Gary Snyder 1930–
(Full name Gary Sherman Snyder) American poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Snyder's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 9, and 32.
Known for his writing and philosophies on environmental subjects, Snyder is considered one of the most important American poets of his generation. Throughout his career, he has been at the forefront of American literary and cultural developments such as the Beat movement of the 1950s, the popularization of Oriental thought and religion in the 1960s, and the growth of environmental consciousness. Despite his association with these popular movements, critics note that he has pursued his own agendas without concern for his popularity. His poetry, which fuses Oriental and Native American myth with a strong and personal connection between man and nature, has been compared with the work of Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Snyder is the recipient of several literary honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Turtle Island (1974).
Snyder was born on May 8, 1930 and was raised on small farms in Washington and Oregon. His family was poor, but freethinking, advocating socialism and atheism, thus encouraging Snyder to question the dominant culture. Throughout his life he has held jobs as a logger, merchant marine, fire lookout and United States Forest Service trail crew worker. He earned undergraduate degrees in literature and anthropology at Reed College, where he pursued his interest in Native American Culture. Snyder began graduate work at the University of Indiana before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley, where he pursued his emerging interest in Buddhism and Asian languages. Between 1953 and 1956, Snyder became involved with the Beatnik movement in Northern California, writing poetry and attending the famous reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." He was featured in Jack Kerouac's book The Dharma Bums. Just as the beatnik movement was gaining national attention, Snyder moved to Japan where he studied Zen Buddhism. He remained in Japan until the late 1960s when he returned to the United States. He and his third wife and two sons made their home on a farm he called Kitkitdizze, on the San Juan Ridge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He continues to live there, writing poetry and essays on environmentalism, both subjects he teaches at the University of California at Davis.
Snyder's writing reveals an appreciation for the hard work of rural life and the nearness it affords with nature. His work also focuses on an interest in the spiritual link between primitive cultures and nature, and contains a deep sense of involvement with humanity. In his poetry and his nonfiction writing, Snyder has advocated a close association and a mutual respect between humans and the natural world. He has emphasized the interconnectedness of life, using and manipulating Native American folklore, Asian myths, and Buddhist thought, creating an unique blend of Eastern and Western philosophies. 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 to create a horse trail in the mountains. Myths and Texts (1960), his next collection, is a long highly allusive lyrical poem divided into three sections: "Logging," "Hunting," and "Burning." This poem is considered to be among his best work. 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. Building on his success and years of study, Snyder achieved greater public acclaim with the Pulitzer Prize winning Turtle Island, an intensive contemplation of his life and its connection with the Sierra Nevada landscape. The title is an allegory to North America and in it he extends the metaphor of his life in California to human existence in American and the world. In Axe Handles (1983) he focuses on domesticity and his relationship with his family. After more than forty years of work, Snyder completed and published Mountains and Rivers without End in 1996. In addition, Snyder has published numerous collections of essays, articles and speeches about the environment, Native American and Asian mythology, and his life experiences.
Scholars acknowledge Snyder's profound influence on the development of American poetry in the postwar period. Critics note that from Beat to mystic to bioregional poetry, Snyder has shaped both content and form. Critics have lauded Snyder's blending of Western and Eastern philosophies; his imaginative use of Native American and Asian mythology; his unique and evocative treatment of landscape; his competent handling of sound, phrasing, and rhythm; and the sureness of his imagery. Consistently, throughout his career, scholars have noted his importance in "reimaging the landscape," or, the conceptualizing of new ways in which to interpret nature and man's relationship to it. Thomas J. Lyon argues that Snyder's' success comes from eliminating the distance between man and nature in his writing, in keeping his poetry direct. And Christopher Benfey calls him "… the unofficial poet laureate of the environmentalist movement." However, reviewers agree that the quality of Snyder's' work is uneven. They state that, while individual poems in his other collections are outstanding, only Myths & Texts is consistently and collectively successful. In addition, critics have become dissatisfied with Snyder's increasing focus on environmental-political issues in his poetry. Scholars such as David A. Carpenter argue that the poetic has suffered at the hand of the political. Despite these short-falls, commentators agree that Snyder's reputation as an unique, pathbreaking poet remains strong.