Gary Snyder began his adult life not as a poet but as a professional student, first at Reed College (where he studied literature and anthropology) and later at the University of California, Berkeley (where he pursued the study of Oriental languages). He also studied Zen Buddhism for many years at a monastery in Kyoto, Japan, interrupting that period briefly for a pilgrimage to the sacred shrines of India. Before and after these undertakings, Snyder schooled himself in the ordinary disciplines of the laboring life by working as a deckhand, logger, and forester. From the very outset of his career, all these influences combined to produce poetry that was at once both convincingly spiritual and utterly unpretentious. These influences—monastery, sacred texts, forest, ocean, and wildlife—have persisted throughout his career.
Snyder’s unique talent was one of the motive forces behind the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, a flowering of West Coast poetry that virtually launched the Beat Movement after a famous poetry reading in Six Gallery in the fall of 1955. Figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Lew Welch, and Jack Kerouac were close personal friends, and their names figure prominently in some of Snyder’s poems and interviews. Snyder could never be pigeonholed as a Beatnik, however, because his talent has always been larger and more profound than the Beat movement as a whole. It is undoubtedly true that Snyder found reinforcement for his Eastern ideas in the movement, and he certainly approved of the democratic Whitmanesque ideals of openness and inclusion that the Beatniks championed. Beatniks were also some of the most vociferous believers in pacifism and environmentalism during the post-World War II period.
Even a casual glance at any page of No Nature suggests a controlled and craftsmanlike verse of obvious elegance and apparent artlessness. The source for that artistic purity, expressing itself in pared-down lines and graphic natural imagery, is Zen poetry, especially haiku, which Snyder pursued in the original Japanese as a student in Kyoto. By bringing the profound power of Zen meditation to the Sierras of Northern California and to the area known as the Piute Creek Drainage, Snyder was able to create a revolutionary new poetry that possessed the stark simplicity and timeless beauty of a Japanese calligrapher’s brush stroke.
One of the fundamental axioms of Zen (and of Buddhist thought in general) is the notion that the entire universe is an illusion. To achieve genuine freedom is to tear oneself away from all worldly encumbrances and possessions. This lesson had been taught by the Buddha himself as well as by his latter-day American followers, including Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman (both highly regarded by the Beatniks). In “Piute Creek,” the poet seeks the solitude and simplicity afforded by nature on a raw granite ridge, where he surveys the night sky. Suddenly he experiences the feeling that “All the junk that goes with being human/ Drops away.…” Snyder had his poetic coming-of-age during the 1950’s, one of the most vulgar periods of mass marketing and gross consumerism, filled as it was with television jingles, suburban housing tracts, and heavily chromed automobiles with oversized bumpers and outrageous fins.
In “A Berry Feast,” Snyder bewails the ubiquitous cheap housing of suburban America, produced by destroying the natural wilderness Snyder needed for his own salvation:
The Chainsaw falls for boards of pine,
Suburban bedrooms, block on block
Will waver with this grain and knot
The maddening shapes will start and fade
Each morning when commuters wake—
Joined boards hung on frames,
a box to catch the biped in.
Snyder, for one, refuses to live like a “biped” in a “box,” and in the humorous poem “To Fire,” he burns all of his humble possessions, including early poems, old Christmas cards, a worn-out briefcase, and socks filled with holes.
Even though Snyder renounces these earthly possessions and lives the simple life of woodsman and forester, later building a house and school with his own hands in the foothills of the Sierras, he must continue to live with a paradox. A true Buddhist would not care about the lunacy of the manmade world as long as meditation and spiritual growth were possible, but Snyder does care passionately. Although Zen produced austere disciplinary practices favored by samurai warriors and haiku poets alike, this difficult Oriental religion also gave the world temples, sculptures, rock gardens, ink-brush paintings, and haiku—all of transcendent beauty. The rock garden, perhaps, reinforced Snyder’s feelings that the world itself was a garden, as long as man did not poison its fragile...
(The entire section is 1973 words.)