Gary Snyder

Primarily known for his participation in the literary movement of the Beat Generation and the San Fransisco Renaissance, Gary Snyder is also an important essayist and American intellectual. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder developed an early love and respect for the natural world. His experiences in the mountains and forests of Washington, Oregon, and California profoundly affected his writing, as did his decades of devotion to Zen Buddhism.

Gary Snyder Gary Snyder

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Contents
Table of contents

    Gary Snyder: Biography

    Gary Sherman Snyder was born in San Fransisco on May 8, 1930. When he was two years old, his parents moved to King County, Washington, near the city of Seattle, where they lived on a farm with an orchard, dairy cows, and a number of chickens. When Snyder was seven years old, he suffered an accident that left him bedridden for four months. However, during this time, the young Snyder discovered the joy of reading and began devouring books from the Seattle Public Library.

    In 1942, Snyder’s parents divorced, and Snyder, his mother, and his sister moved to Portland, Oregon. In Portland, Snyder attended Lincoln High School. In addition to nurturing his interest in literature, Snyder also developed a passion for the outdoors, particularly mountain climbing. He climbed the nearby Mount Hood more than forty times and published his first essay in his mountaineering club’s magazine.

    Gary Snyder, Mount Hood, StudySmarterFig. 1: In high school, Snyder became an avid mountaineer.

    In 1947, Snyder was awarded a scholarship to study at Reed College in Portland. This was a significant time in Snyder’s life. He became acquainted with several young poets that would become key figures in the upcoming Beat Generation, including Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.

    During his years in college, Snyder also began to develop an acute interest in various aspects of Eastern philosophy and indigenous cultures. He researched folklore on local reservations and continued to nurture his connection to nature with summer jobs working for the US Forest Service and National Parks Service. Snyder graduated in 1951 with his bachelor’s degree in anthropology and literature.

    After graduation, Snyder received a fellowship to study anthropological linguistics at Indiana University. However, he returned to San Fransisco after just one semester, ready to try his hand at poetry. Snyder’s interest in Zen meditation and Asian culture was also growing. He began studying Japanese and Chinese at the University of California at Berkeley, along with Tang dynasty poetry and ink and wash painting.

    Gary Snyder prioritized spending time in nature, including working as a trail maker, logger, and firewatcher in nearby forests and national parks. He also lived in a rustic cabin with American writer and poet Jack Kerouac for several months.

    During this time in San Fransisco, Snyder also began writing and publishing his poetry. In 1955, he participated in the famous Six Gallery reading along with poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

    Gary Snyder, San Francisco, StudySmarterFig. 2: San Francisco was a hub of poetic activity in the mid-1950s.

    The Six Gallery reading took place in San Francisco on October 7, 1955, and was a pivotal moment for the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance. Five young, relatively unknown poets participated in the reading: Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Micheal McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. That night, Ginsberg read his poem “Howl” (1956) for the first time, which would become one of the most iconic works of the Beat Generation.

    The Beat Generation was a literary movement in the 1950s and 60s that started with a tight-knit group of writers in New York City, most of whom eventually ended up in San Francisco. Beat Generation authors like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were known for their non-conformity, including rejecting materialism, embracing sexual liberation, and exploring spirituality.

    The San Francisco Renaissance was a period in the 1950s when San Francisco became the hub of American avant-garde poetry.

    Later in 1955, Snyder intended to move to Kyoto, Japan, to deepen his study of Zen Buddhism. However, his plans were initially thwarted by the State Department, which refused to issue his passport in 1955 because he was suspected of communist activity. The department relented the following year, and Snyder moved to a temple in Shokoku-ji, where he worked as the personal assistant and English tutor for one of the Zen abbots. He soon became a disciple of his abbot and, thus, officially a Buddhist.

    For the next twelve years, Snyder returned to the United States only periodically, spending most of his time in Japan. He continued to deepen his Zen studies, wrote poetry, and worked on translations. His first poetry collection, Riprap, was published in 1959, closely followed by Myths & Texts in 1960.

    Gary Snyder, Buddhist statue, StudySmarterFig. 3: Snyder spent more than a decade in Japan delving into his Buddhist studies.

    In 1968, Snyder moved back to California with his wife, Masa Uehara, and their recently-born son. Snyder had previously purchased a piece of land in the Sierra Nevada foothills along with several figures in the Buddhist and Hindu communities. He built a house on this land where he continues to live today.

    Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Snyder continued writing prolifically. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with his 1974 volume Turtle Island and became a writing professor at the University of California, Davis, in 1986. In 1996, Snyder published the poetry collection Mountains and Rivers Without End, a project he had started in the 1950s and worked on for nearly forty years.

    Snyder continues to live “well off-grid”1 in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As of 2022, he is ninety-two years old.

    Gary Snyder: Key Works

    Gary Snyder is best known for his poetry, but he has also published books of essays and prose.

    Gary Snyder: Example of Poems

    The following poems explore nature, ecology, Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy, common themes in Gary Snyder’s work.

    “Above Pate Valley” (1959)

    We finished clearing the last

    Section of trail by noon,

    High on the ridge-side

    Two thousand feet above the creek

    Reached the pass, went on

    Beyond the white pine groves,

    Granite shoulders, to a small

    Green meadow watered by the snow,

    Edged with Aspen—sun

    Straight high and blazing

    But the air was cool.

    Ate a cold fried trout in the

    Trembling shadows. I spied

    A glitter, and found a flake

    Black volcanic glass—obsidian—

    By a flower. Hands and knees

    Pushing the Bear grass, thousands

    Of arrowhead leavings over a

    Hundred yards. Not one good

    Head, just razor flakes

    On a hill snowed all but summer,

    A land of fat summer deer,

    They came to camp. On their

    Own trails. I followed my own

    Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,

    Pick, singlejack, and sack

    Of dynamite.

    Ten thousand years.

    “Above Pate Valley” was first published in Gary Snyder’s first collection of poetry, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, first published in 1959 and reissued in 1965. Like much of Snyder’s work, this poem draws on his personal experience, such as the summers he spent laying trails in Yosemite National Park. The poem is steeped in the imagery of the landscape but also calls on the area’s natural and human history, suggesting the indigenous people that used to live there.

    “No Matter, Never Mind” (1974)

    The Father is the Void

    The Wife Waves

    Their child is Matter.

    Matter makes it with his mother

    And their child is Life,

    a daughter.

    The Daughter is the Great Mother

    Who, with her father / brother Matter

    as her lover,

    Gives birth to the Mind.”

    Much of Gary Snyder’s poetry draws heavily on Buddhist beliefs. This example, “No Matter, Never Mind,” published in Turtle Island in 1974, expresses common beliefs in Eastern philosophy about the creation of matter from a masculine void and feminine waves.

    Gary Snyder: Books and Poetry Collections

    Gary Snyder has published eleven volumes of poetry, nine collections of prose, and several other books of letters and other selections of poetry and prose.

    Turtle Island (1974)

    Published in 1974, Turtle Island is one of Gary Snyder’s best-known collections of poetry and essays. Turtle Island refers to how many Native American tribes describe the North American content. Completed just a few years after Snyder returned to the United States from Japan, the poems in this collection were known for being more political than his previous work and for describing Snyder’s reacquaintance with the United States.

    Gary Snyder, Sierra Nevada mountains, StudySmarterFig. 4: Snyder wrote Turtle Island once he had moved back to the United States.

    The book is divided into four sections. The first three contain poetry and the final consists of five essays. Snyder won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Turtle Island, which brought him mainstream success for the first time.

    The Practice of the Wild (1990)

    The Practice of the Wild is a collection of nine essays that explore Snyder’s view on Buddhism, nature, and ecology. He examines the relationship between nature and the sacred as well as delves deeply into the significance of the specific language we use to describe the wild. Through this, Snyder’s essays question our role in nature and how we can embrace where we live while still allowing the wilderness to thrive.

    Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996)

    Mountains and Rivers Without End is an epic poem that Snyder began writing in 1956. A partial version, Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End, was published in 1965, but the complete poem was in development for forty years before it was finally published in 1996. The piece, divided into thirty-nine individual poems, explores many of the themes common to Snyder’s work and the significant events of his life, including his understanding of Asian and Native American mythology, his connection to nature, and his study of Buddhism.

    Gary Snyder: Key Quotes

    In the essay “Off the Path, Off the Trail,” in The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder writes about how he maintained his practice of Buddhism after returning to the United States.

    Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly. There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sense of coming home to our whole terrain. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where -paradoxically- we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.” -The Practice of the Wild (“Off the Path, Off the Trail”)

    He discusses the difference between following a prescribed spiritual path and learning from reality, the original religious teacher. He suggests that the path is important, a necessary starting point, but it is also essential to sometime wander off of the path and learn from the wild.

    A kind of bottom line is that all human activity is as trivial as anything else. We can humbly acknowledge that and excuse ourselves from exaggerating our importance, even as a threat, and also recognize the scale and the beauty of things. And then go to work. Don’t imagine that we’re doing ecological politics to save the world. We’re doing ecological politics to save ourselves, to save our souls. It’s a personal exercise in character and in manners. It’s a matter of etiquette. It’s a matter of living right. It’s not that the planet requires us to be good to it. It’s that we must do it because it’s an aesthetic and ethical choice.” -Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places (2014) (“Coyote-Mind”)

    In this quote, Snyder discusses ecological politics alongside the Buddhist belief in the triviality of human activity. Everything, Snyder argues, will work itself out with or without human intervention because our actions are inconsequential. However, we have an ethical responsibility to care for the planet. It is part of living a good life and being a good person.

    A name: that we may see ourselves more accurately on this continent of watersheds, and life-communities—plant zones, physiographic provinces, culture areas; following natural boundaries. The “USA” and its states and counties are arbitrary and inaccurate impositions on what is really here.” -Turtle Island (“Introductory Note”)

    In the introductory note to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island, Snyder explains why he chose the poetry collection’s title. Turtle Island is a common name for North America among various indigenous groups. Snyder hopes its use will help expose the United States for what it really is, artificial divisions of natural spaces.

    Gary Snyder - Key takeaways

    • Gary Snyder was born in San Fransisco on May 8, 1930.
    • He grew up in King County, Washington, near Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, where he developed an appreciation for literature and the natural world early in life.
    • Gary Snyder became interested in Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy and eventually moved to Japan, where he stayed for more than ten years, living at a monastery and becoming a Buddhist.
    • Gary Snyder has published eleven volumes of poetry, nine collections of prose, and several other books of letters and other selections of poetry and prose.
    • Much of Snyder’s writing focuses on themes of nature, Buddhism, and ecology.

    1Daniel Duane. “A Poem, 40 Years Long.” The New York Times Magazine. 1996.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Gary Snyder

    What is Gary Snyder doing now?

    Gary Snyder currently lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills. He is ninety-two years old.

    What is Gary Snyder famous for?

    Gary Snyder is famous for his award-winning poetry, insightful essays, and his role in the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance.

    Who is Gary Snyder?

    Gary Snyder is an American poet, essayist, and intellectual.

    Who influenced Gary Snyder?

    Gary Snyder was significantly influenced by his study of Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, as well as his time spent in close contact with nature.

    How many poems did Gary Snyder write?

    Gary Snyder wrote many poems over the course of his career, including publishing eleven volumes of poetry.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which was NOT one of Gary Snyder’s many jobs?

    What is the title of the poetry collection the poem is featured in?

    True or False: The speaker in the poem hides his long hair under a baseball cap and leaves his earring in the car to fit into the working-class American bar.

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