Gary Snyder Snyder, Gary (Sherman) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

CRUNK [pseudonym of JAMES WRIGHT]

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have three ideas about Snyder's work as a whole that I want to bring up. First, his is essentially a Western imagination. His poems are powerfully located—sown, rooted—in the landscape of the far Western states. He is a Western writer just as, for example, Delmore Schwartz, Anthony Hecht, and Howard Moss are Eastern writers…. These two sets of writers deal with different geographical landscapes but the distinction is deeper and subtler than that. They differ in what might be called the landscape of the imagination—which each in his way tries to discover and explore.

The Western writer feels a need to approach his characters and incidents with an imagination totally, if temporarily, freed from all concern with abstract ideas. The Eastern writer … does not. (p. 34)

One of the most interesting features of Gary Snyder's poetry is that in him we see this "western" imagination in a poet.

The point is worth examining further: it helps to identify Mr. Snyder's originality and it suggests a kind of American poetry that hasn't been very much explored—a kind of poetry which Mr. Snyder has been writing with freshness and dignity, which might be called a poetry of the Western imagination. The term itself doesn't matter much, except for the sake of convenience. It ought to suggest, however, certain features of poetry which are imaginative rather than rhetorical. In such poetry the forms of poems emerge from within the living growth of each particular poem and most definitely not in a set of conventions (such as the classical English iambic, with all its masterpieces of the past and its suffocating influence in the present). This new poetry is also marked by the presence of a powerful intelligence which does its thinking through the imagination itself, and not through repetition of the thoughts of established philosophical authorities or of classical myths which are degenerated through excessive or inaccurate use into obstructions rather than doorways to clear thought. Mr. Snyder does indeed embody certain myths in his poetry, but they are not classical myths, but "bear myths," and myths of the senses.

My second idea is that Mr. Snyder's poetry is very different from "Beat" poetry. Snyder has been associated primarily in magazines with the Black Mountain school and the Beats…. Snyder's poetry is, however, immediately distinct both in imagination and in style from Beat work. A certain gentleness and care for civilization in Snyder is utterly absent in Ginsberg or Orlovsky, who are in favor, as they say, of "cat vommit." Ginsberg and Orlovsky make strong efforts to coarsen themselves, whereas Snyder does the very opposite. The Beat writers are opposed to civilization of all kinds: Snyder is not. Snyder's work everywhere reveals the grave mind of a man who is highly civilized and who, moreover, makes no pretense of denying his own intelligence. (pp. 35-6)

My third idea is the reality of the oriental influence on...

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Bob Steuding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snyder has recently mentioned that the direction of his future work after the completion of Mountains and Rivers Without End will be religious and philosophical. He has also stated that after that work has been completed, he may donate his books to the local library and retire to the anonymity of friends and family life in the mountains. This desire and such a life are, of course, in the true Oriental style. However, if Snyder ends his poetic career after this decade, it would even then be premature to make any final pronouncements. Although the figure of Gary Snyder as a man may still overshadow that of Snyder the poet, certain tentative statements can now be made. First of all, Snyder's reputation as a poet rests at present on Myths & Texts, his most complete work; on a few excellent poems from Riprap, The Back Country, and Turtle Island; on the cycle of poems in Regarding Wave …; and especially on the more recent sections where Snyder's work reaches synthesis in his magnum opus, Mountains and Rivers Without End. In these poems, one finds directness and simplicity of statement, clarity and brilliance of mind, and profundity and depth of emotional range. In these instances, Snyder's is a poetry of incredible power and beauty. (pp. 163-64)

Myths & Texts (1960), many readers' favorite work, is, as yet, Snyder's most complete and most unified book. This is not a collection of poems organized around a catchy title, as to a certain extent are Riprap and The Back Country, no matter how perfect some of their individual poems. Myths & Texts coheres perfectly…. [All] three of its sections relate specifically to one another, and there is a definite progression and feeling of completion while reading this book. Like "The Waste Land," which influenced its composition, Myths & Texts makes an over-all comment on our society and will probably stand the test of time. Within this work are individual poems of startling beauty and insight, for example, "Poem 2" from "Logging," in which Snyder relates his own complicity in the destruction of the forests. (p. 164)

Of particular note in The Back Country (1968) is "A Berry Feast," written to commemorate a summer spent with good friends in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It is a saucy poem, filled with zest for life, written by Snyder while in a trickster-like mood. Also significant are the many simple songs of peace and happiness, such as "Marin-an" in which the poet listens to the people of middle America driving their cars to work. The "Kali" poems are also notable … for their frank exploration of the demonic potential in man and in the poet in particular. And the poems in "Far East," inspired by Snyder's travels and studies in Japan are particularly important as well as poignant. "Six Years" adeptly portrays the rhythm of the poet's Zen studies. And "Yase: September" succinctly captures the essence of old Japan…. (p. 165)

Turtle Island (1974) … and Regarding Wave (1970) collect many poems which extend and complete themes and subjects treated in earlier works. For example, both books are concerned with social revolution and the search for alternate sources of energy. The cycle of poems from...

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Ekbert Faas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["True insight"] to Snyder is "a love-making hovering between the void & the immense worlds of creation,"… and poetry, as its subtlest medium of expression, walks "that edge between what can be said and that which cannot be said … [I]t's going out into emptiness and into the formless" while at the same time resting on "an absolute foundation of human experience and insight."… The "pure inspiration flow" bringing it forth is "not intellect and not—(as romantics and after have confusingly thought) fantasy-dream world or unconsciousness." On the contrary, true poetry "reflects all things and feeds all things but is of itself transparent."…

True to this theory, Snyder's poetry, like that of...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was written as an introduction to The Real Work in August 1979.]

In 1969 Gary Snyder published a collection of journal excerpts, reviews, translations, and essays under the title Earth House Hold. (p. xi)

Thematically and structurally the interviews and talks gathered in [The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979] complement and extend the positions taken in Earth House Hold. A line can be traced in the earlier prose collection from Snyder's first statements on poetics in the "Lookout's Journal" to the essay "Suwa-no-se Island and the Banyan Ashram," celebrating a sense of community that has been...

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Charles Altieri

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gary Snyder is one of the very few poets since 1900 to command both a large popular appeal and considerable respect from his peers. The reason for the former is his articulation of a possible religious faith at a time when cultural alienation was pushing many people to experiment with various non-Western metaphysical systems. The reason for the latter is evident if one compares Snyder with other poets responding to the same quest for alternate religious doctrines. On the one hand there are poets like Cid Corman and Philip Whalen who directly translate Zen materials and forms into English, and on the other there are those like Allen Ginsberg or Jerome Rothenberg who achieve the intense and dramatic religious emotion...

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Thomas J. Lyon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village] is Gary Snyder's senior thesis done at Reed College, from which he was graduated in 1951 with a dual major in anthropology and English. It is, in a way, a model of all his subsequent work, because it attempts to lead through literature—in this case, a "Swan Maiden" myth among the Haida tribe—to the living roots of cultural practice and psychology. By itself, it is an impressive study, bringing the theories of Graves, Freud, Jung, Campbell, Eliot, and I. A. Richards, among others, to bear upon the Haida. What Snyder is trying to show is that this people was a rooted people, enmeshed in a complex, wild ecology in which animals were tremendously significant, and at...

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Kevin Oderman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In an aside to one of his other remarks [in The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979], Gary Snyder implicitly criticizes the "stress on individual names" which characterizes the way we readers respond to our poets; he does so because he writes out of a tradition of self-effacement, and his yearnings are for a communal poetry rooted in place. But without a "name," poets aren't asked to do interviews, and without a big name such interviews are never collected into a book like Snyder's The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979. And, I think, it takes a very big name on such a collection to find readers, and to convince readers to be open enough to engage ideas like Snyder's, which...

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Thomas W. Pew, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gary Snyder comes to The Real Work having accomplished some very real work himself….

The titles of these interviews hint at some of the directions his work has taken. From "Landscape of Consciousness" through "The Zen of Humanity" and "Tracking Down the Natural Man," on to "The Bioregional Ethic," these talks with Snyder form the author's first non-poetry collection since Earth House Hold (1969).

For those readers who are arriving at Snyder for the first time The Real Work is an ideal introduction; for readers familiar with his poetry and previous prose work it is a refreshing collection of his clear thinking and unique sense of our particular time and place....

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Bert Almon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The tape recorder often gives us wordy ramblings of egocentric writers. Fortunately Gary Snyder is neither wordy nor egocentric, and the interviews and lectures collected in [The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979] show his usual wit and concision. He talks better than most people write. Anyone who wants to know how Snyder's thinking on social and literary issues has evolved since Earth House Hold in 1969 will find much to mull over. The six pieces collected in The Old Ways (1977) were an uneven batch, but these statements are consistently strong. (p. 55)

Much of the book is given over to social and political issues, but poetry is not ignored. The most illuminating...

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Roger Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of all poets who have published [books of interviews], Gary Snyder's interviews seem to be most organically harmonious with his poetic practice as a whole, for his work has a social purpose to it that makes his comments about all matters valuable. And besides, Snyder possesses a keen inelligence about a tremendous range of subjects. Accordingly, the fourteen interviews in The Real Work don't have the totally literary tang to them that an academic writer might create in such talks. They present, instead, a poet whose concerns go beyond his poetry into a wide active range of social and spiritual matters. It is interesting, in fact, that so few of Snyder's remarks have to do strictly with poetry or literature....

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Mary Kinzie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most striking [about the work of Gary Snyder] is the fact that he avoids metaphor of the kind … [wherein] two realms of conjunction, frequently one physical and the other spiritual, mix on the surface in such a way that the depths beneath will beckon, until any surface glancingly has something of depth in it. Contrary to this principle of steady sympathetic evocation, Snyder gives us only the surface and expects us not to expect it to ripple down to the depths beneath:

soaked drooping bamboo groves
swaying heavy in the drizzle,
and perfectly straight lines of rice plants

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Charles Molesworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hannah] Arendt's main point [in The Human Condition, her critical reassessment of the main tradition of European political philosophy,] is that the modern world is most hampered by its elevation of action over contemplation, with the concomitant devaluation of thought itself within the realm of action. To restore to political vision the awareness of the value and necessity of thought, not only as a form of activity but also as its most fully human form: this is Arendt's central project, and it is close to [Gary Snyder's] as well. From the objectivist poetics of Riprap and Myths & Texts, on to the personal doubt of The Back Country, and then through to the new senses of community and...

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Robert Peters

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Axe Handles is] Snyder's first book of poems in almost ten years…. How have the years treated Snyder? Pretty well, I'd say. Despite a few limp efforts (included are throwaway poems about Jerry Brown's visits to Snyder's yurt, nature and trivia, and Snyder's role on the California Arts Council), some of these poems rank with Snyder's best. There is a quieter, mellower tone throughout than we find in much of the earlier work; and he now writes of what he scrutinizes before him, without much reminiscing. It's as if the passing years have made the immediate experience more valuable than ever—a deeper delving in the earth itself as a means to awareness.

"Getting in the Wood" is vintage Snyder....

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Thomas Parkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snyder is not interested in fad, fashion, or convention: he is interested in tradition, and he is concerned with constructing a valid culture from the debris that years of exploitation have scattered around the Pacific Basin.

RIPRAP is Snyder's first book. The title means "a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock / to make a trail for horses in the mountains." In the last poem in the book he wrote of Poetry as a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics, the reality of perceived surface that grants men staying power and a gripping point…. The body of the mind—this is the province of poetry, a riprap on the abstractions of the soul that keeps men in tune with carnal eloquence. Snyder's...

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Paul Berman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gary Snyder] occasionally makes his ideas too obvious. His new collection, Axe Handles, ends with a painfully clear commitment to North American ecology: "I pledge allegiance to the soil / of Turtle Island, / one ecosystem / in diversity / under the sun / With joyful interpenetration for all." The new book hops along the ground instead of flying in the upper ether of Buddhist poetry. A good many poems are relatively disconnected I-do-this-I-do-that Zen diaries, which get wearisome. But in other moments, Snyder does remind us of his strengths: his strange tunefulness, as if he were strumming some kind of weird Japanese instrument, his ability to embrace the wild or the savage, as if he were a peasant in closer...

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Bruce Bawer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gary Snyder's last book was his Pulitzer prize-winning Turtle Island (1974), whose title, as he explained in an introductory note, was "the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths [in which the earth is seen as resting on a turtle's back] of the people who have been living here for millennia, and reapplied by some of them to 'North America' in recent years." Like Turtle Island, Axe Handles is about North America, in particular about the underpopulated, still unspoiled regions of the American West which Snyder has made his home. (pp. 346-47)

The title of the present book signals Snyder's heightened interest in tradition, culture, and family. The title poem begins...

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