High peak haikus

Gary Snyder was a teenage mountaineer, studied Oriental languages, became a Beat poet in San Francisco with Ginsberg and featured in a Kerouac novel. After moving to Japan he took the vows of a Zen monk and Buddhism remains central to his work, which links ecology to literary values. Now 75, he lives on a remote 100-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada

* James Campbell
* The Observer, Saturday 16 July 2005
* Article history

Gary Snyder

‘The world is not simply a theatre for human beings’ … Gary Snyder

In October 1955, hand-written posters appeared in the bars and cafés of San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach district: “Invitation to a Reading. 6 Poets at 6 Gallery. Remarkable collection of angels on stage reading their poetry. No charge. Charming event.” The poets that evening half a century ago were Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Kenneth Rexroth as MC, and Gary Snyder, described by Ginsberg at the time as “a bearded youth of 26, formerly a lumberjack and seaman, who had lived with the American Indians”. Ginsberg added graciously that Snyder was “perhaps more remarkable than any of the others”.

The Six Gallery reading has gone down in history for the first public performance of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”. The task of following its apocalyptic declarations (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”) fell to Snyder, who admits to having doubted whether he could hold the suddenly stunned audience. He read parts of a long poem rooted in Native American folklore, “Myths & Texts”, about as far from “Howl” as it is possible to get, swinging between the Buddha and a black bear “married / To a woman whose breasts bleed / From nursing the half-human cubs”. Snyder remembers the evening for “the feeling people had, by the time it was over, that it had been a historical moment. No question about it. From that time on, there was a poetry reading every night somewhere in the Bay area. It launched the poetry reading as a cultural event in American life.”

Jack Kerouac, who was also present, drunkenly winding up the audience, later recalled Snyder as “the only one who didn’t look like a poet”. While the others were “either too dainty in their aestheticism, or too hysterically cynical”, Snyder made Kerouac think of “the oldtime American heroes”. Three years later, Kerouac capped his homage by publishing The Dharma Bums, a novel featuring Snyder as the mountain-climbing, haiku-hatching hero, Japhy Ryder.

Snyder might still be taken for a lumberjack rather than a poet. He wears boots and a cap, keeps a multi-purpose knife looped on to his belt (nowadays next to a mobile phone), and spends a large part of each day outdoors, working with his hands. In the 1960s, he was part of the alternative literary movement that spread across the US and Europe. Seamus Heaney recalls first reading Snyder’s early poems “in a little anthology of Beat poets published in London. By the time I met him in person, at a party in Berkeley in 1971, I had caught up with the work he had published since. He was togged out in jeans and a rough cotton shirt. You could easily imagine him hunkering under a stone wall on the Aran Islands.”

Snyder and his wife Carole live with their frisky poodle pup in a single-storey house he built, with professional help, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, four hours’ drive north-east from San Francisco. Deer peep through the foliage at the visitor on the three-mile unpaved road to Snyder’s ranch. On a walk in the surrounding pine and black-oak forest, he points out claw marks on a tree-trunk made by a bear – the same bear, perhaps, that features in a recent poem eating all the pears from a fenced-off tree by the house. A wildcat dispatched his chickens. Until recently, the family had only an outside lavatory some 50 yards away, which, he says wryly, “could be dangerous in the mornings” – pumas also lurk among the pines, though seldom seen – but the Snyders now have the luxury of an inside bathroom with a polished wooden tub. He called the place Kitkitdizze, a local Wintun Indian word for the surrounding low ground-cover bush, also known as mountain misery. “We had our hands full the first 10 years getting up walls and roofs, bathhouse, barn, the woodshed. I set up my library and wrote poems and essays by lantern light.” Kai, Snyder’s eldest son, was a child when work on the house began in 1969. He has memories “of heat and dust and a lot of people working, and me getting underfoot”. In the beginning, says Kai, now in his late 30s, “all our water had to be pumped by hand, which my dad did every day for about 40 minutes. It was good exercise, I guess. All the cooking was done on a wood stove, and our heating was produced by the same method. It was like a 19th-century lifestyle in lots of ways.”

A new wing was added when Snyder received a Bollin-gen prize ($50,000), for “lifetime achievement in poetry”, in 1997. He now has a telephone line, though no TV aerial, and is hooked up to email, whereby he communicates with a worldwide literary and ecological network of friends. “We are off the electrical grid,” he says, not without pride, “but have a stand-alone power system, involving solar panels and generators. We cut our own firewood from the down and dead trees. And of course we keep things in stock, a pantry full of food, half a year’s worth of rice.” He serves tea in the Chinese manner, and for lunch Korean noodles, with local wine freely to hand.

Last year, Snyder published his first collection of new poems in 20 years. Readers of Danger on Peaks soon find themselves in familiar territory: poems about work and nature, frequently with ecological and oriental overtones. A lifelong student of Buddhism, he lived in Japan for 10 years during the 1950s and 60s, where he took the vows of a Zen monk. While serious about his Buddhism, he is undogmatic. The subject is sometimes treated with humour in his work. A poem that begins “The Dharma is like an avocado! / Some parts so ripe”, moves on to “the great big round seed”,

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it – but then
It shoots out through your fingers –
gets away.

Even when it goes unmentioned in the verse itself, the meditative tendency sits behind his work and nature poems. He writes about repairing a car with the same attentiveness he gives to Zen ritual. A Snyder poem about sweeping a path, or fiddling with the engine of a pick-up, is about what it says it’s about. “If somebody wants to find some moral interpretation, that’s all right with me. But basically yes, it’s about repairing the car. Who needs more than that?” Some poems, such as “Getting in the Wood”, are made up of the names of tools and accessories: “Wedge and sledge, peavey and maul, / little axe, canteen, piggyback can . . . / All to gather the dead and the down.” The voice emerges from a clear gaze and a clear mind, qualities that have characterised Snyder’s poetry since the opening poem of his first book, Riprap (1959):

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.

Heaney, to whom one of the poems in Danger on Peaks is dedicated, says: “From the start I trusted the unleavened quality of the poems, the materiality of what they started from, and liked them better the closer they hewed to sensation and the vernacular. And hearing him read strengthened my admiration. He wasn’t in a hurry, not out to suck up to the audience or harangue them. The voice gave space and weight to the words, so that they back-echoed a bit.” A poet of a younger generation, Glyn Maxwell, praises what he calls Snyder’s “wide, gladdening openness”. He believes the “laid-back, jotted-down tone of Snyder’s verse masks an acute sensitivity to rhythm and assonance. He has a wonderful ability to convey the physical nature of a moment: ‘Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup / Looking down for miles / Through high still air.'” Heaney adds: “If a bricklayer’s hand could speak, it might sound like early Snyder. If a buddha backpacked in northern California, he too might sound like Snyder.”

Recently turned 75, Snyder is wiry, his face weathered, with eyes that reminded Kerouac of “an old Chinese sage”. Sleepy some of the time, they widen with curiosity and frequently crease with mirth. The remoteness of the 100-acre ranch is such that Carole, who is Japanese, is excited at the prospect of “meeting someone new”, but the Snyders live in a widespread community of about 40 families, “each place pretty self-sufficient, though we all cooperate and lend each other things”. Kai recalls that he and his brother “walked to school, about 45 minutes through the woods to a one-room schoolhouse. The kids were a mix of original redneck population and the new wave of people who were coming back to the woods to try to live more in touch with nature and in a more sustainable way. My best friend at school was the son of a logging family, very conservative. His family kind of avoided my family. But they were good people.”

Snyder is at pains to distinguish his way of life from “a back-to-the-land, counter-cultural, utopian image of living outside of society. That’s all right if you’re going to just go like Thoreau did for a year, and you can walk over to Emerson’s for dinner. But this is more like what the farm and the ranch in the west is, where people live at a distance, with a certain amount of genuine sustainable skill, though for the time being our life depends on machinery – chainsaws, generators, grass-cutters and so forth. Now, when I first came up here I didn’t have any of that, and there may come a time again when I don’t have it. And so there are other strategies, too.” Kai emphasises his father’s attachment to “doing things in the old ways, using tools that are made locally, things that are made with an intimate understanding of the place where you live. It’s about being rooted in a place, and also understanding that the world is changing very fast and that technologies may only be a transitory crutch, a substitute for a deeper understanding of how to live in a place.”

The nearest shops are 30 miles away, in leafy Nevada City, a creation of the 1849 gold rush, now no larger than a sizeable English village. Greeted on all sides as he makes his way along the main street, reminiscent of Wild West filmsets, Snyder has time for everyone while giving the impression he’d be unhappy anywhere but on his own patch. In a local bar, a large, hearty man recognises him from a poetry reading at a farm almost 40 years ago. His recollection of the event is perfect, while the poet’s is hazy.

“Don’t you remember, you signed the book to me and Ann?”

“I think I do remember,” Snyder says.

“And don’t you remember, the cow took a bite out of the book? And you signed it to the cow as well? And then the cow crapped on the book?”

“I must remember,” Snyder says, unfalteringly polite.

Gary Sherman Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930 and raised on a farmstead north of Seattle. His parents, Harold and Lois, were “semi-educated, proud, western-American-style working-class. My father’s brothers all went to sea or worked in logging camps. My mother was from a railroad town in Texas, very much a feminist rebel.” The Snyders owned a small dairy farm, but required outside work to keep ticking over. When Snyder was a child, “there was no work for seven years”. Family entertainment consisted of reading aloud in the evenings: “Robert Burns, Edgar Allan Poe – very musical poetry which caught my ear.” Even as a small boy he was known for his love of nature. “I would go and cook and stay alone for a night or two, when I was just eight or nine years old, quite far from the house. At the age of 15, I became a mountaineer and began to climb all the peaks of the Pacific north west. The kind that require ropes and ice axes. Snow peaks. Volcanoes. Big ones.” He read widely throughout childhood and adolescence but “my first interest in writing poetry came from the experience of mountaineering. I couldn’t find any other way to talk about it.” The adventure of scaling summits blended with the aesthetic thrill of viewing oriental landscape paintings at the Seattle Art Museum, to inspire an approach to poetry that, while it has developed over the decades, has not altered fundamentally. In 1996, he finally published Mountains and Rivers Without End, a long poem begun 40 years earlier.

After studying anthropology and literature at Reed College, Oregon, Snyder enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1953, to study oriental languages. He went on to translate poetry from Chinese and Japanese. His interest in east Asian culture and thought was spurred, he says, by “an ethical realisation that the Judeo-Christian tradition gives moral value only to the human being. I discovered that there were other traditions, including Hindu and Buddhist and Native American, in which all biological life is considered part of the same drama, that the world is not simply a theatre for the human being, in which everything else is just a stage prop. That became a very clear image to me.” In the summer holidays, he worked as a fire-lookout in the Washington Cascade Mountains. “All through July and August. You take just the food you need for that time, and a radio.” There he found the opportunity to practise meditation, study Chinese, and write his first surviving poems. Many years later, on Mount Sourdough, he discovered that a scribbled verse was still pinned to the lookout’s cabin wall: “I, the poet Gary Snyder / Stayed six weeks in fifty-three / On this ridge and on this rock / & saw what every Lookout sees.”

He plays down his work as a translator; the best-known works are the Cold Mountain Poems of the eighth-century hermit Han-Shan, a T’ang dynasty dharma bum. The 24 versions, made in the mid-1950s, read as though straight from the pen of the young Snyder, already planning a life of wood-chopping and water-pumping, off the electrical grid:

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
… there’s no through trail
In summer, ice doesn’t melt
The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?

Most translations from Chinese and Japanese are “too wordy”, he says. “The early translators would not believe what was in front of their eyes, which was very short lines. Arthur Waley’s translations are outmoded now, though in their time they were helpful. Ezra Pound was a brilliant amateur, who by luck came up with a few good lines, but not many.” The economy of classical Chinese poetry has influenced his own. “So much occidental poetry is full of religious imagery or mythological reference, both of which are absent from the Chinese. Chinese poetry is secular, logical and unsymbolic.”

An interest in Asian life and culture was “in the air” in San Francisco in the 1950s. “When I got into that scene I realised there were people thinking along similar lines, and also doing similar things in poetry. Of course, there was a big Asian population in the city. The presence was palpable.”

Snyder points out that the San Francisco poetry renaissance was already advanced, in the work of Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and others, before the subversive Ginsberg gang arrived from the east coast: “They just publicised it.” Ginsberg died eight years ago. While not averse to being classified as one of the survivors of the Beat Generation, Snyder stresses “that it’s a historical term. Indulging a nostalgia for it is not interesting. People say: ‘Are you a Beat writer?’ – I get called a Beat writer all the time – and I say: ‘I was at one time, briefly, but going by what I have done in the past 30 years, no’.” His writing, he says, “belongs in the non-academic wing of contemporary American poetry. Beat is too limiting a word.” The critic Marjorie Perloff, who has written widely on American poetry, says she never thinks of Snyder as a Beat poet. “His poetry has a directness and immediacy that appeals to young people. He started out as a follower of William Carlos Williams, using short, free-verse lines and colloquial diction, but as time has gone on he has shown himself to be first and foremost a nature poet in the Emerson-Thoreau tradition. The Beats were essentially urban, engaged in oppositional social activity, whereas Snyder’s forte is an account of the relationship of man – and I do mean man, because Snyder is rather patriarchal – to his environment.” Heaney feels that “he’s right to resist the Beat label. He loves barehanded encounters with the here and now, but cares deeply for tradition. You might say he knows equally the workings of tanka and tanker. He keeps his ear to the ground, and listens more than he howls.”

Ginsberg remained a lifelong friend -in a late poem, he depicts himself reading Snyder’s Selected Poems unselfconsciously while sitting on the loo – and was a partner in purchasing the land on which the Snyders live. Through the pines, Snyder points out a small house built by Ginsberg, now occupied by Snyder’s younger son Gen, a manual labourer. Kai is an environmental scientist; Carole, whom he married in 1991, has two daughters, Mika, who has recently graduated from law school, and Robin, a student, both in their 20s.

The last letters Snyder received from Kerouac, who died in a broken-down state in 1969, were ranting and insulting, but Snyder remains affectionate towards the man who mythologised him in a cult novel before he reached the age of 30. “Jack was a dedicated person. As a Buddhist he had some very good insights. It was all mixed up with his French-Canadian Roman Catholicism, but so what? It’s hard to know why people self-destruct. They do so for reasons of deep and ancient karma, qualities of their character they were born with.” As for the unwanted burden of being Japhy Ryder, “the only problem I have is that I have to keep reminding people it’s a novel. There’s a lot of fiction woven into The Dharma Bums. And I am not Japhy Ryder.”

As the publicity surrounding the Beat Generation spread, Snyder typically did his own thing and left for Japan. Settled in a bare room – “just a few books and a table” – in the Shokoku-ji Temple in northern Kyoto, one of several temple systems of the Rinzai sect of Zen, he acted as personal assistant to a Roshi, or Zen master. “I spent my first year cooking breakfast and lunch for him, and teaching him English. At the same time, I was studying Japanese and meditating for four or five hours a day.” One week out of each month, he attended the local Zen monastery for intensive meditation, or sesshin, which means “concentrating the mind”. In an essay, Snyder described the typical day: rising at 3am, dashing “icy water on the face from a stone bowl”, then sitting crosslegged for lengthy periods. “One’s legs may hurt during long sitting, but there is no relief until the Jikijitsu rings his bell.” After a 20-minute walking interval, the young monks resume their sitting. “Anyone not seated when the Jikijitsu whips around the hall is knocked off his cushion.” Writing to a friend, Snyder quipped, “I wear me Buddhist robes & look just like a blooming oriental.”

After a brief visit to the US in 1959, he returned to Japan, this time with the poet Joanne Kyger. The pair were soon married (Snyder had previously been married briefly to Alison Gass). Judging by Kyger’s Japan and India Journals (1981), conflicting expectations of life in Asia surfaced immediately. Kyger writes: “Shortly after arriving in Japan, Gary asked me, ‘Don’t you want to study Zen and lose your ego?’ I was utterly shocked: ‘What! After all this struggle to attain one?'” The Journals end with Kyger returning home alone. “He wouldn’t let me keep a wooden spoon,” she writes. In Snyder’s new book there is a complimentary reference to Kyger’s poetry. “I think we can say we are good friends now,” he says.

It is a curiosity of Snyder’s career that while his first full collections – A Range of Poems and The Back Country – were issued by a London publisher, Fulcrum Press, in 1966 and 1967, he has barely been published in Britain since. His early work was welcomed by, among others, Thom Gunn, who wrote appreciatively on Snyder in more than one London journal. Snyder’s British readership has had to depend mostly on American imports (readily available), which puzzles him. “There is more interest in my work in Germany, France, the Czech Republic.” In the US, some of his collections, such as Riprap and The Back Country, have never been out print. Turtle Island, which won a Pulitzer prize in 1975, is reprinted roughly once a year. Heaney and Maxwell lament the absence of British editions of Snyder’s work. Maxwell says: “Perhaps he doesn’t fit, as he’s not seductively obscure or ringingly accessible. And his is a foreign landscape, a faraway country, really: America before us, without us, after us.”

As a writer who, from the beginning, has yoked ecological concerns to literary values, Snyder is often asked about the high-consuming, short-attention-span hazards of modern existence. In short, what’s wrong with the way we live, and what can be done? “I don’t feel inclined to make the first humanistic, easy answer, which is: We must change our values. It would be foolish to put forward simple solutions. However, for those who can, one of the things to do is not to move. To stay put. That doesn’t mean don’t travel; it means have a place and get involved in what can be done in that place. That’s the only way we’re going to have a representative democracy in America. Nobody stays anywhere long enough to take responsibility for a local community.” The present US government is “demonstrably bad” for the environment. “Under the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency was actually called on to defend and monitor the environment. The Bush administration made it clear it wanted the EPA to be on the side of industry. The fox is in the chicken run, and in this case the fox is the oil industry.” With oil prices rising, he foresees an era of “turmoil and turbulence and probably dictatorships. People and subcultures who have the flexibility and know-how to slip through that will do so. So here is a Thoreauvian answer to the question, What is to be done? Learn to be more self-reliant, reduce your desires, and take care of yourself and your family.”

Gary Sherman Snyder

Born: May 8, 1930, San Francisco.

Education: 1944-47 Lincoln High School, Portland; ’47-51 Reed College, Oregon; ’51 Indiana University; ’53-55 University of California, Berkeley.

Married: 1950 Alison Gass (’52 divorced); ’60 Joanne Kyger (’65 divorced); ’67 Masa Uehara (two sons: Kai and Gen) (’87 divorced); ’91 Carole Koda.

Employment: 1950-57 logger, trail-crew member, fire lookout, merchant seaman; ’86-2001 professor of creative writing at University of California, Davis.

Some poetry: 1959 Riprap; ’60 Myths & Texts; ’66 A Range of Poems; ’67 The Back Country; ’70 Regarding Wave; ’74 Turtle Island; ’86 Left Out in the Rain; ’96 Mountains and Rivers Without End; 2004 Danger on Peaks.

Essays: 1969 Earth House Hold; ’80 The Real Work: Interviews and Talks; ’95 A Place in Space.

Some Awards: 1975 Pulitzer Prize; ’97 Bollingen Prize; 2004 Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize.

· Danger On Peaks by Gary Snyder (2004), is published by Shoemaker & Hoard, price $22.

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