Gary Snyder Snyder, Gary - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Gary Snyder 1930–

(Full name Gary Sherman Snyder) American poet, essayist, translator.

Snyder is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, strongly influenced by Buddhism, deals with the natural world and ecological concerns. Snyder made his poetic debut at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, at what has come to be known as the "coming out party" for the Beat Generation poets. Although he lived in Japan, studying Zen Buddhism, during much of the Beat period, he has been linked personally and professionally with Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. While much of the Beat writing is characterized by a rejection of literary tradition, Snyder's work embodies the influence of literary giants such as T. S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, and Ezra Pound. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 1974 poetry collection, Turtle Island, he has also been honored with the Bollingen Prize for Poetry and the John Hay Award for Nature Writing.

Biographical Information

Snyder was raised on small farms, first in Washington and later in Oregon, and held jobs as a logger, seaman, and fire-lookout. His interest in American Indian culture led him to acquire degrees in literature and anthropology at Reed College. He began graduate studies in linguistics at Indiana University, and then transferred to University of California at Berkeley, where he studied Oriental languages. During the early 1950s, Snyder became involved with the Beat community. Just as the Beat poets were gaining national attention, Snyder moved to Japan, where he became actively involved in Zen Buddhism. He subsequently returned to California, where he lived and worked in rural areas. Since 1985, he has been a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Davis.

Major Works

Snyder's writing is strongly influenced by his understanding of Native American culture, Asian culture (primarily Japan and China) and the environment. His early writing—such as his first book, Riprap—reflects an appreciation for the hard work of rural life and the bond it produces with nature. Myths & Texts, his next collection, is a long, highly allusive lyrical poem divided into three sections: "Logging," "Hunting," and "Burning." The Back Country (1967), divided into five sections—"The Far West," "The Far East," "Kali," "Back," and translations of work by the Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji—reveals the influence of

East and West on both the style and content of Snyder's poetry. His subsequent major collections—Regarding Wave (1969), Turtle Island (1974) and Axe Handles (1983)—continue to develop the themes and concerns introduced in his early collections. His Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996) is an ongoing lyrical series, begun in the 1950s. In addition to his poetry, Snyder has published a number of nonfiction works, most notably Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1979), and The Real Work (1980), collections of essays that relate to his poetry thematically.

Critical Reception

Snyder has been regarded by some critics and other poets as an heir of the Emersonian tradition because of his concern both for the natural and the spiritual worlds. Critical response to Snyder's works has been mixed. Upon publication of Riprap, some reviewers perceived Snyder as simplistic and overrated. Yet others commented favorably on the clarity and exactness of Riprap's spare poems. Myths & Texts has been regarded as superior to Riprap in literary merit: it is more tightly constructed, unified, and expansive. While Snyder shows more certainty and control in Turtle Island, it has also been criticized for being polemical.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Riprap 1959

Myths & Texts 1960

The Firing 1964

Hop, Skip, and Jump 1964

Nanoa Knows 1964

Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems 1965

Six Selections From Mountains and Rivers Without End 1965

A Range of Poems 1966

Three Worlds 1968

The Blue Sky 1969

Regarding Wave 1970

Manzanita 1971

Plute Creek 1972

The Fudo Trilogy: Spel against Demons, Smokey the Bear Sutra, The California Water Plan 1973

Turtle Island 1974

All in the Family 1975

Smokey the Bear Sutra 1976

Songs for Gaia 1979

Axe Handles 1983

Left Out in the Rain 1986

Mountains and Rivers Without End 1990

No Nature 1992

Other Major Works

Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries (prose) 1969

The Old Ways: Six Essays (prose) 1977

He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (prose) 1984

Passage Through India (autobiography) 1983

The Practice of the Wild (prose) 1996

Thomas J. Lyon (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ecological Vision of Gary Snyder," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 117-24.

[In the following excerpt, Lyon considers Snyder's poetry strongly rooted in the ecology of the American West.]

The limitations of White/Western thought have also been limned, for serious Western writers, by the presence of the Indian, who lasted long enough in the West to be the model of primitive ecology and religious responsibility to earth. But the critique has not been simple-minded. Frank Waters, to name perhaps the deepest student of the Indian among writers, has long been recommending a supra-rational, supra-emotional synthesis between cultures, making finally an ecologically responsible civilization and psychically whole persons; the Western writer's ability to take the Indian seriously has resulted in real trailbreaking.

It may be—I almost believe it—that the West's great contribution to American culture will be in codifying and directing the natural drive toward ecological thought: a flowering of regional literature into literally world-wide attention and relevance. Now, after all this prologue, I come to my subject, the poet Gary Snyder, for as Snyder begins to emerge as an important force in the ideas and art of America, he shows signs of embodying the Western ecological vision in a culturally viable form. His writing is popular, certainly, and as I hope to show, it is valid in deeper, permanent ways.

The first thing that strikes one about Snyder's poetry is the terse, phrase-light and article-light diction, the sense of direct thing-ness. In common with most of the poetic generation that has rebelled against the formulaic Eliot rhetoric and intellectual abstraction, Snyder writes a solid line, but the special quality in his diction, the personal voice, lies in his knowledgeable selection of objects. They are things he has worked with and felt the grain of, and thus known better than good-sounding "poet's" catalogs:

Experience is not elaborately prepared for, in the Snyder poetics, just handed over: "Woke once in the night, pissed, / checkt the coming winter's stars / built up the fire" opens a poem and puts the reader in the mountains without any pastoral-tradition framing. This is the "near view" of the Sierra that John Muir wanted so much and knew that conventional art didn't give. Snyder's open directness moves toward solving one of Muir's and other transcendentalists' great dilemmas: how to talk about things, especially wild ones, without harming their integrity by language; how to preserve and communicate suchness without falling into an arch aesthetic distance between subject and object, a romantic decoration that destroys the very wholeness, which is wildness, one loved and wanted to convey somehow. The thin line of poetic truth between overstatement and private code requires first of all respect for things, letting them stand free instead of being marshaled into line for a mental performance. Snyder apparently recognizes the lover's paradox in writing ("each man kills the thing he loves"), and turns back on his own mind with good humor:


(The entire section is 1311 words.)

Sherman Paul (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Lookout to Ashram: The Way of Gary Snyder," in Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 58-80.

[In the following excerpt, Paul reveals correlations between personal events in Snyder's life and his development as both a poet and an environmentalist]

I know of no one since Thoreau who has so thoroughly espoused the wild as Gary Snyder—and no one who is so much its poet. His root metaphor, the "back country," covers all that Thoreau, explicitly or implicitly, meant by the "wild." "Poetry and the Primitive," one of the recent essays collected in Earth House Hold (1969), is his most important statement and the resolution of much...

(The entire section is 4948 words.)

Bert Almon (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Buddhism and Energy in the Recent Poetry of Gary Snyder," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. XI, No. 1, Fall, 1977, pp. 117-25.

[In the following essay, Almon explores the influence of Buddhist metaphysics on Snyder's work.]

For all its attention to the physical world, the poetry of Gary Snyder has always had a metaphysical dimension. He once called poetry "a riprap (cobbled trail) over the slick rock of metaphysics," but metaphysics can also provide a trail over the slick rock of the poetry, providing a path where we might see only a difficult physical terrain. I will put aside the important matter of the influence of...

(The entire section is 3844 words.)

Charles Molesworth (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Political and Poetic Vision of Turtle Island" in Gary Snyder's Vision, University of Missouri Press, 1983, pp. 144-56.

[In the following essay, Molesworth discusses the political and poetic viewpoints of Snyder's Pulitizer-prize-winning work, Turtle Island.]

We can take Snyder's Turtle Island as the most complete expression of his political and poetic vision, not only because it is his most recent finished volume, but also because it contains the fullest mediations of the themes and concerns of all his work. I propose to look at the book as incorporating three mediations. First, Turtle Island serves Snyder with a chief metaphor for a...

(The entire section is 4702 words.)

Robert Schultz and David Wyatt (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gary Synder and The Curve of Return," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn, 1986, pp. 681-94.

[In the following excerpt, Schultz and Wyatt, summarize Snyder's early work and provide in-depth coverage of Axe Handles.]

Published when he was 29, Snyder's first book [Axe Handles] empties the mind of the "damned memories" that clog it in an ascesis that marks the beginning of his quest. In Riprap (1959) he turns from America toward the East and begins the motion out and away that will preoccupy him for 15 years. Myths & Texts (1960) promotes Snyder's emerging vision of process in a dialectical structure which resolves...

(The entire section is 2415 words.)

Jody Norton (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Importance of Nothing: Absence and its Origins in the Poetry of Gary Synder," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 41-66.

[In the excerpt below, Norton discusses Snyder's use of imagery.]

In his early wilderness poetry, Gary Snyder builds absences into the structure, imagery, and syntax of his texts in order to inscribe the essential Zen Buddhist perception of the identity of sunyata (Emptiness) and tathata (suchness, objective reality) in the form itself of each poem.

In the West, we are accustomed to conceiving the world dualistically. We define both material objects and ideas in terms of...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Julie Martin (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pattern Which Connects: Metaphor in Gary Snyder's Later Poetry," in Western American Literature: Quarterly Journal of the Western Literature Association, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 99-123.

[In the following excerpt, Martin uses feminist theory to analyze Snyder's complex metaphors.]

With one or two exceptions, critical readings of Gary Snyder's poetry have argued that he makes little use of metaphor. On this point critics have taken their lead from Thomas Parkinson, whose comments in 1968 seem to have set the trend for many later readers ["The Poetry of Gary Snyder," Southern Review, Vol. 4]. Following Parkinson's emphasis there have been...

(The entire section is 7048 words.)

Julie Martin (interview date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coyote-Mind: An Interview with Gary Snyder," in TriQuarterly, Vol. 79, Fall, 1990, pp. 148-72.

[In the following interview, Snyder discusses the influence of his past on his work and the evolution of his ideas on nature and Buddhism.]

[Martin]: I'd like to start by talking about origins and influences. You've spoken about your childhood before, but what I'm interested in is your experience of growing up in a politically conscious environment: your family was involved in IWW politics. Can you say something about that?

[Snyder]: Well it was a Washington State thirties Depression household, as many households were, in the rural...

(The entire section is 9128 words.)

Patrick D. Murphy (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Of Wildness and Wilderness in Plain Language: The Practice of the Wild," in Understanding Gary Snyder, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 154-66.

[In the following excerpt, Murphy discusses the ecological impact of Snyder's writing.]

Since the publication of Axe Handles Snyder has continued to address the central problem of civilization but in a more diversified way. He has written poetry, given poetry readings, written prose, and begun teaching as a permanent member of a university faculty. His latest published volume is a work qualitatively superior and more significant than any other prose volume he has published. The Practice of...

(The entire section is 3703 words.)

Helen Vendler (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Zen: Gary Snyder's No Nature," in Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 117-29.

[In the following excerpt, Vendler discusses the concept of self in Snyder's poetry.]

Gary Snyder is more widely known as an ecological activist than as a poet, and indeed the jacket copy on his No Nature: New and Selected Poems makes a heavy-handed pitch to the ecologically minded sector of his audience: "We are a people, as this century ends, desperate to recapture the feeling of being at home in the world. No Nature offers us guidance along this path. Snyder's poems invite us to observe nature...

(The entire section is 3856 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Steuding Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1976, 175 p.

Reflects on Snyder as a poet and provides an indepth view of his major writing.


Altieri, Charles. "Gary Synder's Turtle Island: The Problem of Reconciling the Roles of Seer and Prophet." Boundary 2 IV, No. 3 (Spring 1976): 761-77.

Discusses the relationship between seer and prophet, and their relevance to this piece of work.

Bartlett, Lee. "Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts and the Monomyth." Western American...

(The entire section is 372 words.)