Biography

Biography

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Gary Snyder began his career in the 1950s as a noted member of the “Beat Generation,” though he has since explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose. Snyder’s work blends physical reality and precise observations of nature with inner insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism. While Snyder has gained attention as a spokesman for the preservation of the natural world and its earth-conscious cultures, he is not simply a “back-to-nature” poet with a facile message. In American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Kenneth Rexroth observed that although Snyder proposes “a new ethic, a new esthetic, [and] a new life style,” he is also “an accomplished technician who has learned from the poetry of several languages and who has developed a sure and flexible style capable of handling any material he wishes.” According to Charles Altieri in Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s, Snyder’s achievement “is a considerable one. Judged simply in aesthetic terms, according to norms of precision, intelligence, imaginative play, and moments of deep resonance, he easily ranks among the best poets of his generation. Moreover, he manages to provide a fresh perspective on metaphysical themes, which he makes relevant and compelling.”

Snyder’s emphasis on metaphysics and his celebration of the natural order remove his work from the general tenor of Beat writing—and in fact Snyder is also identified as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance along with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. Snyder has looked to the Orient and to the beliefs of American Indians for positive responses to the world, and he has tempered his studies with stints of hard physical labor as a logger and trail builder. Altieri believed that Snyder’s “articulation of a possible religious faith” independent of Western culture has greatly enhanced his popularity. In his study of the poet, Bob Steuding described how Snyder’s accessible style, drawn from the examples of Japanese haiku and Chinese verse, “has created a new kind of poetry that is direct, concrete, non-Romantic, and ecological. . . . Snyder’s work will be remembered in its own right as the example of a new direction taken in American literature.” Nation contributor Richard Tillinghast wrote: “In Snyder the stuff of the world ‘content’—has always shone with a wonderful sense of earthiness and health. He has always had things to tell us, experiences to relate, a set of values to expound. . . . He has influenced a generation.”

Snyder was born in San Francisco and raised on small farms in Washington state and Oregon. Because he lived close to nature from earliest childhood, Snyder was distressed at a young age by the wanton destruction of the Pacific Northwestern forests, and he began to study and respect the Indian cultures that offered a more harmonious relationship with nature. Snyder went to public schools in Seattle and Portland, and he augmented his education by reading about Indian lore and pioneer adventures. Wild regions continued to fascinate him as he matured; he became an expert mountain climber and learned back-country survival techniques. A visit to the Seattle Art Museum introduced him to Chinese landscape painting, and he developed an interest in the Orient as an example of a high civilization that had maintained its bonds to nature. After high school Snyder divided his time between studies at Reed College—and later Indiana University and the University of California-Berkeley—and work as a lumberjack, trail maker, and firewatcher in the deep woods. The balance between physical labor and intellectual pursuits informs his earliest writing. In the autumn of 1952 Snyder moved to the San Francisco Bay area in order to study Oriental languages at Berkeley.

He was already immersed in Zen Buddhism and had begun to write poetry about his work in the wilderness. He became part of a community of writers, including Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who were soon heralded as the forerunners of a counterculture revolution in literature. The literary fame of the Beat Generation was launched with a poetry reading in October of 1955 at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. While it is Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” that is best remembered from that evening, Snyder also read his poem “The Berry Feast.”

If Snyder was influenced by his Beat contemporaries, he also exerted an influence on them. Kerouac modeled his character Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums on Snyder, and the poet encouraged his friends to take an interest in Eastern philosophy as an antidote to the ills of the West. Just as the Beats were gaining nation-wide notoriety, Snyder moved to Japan in 1956 on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America. He remained abroad almost continuously for the next twelve years. Part of that time he lived in an ashram and devoted himself to strenuous Zen study and meditation. He also travelled extensively, visiting India and Indonesia, and even venturing as far as Istanbul on an oil tanker, the Sappa Creek. His first two poetry collections, Riprap (1959) and Myths & Texts (1960), are miniature narratives capturing Snyder’s travels and life working in the natural world; they also represent a vigorous attempt to achieve freedom from the “establishment” mores of urban America. After returning to the United States, Snyder built his own house—along the Yuba River in the northern Sierra NevadaMountains—where he has lived since.