Gary Snyder Snyder, Gary (Vol. 120) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Riprap (poetry) 1959
Myths & Texts (poetry) 1960
Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (poetry) 1965
The Back Country (poetry) 1968
Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries for Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries (essays) 1970
Regrading Wave (poetry) 1972
Turtle Island (poetry) 1974
Axe Handles (poetry) 1983
Left Out in the Rain: New Poems 1947–1985 (poetry) 1986
No Nature: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1992
A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (prose) 1995
Mountains and Rivers without End (poetry) 1996

Thomas J. Lyon (essay date Spring 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Lyon places Snyder's work at the forefront of the new naturalist movement.]

There are some positive signs—more than straws in the wind—that a significant number of Western minds are forsaking the progress-domination theory inherent in the political view which has ruled and conquered for so long, in favor of a more relaxed and open way with the world founded on ecological sensitivity. The political mind, based ultimately on bossmanship in theology and bent on converting world matter into exclusively human use with efficient if...

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Herbert Leibowitz (review date 23 March 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ecologies of the Finite and the Infinite," in New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1975, p. 2.

[In the following review of Turtle Island, Leibowitz argues that Snyder has failed to adequately transform stray thoughts into powerful poetry.]

When Walt Whitman advised his countrymen in 1871 to book passage to India he was not dreaming of extending the American empire to Asia, though he was enough of a chauvinist to view the restless migration to the Pacific complacently. Before the Civil War, American mercantile interests, New Englanders prominent among them, had discovered the lucrative China trade. Thoreau had carried the "Bhagavad-Gita" in his bag to...

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Lee Bartlett (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gary Snyder's Han-Shan," in Sagetreib, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 105-110.

[In the following essay, Bartlett discusses Snyder's translations of the works of seventh-century Buddhist poet Hanshan.]

Kenneth Rexroth, whose fourteen books of translations include many poems from the Chinese, has argued recently that Chinese poetry probably began to influence a few English speaking writers when Three Hundred Poems of T'ang was translated into French free verse in the mid-19th Century. Certainly the English translations of early sinologist Herbert A. Giles, collected in his Gems of Chinese Literature, marked in their archaic and doggerel renderings no...

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Katsunori Yamazato (essay date Summer 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Note on Japanese Allusions in Gary Snyder's Poetry," in Western American Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 143-48.

[In the essay below, Yamazato traces Snyder's use of Japanese folktales and culture in his poetry.]

Recent criticism of the poetry of Gary Snyder has focused on the poet's use of allusions. While Buddhist and Chinese allusions have gradually been identified and explicated, the equally important Japanese allusions in Snyder's poetry have attracted little attention. Reflecting the poet's Japanese years (1956–1968), these allusions range widely over such subjects as classical Japanese literature, folklore, religion, and the Japanese...

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Patrick D. Murphy (essay date Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mythic and Fantastic: Gary Snyder's 'Mountains and Rivers without End,'" in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 290-99.

[In the following essay, Murphy analyzes Snyders' poem "Mountains and Rivers without End" in terms of Tzetvan Todorov's theories on the fantastic.]

Critics of the Fantastic tend to ignore poetry, overlooking poems from the mainstream of poetic tradition and dismissing, usually as facile, poetry appearing in science fiction and fantasy magazines. Serious work has been and is being done in the area of fantasy-oriented poetry, but this work rarely receives critical attention as Fantastic literature or as poetry using fantastic...

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Woody Rehanek (essay date Fall 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Shaman Songs of Gary Snyder," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 162-69.

[In the essay below, Rehanek focuses on Axe Handles and considers Snyders' philosophy of the interconnections between man and nature.]

Shamanism relates to the most archaic of human religious practices … It informs the fundamental lore of the planet, that is to say, all of the worldwide body of folktale that we all share. The folk motifs of Native America are scattered all across Europe and Asia. We are all in the same boat, stemming from ten to thirteen thousand years back in the Pleistocene. We are all sharing the same information...

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Tom Lavazzi (essay date July-August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pattern of Flux: The 'Torsion Form' in Gary Snyder's Poetry," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, July-August, 1989, pp. 41-7.

[In the essay below, Lavazzi documents the connection between Snyder's cosmology and his poetic structure.]

It would be best to consider this a continuing "revolution of consciousness" which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy's side.

Snyder's view of social reform is the inevitable consequence of a poetics that pushes beyond...

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R. J. Schork (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Echoes of Eliot in Snyder's 'A Stone Garden,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, Summer, 1990, pp. 172-77.

[In the following essay, Schork speculates on the influence of T. S. Eliot's poem "Preludes" on Snyder's "A Stone Garden."]

When Gary Snyder in a 1954 letter to Kenneth Rexroth utterly dismissed the imitators of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, he indicated his lack of respect for poets who derive from the Modernist Masters:

Very well: high compression, complexity, linguistic involutions are all virtues in poetry—but in the hands of the mediocre, just so much frillery. Which disposes of the imitators of Ezra...

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Bill McKibben (review date 11 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mountain Hedonist," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 7, April 11, 1991, pp. 29-31, 34.

[In the following review of The Practice of the Wild, McKibben argues that Snyder believes as environmentalists we must bridge our estrangement from nature.]

We talk in a lazy shorthand when we speak about "the environment" and "the environmental movement" as if there were a single, obvious program for the planet's protection. But the environmental movement is far broader and more diverse than any of the "progressive" campaigns that preceded it, since no single policy can deal with problems as diverse in scale and scope as the greenhouse effect and the...

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Julia Martin (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Speaking for the Green of the Leaf: Gary Snyder Writes Nature's Literature," in CEA Critic, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 98-109.

[In the following excerpt, Martin explores Snyder's environmental writings and the ways in which Snyder challenges the dominant Western discourse.]

… As early as 1969 and even before, Snyder described what he considered to be the repressive thrust of the dominant Western culture in terms of sexual politics, identifying its origins within the "patriarchal, patrilineal family." In attacking this value system, his poetry becomes polemical and angry. Whereas much of Snyder's work is characterized by its attention to minute...

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Katsunori Yamazato (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "How to Be in This Crisis: Gary Snyder's Cross-Cultural Vision in Turtle Island," in Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 230-47.

[In the following essay, Yamazato discusses the way in which Snyder's unique interpretation of Buddhism shapes his poetry.]

For Gary Snyder, Buddhism was and is not merely a system of faith and worship; as he succinctly summarizes, "Buddhism is about existence." Buddhism teaches one how to be in this "impermanent" world, and this is one of the aspects of Buddhism that Snyder especially deepened and solidified during his Japanese years (1956–68). Despite persistent...

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Michael Strickland (review date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Practice of the Wild, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 382-83.

[In the following review, Strickland praises Snyder's wisdom and attention to craftsmanship in the essays from The Practice of the Wild.]

Reading the essays in The Practice of the Wild one can almost see Gary Snyder, the new-age hunter-gatherer so enamored of "good tools" and "high quality information," pecking away at his Macintosh computer (to which he has written a celebratory poem)—the consummate Zen craftsman of words. None of the 1960's rhetoric sometimes found in his earlier essays is here, only eloquence and an "ecology of language."...

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Richard Tillinghast (review date 27 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chants and Chainsaws," in New York Times Book Review, December 27, 1992, p. 2.

[In the following excerpt, Tillinghast praises No Nature for uniting a lifetime of Snyder's work.]

Only in our age could a poem have been written that gives an account of life in California's Sierra Nevada from the perspective of 300 million years of natural and human history. And only Gary Snyder, with a command of geology, anthropology and evolutionary biology unmatched among contemporary poets, could have written that poem, "What Happened Here Before."

"First a sea: soft sands, muds, and marls," the poem begins, "loading, compressing, heating, crumpling."...

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David Barber (review date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of No Nature, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. 164, No. 3, June, 1997, pp. 167-71.

[In the following review of No Nature, Barber argues that Snyder's work has lost an element of vitality and urgency.]

With the appearance of Riprap in 1959, Gary Snyder added contour and credence to the emerging claims of a Pound-Williams line of descent in midcentury American poetry, a poetics of open forms and seemingly limitless prescriptive dictums. Snyder's poems looked the part and fit the bill: they were "fields of action," they were "composed in the sequence of the musical phrase," they had a sinewy, backcountry specificity that seemed manifestly in...

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Christopher Benfey (review date 24 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Critter Poet," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 12, March 24, 1997, pp. 38-42.

[In the following review, Benfey reconsiders Snyder's career from the 1950s to the present.]

Gary Snyder was a character in a novel before he published his own first book. In Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, that vivid account of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and the Beat movement, there is a biographical sketch of Japhy Ryder, "the number one Dharma Bum of them all":

Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Burt, Stephen. A Review of Mountains and Rivers Without End, by Gary Snyder. Yale Review 85, No. 3 (July 1987): 150-54.

Mixed review of Mountains and Rivers Without End.

Carpenter, David A. "Gary Snyder's Inhumanism, from Riprap to Axe Handles." South Dakota Review 26, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 110-38.

Argues that Snyder has allowed political messages to overshadow the creative voice of his poetry.

Costello, Bonnie. "The Soil and Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets." Contemporary...

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