Gary Snyder’s first book of poems, Riprap, reflects his experience in Yosemite in 1955 as a trail crew laborer laying riprap, a rock pavement set into an eroding trail. Snyder believes that his jobs have been as significant in shaping his work as the books he has read. His poems are direct and simple, marked by an elemental reverence for life that makes poetry from the most basic of human experiences. His poems “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” and “Milton by Firelight” were inspired by summer jobs he took as a lookout ranger in the mountains of northern Washington.
The simplicity of Snyder’s poetry also reflects the profound influence of Zen and North American Indian cultures and myths on his sensibility and thought. To him, the poet faces two directions: one toward the world of people, language, and society, and the other toward the nonhuman, nonverbal world of nature. He finds words are incapable of capturing the inner world of human nature, that part of human nature that comes before language, custom, and culture. Much of Snyder’s poetry unites identification with nature with concern for the ecological consequences of progress and civilization.
In The Back Country (1968), he returns to the most archaic values on earth for his themes: the late Paleolithic world, the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the vision that comes with solitude, the terrors of initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. His poems hold history and wilderness in mind as a true measure of things against the ignorance of contemporary culture.
In Turtle Island, his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Snyder celebrates the reintegration of human sexuality and the whole sexual self. Together with Kenneth Rexroth, another poet of the San Francisco Renaissance, Snyder is a master of the celebration of heterosexual love. In “Song of the Taste,” he explores the sensual and sexual dimensions of eating. In “The Bath” he glories in the pleasures of male and female bodies with unabashed and reverential joy. Snyder has also received acclaim for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry.