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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Gary Snyder (b. 1930)

[7377] Lee Russell, Grant County, Oregon. Malheur National Forest. Lumberjack Hitching Cable on Log which Will Be Loaded onto Trucks (1942), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-073482-D DLC].

Gary Snyder was raised on a dairy farm in the Pacific Northwest. He graduated with a B.A. in anthropology from Reed College and worked as a logger in the Pacific Northwest before going to Berkeley to study Asian languages from 1953 to 1956. During this time, he also met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and many of the other writers identified with the Beat movement. After spending three years in California, Snyder moved to Japan for roughly eight years. Although he returned to America briefly to teach at Berkeley, he returned to Japan to study Buddhism, an experience that deeply influenced his poetry.

As his life suggests, Snyder is fascinated by travel and ancient cultures, and the metaphor of the journey appears often in his poetry. His educational background in anthropology also shapes his investigation of rituals and history. Snyder’s training in Zen Buddhism seems to unite his interest in foreign cultures, ancient ritual, and the serenity of nature; Asian influences in his work align him with Pound and Williams. Unlike Romantic poets, who used nature to mirror their emotions, Snyder does not use natural images to reflect his inner feelings, but rather appreciates the serene otherness of nature. Experimental language, conversational diction, unconventional line breaks and visual spacing, and abundant dialogue also characterize Snyder’s poetry. The juxtaposition of American landscapes, particularly of the Pacific Northwest, with Eastern images and allusions, makes Snyder’s poetry unique and powerful.

Like Robert Bly, James Wright, and W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder turns to nature as an antidote to the problems of modernization and industrialized civilization. His poetry celebrates the Pacific Northwest as an alternative to the fast-paced modern world that seems impossibly separated from nature, simplicity, and manual labor. Snyder looks to the American Indians and to ancient Buddhism out of a genuine desire to learn wisdom from these traditions and rituals. Nature and meditation, he believes, are windows to the self. As might be expected, Snyder’s interest in nature and the Orient aligns him with imagism and Pound. His affinity with nature led him to become active in the ecological movement, and his own lifestyle, which included growing his own vegetables, cutting wood, and hunting, made him virtually independent from modern civilization. Snyder has published numerous books of poetry, as well as many translations of ancient and modern Japanese poetry. In 1975, he received the Pulitzer Prize.

Teaching Tips

  • Gary Snyder’s poetry is deeply concerned with nature and with creating a visual picture of landscapes. Ask several students to come to the chalkboard and draw what they “see” in a poem (“Riprap” works well). How do the drawings differ? What have students left out? How closely does their memory of the poem resemble the original text?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Poets often refer to their literary ancestors, usually to align themselves with a particular tradition or to provide context for their work. Why does Snyder refer to Milton in “Milton by Firelight”?
  2. Comprehension: Snyder uses quotation marks in a curious manner in “Beneath My Hand and Eye the Distant Hills. Your Body.” What is the effect of the unconventional grammar and syntax? What is the purpose of the spacing, line breaks, and other visual techniques on the page?
  3. Comprehension: What is the speaker’s attitude toward nature in “Ripples on the Surface”? What is the effect of the unconventional punctuation toward the end of the poem?
  4. Context: How would you describe Snyder’s treatment of nature in his work? How does he broaden our concept of the American landscape?
  5. Context: Snyder’s poetry rarely confronts political and social issues like Vietnam or civil rights. Why do you think he chooses to avoid these hot-button issues? Are there ways in which his poetry could be described as politically and socially radical?
  6. Context: The figure of Kokopelli, the ancient Hopi god of fertility, appears frequently in Snyder’s poetry. What might Snyder’s purpose be in using Kokopelli, particularly in “The Blue Sky”?
  7. Exploration: “The Blue Sky” seems to unite Snyder’s interest in Buddhism, India, and Native American culture. What is the effect of blending all these influences? How do the unconventional line breaks affect the meaning of the poem?
  8. Exploration: Snyder’s reverence for physical labor aligns him with Robert Frost. Compare Snyder’s “Milton by Firelight” to Frost’s “Mowing” or “After Apple-Picking.” What do these poets share in technique and theme? Where do they diverge? How does this respect for work and the outdoors connect to American identity?
  9. Exploration: Snyder’s interest in the Far East, particularly Zen Buddhism, along with his knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, connect him to the high modernists, particularly Ezra Pound. Snyder’s concrete, economical imagery is also reminiscent of imagism. How does Snyder’s work both continue and revise these central themes of modernist poetry?

Selected Archive Items

[4999] Anonymous, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Ralph Metzer (Left to Right) Standing in Front of a Ten Foot Plaster Buddha (1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-119239]. 
Beats preparing for a “psychedelic celebration” at the Village Theater in New York City. Beat writers looked to Eastern religions and traditions, finding European-American culture and religions empty of meaning. See Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra” (“sutra” is Sanskrit for “thread” and refers to Buddhist religious texts).

[7126] Eisen, Asakusa Temple in Winter (c. 1810), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College. 
“One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;”–Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man” (1931). Japanese woodcut of temple in wooded winter scene. Modernist poets were drawn to Asian religious and artistic themes, particularly emphasizing simplicity and nature.

[7377] Lee Russell, Grant County, Oregon. Malheur National Forest. Lumberjack Hitching Cable on Log which Will Be Loaded onto Trucks (1942), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-073482-D DLC]. 
Picture of a Pacific Northwest lumberjack. Beat poet Gary Snyder went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and worked as a logger in between his undergraduate and graduate studies in anthropology.

[8110] Hopi, Crow Mother and Polik Mana Kachina Carving (c. 1940), 
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection. 
Kachina is a Pueblo word meaning “spirit father” or “life.” Kachinas are divine spirits who personify aspects of nature such as clouds, sky, storms, and trees. Paula Gunn Allen’s (Laguna Pueblo) retelling of a Yellow Woman story features a kachina. The Hopi will make kachina dolls for tourists, but Zuni kachina dolls are not sold. These dolls are made from cottonwood, paint, and feathers.

[8119] Pomo Tribe, Gift Baskets (c. 1900 -1940), 
courtesy of Portland Art Museum, Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection. 
Baskets play important roles in spiritual and medicinal rituals. Mabel McKay, a Pomo weaver, wove baskets under the guidance of a spirit who taught her healing songs and imbued her baskets with spiritual power. The baskets here are made from willow, sedge root, dogbane, clam shell, abalone shell, magnesite beads, and meadowlark, quail, bluebird, mallard, oriole, and flicker feathers.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6