How we go on? While thinking about this basic existential question, I came back to a small gem of a poem, Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles.” In the poem, Snyder addresses one of the ways that we indeed do go on: through relationships. He includes a number of relationships: teacher to pupil, older poet to younger, and father to son. Not only do we propagate and continue the life of the species by having children, but it is through these and all relationships that we gain meaning and enrich our lives. Snyder suggests that it is through relationship that we are shaped and give shape to others. We learn how to go on from those whom we meet. “Axe Handles” is a beautiful poem; it’s probably best to say little about it. The poem also suggests that though art, by taking the time to observe and record what we see, we draw meaning, we appreciate what is, and we go on. Here is Gary Snyder’s poem.
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with –“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature” – in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.