Mountains and Rivers Without End

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

In 1956, the same year he participated in the historic reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco where Allen Ginsberg introduced “Howl,” Gary Snyder began a long poetic sequence inspired by and organized around the form of the Chinese and Japanese scroll painting. Already an avid mountain explorer and serious beginning student of Asian culture, Snyder felt that he could express some of the things he found fascinating in the endless, shifting tableaus of earth, water, and sky of the Western Pacific mountains where he grew up by following the form of the panels in Asian landscape painting. Without a specific plan for the conclusion of what he envisioned as a kind of epic in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s CANTOS (1920’s-1970) or Walt Whitman’s SONG OF MYSELF (1855), Snyder wrote seven parts of the poem in the 1960’s, publishing them separately in journals while he continued his other work as a poet, essayist, environmental activist, and zen student.

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As his prominence and influence as a major American writer increased during the succeeding decades, he continued to work on this project while actively involved in other social and artistic endeavors. MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS WITHOUT END became more ordered as his conception advanced, but its actual sections appeared relatively infrequently. Snyder had the opportunity to view many of the scroll paintings he had read about during the 1980’s, as well as to visit some major urban centers which he brought into the poem as a balance for the central themes covering unpopulated terrain. Then, in the early 1990’s, Snyder felt “the entire poem clicked for me . . . and I could let it go.” More than one-third of the poem’s forty sections (including an extensive essay “The Making of. . . . “) were written in the mid-1990’s.

In its final form, the poem charts the course of a journey of discovery through time, space, art, cultural connections, and social arrangements. Snyder’s prime interests in the environment, Native American and Asian mythologies, the value of productive work in a community including friends and family, and the capability of language to transform and create perception are examined and refined as his perspective changes through the processes of growth and the inevitability of change in everything. The organizing principle—mountains as symbols of “willed self-discipline” and rivers as an expression of a “generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings”—enables Snyder to establish a linkage between the human and the natural realm, and to express and illuminate his core belief that the universe is a vast entity “interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.” At the poem’s center, his feeling that “All art and song/ is sacred to the real” conveys his life’s commitment to work toward a high degree of accomplishment in both areas of achievement.

Sources for Further Study

Columbus Dispatch. January 5, 1997, p. F7.

Los Angeles Times. October 22, 1996, p. E1.

The New York Times Magazine. October 6, 1996, p. 62.

Oregonian. October 6, 1996, p. D6.

Outside. October, 1996, p. 129.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, August 26, 1996, p. 94.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 15, 1996, p. REV1.

The Washington Post. October 25, 1996, p. B1.

Washington Times. September 22, 1996, p. B8.

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