Almost everyone has read the work of Gary Snyder, and many people have written about him, his poetry, and his influence on the American environmental movement, and the counterculture stream of Eastern-inspired religious devotion and life-style.
As a boy, growing up in California in the 1950's, I was led to believe that the West--both the concept, and the actual landscape itself--was a precious resource, as well as a dream. My Stepfather, Harry Faville, who had escaped a middle-class life in the late 1930's, traveling extensively across the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast, taking odd jobs, fishing and working in the woods, dreamed of the "back country"--a place in his imagination to which we would one day retreat, living in the forested wilderness, far from the dirt and compromises of the city. I was encouraged to think that I might find work for the U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service in my teens. This never materialized, though I did go to one "interview" in Modoc County, where the local ranger indicated that without a "Governor's" phone call, the chances of my being hired were mighty slim. When I learned that many of the "boys" who would be working at the mountain camp would be juvenile delinquents or paroled felons, my enthusiasm deflated. That Summer, like most, would be spent reading and toiling in construction and landscape work. This was supposed to "make a man" of me, though the lessons learned from nailing scaffolds, painting under eaves, and weeding flower beds never seemed to me to justify the time and discomfort they demanded. And the pay was always poor.
Nevertheless, when, in sophomore year in college, I discovered the work of Gary Snyder, I knew immediately what he was talking about, and I responded to his special mixture of sophisticated Zen attitudinizing, celebration of physical labor, and vague, mystical communalism. I believed at that point that the most honest, direct thing an intelligent young man might do was dress like a back woodsman, with a big pack and sleeping bag strapped to his shoulders, and with this, and a little survival knowledge, hike up into the mountains and write shrewd little poems about nature and the sad state of the world.
I don't mean to make light of these tendencies, though they now seem dewy-eyed and silly. For me, these were the natural outgrowth of feelings I'd been taught to have from childhood. But before I could try any of these back-to-nature options, I found myself married and quickly introduced to fatherhood. Responsibilities will dictate the shortest route to compromise--or at least that's the way it's been in my life. If I ever imagined that I might live in a cabin in Mendocino or Humboldt Counties, that daydream was quickly abandoned when the necessity for obtaining food and clothing and transport intervened. The manly thing was to shoulder the burden, not run away into the wilderness.
Still, some part of me never completely relinquished the romance of a semi-remote life-style, and a close access to the forest, the rivers and streams, and clean air of unsettled territory. Gary Snyder, it seemed perfectly obvious, had managed to live, in some measure, this escapist dream of a working-class laborer's scholar-poet's existence. If he could do it, why couldn't I? But I knew, of course, that the "wilderness" this pretentious fantasy was built upon, was neither hospitable, nor as "pure" and "clean" as one might imagine it to be. Still, I wondered whether a poetic aesthetic might not be built out of the noble callings of diligent study and dutiful labor.
It isn't difficult to see how the four connected poems below might appeal to young men in their late teens or twenties in the decades following WWII. Many of us who grew up during the 1950's and 1960's felt a calling, away from the straight-jacketed life-choices of our parents. We hadn't endured the Depression, or the War--though these were all around us in the talk and memories and stories of our parents' generation--but we believed we knew a better way than they had chosen (the "organization man" or the "invisible man" or "the lonely crowd" or "the pyramid climbers"). They had chosen security and prosperity and safety and selfishness and acquisitiveness and retreat. These were cop-outs; we didn't want cop-outs, we wanted challenges, and felt emboldened to meet them.
Gary Snyder's poetry has held out the promise of a spiritual emancipation from the engineered practicality of a middle-class career track for three generations of America's educated youth. It must have gotten to sound a little routine by now, though it didn't sound routine in 1968, when I first read Riprap [Kyoto: Origin Press, 1959], Myths & Texts [New York: Totem/Corinth 1960], and The Back Country [New York: New Directions, 1967]. I knew about that back country, had camped there, fished there, hiked there. And, like the speaker in those poems, I had experienced young love, had squandered opportunities, and felt (like him) "ancient, as if I had lived many lives."
This set of poems is untypical of Snyder, in that it deals with autobiographical material in a direct, uninhibited way. Typically, Snyder will deal in constructed personae designed to position himself ideologically within a politically correct environmentalism, or Zen Buddhist triad, with limited aesthetic options. He romanticizes the "working-man"--a sort of WPA ideal of men unionized into a common purpose, and often presumes a shared commitment (with his readers) to Eastern religious tenets and tradition(s). These are charming proverbial counter-culture themes in his poetry, as well as in his prose essays, though they run counter to the mainstream reading audience which his writing now enjoys. Inspired youth who might once have shared these providential attitudes have grown old--it's been at least a generation and a half, since those kinds of notions were fashionable. And nothing dates as fast as intellectual property. Which is not to suggest that Snyder's view of an ecologically friendly, Zen-inspired aesthetic was ever wrong in its details, just that the world has moved on. It may have seemed in the 1960's and 1970's that Snyder's poetry and life example was the avatar of a cultural shift, but, like the Beats, it was silently incorporated into the zeitgeist, and became as familiar, and then obsolete, as old copies of the I Ching and rusty old Food Conspiracy bins.
Yet these poems don't require any presumptive commitment to "the Way" or any backwoods knowledge to appreciate the emotional force of the rhetoric being employed. The poems describe a teen-aged relationship between the speaker and a young woman, separately rejected by both, in favor of life-choices and priorities which may now seem, in retrospect, at the point of writing, to have been dreamy and starry-eyed. The poet takes a rueful and resolute consolation that he will probably never know whether his choice to abandon the love affair, so early in life, was the correct one. The conflict between romantic youthful love, and the demands of an idealized life program (the karma or "plan"--the Buddhist notion of fate)--is clearly laid out--
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.
The resolution of that "have done" "what my/karma demands" is one of modern poetry's special moments, though the now somewhat dated quality of the use of the word "karma" instead of fate, or destiny, may sound slightly stale to our ears.
With the thawing out of tension which followed the defeat of Japan, Westerners were free to travel and live there, with relatively little resistance or prejudice among the native population. In China, of course, things were different, and the contrast between the adoption by Japan of the mercantile factory system of the West, while China spent the next four decades living out the Communist fantasy of a liberated agrarian proletariat, is nowhere more evident than in Snyder's later poetry, where acceptance and "worldly wisdom" predominate. The special relationship between Snyder's academic adoption of the "passive" religious dogma of Zen Buddhism, and the anti-Western view of capitalistic enterprise embodied in the old doctrinaire socialist line, once made his positions seem genuine. But Snyder didn't become a Zen master, like his great friend Philip Whalen; instead he matriculated into university teaching. Snyder, after all, unlike most of the Beats, was primarily an academic at heart, who enjoyed tempering and refining his sensibility through careful reading and focused attention. He wanted his work to be understood in terms of the great tradition of ancient Chinese poets, with whom his work was invariably identified.
I've always like Snyder's early poems best, because they seem the work of a young man with a mission, filled with belief and commitment and determination--things that I shared when I was a youth myself. Had opportunities presented themselves differently, I might very well have ended up majoring in Ecological Science, and working in Alaska. But I will never know if I am a fool, or have done what my karma demands.
Four Poems for Robin
Siwashing It Out Once in Suislaw Forest
I slept under rhododendron
All night blossoms fell
Shivering on a sheet of cardboard
Feet stuck in my pack
Hands deep in my pockets
Barely able to sleep.
I remembered when we were in school
Sleeping together in a big warm bed
We were the youngest lovers
When we broke up we were still nineteen
Now our friends are married
You teach school back east
I dont mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you.
A Spring Night in Shokoku-ji
Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms
At night in an orchard in Oregon.
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.
An Autumn Morning in Shokoku-ji
Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.
December at Yase
You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."
After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.
Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were--
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.
Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.
We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.
I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my