Beatnik, Buddhist, bureaucrat

When asked by an interviewer where his place in the world was, the poet Gary Snyder traced an arc up the Pacific coast, from Big Sur to British Columbia, then through Alaska and the Aleutian chain, eventually coming to rest on Hokkaido, the Japanese islands and Taiwan. “My place on earth is where I know most of the birds and the trees and where I know what the climate will be right now, roughly”, Snyder explained. “Now that’s the territory I have moved and lived in and that I sort of know. So that’s my place.”

Few figures have reshaped the geography of American poetry as powerfully as Snyder, who, as an environmental activist, Zen Buddhist and translator from Chinese and Japanese, has both reoriented it across the Pacific and grounded it in a sense of a local place. With the publication of the Library of America’s Collected Poems – edited by Jack Shoemaker and Anthony Hunt, and including book-length works from Riprap and Cold Mountains Poems (1959/1965) to This Present Moment (2015) – readers can also see how Snyder, now ninety-two, has retained both the consistency of his convictions and a sense of playfulness over the course of his six-decade career.

Snyder was born in 1930, to parents who started a subsistence farm outside Seattle during the Great Depression; his grandfather had been a member of the radical labor organization the Wobblies, and his father was a union organizer. The landscape and language of the Pacific Northwest would imbue the work of Snyder, who first climbed Mount St Helens at the age of fifteen, for the rest of his life. On a scholarship to Reed College, Snyder met the poets Lew Welch and Philip Whalen, and studied Native American anthropology. He briefly enrolled in a graduate program in Indiana before dropping out to pursue oriental languages ​​in Berkeley and becoming embroiled in the nascent San Francisco Renaissance and the circle of New York transplants who had flocked to the scene.

Some readers will, unjustly, remember Snyder primarily as Japhy Ryder, the countercultural hero of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958), a novel that documented Kerouac’s growing Buddhist faith and anticipated the “rucksack revolution” of the 1960s. That book includes an account of the famous reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955, when Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl” and Snyder read his poem “A Berry Feast”, about the Coyote trickster figure from Native American mythology. Although Snyder absorbed the Beats’ rolling verbosity, he never felt entirely part of the movement, and left the US in 1956 to study Zen Buddhism in Japan. He would live there for most of the next twelve years.

In Kyoto Snyder joined a Zen monastery and published his first collection, Riprap (1959), whose title refers, in Snyder’s words, to “a cobble of stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains”. Covering everything from his experiences as a logger and fire lookout in the Pacific Northwest to his travels as a seaman on an oil tanker and his Zen apprenticeship in Japan, the poems are remarkable for their facility with both the American working man’s vernacular and Buddhist concepts, as well as the concreteness of his verse. In “Hay for the Horses”, Snyder writes,

With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flicks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.

Each of Snyder’s lines includes something material. Instead of merely “trees” or “fish”, the poems recount pines, firs and oaks; salmon, pike and perch. Riprap was later combined with Snyder’s translations of the Tang dynasty poet Han Shan, in which Snyder draws out both the irreverence and the lyricism of the enigmatic Buddhist hermit. Unlike Ezra Pound, whose translations (aided by Ernest Fenollosa’s notes) were as limited in their knowledge of Chinese as they were senior in their imagist breakthroughs, Snyder had carefully studied the language. “I could never make sense of that essay by Pound”, Snyder told the translator Eliot Weinberger. “I already knew enough about Chinese characters to realize that in some ways he was off, and so I never paid much attention to it.”

The next few collections – Myths and Texts (written before Riprapbut published in 1960), The Back Country (1968) Regarding Wave (1970) – are notable for their continuing study of Buddhism, their easy sensuality and their trans-Pacific scope. In 1968 Snyder returned to the US, having purchased land in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where he would build an off-the-grid estate combining Indian, Japanese and Native American aesthetics, and help to rewild an area that had been devastated by hydraulic gold mining He named it Kitkitdizze, after the Miwok name for a local shrub, and he continues to live and work there today.

In 1974 Snyder published Turtle Island, which would go on to win the Pulitzer prize for poetry and sell more than 100,000 copies, establishing him as one of the nation’s pre-eminent nature poets. Taking its title from the name for the North American continent in indigenous folklore (often regarded as a landmass resting on the back of a turtle), the collection maps the ways in which artificial borders suppress and supplant natural ones. This can come about in a poem that treats roadkill with reverence and gratitude, or one that describes the body with a frank and inviting openness, such as “The Bath”, in which Snyder reflects on bathing with his son, Kai, and wife, Masa, in a sauna he built for Kitkitdizze:

The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle a hand of grail
The gates of Awe
That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?

That attention to the fragility of life makes the last quarter of Turtle Island, a prose section called “Plain Talk”, all the more startling. In it, Snyder includes “Four Changes”, a first manifesto written in 1969, in which he outlines with alarming prescience such eventualities as overpopulation, pollution, overconsumption and — two decades before the Nasa scientist James Hansen tested before Congress on global warming — an addiction to development that had made mankind “a locustlike blight on the planet that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children”. More than simply diagnosing the malaise, however, Snyder prescribed everything from recycling and carpooling to a stable-state economy, recognizing that the problems – and solutions – would depend less on technological innovation than on cultural transformation.

Snyder’s convictions as both an activist and a poet rest on this faith in the necessity of work. In the titular poem from his next collection, “Ax Handles” (1983), Snyder teaches his son how to whittle an ax handle with the ax one already possesses:

And I see: Pound was an ax,
Chen was an ax, I am an ax
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

Like his Chinese heroes Snyder became a rare example of the bureaucrat-poet, befriending the California governor Jerry Brown and serving on the California Arts Council. In the poem “Talking Late with the Governor About the Budget”, Snyder recounts the mundanity and the scale of governance, writing: “Alone in a large tan room / The Governor sits, without dinner. / Scanning the hills of laws – budgets – codes – / In this land of twenty million / From desert to ocean”. Snyder remained involved in local government, serving on school boards and county committees as an extension of his anarchist beliefs in community autonomy and mutual aid.

Snyder had begun a long poem, “Mountains and Rivers Without End”, in 1956, having been inspired by Chinese scroll paintings; At the age of twelve he had encountered similar paintings and had been struck by their resemblance to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. He published the completed work in 1996. With his characteristic plain-spokenness and attention to both the natural world and the inner life, Snyder put forth the most coherent expression of what he would term “bioregionalism”: a belief in reorienting human society according to natural boundaries such as watersheds.

Snyder’s Buddhist faith demanded continuing involvement with the world, despite its impermanence. In Danger on Peaks (2004), he visits Washington DC and muses on the state of democracy, and comments on the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan and the attacks on 9/11. In This Present Moment (2015), the state of impermanence can also take on the shape of the personal tragedy, as with “Go Now”, his tender yet unvarnished account of his late-life spouse Carole’s death. Snyder both reflects on the decomposition of the body – the bared teeth and sunken eyes – and on the memory of their love: “– this is the price of attachment – ​​/ ‘Worth it. Easily worth it –’ / Still in love, being there, / seeing and smelling and feeling it, / thinking farewell, / worth even the smell.”

The volume incorporates previously uncollected poems, including work from Snyder’s Reed College days in the 1950s and further translations of Tang poetry. There is also the delightful “Smokey the Bear Sutra”, which portrays the wildfire vigilante as a vengeful dharmapala (dharma protector) smiting those who despoil the environment. It encapsulates the poet’s unique ability to temper, and even rage, with humour and goodwill.

Snyder should be remembered for his combination of everlasting curiosity and generosity – traits that mark out the best teachers, especially in the Zen tradition. So many of his poems include some form of instruction; in Snyder’s work one can learn the names of mountains and the songs of birds, or how to skin a deer or throw an ax. He teaches us how to live in this world and how to care for it, which in his eyes amount to one and the same thing. In an early poem titled “What You Should Know to Be a Poet”, Snyder presents the mantra that has guided him throughout his life:

all you can about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
names of stars, and the movements of the planets
and the moon.
Your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind.

Dennis Zhou is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker

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