Gary Snyder

You have to be careful writing about Gary Snyder, because he’s such a Zen guy you get the feeling anything you write will be vastly inferior to silence. People tend to be impressed by Gary Snyder: Jack Kerouac was so knocked out by his mountain-climber courage and Buddhist calmness that he wrote one of his best books, The Dharma Bums, about him. Snyder’s poems, charged with the consciousness of Buddha-nature, made him a Beat celebrity as a young man, and he remains a widely respected symbol of a certain peaceful and contemplative literary state of mind.

So I probably already deserve a sharp blow on the back with a stick for this inane blathering, and I’ll just briefly summarize the pertinent facts of Snyder’s life and then send you along to one of his poems, which I’ll type in as an exercise in right mindfulness.

He was born on May 8, 1930 in San Francisco, California but grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He attended Reed College along with his friends Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, and then went to Berkeley to study Asian Languages. He had a particular interest in Chinese and Japanese culture and poetry, an interest shared by Kenneth Rexroth. Through Rexroth he fell in with the Beat crowd, read his great mythical poem ‘A Berry Feast’ at the famous 1955 poetry reading at the Six Gallery, and inspired the Zen Buddhist craze that swept the Beats, as well as some notable mountain climbing expeditions that certainly tested the physical endurance of a few writers more accustomed to scaling the inner heights of their minds.

Snyder participated in many left-wing activities, along with Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, during the Sixties. He was onstage during the original San Francisco Be-In in January 1967. He has since continued to fight for peace, environmental awareness and freedom from nuclear weaponry, and has never wavered in his devotion to these noble causes.

Bruce Cook said it well: if Ginsberg is the Beat movement’s Walt Whitman (he is), Gary Snyder is the Henry David Thoreau.

He is currently teaching at the University of California at Davis. He continues to publish poetry in volumes such as “No Nature,” and won the Pulitzer Prize in the mid-seventies. In 1996 he published a long poem, “Mountains and Rivers Without End” and conducted readings at various cities including New York, where I got a chance to see him for my first time. Of all the original beats I have encountered in person, no other one smiles so peacefully, or seems as good-humoredly contented with his place in the world. (Gregory Corso smiles a lot too, but then I’ve never seen him sober.)

Here’s a memoir of a fondly-remembered 1964 poetry reading at San Francisco’s Longshoreman’s Hall.

And here is one of Snyder’s most well-known poems, ‘Riprap.’

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