Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, LITERATURE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 22 January 2020

Snyder, Gary

In promoting a life close to nature and exploring the relation between the inner mind and the outer world, Gary Snyder falls into the tradition of American romanticism following Thoreau and Whitman. But whereas the transcendentalists perceived nature as symbolic and looked through it to find spiritual truths, Snyder emphasizes how the spiritual takes shape within the real, physical, and imaginative interactions between elements that make up the ecology of one's place. His engagement with the natural world and resistance to the monoculture of Western commercial industrialism have turned him toward environmental activism as well as philosophical meditations as lucid and penetrating as those of Emerson or John Muir. His work champions the idea of wilderness, where the multiplicity of nature and culture—inherently interconnected—can manifest itself in all its forms.

West Coast and Counterculture

Although his family was part of the European migration west through the early history of the United States, Snyder made a life of actively inhabiting the Pacific Coast and celebrating the cultures that merge there. Born in San Francisco on 8 May 1930, Snyder grew up with his sister on their parents' dairy farm in Washington State before the family moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1942. Much of his youth was spent ranging throughout the broad and relatively unsettled wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. His interest in his region took him on mountaineering and backpacking excursions in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he came into contact with the Native American tribes of the region as well as the more recently established logging communities. Despite the differing cultural perspectives, Snyder began to notice how both groups responded to and formed their own cultural practices based on the particulars of place, that is, how the natural world established human lifestyles and attitudes.

These interests prompted him to study anthropology and literature when he entered Reed College in Portland in 1947. His senior thesis explored the stories of a local Native American tribe (published later as He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth [1979]) and spurred his interest in how myth could be used to create cultural identity as well as shape reality. Snyder also studied East Asian art and aesthetics at Reed, coming in time to the works of Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound. He maintained his ties to communities in the more remote parts of the region as well. This region was extensive: he worked summers variously with U.S. Forest Service trail crews, on U.S. Park Service archaeology projects, with timber companies on tribal reservations, and on a ship traveling to South America. His experiences in the backcountry exposed him to the life and lifestyles of distinct bioregions. The “text” of that reality would later inform the poems of Myths and Texts (1960), in which Snyder brings together Native American, Eastern, and Western traditions in presenting a reflexive self sensitive to and stimulated by the particulars of the environment. Not since Robinson Jeffers had a poet attempted to express such a comprehensive mind of the American Pacific coast; in contrast to the severe transport of Jeffers's “inhumanism,” however, Snyder formulated his poems as ritual utterances. Processing sharp sense details, the poetry explores culture's basic forms of contact with nature, and Snyder's evocations in his “shaman's songs” make this natural world more palpable.

After completing his bachelor's degree in 1951, Snyder traveled to Indiana University to study linguistics, but he remained only one semester before returning to the West Coast and the political and cultural energies that would coalesce there as the San Francisco Renaissance. He lived briefly with the poet Philip Whalen, worked seasonally as a fire lookout for the Forest Service, and eventually enrolled as a graduate student in East Asian languages at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1952. A short-lived marriage to Alison Gass ended this same year. The San Francisco Bay Area already had a liberal poetic tradition with poets like Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Josephine Miles, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Spicer residing there, and Snyder's own life in the working-class hinterlands placed him against the mainstream values of the McCarthy era. The Beat sensibility building in the West at that time appealed to a younger generation weary and edgy from the Cold War climate and prevailing conservatism. On 7 October 1955, Snyder participated in the famous “Six Poets at the Six Gallery” reading along with Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Whalen, Michael McClure, and Rexroth. The reading launched the Beat movement and challenged the reigning literary academicism. As evidenced by his fictionalization as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Snyder was solidly fixed as an exemplar for the developing social counterculture.

Snyder's Riprap (1959), perhaps because of the occasional quality of its poems, caught the kinetic exhaustion and exhilaration of American life, the local and the exotic, using clear, direct images and a colloquial tone like that advocated by William Carlos Williams. Not only do the poems show a developing awareness of how experience is rooted in the happening of a particular moment, but they also continue the exploration of how language constructs our perceptions of the world. These poems show, moreover, the influence of Snyder's studies at Berkeley, where he was translating the works of the misanthropic Chinese hermit Han Shan. These Cold Mountain Poems (1958), in the same bearing as Taoist and Buddhist teachings, promulgate a release from the entanglements of an urbane, secular society and an attentiveness to the conditions of one's existence. Already exposed to the crisp imagism of the Japanese and Chinese poetic line through Rexroth's early translations, as well as through the work of Pound and Fenollosa, in these poems Snyder further developed an attention to phenomena in their relation to the poetic mind.

Pacific Rim Reinhabitation

Further contact with fledgling Buddhist groups in the Bay Area brought Snyder into contact with the Zen and “Pure Land” schools of Mahayana Buddhism and encouraged him, in 1956, to travel to Japan and begin his formal Buddhist training at the Zen Temple Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. This stay lasted only a year, after which Snyder left aboard the tanker S.S. Sappa Creek as an engine room worker. He stayed briefly in the San Francisco area after nine months at sea, then returned to Kyoto in 1959 to study at the Daitoke-ji monastery. This time he was accompanied by the poet Joanne Kyger, whom he married the following year. Based primarily in Japan, Snyder would spend the next decade exploring the regions around the Pacific, following his own wandering path of enlightenment and coming into contact with various Buddhist sects and their teachings. As part of his exploration of how communities develop and establish their local spiritual practices, Snyder performed circumambulation rituals with Mountain Buddhists—the Yamabushi—in Japan, encountered Vajrayana Buddhism in India and Nepal, met the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, and fasted on an island in the East China Sea. With his poetic line already influenced by Asian aesthetics, the philosophies of the region now started penetrating deeper into his work: conceptions of existence as a unceasing state of flux were applied to the shifting circumstances of contemporary experience in Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers without End (1965), part of a long poem sequence he was writing. The Taoist and Buddhist apprehension of the universe as “empty” infusing the poems provided Snyder a means of rediscovering a life of value and resonant possibility.

After twelve years rambling along the Asian rim of the Pacific, Snyder returned to the United States. With him he brought a more practiced aesthetic and a social engagement nourished by his Buddhist training. He was accompanied by his third wife, Masa Uehara (Snyder and Kyger had divorced in 1965). Two books of poetry followed immediately, The Back Country (1968) and Regarding Wave (1969), which began to articulate imaginative yet vitally present alternatives to the mainstream industrial civilization whose ecological and economic imperialism was implicitly connected to the military escalation in Vietnam. Poems like A Walk and Vapor Trails blended Eastern philosophical awakening with Western lyrical epiphany while tracing out remote parts of consciousness, untamed yet accessible, that engaged fully with the natural world. Dealing with personal experience and acquaintances, yet public in their open engagement with contemporary events, they also seek to confront the quandaries of existence while constructing a symbiotic relationship with place. Moreover, Snyder's marriage and the birth of his sons, Kai and Gen, inspired a semi-confessional mode exploring new lyric possibilities for Regarding Wave. Not Leaving the House, for example, expresses the creative possibilities in building a family life. Other poems, like Song of the Taste, push the exploration of the erotic, domestic, and communal dimensions that a sensuous engagement with the world can develop.

Snyder also brought back to California a reinvigorated social engagement nourished by his Buddhist practice. His first book of prose, Earth House Hold (1969), collected essays that promoted alternative ways of conceiving one's relationship with the world—whether inspired by science, tribal worldviews, or poetry. Infused with countercultural idealism, the volume encouraged American social transformation. Snyder points to how, despite a dominant Western culture that dismisses them, Asian, Native American, and even Western cultures have continuously maintained “primitive” practices that express a more fundamental, archaic value system. Snyder connects the movement of the 1960s with a historical “Great Subculture” that stretches back to the Paleolithic and celebrates an active attentiveness to the natural world. Earth House Hold also includes journal selections from his time as a fire lookout and from his first time in Japan. Brief, musing, impressionistic, the journals represent Snyder's personal attempt to record the life of a particular place and serve as a more practical model of engaging with the world.

Though his writing promoted primitive values and wilderness, Snyder's insistence that escapism was rendered impossible by an awareness of humanity's broader interdependence with the rest of the globe's inhabitants undermined the romanticism implicit in the “back-to-the-land” movement and nature poetry. Instead, Snyder promoted a new sense of communal engagement sensitive to the geologic, biologic, and cultural forces shaping the life of a place. The informed understanding of one's individual bioregion, he proposed throughout his work, would help counter environmental devastation and promote stability. To put his ideals into practice, Snyder, with his family and friends, built a home with a balance of modern and archaic technologies on the San Juan Ridge in the California Sierra Nevada.

Nature Poetry and Wilderness Advocacy

Turtle Island (1974) united Snyder's pastoral sentiments and environmental politics and thrust him into broader public awareness. Reflecting his renewed contact with the West, the book embodies a sense of living at home in the world, of learning what it means to be a member of the larger ecological community, and emphasizes a focused commitment to that community. While tracing the natural and cultural history of the American landscape, his use of a Native American name for the North American continent as the title of his book prompted a reconsideration of the kinds of mythological, environmental, and social organizations with which American culture identified itself. The processes of the world that happen without function or purpose—For Nothing, as one poem's title proclaims—are shown in the volume as sources of nourishment and spiritual possibility. The poems reexamine the virtues of wild nature by listening to the local residents, whether magpies or logging truck drivers. Snyder's ecocentric concern was further developed by the inclusion of the more programmatic manifesto Four Changes, which outlines the kind of enterprises he believed the country needed in order to maintain ecological diversity and make salutary changes as a culture. The critically acclaimed volume was awarded the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.

With the success of Turtle Island, Snyder became a more publicly recognized spokesman for environmental issues, and his involvement with the West's politics increased. From 1974 to 1979, Snyder was a member of the Board for the California Arts Council. Organized by Governor Jerry Brown, the Arts Council explored ways in which the state could promote the work of artists for the greater social good. With the completion of his home in the Sierra, Snyder began other local projects, including the North San Juan School House and the Ring-of-Bone Zendo, a lay-Buddhist community center named after a book by his friend Lew Welch.

The following decade saw the continued publication of both poetry and prose. The appearance of The Old Ways (1977), a small collection of bioregionalist essays, and The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979 (1980) constructs a context for his poetic practice while influencing the course of environmental activism and encouraging cultural critique. Passage through India (1983) provides journal entries—longer and more narrative than those of Earth House Hold—recounting his travels throughout Southeast Asia with Kyger and Ginsberg in the early 1960s. Axe Handles (1983), the first book of poetry since Turtle Island, reaffirms his commitments to family, region, work, and politics. The poems of this volume offer themselves as parables that encourage the finding of models for learning about the world. This was followed by Left Out in the Rain (1986), a collection of previously unpublished poems spanning the previous four decades.

In 1986, Snyder began teaching poetry and bioregional thought in the English department and Nature and Culture Program of the University of California, Davis. His popular poetic success and public activism had in some ways already brought him into mainstream culture as an icon of countercultural values, and he was able to use this new “institutional” position to push ecological thinking in new directions for new audiences. The Practice of the Wild (1990), more than a simple environmental treatise, explores the ethical and imaginative dimensions of wilderness. Snyder examines the roots of language along with past and contemporary cultural manners in order to articulate a lifestyle that engages with its surroundings in considered yet expansive ways. In voicing alternatives to the Western division between man and nature, he borrows frequently from the thirteenth-century Buddhist philosopher Dogen, asserting the uniqueness of all phenomena and simultaneously emphasizing how everything is ecologically interconnected. Another collection, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995), brings together new and old essays and presents a more cohesive picture of Snyder's own particular bioregional practices and principles. More locally oriented, the essays reflect on his life on the San Juan Ridge and the development of his personal aesthetics and interests.

The 1990s also saw the publication of two volumes spanning his poetic career. No Nature: New and Selected Poems (1992) arranges his poetry as an investigation of how language and perception structure human conceptions of and relations with “nature.” This book was followed by the completion of Snyder's epic long poem sequence, Mountains and Rivers without End (1996). Poems from the sequence, written and published intermittently over the previous four decades, were finally brought together and structured according to the movements of Japanese Noh drama in presenting a mythic journey of enlightenment through the landscapes of the Pacific Rim. The critically acclaimed sequence not only presents dazzlingly imaginative renderings of a reflexive consciousness, as in Bubbs Creek Haircut, but also manifests visionary spiritual dimensions in poems like An Offering for Tara and The Blue Sky. Expansive in scope, the book reflects a sense of life as momentary and cherishes the particulars of that life. Following the book's publication, Snyder was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1997.

In 1991, Snyder married Carole Koda and lived with her and two stepdaughters in their home on San Juan Ridge. Though he retired from the University of California, Davis, in 2002, he remains an active advocate for poetry and the natural world.


Cold Mountain Poems (1958)Find this resource:

    Riprap (1959)Find this resource:

      Myths and Texts (1960)Find this resource:

        Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers without End (1965)Find this resource:

          The Back Country (1968)Find this resource:

            Earth House Hold (1969)Find this resource:

              Regarding Wave (1969)Find this resource:

                Manzanita (1972)Find this resource:

                  The Fudo Trilogy (1973)Find this resource:

                    Turtle Island (1974)Find this resource:

                      The Old Ways (1977)Find this resource:

                        He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (1979)Find this resource:

                          Songs for Gaia (1979)Find this resource:

                            The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964–1979 (1980)Find this resource:

                              Axe Handles (1983)Find this resource:

                                Passage through India (1983)Find this resource:

                                  Left Out in the Rain (1986)Find this resource:

                                    The Practice of the Wild (1990)Find this resource:

                                      No Nature: New and Selected Poems (1992)Find this resource:

                                        A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995)Find this resource:

                                          Mountains and Rivers without End (1996)Find this resource:

                                            The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations, 1952–1998 (1999)Find this resource:

                                              The High Sierra of California: Poems and Journals of Gary Snyder, Woodcuts by Tom Killion (2002)Find this resource:

                                                Further Reading

                                                Dean, Tim. Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious: Inhabiting the Ground. New York, 1991. Places Snyder's work in an American cultural context using a psychoanalytic approach.Find this resource:

                                                  Halper, Jon, ed. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. San Francisco, 1991. An extensive collection of personal reminiscences and critical pieces celebrating Snyder's life and work.Find this resource:

                                                    Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder's Vision: Poetry and the Real Work. Columbia, Mo., 1983. Begins to place Snyder's work in a political and social context.Find this resource:

                                                      Murphy, Patrick D. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia, S.C., 1992.Find this resource:

                                                        Murphy, Patrick D. A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder. Corvallis, Ore., 2000.Find this resource:

                                                          Murphy, Patrick D., ed. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston, 1990. A strong collection of essays approaching Snyder's work from a variety of directions. It contains good bibliographic references and an interview with Snyder. Murphy provides sharp readings of Snyder's poetry.Find this resource:

                                                            Robertson, David. Real Matter, Spiritual Mountain: Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac on Mt. Tamalpais. Western American Literature 27 (Fall 1992): 209–226. An idiosyncratic but illuminating approach to Snyder's forms of practice and Buddhist thought.Find this resource:

                                                              Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington, Ky., 1999. An academic study, this text attempts to place Snyder theoretically as an “ecopoet.”Find this resource:

                                                                Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston, 1976. One of the first studies on Snyder, it is still an excellent introduction to his early work.Find this resource: