"For Plants" is a meditation on the mythical and magical properties of certain psychoactive plants. The poem is written in free verse consisting of forty-two lines in roughly seven sections. Poets sometimes make lists of persons or places or things in poems. Gary Snyder uses this catalog form in "For Plants" to present several plants known since ancient times to possess medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. The effect of the rhythmic repetition of strange or exotic plant names in Snyder’s catalog is often like an incantation.
The poem begins with a four-line stanza that describes the gathering of psychedelic mushrooms. The stanza simply and effectively conveys the sense of mystery and power that surrounds the fungus. The image of an "ancient virgin" (perhaps a goddess or priestess) gathering magic mushrooms in a dark forest casts a meditative spell and draws the reader into the poem.
The next stanza is about peyote. In this stanza, there is no human involvement other than via the poet’s observation. The poet instead focuses on the cactus plant, which, like some natural gift or "dream-child bud," is found "glowing in hollow desert." The image of the peyote as childlike confers the qualities of innocence, purity, and even holiness upon this hallucinogenic substance. In fact, the poet refers to the peyote as "the holy baby."
The following stanza addresses the thorn apple or datura in four short lines. Legend has it that the priests of Apollo at Delphi valued the plant highly and used the leaves to give inspiration for prophecies. The poet’s mention of "datura highsmoke" refers to the fact that the leaves were often smoked for narcotic effect. The poem also alludes to the belief that the thorn apple was used as a drug by the early settlers at Jamestown.
In continuing the catalog, the next section offers a glimpse of hashish being handed by sailors from supply boat to ship in some unnamed harbor. Hashish is a powerful derivative of marijuana.
In the following scattered lines, there are references to cascara, or the buckthorn shrub, and calamus, often found growing wild and also known as sweet rush. Cascara is native to Northwestern North America, and its dried bark is used as a stimulant and cathartic. Calamus historically was employed as a flavoring for wine spirits. The poet offers homage to calamus, with its strong cinnamon scent, whose "cut bark is vapor/ of paradise odor."
The final stanza presents an image of the goddess Artemis, the Greek virgin goddess of the hunt and moon, and twin sister of Apollo. Here Artemis is seen in nonhuman form as a naked sprout, the first plant to emerge from the world’s first seed. Artemis may refer to the "ancient virgin" in the first stanza and thus serves to unify the poem and give it a sense of closure.
Forms and Devices
"For Plants" was published in Back Country
(1967), a collection of poems that dealt with nature and the wilderness. Gary Snyder’s poetry has often been compared to that of Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, two poets who wrote poems inspired by what has been called a "Western literary imagination.
" Such poetry takes the wilderness as its main subject and stresses a reverence for its personal and social value. The poet (who is usually alone in this type of poem) is barely present. The poet’s voice is that of an impersonal, solitary observer in meditation. It is a voice that speaks for the vitalizing and essential sacredness of nature.
Though Snyder had read and absorbed much from Henry David Thoreau and Jeffers, it was Rexroth and Asian Buddhist nature poetry that influenced him the most. In the 1920’s, Rexroth began to write poems about his backpacking trips into the wild and unspoiled far West. He rejected traditional Romantic nature poetry and instead embraced a direct, nonintellectual approach to his subject.
Therefore, the form of "For Plants" is derived from both Asian nature poetry (specifically Buddhist) and sensibilities explored by Rexroth in his mountain poetry. The poem has, first, a wilderness setting, though in this case the exact location is unspecified. This lack of a definite sense of place results from the fact that each of the plants described is physically rooted to a different landscape in nature. The mushroom of the first stanza grows on the soft, decaying floor of a dark forest. In contrast, the second plant described, peyote, is found in the arid terrain of the Southwestern desert.
Like Rexroth, Snyder writes in concrete language, avoiding abstraction. In "For Plants," his choice of words is plain and sparse as in "sky is solid rainbow/ squash maiden/ corn girl." Such brevity adds to the effect of understatement and objectivity. The lyrical flow of such language as "ear, eye, belly/ cascara calamus" is evidence of Snyder’s concern for the sound of poetry as well.
Snyder uses imagery in "For Plants" to convey the immediacy of direct observation. Abstraction is avoided, as in the direct statement, "gum of hashish/ passt through the porthole" Similarly, the poet describes the peyote plant in language simple but imaginative enough to give a mental representation that captures the essence of its "faceted jewel bush" appearance. This use of imagery is reminiscent of the qualities found in the poetry of Ezra Pound and in haiku, the Japanese short-form poem.
The most important organizing device in "For Plants" is the list or catalog. This cataloging of plants gives the poem its vertical nature. As the poem is read, it seems to unroll from beginning to end much like a scroll. The final image of the seed paradoxically becomes both the end of the poem and a beginning.