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.
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,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
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
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.
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