Saturday, November 21, 2015

Henry Koster and his Hollywood Musicals

       Henry Koster and his Hollywood Musicals

                                             Ipatia Apostolides

                                (originally written Oct. 26, 2014)

One of the least written about directors in Hollywood was Henry Koster, who pulled Universal Pictures out of bankruptcy, directed over fifty movies, and throughout the 1930s to 1960s, entertained millions of people. This paper reflects on Koster’s life and showcases two of his musical films that he directed, Spring Parade and Inspector General. The paper will explore the similarities of these two musical films to other musical films of that time period, like The Golddiggers of 1933, Top Hat, and Singin in the Rain.  This will be achieved by analyzing the musical film genre elements, specifically Altman’s folk musical (Altman “The Folk Musical” 273), Feuer’s self-reflective components, such as myths of spontaneity, audience, and integration (Feuer 31), and Dyer’s utopian world (Dyer 20).

Henry Koster
Henry Koster was born Herman Kosterlitz in Berlin, Germany on May 1, 1905, and his maternal grandfather was a famous opera singer. Koster’s uncle opened a movie theater when Koster was young. Koster grew up in the theater, joining his mother when she played the piano there.  By the age of 17, Koster had achieved success in writing short stories, which led him to being hired by a Berlin movie company as a screenwriter. Around 1928, Koster found out that he had a flair for writing comedies (Atkins 1). By the time Hitler came into power, Koster had already directed two films. Koster’s Jewish background became an issue when the Nazis started persecuting the Jews. After punching a teller in the bank because he could not get access to his money, Koster left for France in 1933. Later, he moved to Budapest, Hungary, upon the request of Joe Pasternak. There, he married Kato Kiraly and directed several films for Joe Pasternak. Joe Pasternak was a producer for Universal Pictures in Europe. (Koster “Henry Koster A Life in Movies”)
      Henry Koster immigrated to the United States with Joe Pasternak and Felix Jackson, a screenwriter. They were dubbed the “three German-speaking emigres” (Horak 74). They weren’t the only ones who immigrated to the United States in the film producing business. According to Asper, during 1933 to 1941, many German filmmakers, producers, directors, technicians, and actors that had Jewish blood, were “blacklisted by the National Socialists” and came to the United States (Asper etal, 134).
     However, Universal Pictures was undergoing bankruptcy at that time, but Pasternak and Koster managed to produce Three Smart Girls with Deanna Durbin. Koster coached fourteen-year old Deanna Durbin to sing and act in that movie (Koster Biography). That movie became a success and helped Universal Pictures out of bankruptcy.  Koster produced a total of six musical films with Deanna Durbin, who literally grew up on the stage. By 1938, Deanna Durbin had become “America’s sweetheart, with over 300 fan clubs” (Asper etal, 135). One of those musicals was Spring Parade which was released in 1940. In June 1941, when Pasternak left for MGM, Koster went with him. However, due to World War II, Koster was considered an enemy alien and had to stay confined to his home during that time. After the war, he resumed his career, and among other films, directed the musical Inspector General with Danny Kaye in 1949.

Spring Parade is a 1940 musical film that was “a remake of Fruhlingsparade, a film Joe Pasternak had produced for Universal in Vienna and in Budapest” (Horak 74). The original film was written by Ernst Marischka and directed by Giza von Bolvary, based on a story by Ernst Neubach. After some adjustments by Felix Jackson and Bruce Manning, the American version became Spring Parade (75).  The music was composed by Hans Salter and Charles Previn, with words by Robert Stolz.
      At the time of its release, Austria had become an occupied country, but the movie depicted a prewar Vienna, with gay dancing and luxurious ballroom scenes. In the opening scene of Spring Parade, Ilonka (Deanna Durbin) was a Hungarian peasant girl who marched with her goat to the village to sell him, singing “It’s Foolish but it’s Fun,” which gave a sense of spontaneity and youthful exuberance. The simple way that she was dressed and the country scene she marched through gave a sense of a folk tale. We wonder what will happen next. Ilonka tried to sell her goat, but for extra money, ended up dancing the “Czardas” dance with Gustav (Misha Auer). This fast paced dance showed not only rivalry between the two dancers, as she competed to win, but folk dancing, as everyone danced along with them. This also tied into the folk musical theme (Altman, “The Folk Musical” 273) and also into the intensity component of Richard Dyer’s utopian world (Dyer 16).
     Ilonka won the money and had her fortune told, which was like a story within a story. This fateful paper directed her path throughout the movie and provided an idea to the film audience of what was to come next. Ilonka accidentally traveled to Vienna in the baker’s hay wagon, where she ended up sitting up front with Latislav Teschek (S.Z.Sakall), the friendly, older baker. Koster’s camera snapped shots of the wagon traveling from day into night, and then the camera zoomed into the well-lit lavish ballrooms, where the well-dressed Viennese danced gaily to the Strauss waltz. This was similar to the utopian feeling in Top Hat when Dale and Jerry danced together with the other dancers at the end of the movie. Ilonka continued that feeling of gaiety, by singing in an operatic voice all the way to the bakery. Richard Dyer says this about utopia “Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfillment’, point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism”(Dyer 20). This feeling of escapism and wish fulfillment were obvious here.
     Ilonka ended up working for Mr. Teschek, the baker, who also had two young, mischievous nephews. This relationship placed the movie into a folk musical realm. According to Altman, “The mere presence of multi-generational relationships – and particularly the presence of children – tends to bend the fairy tale musical in the direction of its folk counterpart..” (274)
     Ilonka’s fortune-telling paper said that she would go to Vienna and meet an artist and she believed this. She already was in Vienna, and the reader wondered how was she to meet the artist? One day, the marching band passed by the bakery and Ilonka and the baker’s assistant, Jenny (Anne Gwynne), looked on from their room upstairs. There was a sense of gaiety as the local people arrived and waved to the band marching by. The onlookers represent the audience in this number. Harry, a soldier, beat the drum in the band and looked up and waved to Jenny, but Ilonka thought that he was waving to her. Harry wanted to take Jenny out, but she was seeing a wealthy count. Jenny was the image of the woman using her charms and beauty to snag a rich man in this film, similar to The Golddiggers of 1933. Jenny’s wealthy suitor provided her with wealthy gifts, and she spurned Harry for the nobleman.
     Through a mix up, which happens often in comedies, Ilonka and Harry went out on a date. Ilonka sang spontaneously with the orchestra, the song “When April Sings,” which integrated into the movie because it showed us her feelings for Harry. This tied into the self-reflective myth of spontaneity (Feuer 32) and myth of integration (35). Spontaneous moments like these were similar to those seen in Top Hat. One example was when Dale and Jerry sang and danced “Cheek to Cheek.”
      The audience learns that Harry likes to compose music and Ilonka was now convinced that he was the artist from the fortune-telling paper, and that he was the one that she would marry. When Harry tried to write a song, Ilonka helped him by stopping the orchestra so that they could play his song. It was a waltz with a catchy tune, similar to the Strauss waltz heard earlier in the movie. The audience, represented by the people there, danced to Harry’s waltz, which later became the “Waltzing in the Clouds” number at the emperor’s ball. This was a backstage moment, as we witnessed their efforts in perfecting the musical composition. This tied into the self-reflective component of myth of audience (Feuer 36). This was similar to the “myth of audience” scene in Singin in the Rain when they were showing the silent film “Dueling Cavaliers” as a preview to the screening audience.
     When Ilonka slipped the note with Harry’s waltz into the emperor’s salt sticks, Mr. Teschek was blamed for it, because the emperor's staff thought that he did it, and he was jailed. Ilonka found out what happened, and her sense of righteousness made her visit the emperor to tell him the truth. Meanwhile, Harry had spurned Ilonka after the baker’s nephews had told him a lie about her. When Ilonka confided in the emperor, this formed a moment of transparency, yet she didn’t want to admit that she loved singing. The spitting of the hand that she shared with the emperor gave us a sense of folk traditions that had been passed down from generation to generation. Ilonka’s visit with the emperor caused Mr. Teschek to be released from the jail and to be promoted to the emperor’s baker. Ilonka wanted to leave town, because Harry had spurned her, but Mr. Teschek convinced her to accompany him to the ball.
     Dyer has named five utopian solutions: Abundance, energy, intensity, transparency, and community (26). The oppulence of the palace and the ball scene, where Ilonka sang Harry's song “Waltzing in the Clouds” (a song written by Austrian born Robert Stolz), gave a sense of a utopian world, very similar to those scenes in Top Hat. In Top Hat, the abundance was evident in the posh hotel rooms, the well-dressed characters Dale, Jerry, and Madge, and Horace, and their luxurious Italian retreat. Also, the utopian feeling continued when Jerry and Dale were alone with the wedding cake and danced in an extravagant last dance. In Spring Parade, Ilonka was dressed in an elegant gown, and after she was invited to perform for the emperor, ended up singing in her operatic voice. Harry conducted the music and they performed together with the orchestra in front of the “audience” attending the emperor’s ball.
      Besides the abundance seen in the emperor ’s kingdom, another utopian feeling was the intensity that Ilonka showed for Harry with her actions in trying to help him. Transparency occurred when Ilonka confided to the emperor the truth about the salt sticks, and finally, there was a sense of community when the emperor and Harry worked behind the scenes to bring Ilonka to sing Harry's waltz at the ball. This utopian feeling was similar to Top Hat, where the abundance was observed in the elegant clothing and rich lifestyle of Dale and Jerry. The feeling of intensity occurred when Dale slapped Jerry because she thought he was a married man, and when Jerry pursued Dale to Italy. The moment of transparency came through when the truth about Jerry was revealed, and finally, the community feeling in Top Hat occurred when Madge and the others tried to look for Dale and Jerry in the boat.
The other musical movie that Koster directed was The Inspector General which was loosely based on a classic folk tale titled “Government Inspector” and was written by Gogol in Russia, in the 1830s.
     This fairy tale began outside Brodny, a French occupied mythical town. The rags to riches theme was portrayed here, and the main character, Georgi (Danny Kaye), was an illiterate gypsy man who traveled with his friend Yakov (Walter Slezak).  Although Georgi plays a major role in this movie, the original folk tale did not have him as a major player. This 1949 film came during a time in Hollywood when “MGM musicals of the 1940s began to create natural audiences that would spontaneously gather around the impromptu numbers of an Astaire or a Kelly” (Feurer 31). These natural audiences were evident in the opening scene when the gypsies, Georgi and Yakov, tried to sell their golden elixir from their wagon to the local people. Yakov showed Georgi’s head on a platter, which was shocking to the people, but we found out that he was alive and pretended to be dead. The audience went “backstage” with him after he drank the elixir and tried to get rid of it, but ended up swallowing it. Georgi then performed on stage, and the country folk watching his act became the audience, as he interacted with them. These were self-reflective moments in this scene, with evidence of spontaneity and audience.  For example, Georgi sang the song “Friend, are you aware that you’re losing your hair?” then broke out spontaneously into an operatic song, trying to convince the people to buy the “Golden Elixir.” The people chased Yakov and Georgi when they found out the truth from Georgi, that it was furniture polish. Yakov was angry with Georgi's actions, and this resulted in Georgi separating from Yakov and journeying to Brodny alone.
     The mistaken identity theme was evident here when the corrupt mayor of Brodny believed that Georgi was the Inspector General in disguise. The film audience saw the mayor’s mistake and went along with Georgi’s crime; he had accepted this lie. A complex matter of a gypsy becoming an Inspector General could become a disastrous result. However, in this movie, they simplified it, just like in Top Hat where they simplified the complex relationship of Dale and Jerry when she thought that he was married. This simplification could also be compared to Singin in the Rain, when Don had to deal with converting his silent film the “Dueling Cavaliers” into the “Dancing Cavaliers” a sound picture, which was a complex undertaking, but they made it appear simple and easy.
     In The Inspector General, when Georgi was in his room, he tried to figure out what an Inspector General did, and this turned into a spontaneous song “Arrogant, Elegant, Smart” where his three “heads” talked to him, and represented the arrogant, elegant, and smart side of him. Koster did a wonderful job using special effects to superimpose the heads of Danny Kaye above his body. At the end, Georgi complained that they didn’t care about him, and they crooned, singing him a lullaby song. The magical moment was a result of not only the special effects and the music, but the witty lyrics written by Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye’s wife. This song was integrated into the narrative, as Georgi tried to understand and fit into his new role as Inspector General.
      The sense of community came through when they all sat down to dinner, and Georgi was very hungry. Maria, the mayor’s wife, had affections for Georgi and made it a point to sit with him. There was a mise-en-scene moment when Danny Kaye placed all the food in front of him and devoured it, while everyone at the table gazed at him in silent wonder, including the film audience. Another community scene was when Georgi and Liza left with the wagon and returned with the organ. Everyone in Brodny cheered when they saw them with the organ. This community feeling was also witnessed in Singin' in the Rain when Don, Cosmo and Kathy sang together the “Good Morning” song and put their heads together and came up with a solution to the  “Dueling Cavaliers.” The three of them had formed a community.
      Except for the opening scene, most of the music in The Inspector General was not on stage, but was spontaneous, as Georgi often broke out into songs at whim, like when he was marching away from Yakov toward Brodney. Another example was when he was in the mayor’s kitchen, and he played the carrots as if they were flutes, then sang “Happy Times” to Liza, the maid. There is also a romantic relationship between these two, which also is a component of the folk musical.
     The musical numbers were integrated into the story, and included Danny Kaye’s singing and dancing. Henry Koster took advantage of all the little details of Danny Kaye’s performance, zooming in on his facial expressions, as well as using the costumes of that period. The costumes were colorful and there was a utopian sense of escape. Although this movie was not all utopian, as there were some evil moments in it, it had scenes of utopia in it. There also wasn’t as much abundance, as in Top Hat, but in the “Gypsy Drinking Song” that Georgi sang at the ball, where all the people danced to the music, it was similar to Dale and Jerry’s dancing in Italy with all those dancers.  Also, in the “Gypsy Drinking Song,” Georgi was dressed in a uniform and danced around, inviting the other singers to sing (Zumm-shtock-shtock-hahaha) which was very entertaining, spontaneous, and hilarious and at the same time, had us wondering if he would drink the poison. The people at the ball were both his audience and performers. This was a scene filled with the self-reflective components of spontaneity, audience, and integration (Feuer 32). There was spontaneity in the musical number “Gypsy Dancing Song,” which was integrated into the narrative, as well as the attendees of the ball who turned into the audience. Georgi was at his top form here, and the magic of the moment was apparent when this illiterate gypsy not only sang and danced well, but also spontaneously played the violin well.
     Yakov’s behavior made him appear to be the villain, and he repeatedly committed evil acts by lying and stealing and trying to murder Georgi.  Also, the mayor was another villain as he had intentions on killing Georgi. These two villains played into the folk musical feel of this movie. Although Spring Parade was a folk musical, it did not have an obvious villain, except when the baker was taken away and jailed and there was an undercurrent of evil in that scene, represented by the emperor’s staff.
      An interesting development in The Inspector General was the background music, which moved the story along. When something in the story was light hearted, a piccolo would play in the background. When the mayor and his men at the ball were waiting for Georgi to drink the poison, there would be a drum roll. There was no orchestra playing this music. It was all unseen and in the background. All these instrumental musical effects that Koster used set the mood of the story and integrated with the narrative.
     When the real Inspector General was imprisoned and Georgi was expected to sign his death sentence, Georgi could not do it. Instead, he told him the truth, that he could not read or write and that he was not the Inspector General. Because of his honesty, he was rewarded by the real Inspector General the title of mayor. This moment of transparency was similar to Spring Parade when Ilonka confided to the emperor, and in Singin in the Rain when Lina lip synced in front of the audience and the curtains were pulled open to reveal Kathy actually doing the singing.

Koster’s two musical films Spring Parade and The Inspector General used folk musical elements, as well as the three components of self-reflective films that showed spontaneity, audience, and integration. These two films also depicted utopian worlds that allowed people to escape into gay Vienna and the mythical Brodny. This paper showed that these elements of the musical film genre seen in Spring Parade and The Inspector General, were similar to those seen in the musical films Top Hat, and Singin in the Rain. Also, Jenny’s interest, in Spring Parade, to the wealthy count, was similar to that seen in The Golddiggers of 1933, where female beauty was used to attract wealthy men.
     Henry Koster was part of the “three German emigres” team that successfully pulled Universal Pictures out of bankruptcy, through musicals like those listed in this paper, and he also went on to direct dozens of more great films for thirty years. His contributions will remain a legacy in Hollywood musicals.


Altman, Rick. “The American Film Musical as Dual-Focus Narrative.” Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader. Stevan Cohan, Ed. NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Altman, Rick. “The Folk Musical.” The American Film Musical. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987. Web. 22 Oct. 2014

Asper, Helmut G., Horak, Jon-Christopher. “Three Smart Guys: How a Few Penniless German Emigres saved Universal Studios.”  Film History. Vol. 11. (1999) 34-153.  Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Atkins, Irene Kahn. Henry Koster. NJ : Scarecrow Press, 1987. Print
Basinger, Jeanine. The Star Machine. NY: Alfred Knopf, 2007. Print.
Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader. Stevan Cohan, Ed. NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Feuer, Jane. “The Self-reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader. Steven Cohan, Ed. NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Horak, Jan-Christopher. “Spring Parade (1940): Imperial Austria Lives Again (At Universal).” Moderna Austrian Literature: Journal of the International Arthur Schnitzler Association. Vol. 31, No. 3. (1999) Web. 24 Oct. 2014

Koster, Bob. “Henry Koster: A Life in Movies.” Nov. 4, 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2014

Koster, Bob. “Henry Koster Mini Biography.” n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions. NY: Dutton, 1968. Print.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Frederick Symphony Concert

I've enjoyed playing the violin in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra concert this past Saturday, Oct. 24 at the Frederick Community College, Frederick, MD. The concert was an all Beethoven concert, under the baton of Glenn Quadar, our new conductor.  We are very fortunate to have him as our conductor! 

This is the first time that I played in their October concerts and truly enjoyed it! The auditorium was packed and the audience very receptive. We all sounded good and the solo performances by Alyssa Boxhill was outstanding! I have been with the orchestra almost two years now and have seen it go through several changes as they searched for a new conductor.

A little about me:
I have been playing a string instrument (viola/violin) since third grade, and have taken classes at CWRU, Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland Music School Settlement, and HCC. I have also taken private lessons from Hyman Chandler, Lucien Joel, Helga Rein, Deb Stotelmyer, among others. I also performed in several orchestras throughout the years, including the Cleveland Philharmonic (viola), Cleveland Womans' Orchestra and chamber groups (viola), Friday Morning Music Club (viola), HCC string ensemble (violin), CVSM orchestra (violin/viola) and Frederick Symphony Orchestra (violin). More recently, I have been playing the violin solely due to a neck injury which prohibits my playing the viola. The viola is a larger instrument and requires a different kind of playing which puts a strain on my neck. 

If anyone has taken private violin lessons, most of the music is geared for solo performances or recitals. Unless you are a solo performer, most of the music available is part of an ensemble, like in a string orchestra or symphony. When you play these pieces by yourself, you hear bits and pieces, like a puzzle. When you join the ensemble, your reward is the whole sound that comes together, similar to a puzzle. The synergy is wonderful, particularly when the group is talented and skilled and particularly when it is music by a classical composer like Beethoven, Corelli, Brahms, Mozart, Hayden, Handel, and Schumann. Of course there are a number of other composers that have achieved success, and they are too numerous to list here.

So what has made me continuously seek playing a musical instrument and performing in orchestras? Is it the beautiful sounds that arise from the instruments meshing together, sliding by each other, evoking harmonic themes when we play? Is it the feeling of being lifted up to heaven or dropped down to an abyss in a matter of seconds? Is it the feeling of wonder at the ability to make such fine music with my instrument or even the joy of physically playing? It's more than that, although it takes several tries to make it sound perfect! 

Playing a musical instrument transports me to another dimension, almost like writing a novel. Each phrase, note, theme becomes a movie in my head. I can picture Romeo and Juliet, their last dire moments together, in Prokofiev's masterpiece. I can picture people dancing the delightful waltz in a ballroom to one of Strauss's pieces, dressed in fine 19th century garb. I sigh, I cry, I laugh with  my instrument, and if I can portray that image dancing in my head through my playing, then I have succeeded in carrying the torch for the composer's art into the realms of our twenty-first century culture.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Poem - Gone Like the Music

This poem is dedicated to my late husband, Tony. I wrote it while listening to the following music:
Gone Like the Music
Sounds stream past me
You are gone, streaming past
me like the music that I hear
The soft, relaxing music
With the harp and the guitar
Meshing, weaving sighs of hope
Going on and on, a kaleidoscope of notes
As I gaze with my soul beyond this moment
Looking for signs of you
Going into your world
The other world
Your touch is in another plane.
Your smile is in another world.
You love was left behind
For me to cherish.
It was not just you
Or just me
It was you and me
The togetherness that I cherished
The merging of the minds
The merging of the hearts
The love we witnessed together
Grew stronger each day
Until we were like one
No beginning, no end
I used to say "Don't take anything for granted."
I used to say "I feel like I'm living in Paradise."
Our protected enclave was so perfect,
So peaceful, so calm.
We lived for each other in the stillness
Of the moment, yet that moment is gone
Like this music that will end
When I turn the sound off
I walk away to lie down
Hoping that sleep will
Overcome the sadness and
Bring you to me
And then I will tell you my news
As if you were seated next to me
Drinking coffee and talking
And laughing as if there was no tomorrow.
Ipatia Apostolides 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Gary Snyder's Poetry and Influences

                  Gary Snyder’s Poetry and Influences 

                                       by Ipatia Apostolides
                               (originally written Dec. 24, 2014)


Gary Snyder’s (b. 1930) poetry was shaped by his love for mountain climbing, the ecology, Asian poetry, and Zen Buddhism. Gary Snyder lived his poems. He was a living poem. Yet, all this did not happen in isolation or right away. It took years for him to find his voice and to establish himself as a great poet. In 1959, he published his first book of poetry, Riprap, followed by Myths and Texts (1960) and in 1965, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End. His later works included Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1979), The Real Work (1980), and No Nature (1992). In 1975 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1969 poetry collection Turtle Island (Weinberger 1996). In 1996, he published Mountains and Rivers Without End. He has also been a faculty member at the University of California as well as been a spokesman for environmental issues.

His formal education included attaining a double major in languages and anthropology at Reed College (1947-51). He read works by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, R. Blyth and D.T. Suzuki.

Snyder also studied East Asian Languages as a non-degree graduate student at the University of California, and translated poems of the Tang Dinasty Chinese poet Han-Shan.

This paper will focus on Snyder’s writing, and how it evolved over time, and who or what influenced his writing.

EARLY POEMS – Imagist and Oriental Literature Influence

One would think that Snyder’s writing was influenced by Ezra Pound’s writing as well as other Imagists when Snyder studied Pound in college. Imagism began when Ezra Pound joined the Secession Club poetry group in London in 1909, which included T.E. Hulme and F.S. Flint, among others. Imagist poetry was short and to the point, with concrete images, similar to a Japanese haiku poem. Ezra Pound described the formula for Imagism in a 1913 article in Poetry titled “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” He describes “An “Image” as being that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (Pound 1913). Pound adhered as closely as possible to this short and simple style of poetry, where a single object, in a single moment of time, was observed and described. In addition, Pound described Imagism as using no superfluous words, no adjectives, no abstractions, and minimal description (Pound 1913). Pound also published Ernest Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” in 1920, as well as translated Chinese and Japanese poetry. Other poets associated with Imagism were Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T.E.Hulme, Hilda Doolittle, John Gould Fletcher, D.H. Lawrence, and F.S. Flint.

Three years later, the Imagist movement had petered out, yet its poetry continued to be read for decades, as budding poets, like Snyder, were exposed to the works of Ezra Pound such as his 1913 poem “A Station of the Metro:”

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

In this short poem with concrete images, the “faces” are similar to “petals”, yet it is missing the word “like” to connect the two lines together, as in “Like petals on a wet, black bough.” This causes a pause, as the reader tries to mentally connect the two lines. In addition, there is a distinct rhyme between “crowd” and “bough.” Another Imagist poet that Snyder was exposed to was William Carlos Williams, whom he met when Williams visited Reed College. Snyder may have been influenced by Williams’ poetry, such as the 1923 poem “The Red Wheelbarrow:”

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


This poem consisted of short lines, with concrete images of “wheelbarrow” and “water” and “chickens.” It also had indented lines and lack of punctuation. The style of short lines, indented lines, and lack of punctuation have shown up in several of Snyder’s poems.

Did the Imagist movement influence Snyder’s writing? In a 1996 interview with Eliot Weinberger, Gary Snyder states: “I started writing poems when I was fifteen. I wrote ten years of poetry before Riprap.” That implied that he had not read any of the Imagiste poetry when he first started writing poetry. This is also what he said about college: “Poems that echoed Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Williams, and Stevens…. only a few traces of that even survive. I threw most of them in a burning barrel when I was about twenty-five” (Weinberger 1996). Apparently, Snyder’s actions showed that he was not satisfied with what he had read or wrote. When Weinberger asked him, “Were you getting the ideogramic method from Pound or from the Chinese poetry directly?” he replied “From the Chinese poetry directly. I could never make sense of that essay by Pound. I already knew enough about Chinese characters to realize that in some ways he was off, and so I never paid much attention to it” (Weinberger 1996). The essay Snyder was referring to was Ernest Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” that Pound translated. Yet, Snyder also mentioned that he found a few dozen lines in Pound’s Cantos that were “stunning—unlike anything else in English poetry—which touched me deeply and to which I am still indebted” (Weinberger 1996).

Bob Steuding in Gary Snyder, believes that Ernest Fenollosa’s Noh drama, translated by Pound in 1916 titled Noh, was one of the first Oriental literature introduced to Snyder in college that influenced him. “The structure of Mountains and Rivers Without End is based on Snyder’s reading of N­oh drama and is also patterned on the type of ancient Chinese scroll which unrolls horizontally and which gradually depicts the journey through mountains of a small Zen monk figure who is dwarfed by the rugged landscape (Steuding 45). Snyder began writing this epic poem in 1946 and finished it in 1996.

Also, while at Reed College, one of Snyder’s roommates, Philip Whalen, wrote poetry and was interested in Buddhism and later became a Zen priest. Whalen may have been an influence on Snyder’s interest in Buddhism.

While in graduate school at the University of California, Snyder studied Oriental languages, and translated twenty-four of the three hundred Cold Mountain Poems poems by the Tang Dynasty poet Han-Shan. Snyder then attended the lectures at the First Zen Institute (48) and received a scholarship from there to study Zen in Japan in 1956. All of these factors were shaping Snyder’s life, as he read and studied Oriental languages, and conducted translations, while immersing himself in Buddhism through his connection first with Whalen, and later with the First Zen Institute.

BEAT GENERATION – Kenneth Rexroth and Other Poets Influence
Snyder stopped writing poetry after college, but continued to read widely. He read an anthology of Oriental poetry, as well as Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Japanese Poems, which impressed him (Steuding 45). Snyder spent time working in the mountains, and while there, he began writing poetry again. The urge to write poems came unexpectedly to him. After working as a timber scaler in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, he wrote “Berry Feast,” which is about the berry feast celebration in Mid-August at that reservation, which was not only a poem of nature, and bears, but about Coyote, a mythological figure in Indian lore.

Excerpt from Snyder’s “Berry Feast:”

Fur the color of mud, the smooth loper

Crapulous old man, a drifter,

Praises! Of Coyote the Nasty, the fat

Puppy that abused himself, the ugly gambler,

Bringer of goodies

The first few lines of “Berry Feast” introduces “Coyote the Nasty.” Notice how words are missing articles and verbs, etc. For example, in the first line the words “Fur the color of mud” is missing the verb “is,” while “smooth loper” is missing the words “is a” for the next words “Carpulous old man.” Also, the second line ends with “drifter” followed by the words “Praises!” And again, there are words missing. The exclamation mark after Praises seems to not fit in there, and creates a definite pause. These empty spaces allow for the imagination to fill in the words and form a natural pause. At first, when read quickly, it doesn’t flow, but when the reader slows down to savor the punctuation marks and missing words, it begins to read naturally, and one can almost sense a rhythm and light rhyme with “loper” and “drifter” and “gambler.”

When Gary Snyder wasn’t in the mountains, he was in San Francisco spending time with his friends Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and other poets. This was the post-World War II era, and the poets of that area were turning their backs on everything. One of those poets was Kenneth Rexroth, a self-educated, political activist, and ecologically sensitive, nature lover. He had moved to San Francisco in 1927, where he published poems in magazines. With the help of Ezra Pound, Rexroth’s poems were published in the 1937 New Directions in Poetry and Prose. Rexroth’s poetry was known not only for its eroticism, but for its focus on nature and ecology. Rexroth began inviting younger poets for weekly salon gatherings, as well as promoting poets through a radio station. “Rexroth did have an impact on the writers such as Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg--notably influencing Ginsberg to abandon the formality and metered lines of his early work.” (D’Andrade 2014). Rexroth also translated Japanese and Chinese poems, publishing One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Rexroth also visited Japan several times from the 1960s to 1980, to give lectures and readings, becoming acquainted with Snyder’s Japanese world, as well as continuing to write poetry.

The similarities between several of Rexroth’s poems and Gary Snyder’s poems are difficult to ignore. Maybe it is because both poets were sensitive to nature, and ecology, and liked to use natural settings in their poetry, and also studied Chinese and Japanese poems. Maybe it was also because both were exposed to the Imagist poems. Also, some of the erotic characteristics of Rexroth’s poems were observed in some of Snyder’s poems. One example of a Rexroth poem is “The New Year,” a 1940 winter poem in The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (Rexroth 1966):

The New Year (1940)

I walk on the cold mountain above the city

Through the black eucalyptus plantation.

Only a few of the million lights

Penetrate the leaves and the dripping fog.

I remember the wintry stars

In the bare branches of the maples,

In the branches of the chestnuts that are gone.

In this nature poem, Rexroth used concrete images like “cold mountain” and “city” and “eucalyptus” and “leaves” and “fog,” which defines it as a nature poem. The narrator also uses “I” to reminisce about “wintry stars” and “maples” and “chestnuts.” While “Only a few of the million lights” penetrating the “leaves” showed the density of the fog and gave a very vivid image of this scene. The article and the punctuation marks are evident, with no empty or indented spaces. Also, the lines are long, averaging ten to eleven syllables, with only one line having seven syllables.

In comparison, we will look at Snyder’s poem “Thin Ice” from his 1959 book RipRap (Snyder 1992), which also shows a winter scene:

THIN ICE (1959)

Walking in February

A warm day after a long freeze

On an old logging road

Below Sumass Mountain

Cut a walking stick of alder,

Looked down through clouds

On wet fields of the Nooksack-

And stepped on the ice

Of a frozen pool across the road.

It creaked

The white air under

Sprang away, long cracks

Shot out in the black,

My cleated mountain boots

Slipped on the hard slick

-like thin ice – the sudden

Feel of an old phrase made real –

Instant of frozen leaf,

Icewater, and staff in hand.

“Like walking on thin ice-“

I yelled back to a friend,

It broke and I dropped

Eight inches in

This poem is also a poem about nature, just like Rexroth’s, with concrete words like “mountain” and “road” and “pool” and “ice.” There are no indentations, as in other poems that he writes, and no missing articles. However, when comparing to Rexroth’s “New Year” poem, the lines are shorter, with no more than nine syllables. Also, many punctuation marks are missing, and the next line naturally causes a pause, while the ending is left open, with no period to end the poem. The shorter lines and lack of several punctuation marks is where Snyder parts ways with Rexroth.

In October 1955, Rexroth invited several poets to the Gallery Six poetry reading in San Francisco. There, Snyder read “Berry Feast,” along with other poets like Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Philip Whalen. Jack Kerouac, another poet who became friends with Snyder, was also there, but was drunk and did not read any poems. Allen Ginsberg read his poem “Howl,” which revealed the underground life of the Beat generation, with its drugs and sexual freedom. In the first few lines of the poem, he writes: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking/for an angry fix.” This is what Snyder says about the Beat generation: “Most of them were conscientious objectors in World War II, had rejected Stalinism early on, and with Kenneth Rexroth had formulated an antistatist, neoanarchist political philosophy, anarcho-pacifism, which at that time in American history made great sense. I was proud to be part of that circle at that time. That group was enlarged when Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac came onto the scene and the phenomenon that we are more commonly aware of as the San Francisco Beat generation poetry emerged” (Weinberger 1996). Snyder became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, influencing them to write haiku-like poetry. Snyder also encouraged his friends to take an interest in eastern philosophy, and to escape into the mountains instead of the cities, and Kerouac made that effort. Yet several months later, Snyder embarked on a journey to Japan. He continued to maintain his ties to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac through letters. In 1958 Kerouac published The Dharma Bums, a novel whose character, Japhy Ryder, was modeled after Snyder and included haiku poetry. Japhy was a mountain climber and Buddhist seeker, revealing to Ray (Jack Kerouac) his Han Shan translations, and convincing him to join him on a mountain climb, which were all the character traits of Snyder. Snyder was considerably different from Kerouac, searching for an escape by going to the mountains rather than into the city. Kerouac’s admiration and respect for Snyder was apparent in this novel, showing how he tried to emulate his lifestyle by experiencing mountain climbing and exploring Buddhism.

JAPAN – Haiku and Buddhism Influence

Besides the short Imagist poems, Snyder read the haiku translations by R. H. Blyth, as well as books by D.T. Suzuki, such as Essays on Zen Buddhism. Also, Snyder was exposed to poems by Matsao Basho, a Japanese poet in the 1600s, and famous for his haiku poetry. After reading Blyth’s translations and Basho, Snyder said he “began to be able to see our North American landscapes in the light of haiku sensibility (which of course includes the human.) When I ran across Bashô’s great instruction “To learn of the pine tree, go to the pine” my path was set” (Snyder 2005).

Through the encouragement of Buddhist scholar Ruth F. Sasaki, and the scholarship from the First Zen institute, Snyder went to Kyoto to learn Japanese and Chinese in 1956 (Snyder 2005). He left all his Beat generation friends behind and followed his own path. This parting of ways with the Beat generation suggests that he was not influenced by their urban lifestyle, but was intent on spending time with Buddhists, meditating, and writing. According to Rivard, Snyder was “A disciplined practitioner of koan study and sitting zazen, by the time his first book of poetry Riprap came out in 1959, he had already studied under teachers like Miura Isshu and Oda Sesso Roshi in Japan. Even in this early work, a Snyder poem is a way of experiencing the impermanence of all things and thoughts” (Rivard 2009).

Snyder’s time in Japan was spent meditating and writing poems. His poems focused on nature, not only because of the result of living in the mountains, and being exposed at a young age to Native American mythology and tradition, but because of his experiencing Zen Buddhism, which had become a way of life for him. What he experienced and saw was written down as poems. “Thus Snyder’s visualization relies upon memory and particularly upon a memory of sensory experience, and to this extent it differs sharply from the act of “clairvoyant absorption” that Kenner attributes to Pound” (Kern 240). The 1959 RipRap poem best exemplifies this:

RipRap (Snyder 2003)

Lay down these words

Before your mind like rocks.

placed solid, by hands

In choice of place, set

Before the body of the mind

in space and time:

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

riprap of things:

Cobble of milky way,

straying planets,

These poems, people,

lost ponies with

Dragging saddles—

and rocky sure-foot trails.

The worlds like an endless


Game of Go.

ants and pebbles

In the thin loam, each rock a word

a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

with torment of fire and weight

Crystal and sediment linked hot

all change, in thoughts,

As well as things.

The word “riprap” is defined as broken stones or rocks used to form a foundation. What is interesting in this poem are the first few lines, where there is a simile of the “rocks” with the “words” and they are “placed solid, by hands,” which conjures a concrete image, and this repeats in line 19, with “In the thin loam, each rock a word.” The poem has an internal rhythm that is broken by punctuation and has visual, concrete imagery like “rocks” and “bark” and “leaf” and “ants” and “pebbles.” There is also empty white spaces between the words, and Tan explains Snyder’s reason for this: “To create visual effects, Snyder mimics Chinese landscape paintings to give appropriate blank space. He often deals with this through his use of indented lines, that is, through a spatial and visual dismemberment of the line into small units. The arrangement of lines in “RipRap” is, when seen from the bottom, like solid rocky steps up a mountain” (Tan 173).

Also, Timothy Gray in Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim: Creating CounterCultural Community writes this about Snyder’s RipRap poems, “the poet uses shorter lines, chiseled and somewhat teasing phrasing, and the kind of sharp, clear imagery seen in Chinese and Japanese versification” (Gray 103). Snyder verified this by being quoted as stating “In part the line [of riprap poetry] was influenced by the seven-five-seven character line Chinese poems I’d been reading, which work like sharp blows to the mind” (111).

In addition, there has been reference to Zen awareness in the RipRap poems. “Snyder’s RipRap poems, including the Han Shan translations are overtly contemplative and imbued with “Zen awareness and Zen detachment;” The Cold Mountain poems were meant to transmit spirituality to a Western culture mired in materialism” (He 46).

Snyder’s translations of twenty-four of Han Shan’s three hundred poems were first published in the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later in his 1965 book RipRap and Cold Mountain Poems. These poems were interwoven with spiritual elements like Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. “Daoism and Confucianism were native to ancient China and had existed long before Buddhism was imported to China. For a time in the Tang Dynasty the three beliefs influenced the Chinese more or less at the same time, and it was by no means unusual for a person to be susceptible to more than one belief” (He 50). Han Shan’s poem 156 (Snyder translated poem 15) shows some of these spiritual elements:

There’s a naked bug at Cold Mountain

With a white body and a black head.

His hands hold two book-scrolls,

One the Way and one its Power.

His shack’s got no pots or oven,

He goes for a walk with his shirt and pants askew.

But he always carries the sword of wisdom:

He means to cut down senseless craving
(RipRap 47)

“The fourth line suggests that the speaker is reading the Daoist scripture, Tao-te-ching, but the seventh line says that he holds “the sword of wisdom,” the Buddhist sword that can cut off our entanglement with worldly life and death” (He 51). So we see two different religious elements at work in this Han Shan poem, the Daoist and Buddhist elements, which also may have left a mark on Snyder when he was translating the poem.

Sometimes Snyder’s short poems are similar to Japanese haiku. When being interviewed, Snyder said this about haiku: “I have never called my brief poems "haiku" except in certain rare cases where a brief poem met what I felt were the key aesthetic requirement of a top quality haiku — which means among other things, freedom from ego. I do not think we should even "think" haiku in other languages and cultures. We should think brief, or short poems (Wenzel, 2007). He continued and said, “To get haiku into other languages, get to the "heart" of haiku, which has something to do with Zen practice and with practiced observation -- not mere counting of syllables” (Wenzel, 2007).

Snyder’s next volume of poetry, Myths & Texts, was published in 1960, and consisted of forty-eight short poems “weaving together the legends and cultural practices found in Native American, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese literatures” (Gray 67). There are three sections, the “Logging” section, the “Hunting” section, and the “Burning” section. Excerpt from “Logging” in Snyder’s Myths & Texts:

The ancient forests of China logged

And the hills slipped into the Yellow Sea.

Squared beams, log dogs,

On a tamped-earth still.

San Francisco 2 x 4s

Were the woods around Seattle:

Someone killed and someone built, a house,

A forest, wrecked or raised

All America hung on a hook

& burned by men, in their own praise.

Regarding Myths & Texts, Gray says this about Snyder’s writing: “However much Snyder tries to remove himself from Western Civilization, he knows that monomythic conceptions of distinction and separation are never as cut and dry as they seem, since forces of good and evil circulate everywhere” (69). It is evident that Snyder is comparing China’s logging practices to San Francisco. The “2 x 4s” represent the trees that were felled in the “woods around Seattle.” The logging practices that were happening in San Francisco were also happening in China.

Snyder continues to practice Zen, write poetry that revolves around nature and Buddhism, and lives on a 100-acre site in the foothills of Sierra Nevada.


Gary Snyder’s style of writing poetry was influenced by a number of factors, and evolved over time. He was a mountain climber, spent time with Native American Indians in Oregon, and in his college years, studied anthropology and literature, and Oriental literature, translating several of the Han-Shan poems. Later, he was a resident in Japan, learning about Zen Buddhism. He has written poetry since his youth. Snyder was influenced by Imagist poetry like William Carlos Williams, and also Pound’s published work of Fenollosa’s translations of the Noh plays. Other important influences were Kenneth Rexroth, who also wrote about nature and ecology, and translated Chinese and Japanese poetry, and helped him get established through the Gallery Six poetry reading in San Francisco in 1955. Another influence was Zen Buddhism, which may have been fueled by one of his college friends, Philip Whalen, who was into Zen, wrote poetry and later became a Zen priest.

Snyder didn’t appear to be influenced by the Beat generation poets, or spend much time with them in the beginning, for his poetry didn’t seem to cover the harsh elements as seen in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” but focused on nature scenes as seen in “Berry Feast.” Yet Snyder maintained contact with Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Philip Whalen, over time, and returned in the 1960s to San Francisco. It was more likely that he influenced them, than they influencing him regarding his poetry. Jack Kerouac wrote the book Dharma Bums, which included Snyder’s character in it. Kerouac also copied Snyder on mountain climbing and Buddhism, yet couldn’t seem to incorporate them into his life. Although Kenneth Rexroth was instrumental in forming the Beat generation poets, he left the group after Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac arrived. Rexroth was an influence on Snyder, as he also liked writing nature poetry and translating Chinese and Japanese poems, and later visited Japan.

In closing, Gary Snyder has lived in several worlds, the anti-establishment world of the Beat generation, and the abstract world of the Zen Buddhists in Japan, and the raw, natural world of the mountains. He has been exposed to and been influenced by several styles of poetry (Imagist, Chinese, Japanese, Beat poetry), and ultimately gravitated toward using concrete imagery in his poems, with empty spaces and indentations, creating his own style of poetry. Snyder not only wrote poetry, but he gave it life through his many readings. He also taught at the university level, and his poetry books have won many awards. More importantly, Snyder has lived and experienced what he has written, and ultimately shared it with the world.


D’Andrade, Hugh. “Kenneth Rexroth and Barcelona by the Bay.” Web. 21 Dec. 2014.

Gray, Timothy. Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim: Creating CounterCultural Community. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2006. 16 Dec. 2014.

Kern, Robert. Orientalism, Modernism, and the American Poem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

Knaab, Ken. The Relevance of Rexroth. Bureau of Public Secrets. 1990. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Web. 5 Dec 2014.

Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” Poetry 1. (1913): 200-206. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

Pound, Ezra. Noh', or Accomplishment, A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan. NY:

Alfred A. Knopf, 1917. Web. 4 Dec 2014.

Rexroth, Kenneth. The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. NY: New Directions, 1966. Print.

Rivard, David. “A Leap of Words to Things: Gary Snyder's Riprap.” American Poetry Review July/August 2009. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.

Snyder, Gary. No Nature: New and Selected Poems. NY: Pantheon Books, 1992. Print.

Snyder, Gary. “Riprap.” Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. 2003. Web. 18 Dec. 2014.

Snyder, Gary. “The Path to Matsuyama.” Modern Haiku 36.2 (2005). Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. Print.

Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Basho. NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970. Print.

Weinberger, Eliot. “Gary Snyder, The Art of Poetry No. 74” Paris Review. 141 (1996). Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

He, Yuemin. “Gary Snyder’s Selective Way to Cold Mountain.” Whalen-Bridge, John, Gary

Storhoff (Eds) The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

Wenzel, Udo. “News of the Day, News of the Moment Gary Snyder talks with Udo Wenzel.” 2007. Web. 19 Dec. 2014.