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Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder (born May 8, 1930) is an American poet and environmental activist. Often associated with the Beats, his work represents one of the most significant attempts to bridge the gap between nature and culture in 20th century literature.

Early Life

Snyder was born in San Francisco, but his family, impoverished by the Great Depression, moved to Washington State when he was two and to Portland, Oregon ten years later. In 1947, he started attending Reed College as a scholarship student. Here he met, and for a time roomed with, with Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. At Reed, Snyder published his first poems in a student journal. He also spent at least one summer working as a seaman. In 1951, he graduated with a BA in anthropology and literature and spent the summer working in forestry. He then went to Indiana University to study anthropology, but left after a single semester to return to San Francisco.

The Beats

Back in San Francisco, Snyder lived with Whalen, who shared his growing interest in Zen Buddhism. In 1953, he enrolled with the University of California, Berkeley to study Oriental culture and languages. Snyder continued to spend summers working in the forests, as a lumberjack or as lookout in forest parks and spent some months in 1955 in a forest cabin with Jack Kerouac. This period provided the materials for Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums.

That same year, Snyder performed at the famous poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 13 (or October 7, sources vary), 1955 that heralded what was to become known as the San Francisco Renaissance. This also marked Snyder's first involvement with the Beats, although he was not a member of the original New York circle, but rather entered the scene through an association with Kenneth Rexroth. His first book, Riprap, which drew on his experiences in the forests, was published in 1959


Independently, a number of the Beats had become interested in Zen, but Snyder was one of the more serious, and certainly one of the most academic, scholars of the subject amongst their number. He spent most of the period between 1959 and 1968 in Japan, studying Zen with Japanese masters. During this time, he published Myths & Texts (1960) and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965. This last was the beginning of a project that he was to continue working on until the late 1990s.

Later Life and Writings

Snyder continued to publish poetry throughout the 1970s, and his 1974 book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also wrote a number of essays outlining his views on poetry, culture, and the environment. Some of these were collected in Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977), and The Real Work (1980). In 1978, he published He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, based on his Reed thesis. Since 1985, he has been a professor in the English department at the University of California, Davis. As his involvement in environmental issues and his teaching grew, Snyder seemed to move away from poetry for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, in 1997 he published the complete Mountains and Rivers Without End. This book represents a kind of summation of everything his poetry stands for.

Snyder's Poetics

Although usually seen as a member of the Beat generation, Snyder himself rejects the label. His interests in anthropology and native cultures, along with his Buddhism and environmentalism, have formed his whole attitude to poetry. He has often spoken of the poem as work-place, and, for him, the work to be done there is learning to be in the world. He also argues that poets, and humans in general, need to adjust to geological timescales, especially when judging the consequences of their actions. His poetry examines the gap between nature and culture so as to point to ways in which the two can be more closely integrated.

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