Gary (Sherman) Snyder 1930–
American poet, essayist, and translator.
Snyder's stature as both a counterculture figure and an innovative and important mainstream poet places him in an uncommon position in contemporary literature. Although only briefly involved with the San Francisco Beat movement of the 1950s, Snyder's influence on the Beats was nevertheless significant and he is often linked with them. However, unlike most Beat writers, Snyder has also received extensive serious scholarly attention. Whereas a rejection of literary traditions characterizes much Beat writing, Snyder's work is seen to embody the influence of such literary giants as Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is the recipient of several literary honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection Turtle Island (1974), and his reputation as a significant author, though not uncontested, is largely secure.
Snyder was raised on small farms, first in Washington and later in Oregon, and held jobs as a logger, seaman, fire lookout, and United States Forest Service trail crew worker. His interest in American Indian culture led him to acquire degrees in literature and anthropology at Reed College. Snyder began graduate work in linguistics at Indian University, and then transferred to University of California at Berkeley, where he pursued his interest in Asian thought and culture by studying Oriental languages. During this time, between 1953 and 1956, Snyder became involved with the Beat community; just as it began gaining national attention, however, he moved to Japan, where he became actively involved in Zen Buddhism. The influence of Eastern literature and philosophy and Snyder's application of Zen Buddhism to Western culture are perhaps the most distinguishing characteristics of his poetry.
Snyder's writing reveals an appreciation for the hard work of rural life and the closeness it affords with nature, an interest in the spiritual link between primitive cultures and nature, and a deep sense of involvement with humanity. As Thomas Parkinson notes in a discussion of Myths & Texts (1960), "Snyder wants to reach a prehuman reality, the wilderness and the cosmos in which man lives as an animal with animals in a happy ecology." Over the course of his career, Snyder has developed and refined his vision, creating a body of work marked by its clarity, depth, and rhythmic beauty. Like the Japanese poetry which he has studied and translated, Snyder's poems are built not on symbol or metaphor but on sharp, clear images created out of precise and immediate language.
Snyder's first collection of poetry, Riprap (1959), is largely based on his experiences as a manual laborer; the title itself is taken from a term which designates the laying of stones for a horse trail in the mountains. Myths & Texts, his next collection, is a long, highly allusive lyrical poem divided into three sections: "Logging," "Hunting," and "Burning." This work is often considered his most accomplished collection. Most critics contend that Myths & Texts far surpasses Riprap in literary merit: it is more tightly constructed, unified, and expansive, while also retaining the clarity and exactness of the shorter poems in Riprap. 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, and the recent Axe Handles (1983)—continue to develop the themes and concerns introduced in the early collections. In addition, Snyder has continued to work on Mountains and Rivers without End, an ongoing lyrical series, begun in the 1950s, which explores internal and external landscapes.
He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village (1951), Snyder's recently republished senior thesis at Reed College, explores how the ancient "Swan Maiden" myth reflects and shapes the lives of the Haida Indians. This early work, revealing Snyder's interest in and his commitment to poetry, society, and the natural world, is seen to foreshadow the main concerns developed throughout his career. Snyder's other nonfiction works, most notably Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1979), and The Real Work (1980), are collections of essays which relate to his poetry thematically. Of central concern in both his essays and poems, as Scott McLean notes in his introduction to The Real Work, is Snyder's belief in "the complementary nature of inner and outer realities." Snyder views poetry as "'the seat of the soul'—the area where the inner world and the outer world touch…."
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 16.)