Gary Snyder, 'Poet Laureate of Our Continent,' Lives in the Present

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U.S. writer Gary Snyder in Prague. Radim Beznoska/EPA

Updated | An odd blend of old and new San Francisco turned out to see Gary Snyder at the Nourse Theater one evening in May. Former counterculture standard-bearers such as Michael McClure and Peter Coyote mixed with young tattooed hipsters, curious techies and California Governor Jerry Brown. When I pulled out my reporter’s notebook, the young Indian man sitting next to me said, “Are we supposed to take notes?”

Wouldn’t hurt. Snyder, who turned 85 the week before, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet (for the 1975 collection Turtle Island), award-winning essayist, early conservationist, community activist, pioneering bio-regionalist, amateur geologist, avid mountaineer, conscientious omnivore (before the term existed), multi-linguist, Asian art and history expert, Native American story archivist and perhaps the person most responsible for awakening a generation of beatniks and hippies to Buddhism. (A former Zen monk, Snyder translated the ancient Chinese Buddhist poet Han Shan—Cold Mountain Poems—and was the unwitting model for the hero of Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums.) And he shows little sign of slowing. Though he’ll later tell the assembled that his new collection, This Present Moment, is “the last book of poems I’ll publish,” he has a new book with artist Tom Killion (California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Prints, Poetry and History) and is gearing up to finish another based on the history of the environment in China—the kind of thing he makes sound like a little side project, the way you might talk about building a treehouse for the kids.

Will Hearst, grandson of William Randolph Hearst and chairman of the board of the Hearst Corporation, introduces Snyder with colorful details from his formative years. At the age of 7, when Snyder’s family was working a small family farm in Washington state, he asked a Sunday school teacher, “Will I meet my heifer in heaven?” When he was told God didn’t allow no critters beyond the pearly gates, the boy declared, “Then I don’t want to go there.” After touching on other detours in his winding path—his stints as a teenage logger, his job as a fire lookout, his co-starring role in a documentary Hearst produced (The Practice of the Wild) that consisted largely of Snyder and novelist-poet Jim Harrison walking the grounds near Hearst Castle and talking about nature—Hearst introduces him as “the poet laureate of our continent,” and the crowd leaps to its feet.

Up close, Gary Snyder is dynamic and charismatic: sun-weathered face, snow-white hair and beard, squinty blue eyes and the rough hands of a guy who built his own house and climbed Mount St. Helens when he was 15. He looks like the archetypal prospector in a Western film, the one who appears out of nowhere when your party is lost in the desert to tell you just how far off you are before laughing at the burros you’ve burdened with gold and other worthless things.

He was born in San Francisco and as a young boy moved with his family to the Seattle region. His “hardscrabble” farm life there was just part of the Depression, he says. “Everyone was poor, everyone that we knew. My dad was out of work for eight or nine years.… But I never had a consciousness of poverty until later, when I realized there are people who have it a little easier.”

He met some of them when he enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. “It was the first time I met affluent radicals,” he told fellow alum John Sheehy for an oral history of the school. It was there he made the acquaintance of poets Lew Welch and Philip Whalen, and there that he first encountered Zen Buddhism.

“I’m one of those people in whom the experiential and the intellectual is not clearly divided,” he told Sheehy. “When I first heard about Native American sweat lodges, without even thinking twice about it, I went out and built a sweat lodge and did it.… In the same way, as soon as I read about Buddhism, I sat down and crossed my legs to see how it would work.”

It was later, back in San Francisco (graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, studying Asian languages), that a friend took Snyder to a salon hosted by the poet Kenneth Rexroth. “The first time I met Allen Ginsberg was at Rexroth’s house,” he told me. “Allen had just come up from Mexico. The first time I saw Kerouac, Allen brought him to Rexroth’s place.” The Beat novelist was on the verge of great fame; after countless rejections, Viking had just agreed to publish On the Road, his fictionalized account of his travels with Neal Cassady. “Kenneth thought of both Jack and Allen as ‘talented jerks.’”

On October 7, 1955, Snyder was among the readers at what would be remembered as a seminal moment in American culture: the Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg first unleashed “Howl” while a drunken Kerouac chanted “Go, go, go!” from the audience. Less lauded, though almost as influential, was Snyder’s reading of “A Berry Feast,” suburban destruction giving way to the Native American myth of the trickster called Coyote and ancient Indian rituals like the ceremonies celebrating the first fruit of the season ("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").

Snyder’s interest in Buddhism sparked something in Kerouac, who used it to create Japhy Ryder of Dharma Bums. “Jack was a novelist; he wasn’t a journalist,” says Snyder about his relationship to a book that became a cult classic. “I am only one small model for the Japhy Ryder character, and a lot of what he does is fictional. But some of it is interestingly drawn on what we did together; the mountain climbing scene is close. But as a piece of writing goes, it’s not one of my favorite Kerouac novels. It was written too hastily, and you can see the haste. He just banged it together because his publisher said, ‘On the Road is doing so well, let’s have another novel right away.’” Snyder says he was studying in Japan through most of the ’60s and missed much of the cult that formed around the book. “The Western Buddhist world, however it is, has to live with The Dharma Bums. I don’t have to live with it too much.”

Peter Coyote, probably best known to filmgoers for his role in ET and to hipsters as a founding member of the Diggers, was influenced by Snyder’s example. He came to Zen meditation through him and overcame an addiction to heroin in part with the discipline of Zen. The two became friends, and in his new memoir, The Rainman’s Third Cure, Coyote recalls asking Snyder about the self-destructive artists who used Verlaine and Rimbaud as models for their behavior (perhaps without knowing their poetry). Coyote wrote:

“When Verlaine and Rimbaud were young,” [Snyder] said, they were protesting the iron-grip bourgeois rationality had on all aspects of nineteenth-century French culture—he manners, the view of reality, and the exclusion of ‘the wild’ from public life. Rationality in business and society were dominant values. ‘Deranging the senses’ was one strategy artists like Verlaine and Rimbaud employed to break free of that.

“Today,” he continued, “the bourgeoisie is sociopathic, overindulged, distracted, spoiled beyond measure, and unable to restrain its gluttony, even in the face of pending planetary destruction. In the face of such a threat, it has, by necessity, become the responsibility of the artist to model health and sanity.”

Beat poet Jack Spicer nicknamed Snyder “The Boy Scout,” and he should be on the short list of poets you want with you when get lost in the woods. Snyder resists the handle “nature poet” as the “kiss of death,” he said in a New Yorker profile. Nature for him is not something to be contemplated: It is the thing itself, and our divorce from it has been our undoing. In 1969 he wrote and freely circulated an environmental jeremiad entitled “Four Changes” that warned of the dangers of overpopulation, pollution and a dependence on fossil fuels. Makes you think that fire lookout job he had with the U.S. Forest Service was a metaphor.

Dressed in an orange shirt, wearing wooden beads and red socks (he heard that the pope stopped wearing them and figured, “Somebody’s got to”), Snyder reads randomly through his latest collection. He says, “I’m not sure I like it myself” (though later he'll tell me, “Its strength is that I let it be imperfect”).The poems borrow from Greek myth (“Anger, Cattle and Achilles”), 13th-century Chinese painting (“Mu Ch’i’s Persimmons”) and his life in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada (“Log Truck on the 80”). He does not read the collection’s final, difficult poem about the death and cremation of his fourth wife (“Go Now”) but is engaged, friendly and, well, present when he fields questions from the audience. There are some head-scratchers, but Snyder manages to craft an interesting answer to even incomprehensible queries (this is a man who took a year and a half to answer a Zen koan, after all). To the inevitable question about writing, he says, “I’m of the school of poetry that never does anything intentionally.… I like to wait until it insists to be written.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the subject of  Go Nowwas Snyder's second wife. She was his fourth.