Editors’ Notes: In our latest addition to Clio’s Fancy, Charles Greifenstein touches on the relationship between poetry and anthropology through the letters between the poet Gary Snyder and the sociolinguist Dell Hymes.

In these folders, one finds the most intriguing things. Drawings labelled “Chart of World Symbols”; a letter in crayon; gossip about teachers and girlfriends; what the author is reading, and what he thinks of it; what the author is thinking when he is not reading; what the author is writing (other than letters); how the author and correspondent will survive in the academic world. The author sometimes signs his letters “Aleksandr Leitswics” (“light switch?”). And there is poetry:

Only Mouse-woman
Grandmother of the tides
Knows the undersea sweep,
Twist of the black wave
Roll of the fierce fish bodies
Following seaweed outward;
The trail to killerwhale village[1]

They were written by a young man who was finding his way, bubbling with ideas and stories and visions of places and words, words, overflowing words, but not yet seeing clearly where they would carry him.

Snyder to Hymes, Jun. 10, 1952. Dell Hymes Papers. American Philosophical Society.

The letters and poems were written to Dell Hymes, sociolinguist, folklorist, and anthropologist, by his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, whom he met at Reed College. They corresponded (if a bit haphazardly) throughout Hymes’s life, but it is the concentration of correspondence in the early to mid-1950s that sparkles.[2]

Neither man had settled quite yet. Hymes, who wrote poetry, too, was more clearly on the academic path. In the earliest correspondence, Snyder still saw a potential career in academia and enrolled in Indiana University, where Carl Voegelin headed the anthropology department and where Hymes was already a student. But for Snyder, the pull of Asia and the Buddhist tradition was already irresistible, and he was soon back on the West Coast. Poetry, Asia, and environmental activism became the foci of his life.

While still contemplating an academic career, Snyder in 1951 wrote:  

My formulation is . . . that since culture is transmitted in great part by language, and this Linguistic material must be—for mnemonic reasons; given some form—and this form usually song, tale, myth—there may be some interesting possibilities in correlative studies of Linguistic, Literary, and Cultural form as having more bearing on each other than we have suspected.[3]

This formulation could be applied to what both men believed was “sociolinguistics,” a term Hymes would coin. Hymes went on to great academic success, defining the very nature of the discipline through the journals he edited, the works he wrote, the students he taught, and the organizations he led. But Synder was not temperamentally suited for the academy. In a letter probably from 1954, Snyder calls himself a “dissident intellectual” and a “Confucian anarchist.”[4] His intellectual pursuits would not be in an academic discipline; his center would be Zen Buddhism:

It seems settled, now, that Zen is going to be my lookout and supply-dump. Both psychologically and as a tradition, it will make as good a base as any for attacks, pronouncements, exhortations, (poems & novels) and serious anthropological-critical-philosophical scholarship. Not that I would ever assert that “artists need to ally themselves with a specific tradition” or that there is any reason to think that Zen has the corner on sharp, penetrating, unselfconscious (in the good sense of the term) perception; simply that I find it personally congenial.[5]

It is not rare in the American Philosophical Society Collections to find such good material; they are not the only literary pieces held in the collections, even when not collected as literature. There are anthropologists who were poets (we have all of Edward Sapir’s anguished files about publishing his poetry), a scientist who hung out with literati (the collection has hundreds of letters to population geneticist Raymond Pearl from fellow Baltimorean H.L. Mencken). But the letters to Dell Hymes from Gary Snyder are unique in the collections; they show the early development of a major American poet, who did not quite become an anthropologist, for he realized the flow of words would carry him elsewhere.

[1] Poem enclosed by Synder, in letter to Hymes not dated but April or May 1951. Dell Hymes Papers, American Philosophical Society.  The poem is entitled “Wiaslaslatkgulnexlalyo” and glossed “Woman’s name: Killer Whales are Ready to go Up v. Tsimshian Mythology.”

[2] The letters Dell Hymes wrote to Gary Snyder—Hymes signed his letter “Crankshaft”—are in the Special Collections of the University of California Davis, where Snyder is professor emeritus and where he has donated his papers: https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf1489n5dm/dsc/?query=dell%20hymes;dsc.position=7501;#hitNum1

[3] Snyder to Hymes, Oct. 27, 1951. Dell Hymes Papers. American Philosophical Society.

[4] Snyder to Hymes, April 2, probably 1954.  Dell Hymes Papers, American Philosophical Society.

[5] Snyder to Hymes, dated “third month twenty-first day year of the serpent” (Mar. 21, 1953). Dell Hymes Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Charles Greifenstein: contributions / cgreifenstein@amphilsoc.org / Associate Librarian & Curator of Manuscripts American Philosophical Society