Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1393
Although he was born in San Francisco, Gary Snyder moved to the Pacific Northwest before he was two, and he spent his youth and college years there. His parents, Harold and Lois Snyder, eked out a living on small family farms, first near Seattle, then near Portland. Snyder and his sister, Thea, enjoyed the plants and animals of these rural areas and learned the challenges and satisfactions of hard physical work. Snyder also traces his political orientation through family roots: His grandfather was a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, and Snyder often cites their motto of “forming the new society within the shell of the old”—of developing a healthy alternative culture rather than seeking to confront and destroy outmoded institutions.
During his high school years, and through college and several years after, Snyder worked at a variety of jobs. Some were cerebral (such as jobs in journalism, radio programming, and teaching), but more often they involved manual labor and craftsmanship in the outdoors—aspects of a lifestyle that Snyder has continued to embrace even after he could have supported himself solely as a writer. This physical work in his youth involved jobs as a ranger and fire lookout, logger, trail crew worker, and seaman. Snyder was refused reemployment as a lookout in 1954 as a result of his involvement with social and political activists, in spite of uniformly superior evaluations from coworkers and administrators.
In 1947, Snyder enrolled at Reed College, a progressive liberal arts institution in Portland, which he says taught him valuable research and writing skills and encouraged critical thinking from a wide range of viewpoints. He earned a B.A. in literature and anthropology in 1951, and his honors thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, was published in book form in 1979. This thesis, a research study of a Native American myth from British Columbia, is both a remarkably mature piece of scholarship and an extraordinary early statement of the principles linking poet, community, and nature that would come to guide Snyder’s poetic practice throughout the coming decades.
Also while at Reed, he entered the first of his four marriages—to Alison Gass, a marriage that lasted less than one year. Snyder’s first move toward an academic career was also short-lived: He began a graduate program in linguistics at Indiana University in 1951 but dropped out after a semester. Returning to the West Coast in the fall of 1952, Snyder lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years—a crucial period in his development as a poet. In 1953, he began a three-year stint in the graduate program in Oriental languages at the University of California at Berkeley.
Even as a child, Snyder’s imagination had been drawn to Asia. When he first saw Chinese landscape paintings at age nine, he noted close similarities between the wet, heavily forested mountains of Washington and Chinese “mountains of the spirit.” Later he immersed himself in the poetry of China, which he viewed as “a high civilization that has managed to keep in tune with nature.” Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth served as models of older American poets who had also learned from the concentrated imagery of Asian poetry.
During these years in the Bay Area, Snyder also became part of the loosely knit community of writers who became known as the Beats. On October 13, 1955, a reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco publicly launched the Beat movement; though the event is best remembered for Allen Ginsberg’s reading of Howl, Snyder also contributed a memorable reading of his poem “A Berry Feast” (later published in The Back Country in 1967). In the frequent public readings that were an important part of the Beat movement, Snyder found reinforcement for his belief (drawn from American Indian cultures) that poetry is primarily an oral art that energizes and binds a community. Snyder’s poetry did not become nationally known until he began to publish it in book form in 1959, but his reputation as a charismatic oral poet and Asian scholar preceded him by way of the hyperbolic fictional portrait of him as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums (1958).
Just as the glare of national publicity and controversy began to bear down on the Beats in 1956, Snyder left for Japan, where he spent most of his time during the following dozen years. There he embarked on a challenging program of Zen Buddhist study and meditation with the roshi (“old teacher”) Oda Sesso at the Daitoku-ji monastery in Kyoto. During these years, Snyder also traveled further into Asia, and he worked as a seaman on an oil tanker sailing to the Middle East. He returned repeatedly to the United States, to teach (at Berkeley in 1964) and to oversee the publication of seven books of poetry, journals, and essays—from Riprap (1959) through Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries (1969).
Snyder married poet Joanne Kyger in 1960 and traveled with her to India during 1961 and 1962. They were divorced in 1964. In January of 1967, Snyder presided with Ginsberg over the Great Human Be-In in San Francisco—an event that proved to be a historic apex of that decade’s American counterculture.
During the late 1960’s, the focus of Snyder’s life and poetry shifted slightly but significantly, from that of an individual soul adventuring in quest of spiritual truth to that of a man singing in praise and protection of the family and communities to which he had become committed. Earth House Hold is a pivotal work in this regard, for in it Snyder gives increased emphasis to the themes of tribal community and global ecological responsibility.
At the end of that book, he writes of his stay at the Banyan Ashram, an island commune in southern Japan, and of his marriage there to his third wife, Masa Uehara, in August, 1967. Snyder and his wife had two sons, Kai in 1968 and Gen in 1969, and in 1970 they moved into the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento. There they built a home: Kitkitdizze (from the local native language name for a plant called “Mountain Misery”), an eclectic, primitivist-New Age homestead. Kitkitdizze became the center for the Allegheny Star Route community, a group committed to living on the land and to supporting fundamental changes in society.
Snyder’s life after 1970 took on a seasonal rhythm of work on his home and land during the spring and summer, and writing and travel for public readings and lectures during the fall and winter. He continued to publish books of prose and poetry; among the latter, Turtle Island (1974) won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, selling more than 100,000 copies. Snyder generously contributed his talents as a writer, scholar, and engaging public speaker to the support of the social, religious, and literary viewpoints he espouses. He presented poetry readings and lectured as an advocate of greater environmental awareness and responsibility. In the late 1970’s, he was appointed to the California Arts Council by Governor Jerry Brown and served as its first chairman. He gathered his ideas about the environment in a long essay The Practice of the Wild (1990), saw his life celebrated by friends and admirers in the Sierra Club publication Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life (1991), and completed his forty-year-long “poem of process” Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996), which led to the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1997. He was the featured poet in Bill Moyer’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series The Language of Life in 1997, became the first American writer to receive the Buddhism Transmission Award from the Bukkyo Dando Kyokai Foundation, and was made a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2003. He taught at the University of California at Davis, eventually joining the emeriti faculty.
Snyder’s marriage to Masa Uehara ended in 1989, and in 1991, he and Carol Koda were married. They traveled extensively together while Snyder read poetry, taught, and lectured about his life’s concerns into the twenty-first century. Snyder’s Danger on Peaks (2004) joins descriptions of some of his earliest climbs on Mount St. Helens with recent sojourns “on the trail” with Carol, and even though he stated in “Waiting for a Ride” that “Most of my work,/ such as it is is done,” the work that remains is likely to be as vital and interesting as all that Snyder has done before.
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