Gary Snyder

Cobble of milky way,
straying planets,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles–
and rocky sure-foot trails…

-from “Riprap”

Born: May 8, 1930, San Francisco

Recently, a friend told me that Gary Snyder doesn’t consider himself part of the beat generation–but that the beat generation was formed by the writers who met up on the East Coast, such as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac before they came out to the West Coast to meet up with poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, and others who’d been publishing in underground mags. While that may be true, I’d always associated Gary with Jack Kerouac’s great and powerful book The Dharma Bums, at least until the past couple years when I began to understand how much Gary popped out of the seams of the beat generational 50s.

There is a certain label and media projection of the beats–a public relations’ eyeball–that needs to be transcended. Putting folks like Gary Snyder (or Gregory Corso, for example, who hated the label of beat) into that category is just an easy way of clumping them into something that’s understandable for young scholars. That’s sort of what this site has traditionally done: pull together the common players but then expand on them individually so that the transcendence hopefully is understood.

Gary was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. This mountainous area of the country gave Gary a lot of climbing and hiking experience. It also must have opened his young eyes to a world that abounded in an integrated, balanced way.

Gary attended Reed College in Oregon, where he met Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. The three were also roommates for a while. Later, Gary moved to San Francisco and lived in a little cottage near Berkeley. His post-graduate work included Indiana University, where he studied linguistics, and UC Davis (where was later a professor in the English Department).

While In San Francisco, he was studying Zen Buddhism and saving money to go to Japan. Also he wrote poetry and was a part of the growing circle that’s nowadays seen as the beat generation. Welch and Whalen had also moved to San Francisco. Let the poetry be known. Gary Snyder (who read “A Berry Feast”), Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia read at the Six Gallery (that famous night that appears to have bookmarked a defining moment, with the West and East Coast poets coming together) on October 7, 1955. During that year, Gary got to know Jack Kerouac and they took a hike up the Matterhorn, near Yosemite, which is described in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Gary also had let Jack know about his several watches up on Desolation Peak, which inspired Jack to make the same kind of pilgrimage and look-out (see the end of The Dharma Bums as well as Kerouac’s Desolation Angels).

In 1956, he began his “Mountains and Rivers without End” project, and also went to Japan for 12 years. According to an article at Eco-Books, Gary “studied Rinzai Zen Buddhism, worked as a researcher and translator of Zen texts, and traveled throughout Asia, including a 6 month sojourn in India where he met the Dalai Lama in 1962.” And I think of that grand farewell to Gary, as described in The Dharma Bums:

…His business was with the Dharma. And the freighter sailed away out the Golden Gate and out to the deep swells of the gray Pacific, westward across. Psyche cried, Sean cried, everybody felt sad.

Warren Coughlin said “Too bad, he’ll probably disappear into Central Asia marching about on a quiet but steady round from Kahgar to Lanchow via Lhasa with a string of yaks selling popcorn, safety-pins, and assorted colors of sewing-thread and occasionally climb a Himalaya and end up enlightening the Dalai Lama and all the gang for miles around and never be heard of again.”

Gary was heard of again.

Gary’s interest in culture, the environment, language, and Zen Buddhism pretty much drove him. Of course, these things are all intertwined–which anthropologic studies will tell you. When I studied anthropology, it was like learning what I already suspected: there’s a pyramid model of cultural systems: at the bottom is the environment, then technology, then economy, then polity, and finally ideology. The broad base of environment moves the rest. The peakish ideology (or philosophy/religion) is the slowest to change. Each level of this model influences the level on top of it. It’s like a model that can be applied to each and every culture on this planet, because it’s open-ended. Insert language, part of technology, I think. Gary’s works seem to have encompassed the whole of this system: he, probably from a young age, knew that everything was integrated, and admirably he has gone by that (not a model, but a way of understanding) in his life and studies.

Gary learned the Chinese language well. Early on, while still in San Francisco, upon a professor’s (Chen Shih-hsiang) encouragement, he attempted to translate, and basically understand, the writings of Han Shan’s (or cold mountain) poetry. Han Shan was a “hermit who scrawled his words on cave walls during the Tang dynasty” (see April’s issue of Wired Magazine and the “Talking to Strangers” article). Gary’s insight with translation was due to imagination, realizing that the habitat of Han Shan wasn’t much different than his mountainous upbringing in Oregon.

After residing in Japan for 12 years, Gary returned to the U.S., to the Sierra Nevadas. Here, I’d suggest getting A Place in Space, where Gary talks about his family life, bats dashing in and out of rooms, mosquitoes, squirrels coming in to nibble on their salad, meat bees, and mouse-proof containers. You can check Eco-Books for this book.

Gary has been recognized for his many contributions, not just to literature, but to ecological literature. His poetry includes: Riprap, Origin Press, 1959; Myths & Texts, Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1960; Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems; Four Seas Foundation, 1965; Mountains and Rivers Without End, Four Seasons Foundation, 1965; A Range of Poems, Fulcrum Press, 1966; The Back Country, Fulcrum Press, 1967; Earth House Hold, New Directions, 1969; Regarding Wave, Windhover Press, 1969; Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End Plus One, Four Seasons Foundation, 1970; Turtle Island, New Directions, 974; He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, Grey Fox Press, 1979; Axe Handles, North Point Press, 1983; Passage through India, Grey Fox Press, 1983; Left out in the Rain, North Point Press, 1986; and No Nature, Pantheon Books, 1992.

His Mountain and Rivers Without End project was begun on April 8, 1956 (talk about devotion) and is considered an “epic of geology, prehistory, and mythology.” When Snyder published this volume in 1996, he was awarded the honorable Bollingen Poetry Prize, the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award (from the LA Times), the Orion Society’s John Hay Award, the 1997 Award for Poetry from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association, and the Freedom of Expression Award from Focus magazine. He had also won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975 for Turtle Island, and No Nature made Snyder a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992.

Gary is not only associated with the beats, but also with Black Mountain Poetry. He has been called the modern-day Henry David Thoreau. He has been described as an eco-poet and an eco-warrior.

Gary Snyder’s characters in some of Kerouac’s books are Jarry Wagner in Desolation Angels, Japhy Ryder in Dharma Bums, and Gary Snyder in Vanity of Duluoz.

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