen journey, and the people in his life.

In his Paris Review interview in 1992, he speculated a little on the role of zazen in his poetry.

“This taught me something about the nature of thought, and it led me to the conclusion – in spite of some linguists and literary theorists of the French ilk – that language is not where we start thinking. We think before language, and thought images come into language at a certain point. We have fundamental thought processes that are prelinguistic. Some of my poetry reaches back to that.”

Again, in an essay, “Language Goes Two Ways,” in A Place in Space, he talked about, “The way to see with language, to be free with it and to find it a vehicle of self-transcending insight, is to know both mind and language extremely well and to play with their many possibilities without any special attachment. In doing this, a language yields up surprises and angles that amaze us and that can lead back to unmediated, direct experience.” He went on to say, “But, creativity is not a unique, singular, godlike act of  ‘making something.’ It is born of being deeply immersed in what is – and then seeing the overlooked connections, tensions, resonances, shadows, reversals, retellings. What comes forth is new.”

The book is composed of six sections. Part one opens with a series of poems built around Snyder’s 1945 ascent of Mt. St. Helens (the year of Hiroshima) and its later eruption in 1980. The book ends in the period of 9/11 and the destruction of the carved Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Between, we get a full range of auto-biographical moments,  (truck stops, freeways, community workshops), glimpses of the natural world (mountains, rivers, fields, fauna), home life in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains, epiphanies, memories of earlier life, loves, the rhythm of friendship, his mother, assorted prose and haiku combinations and a final blessing gatha.

Here’s a sample of three short poems of the 97 poems that make up the book – many long, complex and demanding of multiple readings:

Steady, They Say

Clambering up the rocks of a dry wash gully,

Warped sandstone, by the San Juan River,

look north to stony mountains

shifting clouds and sun

– despair at how the human world goes down

Consult my old advisers

“steady,” they say


Work Day

They want –

Short lengths of 1” schedule 40 PVC

A 10’ chimney sweeping brush

Someone to grind the mower blades

A log chain,

My neighbors’ Spring Work

Chainsaw dust

Clay-clod stuck spade

Apple blossoms and bees

April Calls and Colors

Green steel waste bins

flapping black plastic lids

gobbling flattened cardboard,

far off, a backup beeper.

Like the coyote, the Native American symbol Snyder helped to put back into public consciousness in the early 60s, he has assumed many roles: mountain lookout, sailor, poet, translator, Buddhist, life-long meditator, counter-culture hero, essayist, agitator, government official and academic, while always casting a calm Bodhisattva aura as a worker for a better world.

This book is a hearty gift, another testament of art and faith from a rare talent. The poems show us again that the world of art and artful living is here now before our eyes and ears. Only the bravest poets have the confidence and mastery to rely on the ordinary to achieve the extraordinary. Traditionally, that has been the work of religious teachers.

Finally, here’s Snyder himself, as poet, on the mystery of mind and poetry:

How Poetry Comes to Me

It comes blundering over the

Boulders at night, it stays

Frightened outside the

Range of my campfire

I go to meet it at the

Edge of the light

*Paris Review Interview, 1992.

more mcmurtry

Finishing  Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry’s autobiography and musings on story telling, led me to look at his Film Flam again, a collection of trenchant, sometimes vituperative essays, almost all outlandishly funny, on films, Hollywood life and screenwriting. He has much to say about la viva Hollywood. He’s a quirky, prickly writer, quick to dissect motivation, to deflate pomposity, to exact revenge, which gives these essays a white-hot power in the critical, high irony mode of Vidal. Regardless of what he thinks of his books Hud, The Last Picture Show, and later Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove, they all made very good movies, a mighty, although secondary, achievement  itself. His dour assessment of his early novels, Leaving Cheyenne (Loving Molly), Horseman, Pass By (Hud) and The Last Picture Show, all written before he was 26 and made into movies, underscores the complexity of Bloom’s theory of  misreading.  The writer  is the last person to look to for an accurate judgment of the work. In one essay, he mentions an unfinished, run-away novel about  Hollywood. Let’s hope that he gets it under control and publishes it sometime. He knows Hollywood like he knows the West.

mcmurtry’s west

Last night, I finished my third reading of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry’s autobiography/memoir and a serious meditation on story telling. For me, it’s a definitive work on growing up in Texas  when the last links to the frontier were dying away. McMurtry’s family included early frontier settlers and his own young life, by today’s standards, was close to a frontier cowboy’s life. He grew up as a working cowboy until he went off to college. The contrast between his cowboy life and achieving the status of being one of the world’s most accomplished readers and bookmen is bracing. His approach to reading was more disciplined than mine, but we share many of the same memories of books and bookstores that entered our lives at close to the same time. We share the belief that if we don’t read at least a few hours every day we are deprived. The number of times that he mentions Hemingway, Mailer and Kerouac is significant. They dominated the scene as we grew up. In Bloom’s phrase, they made a space for themselves at the expense of others, and the space is not shrinking. Reading about another’s life whose interests are close to yours  is like reading your own life in a way. It’s hard to think of another writer with whom I share so much. McMurtry has had a sometimes testy, adversarial relationship with Texas writers (he probably doesn’t think so), which took Texas writers by surprise. The state had never had that sort of East Coast rivalry. McMurtry’s good side is the respect he pays to out-of-the-way places and people­­­­, his people really. He learns of his Pulitzer Prize when he  is speaking at a small college in Uvalde, Texas. He drives to almost the end of the road in Texas, to Pampa, to dedicate a library. He really eats regularly at the Dairy Queen, where he reads his Walter Benjamin. He has one of the biggest used bookstores in America, with 250,000 titles and counting, in his hometown of Archer City, population under 1,000 folks. It pleases me that the library I sold sits mainly on his bookstore’s shelves. One of McMurtry’s  books that will live a long time is Walter Benjamin. His other recent nonfiction books, Roads and Books will be followed by one on his women friends, and then, I hope, by a book solely devoted to his reading. Combined, they add up to a rich portrait of who he is, where he’s from, and how the life of the mind blossoms on its own terms.

On the American West, there’s no better guide than McMurtry. Some quotations:

My grandparents were­­­­­­, potent word, pioneers. They came to an unsettled place, a prairie emptiness, a place where no past was––no Anglo-Saxon past, at least, and not even much Native American past. Comanches, Kiowas, Kickapoos, and other tribal nomads had passed over and no doubt occasionally camped on the low hill where my grandparents stopped their wagon and made their home place.


The myth of the American cowboy was born of a brief twenty years’ activity just before railroads criss-crossed the continent north-south and east-west, making slow movement of livestock impractical. The romantic phase of cowboying ended well before my father was born, and yet its legacy of habit, costume, assumption, and to a reduced extent, practice formed the whole world I was born into in 1936.


What rodeos, movies, Western art, and pulp fiction all miss is the overwhelming loneliness of the westering experience. When my uncles (and even my father, for a year or two) were cowboying in the Panhandle they would eagerly ride horseback as much as thirty-five miles to a dance or social, and then ride back and be ready for work at dawn…. Many Westerners were alone so much that loneliness was  just in them, to a degree that finally made domestic and social relations difficult, if not secondary.


Cowboys are thought to be fearless, whereas my years as a cowboy were predominately fearful. Nothing that happened to me personally ever fit the archetype. I grew up on a rocky hill with an abundance of rattlesnakes yet never had a close brush with a snake. Stampedes are a staple of Western autobiography, generally made to seem terrifying. And yet I participated merrily in such modest stampedes as came my way, racing happily along beside the cattle, glad for a break in the boredom…


When I consider my books I sometimes feel the same uneasy breeze that my father felt as he contemplated the too meager acres where his own life began and ended. My achievement may not be too different from his; it may consist mainly of the good name I bore and the gifted and responsible son [James McMurtry, the singer] I will pass it on to. I think two or three of my books are good, just as he thought two or three of the many horses that he owned were good… . I would have liked my fiction to have a little more poise, a little more tact––but those are qualities that seem to have found their way into my son’s songs, and that is satisfaction enough.