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Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder (born May 8, 1930) is an American poet (often associated with the Beat movement) and an environmental activist who is frequently described as the 'laureate of Deep Ecology'; both reflecting his studies of Buddhist spirituality and nature. Snyder is also a social critic whose views have shared something in common with Lewis Mumford, Aldous Huxley, Karl Hess, Aldo Leopold, and Karl Polanyi.


Early life

Snyder was born in San Francisco, California to Harold and Lois Snyder. His family, impoverished by the Great Depression, moved to Washington when he was two, where they tended a small dairy and made cedar-wood shingles, then moved to Portland, Oregon ten years later. During the ten childhood years in Washington, Snyder became aware of the presence of Coast Salish people and developed an interest in American Native peoples in general and their traditional relationship with nature. As an adolescent, he worked as a camp counsellor, and went mountain climbing with the Mazamas youth group.

In 1947, he started attending Reed College as a scholarship student. Here he met, and for a time roomed with, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. At Reed, Snyder published his first poems in a student journal. He also spent a summer working as a seaman (an experience he was to repeat in the mid 1950s). In 1951, he graduated with a BA in Anthropology and literature and spent the summer working as a timber scaler in the Warm Springs Indian Reserve, experiences which formed the basis for some of his earliest published poems, later collected in the book Riprap. Snyder worked the next year as a fire lookout for a national-park area. He also encountered the basic ideas of Buddhism and, through its arts, some of the Far East's traditional attitudes toward nature. Going on to Indiana University to study anthropology (where Snyder also practiced self-taught Zen meditation), he left after a single semester to return to San Francisco and to 'sink or swim as a poet'.

The Beats

Back in San Francisco, Snyder lived with Whalen, who shared his growing interest in Zen Buddhism. Snyder's reading of the writings of D.T. Suzuki had in fact been a factor in his decision not to continue as a graduate student in anthropology, and in 1953 he enrolled with the University of California, Berkeley to study Oriental culture and languages. Snyder continued to spend summers working in the forests and one summer as a trail builder in Yosemite. He spent some months in 1955 living in a cabin in Mill Valley with Jack Kerouac. It was also at this time that Snyder was an occasional student at the American Academy of Asian Studies, where Saburo Hasegawa and Alan Watts, among others, were teaching.

Snyder met Allen Ginsberg when the latter sought Snyder out on the recommendation of Kenneth Rexroth. This period provided the materials for Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums. It is sometimes said, with good reason, that Kerouac protrayed the main characters in his early novels as loving a dionysian life with more chaos in it than the norm of the era. As the large majority of people in the Beat movement had urban backgrounds, writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac found Snyder, with his backcountry and manual-labor experience and interest in things rural, a refreshing and almost exotic individual. Lawrence Ferlinghetti later referred to Snyder as 'the Thoreau of the Beat Generation'.

Snyder read his poem "A Berry Feast" at the famous poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco (October 13 1955) that heralded what was to become known as the San Francisco Renaissance. This also marked Snyder's first involvement with the Beats, although he was not a member of the original New York circle, but rather entered the scene through his association with Kenneth Rexroth.

As recounted in Kerouac's Dharma Bums, even at age 25 Snyder felt he could have a role in the fateful future meeting of West and East. Snyder's first book, Riprap, which drew on his experiences as a forest lookout and on the trail crew in Yosemite, was published in 1959.


Independently, a number of the Beats such as Philip Whalen had become interested in Zen, but Snyder was one of the more serious scholars of the subject among them. He, in fact, became a trainee, spending most of the period between 1956 and 1968 in Japan, studying Zen first at Shokoku-ji and later in the Daitoku-ji monastery in Kyoto, then finally living for a while with a group of other people on a small, volcanic island. His previous study of written Chinese assisted his immersion in the Zen tradition (with its roots in Tang Dynasty China) and enabled him to take on certain professional projects while he was living in Japan.

Snyder decided not to become a monk and planned eventually to return to the United States to 'turn the wheel of the dharma'. He was married for a few years to another American poet, Joanne Kyger, who lived with him in Japan.

During this time, he published a collection of his poems from the early to mid '50s, Myths & Texts (1960), and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965). (This last was the beginning of a project that he was to continue working on until the late 1990s.) Much of Snyder’s poetry expresses experiences, environments, and insights involved with the work he has done for a living: logging, fire lookout, steam-freighter laboring, translation of texts, carpentry, and life on-the-road presenting his poetry, among other such subjects.

Ever the participant-observer, during his years in Japan Snyder not only immersed himself in Zen practice in monasteries but also was initiated into Shugendo, a form of ancient Japanese animism. (See also Yamabushi.) As well, in the early '60s he travelled for some months through India with wife Joanne and Allen Ginsberg. Snyder and Joanne Kyger separated soon after the travel in India, and were later divorced.

He continued to educate himself - on subjects like geomorphology and forestry. These sorts of interests have probably surfaced as much or more in his essays and interviews as in his poetry.

Snyder lived for a time with a group of Japanese back-to-the-land drop-outs on Suwanose Island, where they beach combed, gathered edible plants, and fished. On the Island, he married Masa Uehara, the mother of Snyder's two sons.

In 1968 his book The Back Country appeared, again a collection of poems stretching back over a couple decades.

Later life and writings

Regarding Wave, a stylistic departure offering poems that were more emotional, metaphoric, and lyrical appeared in 1969. In the late 1960s and after, the content of Snyder's poetry increasingly has to do with family, friends, and community. He continued to publish poetry throughout the 1970s, much of it reflecting his re-immersion in life on the American continent and his involvement in the re-inhabitation (or back to the land) movement in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California. His 1974 book Turtle Island, named for the aboriginal name for the North American continent, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

He also wrote a number of essays outlining his views on poetry, culture, social experimentation, and the environment. Many of these were collected in Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977), The Real Work (1980), The Practice of the Wild (1990), A Place in Space (1995), and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999). In 1978, Snyder published He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, based on his Reed thesis. Snyder's journals from his travel in India in the mid 1960s appeared in 1983 under the title Passage Through India.

In 1985, Snyder became a professor in the writing program at the University of California, Davis. Here he began to influence a new generation of authors interested in writing about the Far East, including novelist Robert Clark Young.

As Snyder's involvement in environmental issues and his teaching grew, he seemed to move away from poetry for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, in 1996 he published the complete Mountains and Rivers Without End, which, in its mixture of the lyrical and epic modes celebrating the act of inhabitation on a specific place on the planet, is both his finest work and a summation of what a re-inhabitory poetic stands for. This work was written over a 40-year period. It has been translated into Japanese and French.

Along the way, Gary Snyder was awarded the Levinson Prize from Poetry journal, the American Poetry Society Shelley Memorial Award (1986), was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1987), and won the 1997 Bolingen Prize for Poetry.

Snyder's poetics

Gary Snyder uses mainly common speech patterns as the basis for his lines, though his style has been noted for its "flexibility" and the variety of different forms his poems have taken. He does not typically use conventional meters nor intentional rhyme. "Love and respect for the primitive tribe, honour accorded the Earth, the escape from city and industry into both the past and the possible, contemplation, the communal" - such, according to Glyn Maxwell, is the awareness and commitment behind the specific poems (Maxwell in "the Online Companion to the Anthology of Modern American Poetry).

Snyder has always maintained that his personal sensibility arose from his interest in Native Americans (“Indians”) and their involvement with nature and knowledge of it; indeed, their “ways” seemed to resonate with his own. And he has sought something kindred to this through Buddhist practices, Yamabushi initiation, and other experiences and involvements. However, since youth he has been quite literate, and he has written about his appreciation of writers of similar sensibilities, like D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, and some of the great ancient Chinese poets. William Carlos Williams was another influence, especially on Snyder’s earliest published work.

"I have some concerns that I'm continually investigating that tie together biology, mysticism, prehistory, general systems theory," Snyder once said in interview (New York Quarterly "Craft Interview," 1973). Besides 'non-human nature', sexuality is something often expressed or contemplated in Gary Snyder's poetry. A self-admitted and somewhat famed ladies' man through most of his life, Snyder has also been married four times.

Aside from content and style, Snyder's interests in anthropology and Native cultures, along with his Buddhism and environmentalism, have formed his attitude to poetry. He has often spoken of the poem as work-place, and, for him, the work to be done there is learning to be in the world.

Although usually seen as a member of the Beat Generation, Snyder himself is ambivalent about the label. The celebrated poetry reading he and others gave at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955, mentioned before as heralding the "San Francisco Renaissance," was a dawn event in a poetry revival that has not died. Innovation, freshness, and experimentation in North American poetry continue to the present, and arguably the San Francisco event catalyzed the lyrical dimension of the rock music of the next decade (the '60s) and beyond.

Snyder argues that poets, and humans in general, need to adjust to very long timescales, especially when judging the consequences of their actions. His poetry examines the gap between nature and culture so as to point to ways in which the two can be more closely integrated.


Last updated: 05-06-2005 11:02:51
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04