City and river without end

jc-mg-200-names.jpgThe talk was billed as "L.A. Stories: Gary Snyder." And it brought a crowd to the LA Public Library late Friday afternoon to hear the grand old man of the Beat generation. But the real showstopper was our own Lewis MacAdams, the poet laureate of the LA River.

MacAdams said he came downtown just to "listen to Gary" at "Tales from Two Cities: Stories from California," a conference put together by USC historian Bill Deverell, LA Times book critic David Ulin, and William Randolph Hearst III. A San Francisco version of the conference took place in the fall. Both are now online at, a venture backed by Hearst.

Snyder proceeded to tell the long story of his friendship with MacAdams, dating from the time they did a poetry performance for Greenpeace in the late 1960s. Those were the days, Snyder reminisced, when "we tried to save the world by giving poetry readings and selling cookies."

A few years later, Snyder said, MacAdams told him that he and some artist friends had decided to "cheer up the Los Angeles River." They "read poems to it, sang to it, danced for it, and here's the important point," Snyder remembered, "Lewis asked permission of the river to speak on its behalf to the human beings. And, I presume, he got it."

The rest is history, the history of Friends of the Los Angeles River, which Snyder recounted in a very loose fashion, saying to MacAdams, who was in the audience, "Lewis, you can correct me if I'm really badly off. But if it's just a minor mistake, don't bother."

Snyder read his own poem "Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin" from his book-length Mountains and Rivers Without End, a surprisingly contemplative take on the city, comparing the night lights of LA freeways to calligraphy, and goldfish rising to feed in a pond to the "churn and roil" of fame in the city's star-making machinery.

MacAdams and Snyder.jpgThen Snyder invited MacAdams on stage to read his poem "The Voice of the River." MacAdams introduced the poem by noting that he had heard that a plaque by the river with a fragment of the poem is now covered in graffiti.

"I told myself, 'Welcome to LA,' once again," he said, and then launched into a full-throated reading of a poem that hears "the "I-5, the 110, the L.B.," "the screeching metal" of a Metrolink commuter train, "news choppers" overhead, and "the howling ambulance sirens followed by the coyote pack's howl," "the River singing through the passing railroad cars," "the scream of a fishhawk, the flapping of a hundred pigeons," and "a Great Blue Heron's sorrowful honk."

"The Voice of the River" also hears the numbing language of "the endless meetings, always one or two more, the laptops clicking, the TMDL's, the BMP's, the RFP's, the SSO's and the UAA's; the murmuring bureaucrats, the sharp whack of gavels, the deep voice of command."

Still, as MacAdams wrote and read aloud, ultimately bringing the house down: "At the center of itself / the River is silence, / and that's where I come in: / with the sounds in my head / and the words in my heart."

Photo by Gary Leonard.

More by Jon Christensen and Mark Gold:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed