Last reviewed: June 2018
May 8, 1930
San Francisco, California
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.
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.