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Gary Snyder is one of the most important American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. A translator and essayist as well, he has written with eloquence and grandeur in celebration and defense of the natural world. winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, his intelligent and provocative poetry and essays have contributed to a greater knowledge of, and greater respect for, the natural world and its inhabitants.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life and Education
Gary Sherman Snyder was born to Harold and Lois Wilkey Snyder on May 8, 1930, in San Francisco. Roughly a year and a half after Snyder’s birth, his family moved to a farm north of Seattle. The Depression-era work ethic of Snyder’s family and the local foresters would have a permanent impact on his writings.
Snyder acquired an early love of reading, in part through the influence of his mother, also a writer, and his weekly visits to the library. His teenage years were marked by reading the works of John Muir and Robinson Jeffers, two environmental writers to whom critics have pointed as Snyder’s literary progenitors. However, Snyder’s early reading habits were almost as widely defined as those of his adult years, ranging from literary to anthropological readings, from essays to poetry, from both Anglo-American and Native American traditions.
In 1942, the Snyder family moved to a low-income housing facility in Portland, Oregon. His parents’ marriage ended shortly thereafter, and Snyder and his younger sister, Anthea, stayed with their mother. During his high-school years, Snyder worked at a camp on Spirit Lake in Washington, and in 1945, he climbed Mount St. Helens with a climbing party from the local YMCA. He later joined a mountaineering club and spent much of his free time exploring. Mountains would become a recurring theme in much of his writing, including his magnum opus Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996).
Higher Education and Life as Japhy Ryder
In 1947, Snyder entered Reed College, in Oregon, on a scholarship. He published his first poems in its student publications, and he commenced his lifelong friendship with fellow poets Lew Welch and Philip Whalen. Snyder also became seriously involved with anthropological and archaeological work, and in 1950, he worked on his first archaeological site at Fort Vancouver.
After spending the summer following his graduation working as a member of an Oregon logging operation, he hitchhiked to Indiana University to begin his graduate study in anthropology. In 1952, Snyder left graduate school and divorced his wife, whom he had married the previous year. Soon after, he moved to San Francisco, where he lived with his college friend, Whalen. He returned to graduate school in 1953, enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley to study Asian languages.
In California, Snyder met the poet Kenneth Rexroth, the elder statesman who served as mentor for writers who were known later as ”The San Francisco Renaissance,” a group including Snyder, Michael McClure, and City Lights publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the fall of 1955, Snyder met and became close with Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg, Snyder met and befriended Jack Kerouac. In his novel of Zen philosophy and mountain-climbing experiences, The Dharma Bums (1958), Kerouac immortalizes Snyder as ”really sharp … Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture.” This association led to Snyder’s somewhat mistaken grouping with the Beats—although he shared many of the principles of Beat poetry, his own poetry was less concerned with the urban world of social ills than with an attention to nature and the political significance of man’s interactions with it.
Zen and Nature as Touchstones
Although affiliated with, and working in, San Francisco, Snyder had been able to leave the city every summer and work in the forests of the Pacific Slope. His time as a fire lookout became important in both his spiritual and stylistic development, as did his work as a member of a trail crew in Yosemite. In many examples from ”Lookout’s Journal” (an account of his outdoor summer work), one can see the use of prose and poetry simultaneously—one of the first signs that Snyder would become a major prose stylist. This selection also shows evidence of the Eastern thought that infuses much of his later work after his study of Zen Buddhism. Zen complements his poetic practice in two important ways: sparse description and direct capture of the natural world.
In the beginning of 1956, Snyder lived with Kerouac in a shack on a hillside in Marin County, California. He soon left for Japan, where he entered a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto and practiced Zen meditation. Although he left the school shortly thereafter, he never abandoned his Zen practice; the philosophy is evident in many of his subsequent works. What emerged from those studies is a poetry that is deceptively simple, rather than superficially simplistic. In accordance with the teachings of Zen, Snyder envisions the world as a network of relationships unapproachable by traditional Western logic, rather than as a conglomeration of things that can be identified, codified, and rationalized. Snyder would remain in Asia, on and off, for over a decade.
Snyder published his first volume of poetry, Riprap, in 1959. It is a collection of poems about his experiences in the backwoods of the American Far West and on his early experiences in Japan. He defines ”riprap” at the start of his collection as ”a cobble of stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains.” Accordingly, Snyder traces a trail for his readers to follow, providing the necessary footing for his audience. The volume contains some of his best and strongest poems, among them ”Riprap,” ”A Stone Garden,” and ”Praise for Sick Women.” The last poem is particularly important to an understanding of Snyder’s view of women in general—that they remain closely bound to the earth, both in poetic image and in his own regard.
Gary Snyder was an unabashed lover of women, and while abroad, he married his second wife, Joanne Kyger, whom he would divorce five years later. His next spouse, Masa Uehara, would remain so for twenty years, and they would have two children together: Kai and Gen. This nuclear family life figured prominently in Snyder’s work. After his divorce from Uehara, Snyder wed Carole Koda, to whom he was married until her death in 2006.
Prolific Years in Poetry and Prose
While in Asia, Snyder published a steady stream of poetry and prose including Myths & Texts, a long poetic sequence that Snyder composed between 1952 and 1956 and was published in 1960; Six Sections from Mountains & Rivers without End, and a new edition of Riprap, which included his translations of the ”Cold Mountain Poems” of the ancient Chinese poet Han Shan, in 1965.
Environmentalism and Education
Upon his return to California in 1968, Snyder built a sustainable, self-sufficient home on land he had purchased with Ginsberg and others in Sierra Nevada foothills. Snyder, his family, and some like-minded neighbors sought a way of life that honored the nonhuman world. As he and his wife raised their two sons, family life found its way into Snyder’s art, notably in Regarding Wave and Turtle Island.
While Turtle Island won him a Pulitzer in 1975, for Snyder, the 1970s and the 1980s were a time for publishing more prose and essay pieces—mainly focused on environmentalism—and less poetry (though he would be the recipient of a number of poetry prizes during this period). He would also begin his career as an English professor at the University of California at Davis.
In his 1995 collection, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds: New and Selected Prose, Snyder offers an optimistic reflection: ”The need for ecological literacy, the sense of home watershed, and a better understanding of our stake in public lands are beginning to permeate the consciousness of the larger society.” His calls for sustainable living scenarios and respect for the environment have found new relevance in recent years.
No other contemporary poet has been quite so successful at blending Eastern and Western poetic traditions. Much of Snyder’s poetry is based on the Japanese haiku— sharp, uncomplicated images that, like many Asian paintings, form sketches that the reader’s imagination must fill in. But Snyder also acknowledges his debt to D. H. Lawrence, Kenneth Rexroth, Robinson Jeffers, William Butler Yeats, and Ezra Pound.
Works in Literary Context
Snyder had a penchant for myth since childhood, especially the creation myths of the Native Americans he read about in books. After his extensive study of Buddhism and Asian texts and languages, Snyder drew a clear point of congruence between the East and West in the American Indian and in the myths he created to explain his universe. In its nonlinear progression and abundance of allusion, most notably to Buddhist and Native American sources, his collection of poems entitled Myths & Texts presents challenges to the reader akin to those found in modernist epics such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In the final poem of the work, he pits myth—the invented, sacred story—and text—historical and realistic—against one another, and ultimately reconciles the two.
It is interesting to note that Snyder, mythologized as Japhy Ryder, was a character in a book before he wrote one himself. It is even more amusing to read Kerouac’s passages and realize they are only modestly fictionalized, so in thrall was Kerouac to Snyder.
Snyder’s pull toward Eastern religion, language, and literature would be another distinguishing characteristic that set him apart from his Beat Generation contemporaries. Indeed, for the majority of the sixties, when the counterculture was making its mark, Snyder was studying and traveling in Japan, India, and other parts of Asia, meditating on Zen Buddhism and writing poetry that had little to do with the urban-centered art his friends were creating. He was also honing his skills as a translator, working on an English version of the work of Chinese poet Han Shan. Han Shan, ”a mountain madman” and poet of the T’ang dynasty (618-906), along with his constant companion, Shihte, became models for Snyder, exemplars of a common character in Chinese literature—the wise fool. Arthur Sze (1950-), a Chinese American poet, can be seen as a natural heir to Snyder. Sze’s poetry touches on the interconnectedness of humans and nature, Zen Buddhism, and a commitment to exploring environmental issues.
Works in Critical Context
Critics in the late sixties and seventies posited that the simplicity and cleanness of the language in Snyder’s poetry has made it accessible to youthful audiences that often distrust more complex lyricism. Poet and critic G. S. Fraser wrote in the Partisan Review that Snyder ”is one of the poets whom the young enormously overrate, perhaps because they fear complexity.” A similar sentiment is expressed by Robert Boyers, also writing in the Partisan Review, Snyder’s poetry is ”monotonous, flat and superficial, and probably for those reasons is much esteemed by a variety of people, most of them young.” Nevertheless, the voices of Fraser and Boyers form a minority dissent. Thomas Parkinson wrote that Snyder is ”a skillful poet, and his work develops steadily toward more thorough and profound insight.”
Snyder used an old Seneca word for North America when he titled his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Turtle Island (1974). He made light of the fact that he wished to be a spokesman for nature in the work, and one section was devoted to essays on ecology. The critical response to Turtle Island was mostly positive, and some, like Katsunori Yamazato, praised Snyder’s cross-cultural vision and sensitivity to the progression of his understanding of the natural world and his place in it. ”Snyder believes that, in its anthropocentric view of the world, modern industrial civilization—East and West—has tended to ignore the lives of other beings that coexist with humanity. From this general tendency, it has earned the ecological crisis that we witness today. Turtle Island offers the reader not only a sense of ‘how to be’ in a world with just such an ecological crisis but also, in Charles Molesworth’s words, ‘a new sense of what it means to be human.”’
However, some critics and readers felt that its ecopolitics and polemicism—heavy-handed arguments—detracted from the work. Writing in the New York Review of Books Herbert Leibowitz commented that, ”[Snyder] is on the side of the gods. But as [the poet] remarks, ‘Poetry is the vehicle of the mystery of voice,’ and the voice of Turtle Island, for all its sincerity and moral urgency, lacks that mystery and ‘inspired use of language’ we call style.”
- Charters, Anne, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 16, The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Post-War America. Dearborn, Mich.: Gale Research, 1983.
- Halper, John, ed. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.
- Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking, 1958.
- Yamazato, Katsunori. ”How to Be in This Crisis: Gary Snyder’s Cross-Cultural Vision.” In Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, ed. Patrick D. Murphy. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991. pp. 230-247.
- Zhou, Xiaojing. ”’The Redshifting Web’: Arthur Sze’s Ecopoetics.” In Ecological Poetry: A Critical Introduction, ed. J. Scott Bryson. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001, pp. 179-194.
- Boyers, Robert. ”Mixed Bag.” Partisan Review (Summer 1969): vol. 36, 306-315.
- Fraser, G. S. ”The Magicians.” Partisan Review (Winter 1971-1972): vol. 36, 469-78.
- Lebowitz, Herbert. ”Ecologies of the Finite and the Infinite.” New York Review of Books 2 (March 23, 1975): vol. 69.
- Parkinson, Thomas. ”The Poetry of Gary Snyder.” Southern Review 2 (1968): vol. 69, 616-632.
- Ansel Adams. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http://www.anseladams.com.
- Department of English, UC Davis. Gary Snyder. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from http:// english.ucdavis.edu/people/directory/fzsnyder.
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