Authors: Gary Snyder

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet

May 8, 1930

San Francisco, California

Biography

Poet, translator, essayist, and educator Gary Sherman Snyder grew up in the state of Washington and later moved to Portland, Oregon, where he gained an appreciation for the wilderness and mountain trails that became interests dominating his future writings. In 1947 he attended Reed College, studying literature and anthropology with a special interest in Native American myth. At Reed he gained a lifelong interest in Chinese calligraphy and began a lifelong friendship with fellow Buddhist poet Philip Whalen. He pursued graduate work at Indiana University, then studied classical Chinese at the University of California at Berkeley.

Gary Snyder.

By Fett, CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1950s he became associated with poets Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and especially Jack Kerouac. These were all central figures in the “San Francisco renaissance” poetry movement, of which Snyder would later be described as the pivotal “renaissance man.” During this period he participated in the historic 1955 Six Gallery poetry reading that launched the Beat Generation, translated the “Cold Mountain Poems” by Zen poet Han-Shan, and climbed the Matterhorn with Kerouac. Kerouac wrote of their experiences in his autobiographical novel The Dharma Bums (1958), in which Snyder is fictionalized as the central character, Japhy Ryder.

During the 1960s, Snyder lived primarily in Kyoto, Japan, until 1968. There he took Buddhist instructions from Zen masters, traveled extensively, began his communal lifestyle, kept journals (that were compiled in Earth House Hold), and wrote the poems of Regarding Wave as well as numerous broadsides, which included criticism of America’s Vietnam policy. Since 1969 he has worked primarily in the Yuba River country of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, where he built his own house and became involved in civic affairs. In 1983 he began a formal relationship with the University of California at Davis, where he teaches and where his papers are kept for researchers.

His poetic work, which frequently combines reading and study with physical outdoor activity, reflects his various jobs as timber scaler, forest-fire lookout, logger, and hand on a tanker in the South Pacific. His themes and style reflect his interests in the natural world, mythology, the discipline of Eastern religions, and the living oral traditions of Native American cultures—themes he summarizes in the phrase “wilderness, wildness, and wisdom.” Snyder describes poetry as healing, a Native American concept in which the poet is a shaman, or medicine man, nourishing the welfare of the community and environment, both of which Snyder sees as interconnected and interdependent.

His verse and essays are moral, didactic, political, and cultural criticisms of contemporary Western dominant values, particularly the excesses of capitalism, industry, technology, and the exploitation of both human and natural resources. His views are evident in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island, which expresses the ideas that American history goes back much further than white settlement, that time and matter are relative concepts, and that modern values must change to avoid ecological destruction of the planet. These views are repeated throughout his collections of essays. The essays, in particular “Poetry and the Primitive” (1967), provide the reader with insights for understanding the background of his verse.

In 1992 Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems both reviewed Snyder’s career by republishing poems from his previous eight volumes and introduced new verse that demonstrates his evolution from apocalyptic visionary to his more optimistic contentment with his family, community, and region. Yet his recurring emphasis on nature, especially in western United States settings, and his use of Asian and Native American sources emphasize the Buddhist concept that the self cannot be separated from the world around it. Also of Buddhist influence are Snyder’s repeated ideas that both identity in the mind and cultural background should be negated in favor of a spiritual transformation, and that humans should be aware of and linked to both physical reality and the knowledge that all is impermanent and transitory. In much of his verse Snyder attempts to make these Buddhist precepts accessible to Western readers, bringing the religion into everyday practices and readily understandable language. However, readers unfamiliar with Asian poetic forms may need reference works to help them understand and appreciate his non-Western poetic structures and artistic designs, especially in his earlier verse.

Snyder’s work is often compared to that of American poets Henry David Thoreau, Robert Duncan, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and particularly Ezra Pound, whose 1920s poetic school of Imagism profoundly affected Snyder’s verse structure and aesthetics, notably in Riprap and Myths and Texts. Snyder has won numerous awards for his poetry and has earned considerable praise from critics and fellow poets for his work and his principles, and he is widely regarded as both an important poet and influential spokesman for his culture. In 1963 he began working on a long poem called Mountains and Rivers without End, portions of which have appeared in various journals, and which was finally published whole in 1996. Most critics felt it had been worth the wait.

Author Works Poetry: Riprap, 1959 Myths and Texts, 1960 Hop, Skip, and Jump, 1964 Nanao Knows, 1964 The Firing, 1964 Riprap, and Cold Mountain Poems, 1965 Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End, 1965 A Range of Poems, 1966 Three Worlds, Three Realms, Six Roads, 1966 The Back Country, 1967 The Blue Sky, 1969 Sours of the Hills, 1969 Regarding Wave, 1969, enlarged 1970 Manzanita, 1972 The Fudo Trilogy: Spel Against Demons, Smokey the Bear Sutra, The California Water Plan, 1973 Turtle Island, 1974 All in the Family, 1975 Axe Handles: Poems, 1983 Left Out in the Rain: New Poems, 1947-1986, 1986 No Nature: New and Selected Poems, 1992 Mountains and Rivers without End, 1996 Look Out: A Selection of Writings, 2002 Danger on Peaks, 2005 This Present Moment, 2015 Nonfiction: Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries, 1969 The Old Ways, 1977 He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, 1979 The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964-1979, 1980 Passage through India, 1983 The Practice of the Wild, 1990 Gary Snyder Papers, 1995 A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds, 1995 Back on the Fire: Essays, 2007 The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 1956-1991, 2009 Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places, 2014 (with Julia Martin) Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, 2015 The Great Clod: Notes and Memories on the Natural History of China and Japan, 2016 Miscellaneous: The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952-1998, 2000 The High Sierra of California, 2002 (with Tom Killion) Tamalpais Walking, 2009 (with Tom Killion) The Etiquette of Freedom : Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and the Practice of the Wild, 2010 (edited by Paul Ebenkamp) Bibliography Dean, Tim. Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. An intelligent and careful reading of Snyder’s work, somewhat limited by an academic style and perspective. Gray, Timothy. Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006. An interesting study of the poet, his work, and his counter-cultural place in literary history. Halper, Jon, ed. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991. A semibiographical tribute in which sixty-five friends, fellow-workers, and members of Snyder’s family write about the poet and his work. Varying tremendously in quality and interest, there are many informative and revealing contributions by well-known (Allen Ginsberg, Ursula Le Guin) and unfamiliar individuals. Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder’s Vision: Poetry and the Real Work. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. An intellectually adept, stylishly written, and perceptive study of Snyder’s writing through the early 1980s. Murphy, Patrick, ed. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. A comprehensive, well-chosen collection of critical essays by one of Snyder’s most intelligent critics. Ranging from the earliest responses to the poet’s work through three decades of criticism, this book is evidence of the variety of perspectives Snyder’s work has brought forth. Murphy, Patrick, ed. A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. After three introductory chapters on themes in Snyder’s work, especially mythological themes, Murphy offers close readings of a number of individual poems. Murphy, Patrick, ed. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. A useful overview, written for students and general readers, of Snyder’s work and influences with detailed explications of his work. Phillips, Rod. “Forest Beatniks” and “Urban Thoreaus”: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure. New York: P. Lang, 2000. Examines the attitudes toward nature, ecology, and conservationism in the Beats’ poetry, countering the notion that Beat poetry was a purely urban phenomenon. Schuler, Robert Jordan. Journeys Toward the Original Mind: The Long Poems of Gary Snyder. New York: P. Lang, 1994. Close readings of Myths and Texts and Mountains and Rivers without End, focusing on Snyder’s concept of “original mind,” in which the mind is purified of all its cultural baggage in order to comprehend the universe directly. Sciagaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Along with Snyder, discusses and compares A. R. Ammons, Wendell Berry, and W. S. Merwin and their treatment of nature and environmental concerns in their works. Bibliographical references, index. Smith, Eric Todd. Reading Gary Snyder’s “Mountains and Rivers without End.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2000. An extended close reading of Snyder’s long-awaited poem. Snyder, Gary. The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964-1979. Edited by William Scott McLean. New York: New Directions, 1980. A crucial collection of interviews and talks that indicate, in detailed and lucid prose, the direction of Snyder’s thought and the principles of his poetics. Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002. Examines the environmental influences on Snyder and other Beat poets that occurred through living in the Pacific Northwest mountains. Includes thirty-five photographs of places where Snyder and others lived.

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