Snyder, Gary 1930–
Snyder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, spent nearly ten years as a novice and student of Zen in a Japanese monastery. That experience, like his work as a logger, forester, carpenter, and seaman, is close to the heart of his accomplished poetry of innocence and primal ritual. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
Once he has announced his occupational skills as logging, forestry, carpentry and seamanship, it is not surprising that Gary Snyder, who says that as a poet he holds "the most archaic values on earth," should have left this country where the forests have been stripped or burned off, where "the crews have departed," for the interior exile of Japanese monasteries and the rapturous life of a cosmic bum…. It is a departure from a world of fragments…. (p. 487)
It is perhaps his very aspiration to an illuminated existence within what other men call reality that makes Snyder so poignantly aware of the waste, the devouring slough of human life, and in his later work there ceases to be anything so neat as a division between a poem of detritus and a poem of ecstasy, for merely the litany of constatation provides the poet with his ascent…. (p. 493)
We are reminded that Snyder is the true heir of that Thoreau who retired to Walden in order to discover the meaning of the word "property" and found it meant only what was proper or essential to unbound human life. This self-exiled poet, like the one who withdrew from Concord, ballasts with what his senses tell him…. (p. 495)
No wonder the phenomenology of Snyder's landscape is so difficult to pin down! He is forever exchanging the trough of the wave for the crest, the mountain-top for the abyss, the world of cars and haircuts for the rocky desolation in which we are accustomed to find, reading the scroll inch by inch, a tiny, radiant sage under some tremendous crag—and that will be this odd American poet, our post-Hiroshima Lafcadio Hearn, who ends his latest excerpt from the end-less poem-scroll of his life with this classic bit of spiritual geography, a human universal from Dante to Hiroshige:
… We were at the bottom of the gorge. We started drifting up the canyon. "This is the way to the back country." (p. 496)
Richard Howard, "Gary Snyder" (originally published in Perspective), in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 485-98.
The Back Country is a better introduction to [Gary Snyder's] work, but Regarding Wave is fine in a new way. One could say it's more confessional, though Snyder can always write about himself when he feels like it. He still writes Ginsberg chant sometimes, never as nice as his quieter, more genuinely tribal domestic ones, notes from the tipi and kiva. The poem "Meeting the Mountains" about his son Kai should have been written years ago by somebody. It's perfect Snyder and a perfect poem, ample repayment for all those deadly numbers the bad ones write about their preternaturally uninteresting offspring. It is a splendid, readable dawn book. I know young men whom Snyder has spoiled for anybody else; all they want is The Back Country, Earth House Hold , and a pack sack. Surely nobody is writing such excellent verse for that rockclimbing kind of person. Snyder is that ideal thing—the author you see scruffy copies of...
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lying around. Adolescents are still unpleasantly fond of Rod McKuen. I've questioned them and it's true—what comes back is themood of a McKuen poem, not the words—all you do is tell them so and shunt them Snyder, and I swear they grow up before your eyes. William Stafford, Gary Snyder, and Robert Creeley work for you that way; Lowell and Berryman don't…. (pp. 209-10)
Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1971 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1971.
I am uncertain about Snyder. Not uncertain about his effectiveness as a poet—Snyder is brilliant and unmistakeable—but I am uncertain of the innocence that could write a poem of the simplicity of "How To Make Stew In The Pinacate Desert." It is an innocence that somehow has the feeling of a stance, an attitude—which would make it not innocent—but his poem, like Snyder, has the feeling of completeness, that the poem, and he, is what it says it is. Within the poem are larger implications, but it is—simply—a recipe for cooking stew in the desert, written for some friends. (p. 57)
The simplicity is only an immediate face of the poem, an attitude that Snyder is using to direct the poem's movement. And it is a poem, even if it reads like a recipe….
It is—also—more than a poem. In its simplicities and immediacies Snyder is describing a ceremony. The definiteness of the directions, the care of the details, for the vegetables, the meat, the times, places, spaces, all the movements of a ceremony. A simple ceremony, but by the act of ceremony itself the levels of meaning have become multiple, the steps of the ceremony followed with the image of their implied meanings. A ceremony for what, to yield what? Ceremonies have a circumference beyond their immediate event that gives even their confusions a larger importance. Even Gary Snyder's ceremony for making beef stew in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona. (p. 58)
Snyder's ceremony is like much of his poetry, an attempt to reenact the experience of the natural environment. Walden written in a small hand. An American ceremony, affirmed over and over by American writers who, like Snyder, have felt the necessity of continuing this experience. They've thought of it either as a step toward a "true" environment—a positive stance—or as a step away from the "false" environment of the American city—a negative stance. For Snyder the ceremony is a step toward, a positive movement and direction, its affirmation so self-evident that he doesn't even feel the necessity of justifying it. His poetry has had this same clarity of affirmation from his earliest books. Rip Rap has as little artifice as his recipe for stew. The poems—it was his first book—almost completely outlined the spaces that his poetry has filled since. The opening poem, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," ends,
I cannot remember things I once read A few friends, but they are in cities. Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup Looking down for miles Through high still air.
Even in a book as early as Rip Rap the innocence was directly and clearly present.
His poetry has this openness, this simplicity, but it also has a fullness, a sense of completeness. Everything in the poems comes out of his involvement with the earth in its deepest sense. In Rip Rap there is the shamanism of "Praise for Sick Women," poems from his loose wandering as a merchant seaman, poems from his life in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, from his life in Japan—the "great stone garden in the sea"—the themes that have continued through his poetry. In all of it is the same innocence—the same guarded distance from the concept of a city and a crowd. Snyder would have liked to live his life as part of a tribe, without a tribe he has had to develop his own rituals toward the earth and its creatures. The years he has spent in Zen studies in Japan could have emphasized the ceremonial in a poem about a desert stew—since so much of the life in a monastery is ceremonial—but it could as well come out of his feeling of the necessity of the tribe and its ritual.
But the poetry still has a confusing element, its certainty is sometimes disquieting. The simplicity, the innocence sometimes has an overtone of obviousness, of insistence. Does Snyder mean it? Is his innocence genuine, despite the obvious complexity of his attitude toward it? Within its small frame even a poem like the stew recipe is insisting on the uniqueness of the wilderness experience, its attitudes—through his own involved feeling of tribe and earth—rooted in the Rousseauist vision of the romantic primitive, and to its manifestation through the American philosophic ideal of an essential innocence in the wild and the untouched…. Thoreau, ranging the same ground, would have stepped further, would have related the ceremony of cooking a desert stew to his own, and intensely personal, philosophy; but Thoreau, without being conscious of it, was less innocent than Snyder. (pp. 58-60)
Snyder's individuality has a complexity of depth and mood. He has come to it from a new conception, the concept of an innocence that builds itself through an awareness of what it has to avoid. A self-chosen innocence. Snyder has sensed that his response to much of what the American environment is forcing in on him has to be an act of rejection. His rejection is so complete that nothing of this response is even present in the poem. Nothing in his description of his stew making ceremony suggests that he is self-conscious—even self-aware that the simplicity of the poem, in itself, has to be an expression of his own complexity. The poem, for him, is as complete within itself as a piece of stone….
The care for detail, the insistence on detail, has the same kind of concentration as a paragraph on fire building in a Boy Scout manual … and it is as isolated in its implications. (p. 61)
The moral implication is tangled and obscure, a denial of knowledge as a form of innocence, but he would probably refuse even to consider the implication. It could be that at this place in the American journey it is the only innocence left to us. (p. 62)
Samuel Charters, "Gary Snyder," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1971 by Samuel Charters), Oyez, 1971, pp. 57-63.
Gary Snyder's "Trail Crew Camp at Bear Valley, 9000 Feet. Northern Sierra—White Bone and Threads of Snowmelt Water" is … deeply alien to traditional Western thought. (p. 59)
It may have occurred to the reader that the pattern of Snyder's poem very strikingly resembles that of a religious experience. Trails are like Ways, hence Snyder's occupation strongly suggests a process of meditation or spiritual exercise, clearing the path from temporal life to the moment of Enlightenment—the sudden dropping-away of the phenomenal world in the contemplation of the infinite and eternal, All and Nothingness. The ending of the poem reflects equally age-old processes: the return to the world, the greater awareness of reality paradoxically following on the awareness of its opposite, the insight that the Way Up is the Way Down. Yet we should beware of saying, in the usual sloppy way of critics, that the events in the poem (or the poem itself) symbolize such an experience; they contain the experience, as a Zen koan does, even if the content is to be unlocked only by arduous subsequent meditation. Thus, from a Zen point of view, skilful and concentrated work, work which tends to fuse the categories of subject and object, being and doing, is a kind of spiritual exercise likely to lead to Enlightenment; and this Enlightenment would be no less itself for arriving through a sudden vista of mountains. (Symbolism in our usual sense presupposes a hierarchic arrangement of kinds of experience and categories of consciousness, and it is this presupposition that I think Snyder, in keeping with many non-Western traditions, would wish to exclude.)
Poems like these have been referred to, derogatorily, as "Imagist."… But this seems to me a misapplied term; for I feel … no consciousness of restraint, no sense that hardness and indirection are aesthetic goods per se, and certainly no taboo against emotional or abstract language. The [poet does] choose subjects that are seemingly small and cool: rhythms of day and night, and the seasons; work, pleasure, and rest; the mind in unfixed contemplation. But [he does] so, clearly, because these areas of life seem stranger, more important, even more religious, to [him] than to earlier poets, poets committed to the ego or to one of its passionate or demonic antitheses. And meaning for [Snyder] … would inhere in an experience and not a paraphrase, and would therefore be betrayed by a less bodily, a more explanatory, language. (I do not mean to imply, however, that all poems written in this style deal with Enlightenment; many lead into darkness or into complexity, but they have the same method, the same sense of how important spiritual events happen.) Many of the surest achievements of this generation, the poems I am most convinced would hold up by the standards of any time and any aesthetic, are in this very short, very pure genre. (pp. 60-1)
Gary Snyder … [has] become, in America, a kind of patron saint of ecology. This has led to a certain amount of denigration of his thought, apparently on the theory that anything popular with the young has to be facile. Actually, Snyder, in rejecting Western culture, has prepared his peace with as eclectic and painstaking an apprenticeship as one could imagine: graduate study in Japanese and Chinese studies at Berkeley; review articles on Pacific Northwest Indian folklore at a time when the field was virtually unexplored; work in the "back country" as logger, forest ranger, and fire lookout; the greater part of six years as a Zen novice at the monastery in Kyoto. Snyder is a remarkable polemical essayist, pungent in aphorism ("A hand pushing a button may wield great power, but that hand will never learn what a hand can do"), but equally at home with the common sense, clarity, humor of a middle style. His short poems in The Back Country seem to me subtler in design, more intellectually suggestive than those of any of his contemporaries; I suspect this is partly due to his grounding in Zen, but I lack the knowledge to substantiate this guess further…. In its total structure, The Back Country seems to move outward from short poems toward more ambitious poems of religious and political criticism, poems remarkable alike for their historical insight and for the canny humor and daring that spring from Snyder's essential mystic's disbelief in history…. In sound, too, Snyder is perhaps the subtlest craftsman of his generation. He derives mainly from the Pound/Williams/Projectivist line, and hence writes the most "open", the least heavily accented free verse; but his most important inheritance from Pound (and from Robert Duncan) is perhaps his use of rhyme, and of syncopated versions of traditional meters, within a free form poem to bring it nearer incantation and song. This tendency (appropriate enough to Snyder's interest in the origins of poetry) becomes increasingly dominant in his more recent books; the early Myths & Texts still shows some of the crabbed and pedantic side of Pound's elliptical style, while the … "Songs" from Regarding Wave have an intentional wave-pattern of intersecting consonances that becomes, at moments, almost Hopkinsian. (pp. 61-3)
Alan Williamson, "Language against Itself: The Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (copyright © 1974 by Alan Williamson), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 55-67.
Snyder's poems fall roughly into three categories: lyrical precepts (prayers, spells, charms) designed to instill an "ecological conscience" so that we will respect the otherness of nature, frequently personified as the tender, generative mother, and use her wisely. (Linked with these poems are a group that register his disgust at the heedless wasters, interlopers and marauders, the suburban developers for whom if you treat nature right, "it will make a billion board feet a year.") Several poems celebrate domesticity and the family, the poet as doting father and husband bestowing benedictions on his wife and sons. By far the largest segment of his work records quiet moments when he observes the "whoosh of birds," cloud movements, a volcanic crater, the coyote's wail, the Douglas fir or a red leaf. These imagistic poems employ a spare notation.
Snyder's subjects are often appealing: walks, mountains, children, the skinning of a deer, love-making, communion with friends on a camping trip—all the ceremonies of innocence. But the poems themselves are thin, scattered, forgettable, their rhythmical pulse sluggish, as in "Pine Tree Tops," a standard Snyder poem…. The reader feels he is watching home movies, leafing through snapshots of an exotic trip. What stays afterwards are silhouettes of experience….
Despite a few lovely poems—"The Egg," "Straight-Creek—Great Burn," and "The Hudsonian Curlew"—"Turtle Island" is flat, humorless and uneventful. (Snyder's prose is vigorous and persuasive.) The poems are also oddly egotistical. Any random scrap jotted into a journal, the miscellaneous thoughts and images that are the seeds of shaped poems and that most poets discard, are transferred into the poems without the imagination's critical intervention. "Turtle Island" is a textbook example of the limits of Imagism.
I am reluctant to mention these doubts since as the bulldozers stand poised to despoil the wilderness by strip-mining the West for the sake of more dreck and civilized trumpery, Snyder's sane housekeeping principles desperately need to become Government and corporate policy. He is on the side of the gods. But as Snyder remarks, "Poetry is the vehicle of the mystery of voice," and the voice of "Turtle Island," for all its sincerity and moral urgency, lacks that mystery and "inspired use of language" we call style. (p. 2)
Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.
"Turtle Island" is our "Walden"—a sustained poetic testimony that we can, perhaps must, learn to live in psychic health with less organized human context, and more wild context, than civilization offers. Snyder describes nature better than any other living poet; moreover, like Words-worth, he makes us feel the centering power, beyond the visible, that nature has for his mind. He is also a fine poet of nature-in-man, as in "The Bath"—a joyful and dignified corrective to bodily shame, and the over-extended incest taboos that induce it. Snyder is weak only in homily and satire, where his designs tend to be too obvious. (p. lvii)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).