Gary Snyder Joins the Greats

Library of America honors an influential poet of the San Francisco Renaissance

One of the most influential figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, Gary Snyder, has made it into the Library of America, a series that displays the breadth and diversity of our canon with one ambitious new volume after another, though sadly its editors do not always put merit first.

In the case of the new inductee, the quality of the work preempts any fight about whether he deserves such a distinction. Like his pal and traveling companion Jack Kerouac, whom he has outlived now by well more than half a century, Snyder has a deep interest in beatitude, revelry, transcendence, Dionysian extremes, and gorging on beauty as manifested in literature and the world. Again like Kerouac, he rejects today’s tendency to consign to the memory hole each and every thing from the past that does not jibe with all of today’s sensibilities.

Like Kenneth Rexroth, whom some view as the catalyst of the West Coast literary renewal, Snyder’s inner compass leads him to the Far East, and to the city we know today as Kyoto, formerly Heian Kyo, which stood as the capital of a flourishing culture and nation for more than a thousand years. Here is a West Coast poet who cannot shut out the call of Japan. In the heyday of Snyder’s spiritual home, writing verse was as common as breathing.

The World and Us
Gary Snyder
The Collected Poems of Gary Snyder (Library of America).

While never overtly political, a few of these poems show a concern for an environment that we humans have not treated admirably. But the environmentalism is part of a broader vision uniting personal and social imperatives in a unique way.

Snyder’s ecological concerns come to the fore as he insists that people can do better, must do better, not just in their habits and patterns of consumption but in their thoughts and acts as members of a polity. In “Hills of Home,” you will find one of the more darkly ironic accounts of the Bay Area ever put to paper. Though known around the world for its beauty and ease of living, San Francisco enjoys a rather different distinction in this poem. Snyder admits the opulence of the locale, “bonewhite in blue sea bay,” while naming as its primary features “two major jails,” Alcatraz and San Quentin, and “an oil refinery,” with plenty of sailboats all around and jagged rocks where you can sit down and have your lunch amid the breezes.

The poem gives new meaning to damning with faint praise. We are tossing people in the slammer at terrific rates and making a killing off prisons and oil even as we befoul and ruin the beauty of the world. But the construction of the poem is too artful, the imagery too indelible, for it to sound preachy.

One of the works from the Kyoto period, “Bomb Test,” leads with a haunting image: “The fish float belly-up, for real— / Uranium in the whites / of their eyes.” Those fish were minding their business, at an ocean level so far down under the waves that all you see around you is darkness, when “Silvery snow of something queer / glinted in / From cirrus clouds to the seamounts.”

Leave it to humans to disrupt the beauty and harmony of the world for their crass and selfish ends. As yet another figure associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, Kenneth Patchen, put it in “Continuation of the Landscape,” “only man / Would change his distance from that beautiful center.”

Yes, he may be an environmentalist and in that sense a progressive. But in Gary Snyder, we have a creator who eschews the banalities and mundanities of partisan politics, while suggesting a sky-blue pastoral reality where les extrêmes se touchent, or where those with totally different values might actually find common ground. In addition to his concern for the natural world, Snyder brings to bear, over and over, an ethos of personal responsibility.

What Have You Become?

You are bound to ask why, in so many of his poems, people consuming huge volumes of booze and tobacco do not appear to be having a good time. In fact, their level of happiness may seem inversely proportionate to their indulgence in those chemicals identified with fun. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Snyder’s subjects, whether they dwell in California or in Japan, cannot fail to notice the beauty of the landscapes around them and feel all the more acutely how out of place their moral nature is in the midst of such splendor and grace, like a pile of trash in a field of daisies.

At times, it is the circumstances of their partying that make it impossible to feel good about what they are doing. In the poem “April,” Snyder describes his experience of lying with a lover on a grassy slope. She happens to be pregnant for the third time. He speaks directly to that lover, having obtained “Your husband’s blessing on our brief, doomed love.” All the wine, sun, and sex do not make the two elopers or others alluded to in the poem happy, but foster a puritanical if largely unarticulated guilt, whose indelible impression comes across in a final image: “The sun burns the / Writhing snakebone / Of your back.”

In another poem, “Makings,” Snyder recalls having grown up watching his father’s friends roll cigarettes, a habit that he took on himself, though not in the rosiest of circumstances. His father lived in a big house, but Snyder describes himself as a black sheep of the family, a layabout with dubious ethics who did not come to enjoy the postwar prosperity others did and who lives now in a shack. Rolling cigarettes in your shack, just as your father’s friends did, there’s progress and the good life for you.

Nature Doesn’t Respect You

In “Map,” Snyder invites the reader to envision a farmhouse in the middle of a lush valley replete with pastures where cows, deer, hawks, crows, wren, and frogs abound, and the residents of the farmhouse are notably less well adjusted that these other dwellers. The stock market is in the doldrums, and it is hard to sell corn. The world around them doesn’t care, for they are just visitors supremely unaware of the brevity of their stay. The poem concludes: “The woods have time. / The farmer has heirs.”

The natural world is everywhere in this oeuvre, and not seldom does the reader sense that we are simply unworthy of it and it does not and should not offer us any esteem. We are not only ecologically clumsy, but fall short of any ideal of virtue in our daily deportment and our treatment of others.

One of Snyder’s heroes is Alan Watts, whose quintessential work, This Is It, makes a case for recognizing the urgency of the moment and the truth of the trope that life is not some thing that will happen later when all your plans come to fruition, it is here, it is now, for a fleeting moment. This is it. “For Alan Watts” is a tribute written on the guru’s passing in 1973. It would be easy to construe Watts’s teachings as a call for hedonism and decadence, but Snyder exhorts people to rise to their personal and social best and thereby fulfill a more mature reading of this ethos.

The Far East Mesmerizes

For all the vividness of his evocations of the Bay Area and the Midwest, it is Kyoto that inspires the most eloquent passages in the thousand pages of this volume. In the Kyoto pieces, in particular, the unity of the poet’s pleas for ecological and personal rectitude is evident. Snyder does not need epic length to say what he has to say. Some of the poems are as pithy as anything by Dickinson or Frost.

“Housecleaning in Kyoto” is just eight lines about Snyder’s decision to throw out a red washrag that he found one day in 1956 while camping with Kerouac, not long before his departure for Asia. The rag has languished in the man’s digs in Kyoto and, he tells us, has faded to a grayish-pink hue as a result of his incessant use of it to clean smoky pots. In just a few lines, he says volumes about a way of life and the self-indulgent habits in which he indulges without regard for the wear and rot that they inflict. He has come thousands of miles to a place of splendor and grace, and lived in a manner hardly worthy of his surroundings or of certain standards of discipline and rectitude.

“I See Old Friend Dan Ellsberg on TV in a Mountain Village of Japan” is an account of watching the Vietnam-era activist stand at a spot amid the rice fields of the Yura valley in Kyoto Prefecture and speak into the camera as owls call out from their nocturnal perches. Snyder likes Ellsberg’s message, which is that the world should disarm and Japan should hold onto its postwar neutrality and not get into the great-power conflicts that have come close to ending the world and may still do so. The reader senses, that, for Snyder, the appeal of what Ellsberg has to say here goes a bit further. Snyder wants Japan to retain its cultural idiosyncrasy and maybe even return to the splendor that the encroachments of the West over the years have helped bury.

But Japan today has come a long way from the heyday of Heian Kyo, thanks partly to Western junk culture but also to the choices of the Japanese. The personal failings to which Snyder alludes are not the domain solely of Westerners, he subtly suggests. Rather they may be universal, or at least cross-cultural, traits in the fallen world in which we dwell. “Seeing the Ox” is a similarly laconic Kyoto poem with a slightly misleading title, for it is the ox, standing outside the Daitoku temple, who does the watching.

Snyder describes a slobbering, sad creature watching kids play near the temple “with rolling eye” as it lingers above a pile of its own dung. They’re carrying on like a bunch of dopey Western tourists. The poem raises more questions than it answers, leaving the reader to speculate about the emotional intelligence of a putatively inarticulate creature that may not be reacting well to the frivolity, not to say impudence, of the rambunctious kids outside a monument that once held a sacred place in the culture of Heian Kyo.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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