Among many evocative statements about his life and work, a particularly crucial one is Gary Snyder’s (born May 8, 1930) claim that
As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals; the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.
The social and philosophical principles he has expressed are the fundamental credo of his convictions as a man and an artist. He uses the word “archaic” to suggest “primal” or “original”—the archetype or first pattern from which others may evolve. His citation of the late Paleolithic era as source-ground stems from his belief that essential lessons concerning human consciousness have been learned and then lost. Thus Snyder devotes much time to the study of ancient (and primitive) cultures. The values he holds stand behind and direct his poetry, as it is drawn from his studies and experiences. His values include a respect for land as the source of life and the means of sustaining it; a respect for all sentient creatures and for the animalistic instincts of humans; a recognition of the necessity for the artist to resist social pressure in order to discover and develop power from within; an acknowledgment of the necessity for participation in both communal ritual and individual exploration of the depths of the subconscious to transcend the mundane and risk the extraordinary; an acceptance of the body and the senses—the physical capabilities, pleasures, and demands of the skin; and a feeling for the shared labor of the community, another version of “the real work” that unites the individual with a larger sense and source of meaning. Neither the poet as solitary singer nor as enlightened visionary is sufficient without the complex of relationships that joins the local, the bioregional, and ultimately the planetary in an interdependent chain of reliance, support, and enlightened use of resources. It is with these values in mind that Snyder defines an ethical life as one that “is mindful, mannerly and has style,” an attitude that is crucial to the accomplishment of “the real work.”
Each of these precepts has an important analogue in the technical execution of the poems themselves. As Jerome Rothenberg has observed, “where I continue to see him best is as he emerges from his poems.” Poetically, then, “the fertility of the soil” is worthless without the labor that brings it to fruition, and as Snyder has commented, “the rhythms of my poems follow the rhythms of the physical work I’m doing and life I’m leading at any given time—which makes the music in my head which creates the line.” The linkage between the rhythmic movement of the body, the larger rhythmic cycles of the natural world, and the structure of words in a particular poem follows the precepts that Charles Olson prescribed in the landmark essay “Projective Verse” (1950), and Snyder, like Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and others, has always favored the creation of a particular shape or form to suit the purpose of the poem under attentive development. The rhythms of a particular poem are derived from an “energy-mind-field-dance” that, in turn, often results from labor designed to capitalize on the life of the earth.
Similarly, when Snyder speaks of “the magic of animals,” he is identifying one of his central subjects, and the images of many of his poems are based on his observations of animals in the wild. The importance of wilderness and the manner in which animals seem to interact instinctively with their natural surroundings are, for Snyder, keys to his conception of freedom. The magic of their existence is part of a mystery that humans need to penetrate. Thus, as image and subject, animals and their ways are an important part of the “etiquette of freedom” that Snyder’s work serves.
The concept of the “power vision in solitude” is derived from both the shamanistic practices that Snyder has studied in primitive societies and the varieties of meditation he has explored in his research into and expressions of Buddhist thought. Its immediate consequence in poetry is the necessity for developing a singular, distinct voice, a language with which one is comfortable, and a style that is true to the artist’s entire life. For Snyder, this has meant learning to control the mood of a poem through tonal modulation, matching mood to subject and arranging sequences of poems that can sustain visionary power as well as intimate personal reflection. “The terrifying initiation and rebirth” is a corollary of the power vision. It implies that once a singular voice has been established, it must be followed according to the patterns of its impulsive organization— in other words, to its points of origin in the subconscious. Snyder speaks of the unconscious as “our inner wilderness areas,” and sees in the “depths of the mind” the ultimate source of the imagination. The exploration of the wilderness within is vital to the image-making function of poetry.
The “love and ecstasy” Snyder speaks of stems from the revolt that Snyder and his colleagues led against the stiff, formal, distant academic poetry favored by critics in the 1950’s, and its application has been to influence the colloquial nature of his language, to encourage the use of primitive techniques such as chant to alter perceptive states, to permit the inclusion of casual data from ordinary existence to inform the poem, and, most of all, to confront the most personal of subjects with honesty and self-awareness. There is a discernible narrative consciousness present in Snyder’s poetry even when he avoids—as he generally does—personal pronouns and definite articles. However, his resistance to cultural authority is balanced by his praise for the “common work of the tribe,” the artistic accomplishment that he treasures. As he has said, “I feel very strongly that poetry also exists as part of a tradition, and is not simply a matter of only private and personal vision.” Explaining his interests in Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Milton, and others, Snyder says he wants “to know what has been done, and to see how it has been done. That in a sense is true craft.” Almost paradoxically, considering his emphasis on originality, he advocates (and practices) extensive examination of multidisciplinary learning, explaining that knowledge of the past saves one “the trouble of having to repeat things that others have done that need not be done again. And then also he knows when he writes a poem that has never been written before.”
Snyder’s first collection, Riprap, is evidence of the writing and thinking that Snyder had been doing through the mid-1950’s. Riprap took shape while Snyder was working on a backcountry trail crew in 1955, and its title is at first a description of “stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains,” then a symbol of the interlinkage of objects in a region and a figure for the placement of words in a poetic structure. It serves to connect language and action, reflective thought and the work that generates it. The poems in the collection are dedicated to the men Snyder worked with, the “community” of cohesion and effort he joined, men who knew the requirements of the land and who transmitted their skills through demonstration. Riprap includes elements of the oral tradition Snyder intersected, and the title “celebrates the work of the hands” while some of the poems “run the risk of invisibility” since they tried “for surface simplicity set with unsettling depths.” Poems such as “Above Pate Valley” and “Piute Creek” begin with direct description of landscape and move toward an almost cosmic perspective concerning the passage of time across the land over geological epochs. The specific and the eternal coalesce:
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm. Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers.
Poetry, as Snyder put it in “Burning: No. 13” from Myths and Texts, is “a riprap on the slick road of metaphysics,” helping one find meaning and explaining why one reads “Milton by Firelight” (the title of another poem) and finds new versions of hell and “the wheeling sky” in the Sierras.
Myths and Texts
Myths and Texts is Snyder’s first attempt to organize his ideas into an evolving, complex structural framework. In it, Snyder’s wilderness experience is amplified by the use of Pacific Coast Indian texts, which are set as a kind of corrective for the exploitation and destruction of the environment that Snyder sees as the result of misguided American-European approaches to nature. The crux of the matter is the failure of Judeo-Christian culture to recognize the inherent sacredness of the land, and Snyder uses what he feels is a kind of Buddhist compassion and a Native American empathy as a corrective thrust. The three books of the collection are called “Logging,” which uses the lumber industry as an example of “technological drivenness” that destroys resources and shows no respect for the symbolic or ritualistic aspect of the living wilderness; “Hunting,” which explores the intricate relationship between the hunter and the quarry (and between mind and body) in primitive societies; and “Burning,” which is somewhat less accessible in its intriguing attempt to find or chart a symbolic synthesis that integrates the mythic material Snyder has been presenting into a universal vision of timeless cycles of destruction and rebirth.
As Snyder defines the terms, in a preliminary fashion, the myths and texts are the “two sources of human knowledge—symbols and sense-impressions.” The larger context at which he aims—the “one whole thing”—is built on the power of individual poems, and among the best are ones such as “Logging: No. 8,” in which the logged ground is likened to a battlefield after a massacre; “Logging: No. 3,” in which the lodgepole pine is treated as an emblem of nature’s enduring vitality; “Logging: No. 13,” in which a fire-watcher reports a fire (“T36N R16E S25/ Is burning. Far to the west”) and seems more interested in the abstract beauty of the landscape than in any specific situation; and among several hunting songs, the exceptional “No. 6,” which carries the dedication, “this poem is for bear.”
Snyder read the original version of “The Woman Who Married a Bear” in an anthropology text in Reed College and was fascinated by the interaction of the human and animal cultures. He devotes a chapter to the story in The Practice of the Wild, lamenting that “the bears are being killed, the humans are everywhere, and the green world is being unraveled and shredded and burned by the spreading of a gray world that seems to have no end.” His poem is placed at the convergence of several cultures and is structured by the different speaking “voices”—not specifically identified but clear from tone and context. First, in a quote from the anthropological text, the bear speaks: “As for me I am a child of the god of the mountains.” Then, a field scientist, observing the data:
You can see
Huckleberries in bearshit if you
Look, this time of year
If I sneak up on the bear
It will grunt and run.
This relatively matter-of-fact, outside position is replaced by a tale of the girl who married a bear: “In a house under the mountain/ She gave birth to slick dark children/ With sharp teeth, and lived in the hollow/ Mountain many years.”A shift has been made to the Native American culture, and what follows is the burden of the legend, as the girl’s tribe goes to reclaim her. The next voice is the hunter addressing the bear:
Old man in the fur coat,
Bear! come out!
Die of your own choice!
Now the poet enters, turning the tale (text) into poetry (myth): “Twelve species north of Mexico/ Sucking their paws in the long winter/ Tearing the high-strung caches down/ Whining, crying, jacking off.” Then the tale continues, as the girl’s brothers “cornered him in the rocks,” and finally the “voice” of the bear-spirit speaks, as through a shaman perhaps, in the “Song of the snared bear”:
“Give me my belt.
“I am near death.
“I came from the mountain caves
“At the headwaters,
“The small streams there
“Are all dried up.
In a deft conclusion, Snyder reduces the dramatic tension by the interposition of the disarmingly personal. As if inspired by the story, he begins to imagine himself a part of the Paleolithic hunter culture: “I think I’ll go hunt bears.” However, he is too solidly grounded in reality to go beyond a reading of the text: “Why s— Snyder,/ You couldn’t hit a bear in the ass/ with a handful of rice.” Although, of course, in the poem, he has hit the target squarely by assimilating the different voices (as different strands of culture) into his own modern version of the myth.
Cold Mountain Poems
The Cold Mountain Poems, published together with Riprap as Riprap and the Cold Mountain Poems, are “translations” (in the Poundian sense) from Han-shan, a hermit and poet of the Tang dynasty, and they represent Snyder’s identification with a kind of nature prophet at home in the wild as well as his inclination to isolate himself from those aspects of American (or Western) society he found abhorrent until he could fashion a program to combat the social ills he identified. As in most effective translations, there is a correspondence in sensibility between the two artists, and Snyder’s comfort with the backcountry, as well as his growing sense of a cross-cultural and transepochal perspective, may be seen in lines like
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
Calling Han-shan a “mountain madman” or “ragged hermit,” Snyder expresses through the translations his admiration for a kind of independence, self-possession, and mindful alertness that he saw as a necessity for psychic survival in the Cold War era, a husbanding of strength to prepare for a return to the social struggle. “Mind solid and sharp,” he says, he is gaining the vision to “honor this priceless natural treasure”—the world around him (“the whole clear cloudless sky”)—and the insight (“sunk deep in the flesh”) to understand the complementary wonder within.
With Regarding Wave, Snyder’s work turned from the mythic and philosophical toward the intimate and immediately personal. He had begun a family (his son Kai was born in 1968) and returned to the United States, and the poems recall his last days in the Far East and his sense of how he had to proceed after returning to his native land at a time of strife and turmoil. The family poems are celebratory, written in wonder, open and exuberant in the first flush of parenthood, expressing his delight with his wife Masa and their infant son. There are poems that are like meditations on the sensual: “Song of the View,” “Song of the Tangle,” or “Song of the Taste,” and poems that are drawn from the experience of rearing a child, like “The Bed in the Sky” or “Kai, Today,” which is an awestruck reflection on the act of birth, or the supra-mundane “Not Leaving the House,” in which Snyder admits “When Kai is born/ I quit going out,” and justifies his inward angle of view by concluding “From dawn til late at night/ making a new world of ourselves/ around this life.”
After returning to the United States, Snyder found that the political situation was troubling (“Off the coast of Oregon/ The radio is full of hate and anger”), and he was warned that “beards don’t make money,” so he began to plan a life as a poet and activist in the United States. The effects of his action become clearer in his next collection, but the cast of his mind is apparent in the transitional “What You Should Know to Be a Poet,” which calls together what he had learned from his life to that point:
all you can about animals as persons
the names of trees and flowers and weeds
names of stars, and the movements of the planets
and the moon.
your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind
and then blends it with a kind of resolution to confront the bestial nature of humans to prepare to engage the evil at large in the world, as expressed in the crucial central stanza beginning, “kiss the ass of the devil.” From that point, the poem alternates positive aspects of existence (“& then love the human: wives husbands and friends”) with an acceptance of the trials and burdens of life (“long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted/ and livd with and finally lovd”) until it concludes with an unsettling sense of the future, “real danger. gambles. and the edge of death.”
The Fudo Trilogy
Snyder’s ambivalent feelings about living in the United States are again expressed in the hilarious “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” in which the familiar symbol of the forest service is depicted as a kind of Asiatic avenging demon protecting the environment and resisting polluters. Published in 1973 as a part of The Fudo Trilogy—a pamphlet that included “The California Water Plan” (a section of Mountains and Rivers Without End) and “Spel Against Demons”—it combines Snyder’s serious concerns about the environment and his continuing pursuit of Asiatic culture with his characteristically engaging high good humor. The chant, “Drown their butts; soak their butts” is presented in mock seriousness as a mantra of righteousness, while Smokey is depicted more as a lovable child’s pet than the fierce scourge of evil that the archetype suggests. The comic conception works to keep Snyder’s considerable anger under control, so that he does not turn his poetry into polemic.
By the early 1970’s, Snyder had become fully involved in the bioregional movement and committed to the local community of San Juan Ridge, where he had built a home. He began to followa dual course in his poetry. The overarching theme of his work was to protect and preserve “Turtle Island—the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths,” and it was expressed in poems that “speak of place, and the energy pathways that sustain life” and in poems that decry the forces of destruction unleashed by the stupidity of “demonic killers”who perpetrate “aimless executions and slaughterings.”
The poems were published under the title Turtle Island, sold more than 100,000 copies, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Among the most memorable poems Snyder has written, the ones that explore the “energy pathways” sustaining life include “The Bath”—a Whitmanesque rapture in appreciation of the body that challenges the latent Puritanism and fear of the skin in American society by describing in loving detail the physical wonder of his son, his wife, and himself in a bath. The sheer glory of the body glowing with health and the radiant reflection of the natural world around them build toward a feeling of immense physical satisfaction and then toward a complementary feeling of metaphysical well-being. The frankness of the language may be difficult for some readers, but Snyder’s tasteful, delicate, and comfortable handling of it makes his declaration “this is our body,” an echoing chorus, an assertion of religious appreciation. In an even more directly thankful mode, the translation of a Mohawk “Prayer for the Great Family” unites the basic elements of the cosmos in a linked series of gemlike depictions, concluding with one of Snyder’s essential ideas: that there is an infinite space “beyond all powers and thoughts/ and yet is within us—/ Grandfather Space/ The Mind is his Wife.” Other expressions of “eternal delight” include “By Frazier Creek Falls,” “Source,” and “The Dazzle,” as well as many poems in the book’s last section, a kind of basic history primer called “For the Children,” that convey considerable emotion without lapsing into obvious emotional tugging.
The more overtly political poems and sketches tend to be somber, frequently employing a litany of statistics to convey grim information that needs little additional comment, but in “The Call of the Wild,” Snyder’s anger is projected in language purposefully charged with judgmental fervor. Avoiding easy partisanship, Snyder condemns, first, “ex acid-heads” who have opted for “forever blissful sexless highs” and hidden in fear from what is interesting about life. His image of people missing the point of everything by living in trendy “Geodesic domes, that/ Were stuck like warts/ In the woods” is as devastating as his cartoon conception of advanced technology declaring “a war against earth” waged by pilots with “their women beside them/ in bouffant hairdos/ putting nail-polish on the/ gunship cannon-buttons.”
The poems in Axe Handles have a reflective tone, moving inward toward the life Snyder has been leading in his local community, to which he dedicated the collection. His concerns do not change, but in a return to the more spare, lyrical poems of Riprap, Snyder condenses and focuses his ideas into “firm, clean lines of verse reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s Rock-Drill cantos,” according to critic Andrew Angyal. The title has a typically dual meaning, referring to language as an instrument for shaping meaning and to the entire meaning of tools in human life. The theme of “cultural continuity” is presented in terms of Snyder’s passing his knowledge on to his family, friends, and readers and is explicitly explained in the parable of the title poem. The book evokes an ethos of harmony in cycles of renewal and restoration, rebirth and reconsideration. Snyder moves beyond his specific criticism of human social organizations in the late twentieth century and toward, in Angyal’s words, his “own alternative set of values in communal cooperation, conservation, and a nonexploitative way of life that shows respect for the land.” The compression and density of Snyder’s thinking are evident in the poem “Removing the Plate of the Pump on the Hydraulic System of the Backhoe,” which reads in entirety
Through mud, fouled nuts, black grime
it opens, a gleam of spotless steel
swirl of intake and output
at the heart
The pursuit of “relentless clarity” in everything characterizes Snyder’s life and art, but the pressures of the search are alleviated by his congenial nature and sense of humor. While emphasizing the importance of Zen “mindfulness,” Snyder has also stressed that “a big part of life is just being playful.” In accordance with this approach, Snyder has kept dogmatic or simplistic solutions out of his work and has cherished the wild and free nature of humankind. In “Off the Trail,” which he wrote for his wife, Koda, he envisions a life in which “all paths are possible” and maintains that “the trial’s not the way” to find wisdom or happiness. “We’re off the trail,/ You and I,” he declares, “and we chose it!” That choice—the decision to go against the grain “to be in line with the big flow”—has led to a poetry of “deeply human richness,” as Charles Molesworth puts it in his perceptive study of Snyder’s work, in which “a vision of plenitude” leads to a “liminal utopia, poised between fullness and yet more growth.”
Mountains and Rivers Without End
On April 8, 1956, Snyder began to work on a “poem of process” somewhat akin to Pound’s Cantos (1970) or Williams’s Paterson (5 volumes, 1946-1956) that he called Mountains and Rivers Without End. Initially inspired by East Asian brush painting (sumi) on a series of screens and by his own experiences with what he viewed as “a chaotic universe where everything is in place,” Snyder brought in elements of Native American styles of narration, his continuing study of Zen Buddhism, Asian art and drama, and the varied landscapes that he traversed on several continents during the next four decades as the primary features of the poem. “It all got more complicated than I predicted and the poems were evasive,” Snyder remarked in retrospect about the project.A particular problem involved the central narrative consciousness, since the traditional idea of an epic hero as a focal perspective seemed outmoded. As an alternate center of coherence, Snyder devised an elaborate structural arrangement built on ways in which “walking the landscape can be both ritual and meditation” so that the evolving perceptual matrix of the artist provided a fundamental frame for the materials of the poem.
Drawing on the “yogic implications” of mountains as representations of “a tough spirit of willed self-discipline” and rivers as a projection of “generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings” (as Snyder explained in “The Making of Mountains and Rivers Without End,” an afterword to the poem), the epic is energized by the interplay between these elemental forces. The essential things of the poet’s life—his practice of Zen meditation and action, his abiding concern for the “ark of biodiversity,” his love and care for friends and family, his investigative interest in the previous inhabitants of the North American continent, and his sense of himself as an artist whose poetry is an extension of the patterns of his working world—provide the distinct subjects and incidents for the separately composed poems that constitute individual sections, written (as he notes in his signatory final line) from “Marin-an 1956” to “Kitkitdizze 1996.”
Like Pound, whom Snyder calls “my direct teacher in these matters,” Snyder wanted to include what he considered the most important intellectual, mythological, and cultural aspects of his times, but he noted that “big sections of the Cantos aren’t interesting.” To avoid the kind of obscurity that requires endless emendations, Snyder provided several pages of explanation in endnotes and included a record of publication of the individual parts, which functions as an accompanying chronology. Nevertheless, the technical strategies Snyder employs to “sustain the reader through it” are fairly intricate and designed to maintain a discernible structure that contributes to the cohesion of the poem. The guiding principle behind the entire enterprise depends on Snyder’s conviction that, as he stated in an afterword to a 1999 reprint of Riprap, the whole universe can be seen as “interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting and mutually embracing.” Therefore, while some individual parts may contain names, ideas, and references that appear esoteric or strictly personal, “there will be enough reverberations and echoes from various sections so that it will be self-informing.” Since the poem’s progress is not chronological, arranged according to place rather than period, there is no ultimate sense of completion. For Snyder, the poem is not “closed up” but ideally should continue to maintain a “sense of usefulness and relevance” as it offers “stimulation and excitement and imagination” for the reader.
In addition to the widest patterns of intersection, Snyder uses several prominent technical devices to tie things together. Initially, he expected to have twenty-five sections, each centering on a key phrase. While this plan was not maintained for every part of the poem, there are some especially important key phrases, as in the seventh poem (“Bubbs Creek Haircut”), in which the third line from the last, “double mirror waver,” is described by Snyder as a “structure point” conveying infinite reflection. Similarly, in “Night Highway 99,” the third poem, the image of a “network womb” is described by Snyder as a reference to the Buddhist concept of “the great womb of time and space which intersects itself.” The poem “The Blue Sky,” which concludes part 1, contains what Snyder describes as a “healing” word, “sky/tent/curve,” an image of an arc that connects the disparate horizons of isolated nations. This sense of joining is a crucial philosophical precept in the poem, since the original idea of landscape paintings on screens or scrolls is exemplified by Snyder’s remark that he “would like to have the poem close in on itself but on some other level keep going.”
The final form of the poem is clarified by the publication record, which indicates an unleashing of energy in the 1960’s followed by an ingathering of strength during the mid-1970’s to mid-1980’s, when Snyder’s travels took him to “most of the major collections of Chinese paintings in the United States.” His sense of the poem was also “enlarged by walking/working visits to major urban centers,” which became important social complements to the portrayals of the natural world. In the 1990’s, Snyder says, “the entire cycle clicked for me” and he wrote sixteen of the poem’s sections while revising the typography of some earlier parts and reorganizing the placement of the poems in the final version. While each individual poem can function as an independent entity, the completed poem has, as poet Robert Hass has commented, “the force and concentration of a very shaped work of art.”
An overview of the poem reveals Snyder’s shaping strategies. The first of the four parts deals with the origins of a voyage, the inner and outer landscapes to be traveled, and the ways in which the features of the terrain can be gathered into a personal vision. “Night Highway 99,” for instance, is Snyder’s On the Road, embracing the Pacific Coast route where Snyder hitchhiked south from his home ground and met people like Ginsberg (“A. G.”), a road brother. The second part extends the journey to the concrete bleakness and compulsive energy of giant urban complexes. “Walking the New York Bedrock” revels in the sheer magnitude of a great city, which still recalls the “many-footed Manhatta” of Whitman’s paean. The parallels Snyder draws here between geologic strata, canyons, and skyscrapers imply a commonality in disparate forms. The third part moves toward a reconciliation of forces and forms, while the fourth, containing poems written more recently, conveys the now mature poet’s reflective estimate of enduring values. The poem for Snyder’s wife, Koda, “Cross-Legg’d,” is a kind of prayer of appreciation for the rewards of the journey, an expression of serenity and alertness. As a demonstration of the qualities he esteems, its conclusion, “we two be here what comes,” celebrates the condition of mindful awareness Snyder sought when he began his study of Buddhist ways.
Toward the poem’s conclusion, “The Mountain Spirit” reframes the conception of mountains and rivers that launched the journey. Its declaration, “Streams and mountains never stay the same,” is like a motto for the poet’s way of being, while its statement “All art is song/ is sacred to the real” reemphasizes his fundamental credo. His quote “nothingness is shapeliness” is at the core of Zen practice, also echoing Ginsberg’s claim, “Mind is shapely/ Art is Shapely.” The final poem, “Finding the Space in the Heart,” explores the infinity of space, which Snyder sees as a symbol of freedom, ending the poem in an ethos of gratitude epitomized by the “quiet heart and distant eye,” which he acknowledges as the supreme gift of “the mountain spirit.” Even with all of the evocative, vividly descriptive passages illuminating the natural world, Snyder’s poetry remains firmly grounded on the human values he sees as the fundamentals of existence. As he has said, “In a visionary way, what we would want poetry to do is guide lovers toward ecstasy, give witness to the dignity of old people, intensify human bonds, elevate the community and improve the public spirit.”
Danger on Peaks
Danger on Peaks is both a reflective recollection of important incidents and moments from earlier years and a continuing demonstration of the kinds of energy and insight that have made Snyder’s work as a poet and environmental visionary so impressive. The essays in Back on the Fire, which acts as a companion volume, explore some of the same subjects that have been Snyder’s most enduring concerns and reveal some of the circumstances that shaped the poems. The essays recall and comment on earlier poems, and the poems often illuminate some of the situations that led toward the composition of the essays. Notably, at the close of Back on the Fire, Snyder bids farewell to his wife, to whom Danger on Peaks is dedicated:
Carole Lynn Koda
OCTOBER 3, 1947-JUNE 29, 2006
gone, gone, gone beyond
gone beyond beyond
This deeply emotional statement, cast in direct, clear language imbued with the kind of personal philosophical perspective that has informed Snyder’s work, exemplifies the tone and attitude that make the poems in Danger on Peaks so appealing for readers familiar with his work and an appropriate introduction for those reading him for the first time. The book is divided into six thematic sections, each one focused on a particular part of Snyder’s life recalled and reconsidered for the pleasure of the memory and the revivified moment.
The first section, “Mount St. Helens,” evokes the spirit of the landscape that drew Snyder into the wild when he was thirteen. Spirit Lake, when he first saw it, “was clear and still, faint wisps of fog on the smooth silvery surface,” but the lake was obliterated when the volcano erupted, and the changes in the small span (in geologic terms) of time since then leads to a meditation on transformation and the value of what endures. The next section, “Yet Older Matters,” is a gathering of short lyrics of appreciation for the infinite range and fundamental features of the natural world, followed by versions of haiku expressing the poet’s psychological moods at a moment of awareness:
Clumsy at first
my legs, feet and eye learn again to leap
skip through the tumbled rocks
The third section, “Daily Life,” is a series of short poetic accounts, mostly on one page, on subjects such as “reading the galley pages of [James] Laughlin’s Collected Poems,” “working on hosting Ko Un great Korean poet,” visiting “Mariano Vallejo’s Library,” and in a high-spirited, rollicking song of pleasure and praise, building an addition to his home, “Old Kitkitdizze.” The good-humored, energy-charged, inclusive communal atmosphere that has made Snyder’s company as well as his writing so appealing is evident in his use of rhyming in short stanzas, listing, naming, and celebrating. The fourth section, “Steady, They Say,” is a gallery of portraits, Snyder’s friends from the recent (Seamus Heaney) and distant past (“To All the Girls Whose Ears I Pierced Back Then”).
The last two sections take a turn toward the contemplative as Snyder offers brief narratives leading toward a poems that is both a commentary on an incident and a kind of concluding thought. The narrations are set as an unfolding present, each poem like a step toward a wider arc of apprehension. In “One Day in Late Summer,” Snyder relates how he “had lunchwithmyold friend Jack Hogan,” part of a group who “hung out in NorthBeach back in the fifties.” Then, thinking about a half-century passing, he remarks:
This present moment
that lives on
The last section, “After Bamiyan” (the valley where the Taliban destroyed colossal statues of Buddha carved in caves in the sixth century) begins as an exchange with “A person who should know better” about the value of art and human life, leading Snyder to insist “Ah yes . . . impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the suffering of others.” He supports this with Issa’s great haiku about the “dew-drop world,” in Japanese and then with his own translation, providing poetry and vivid prose in the service of the things Snyder regards as sacred. The volume, appropriately, does not close with a feeling of finality, as the last poem, “Envoy,” is suc ceeded by one of Snyder’s own photographs of Mount St. Helens in August, 1945, then two pages of explanatory notes, then “Thanks To” (another list as a poem), a page of acknowledgments, and lastly a photo of Snyder himself, smiling, a benediction and gift for the world to enjoy.
Nonfiction: Earth House Hold: Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries, 1969; The Old Ways, 1977; He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, 1979; The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964-1979, 1980; Passage Through India, 1983, expanded 2007; The Practice of the Wild, 1990; A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds, 1995; Gary Snyder Papers, 1995; Back on the Fire: Essays, 2007; The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 2009 (Bill Morgan, editor).
Miscellaneous: The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952-1998, 2000.
Gray, Timothy. Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.
Hunt, Anthony. Genesis, Structure, and Meaning in Gary Snyder’s “Mountains and Rivers Without End.” Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2004.
Murphy, Patrick. A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000.
_______. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
_______, ed. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Phillips, Rod. “Forest Beatniks” and “Urban Thoreaus”: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure. New York: P. Lang, 2000.
Schuler, Robert Jordan. Journeys Toward the Original Mind: The Long Poems of Gary Snyder. New York: P. Lang, 1994
Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Smith, Eric Todd. Reading Gary Snyder’s “Mountains and Rivers Without End.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2000.
Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002.