Gary Snyder, American Poet

Counterculture Icon Wrote Profound Poems Influenced By Zen and Nature

photograph of poet Gary Snyder
Poet Gary Snyder is honored during the 11th Annual California Hall of Fame ceremony at The California Museum on December 5, 2017 in Sacramento, California.

Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

Gary Snyder is an American poet closely associated with Zen Buddhism and a deep respect for nature and the environment. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975 for his book of poems Turtle Island. He has published numerous volumes of poems and essays, and is the prototype for one of the main characters in a classic Beat Generation novel by Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums.

After a childhood spent largely in the outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder worked a series of physical jobs, including building trails in the Sierras and as a fire lookout in remote western forests. He was drawn to Buddhist studies while in college, as it seemed to mirror his love of nature, and he became deeply immersed in the practice of Zen during a decade spent in Japan.

Fast Facts: Gary Snyder

  • Full Name: Gary Sherman Snyder
  • Known For: Revered American poet closely associated with Zen Buddhism and deep appreciation of nature
  • Born: May 8, 1930 in San Francisco, California
  • Parents: Harold and Lois Hennessy Snyder
  • Spouses: Alison Gass (m. 1950-1952), Joanne Kyger (m. 1960-1965), Masa Uehara (m. 1967-1989), Carole Lynn Koda (m. 1991-2006)
  • Children: Kai and Gen Snyder (with Uehara)
  • Education: Reed College, Indiana University, and University of California-Berkeley
  • Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 1975, for the book Turtle Island
  • Interesting Fact: Snyder was the prototype for Japhy Ryder, one of the main characters in Jack Kerouac's classic Beat Generation novel The Dharma Bums.

When the hippie movement arose in America in the late 1960s, Snyder found himself becoming a hero of the counterculture. His writings made him something of a modern day Henry David Thoreau, and his calls for respecting and preserving the environment continue to make him a revered figure in the environmental movement.

Early Life

Gary Snyder was born in San Francisco, California, on May 8, 1930. In 1932 his family moved to rural Washington to start a dairy farm, and most of Snyder’s childhood was spent close to nature. By his early teens he was exploring the high country of the Cascade Mountains and his backpacking adventures helped him develop an affinity for the natural world which would become a major focus of his writing life.

While attending Reed College in Oregon in the late 1940s, he began contributing poems to a campus literary magazine. During breaks from school he would take jobs working outdoors, for lumber crews or for the forest service. After graduating from Reed College he attended Indiana University briefly before returning to the West and settling in San Francisco.

By 1953 he had developed a deep interest in Buddhism, and that year he began a graduate program in East Asian languages at the University of California at Berkeley. In the summers he worked on crews building trails in Yosemite National Park, and also took jobs for the forest service as a lookout for forest fires. The job required him to live in solitude in remote towers, which he found conducive to his Zen meditation practice.

With the Beats

In 1955 Snyder met poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Jack Kerouac in San Francisco. For a time Snyder and Kerouac lived in a cabin in Mill Valley. On October 13, 1955, Snyder participated in a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco which would be considered a landmark in American poetry. Snyder read a poem titled “A Berry Feast,” and other poets, including Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Allen Ginsberg read from their works. The reading became legendary as Ginsberg read from his masterwork, “Howl,” for the first time in public.

Snyder later said the event in San Francisco had been inspiring for him, as it helped him to view public performance of poetry in modern industrial society as a form of communion. Through public reading, he realized, literature, and especially poetry, could reach a mass audience.

Study and Writing Abroad

In 1956, Snyder left the United States for Japan, where he would spend most of the next decade. He studied Zen Buddhism in Kyoto until 1968, only returning to the United States for occasional visits. He continued writing poetry.

His volume of poetry Riprap comprised poems written in the mid-1950s in the U.S., in Japan, and even aboard an oil tanker on which he crossed the Pacific. The poems indicate a sense of Zen detachment, a concern for nature, and expressions of sympathy for the American working class laboring under a soulless industrial society.

Counterculture Hero

Snyder became known as the real-life model for a fictional character, Japhy Ryder, in Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums. The novel's narrator, obviously based on Kerouac himself, meets up with Ryder, a Buddhist scholar and mountaineer. They climb peaks in the Northwest together as part of their Buddhist practice.

Berkeley Poetry Conference 1965
Poets at the Berkeley Poetry Conference. Foreground left to right, poet Charles Olson, Helen Dorn, poet Ed Dorn; background left to right, poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley, photographed during the conference on July 12 - 24, 1965. Leni Sinclair / Getty Images

When Snyder returned to America in the mid-1960s, settling again in San Francisco, he became involved in the emerging counterculture. He attended large public events in San Francisco, such as the "Human Be-In," and he attracted a devoted following at poetry readings. Snyder, with his wife and two sons, moved into a cabin on land in the Sierra foothills in northern California. He continued writing and was a practitioner of the back to the land movement.

Mainstream Honors

Critics have noted that Snyder has been a public voice, writing poems and essays about nature, while his poetry has also been subject to serious consideration by academic critics. His prominence as a poet was indicated in 1975 when Turtle Island, a book of poems and essays influenced by Buddhism and Native American traditions, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Snyder has taught poetry at colleges, and has continued to show deep concern for environmental issues. In 1996 he published a long poem, "Mountains and Rivers Without End," which was titled after a long Chinese painting that would be displayed on a scroll. In a positive review in the New York Times, Snyder was referred to as "the Beatnik sage," and it was noted that the poem was an epic work 40 years in the making.

In recent decades, Snyder has continued to write and speak publicly, often about environmental concerns.

Sources:

  • Hoffman, Tyler. "Snyder, Gary 1930–." American Writers, Supplement 8, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001, pp. 289-307. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Murphy, Patrick D. "Snyder, Gary (b. 1930)." American Nature Writers, edited by John Elder, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996, pp. 829-846. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Snyder, Gary (Sherman) 1930-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 125, Gale, 2004, pp. 335-343. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Davidson, Michael. "Snyder, Gary (b. 1930)." World Poets, edited by Ron Padgett, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000, pp. 23-33. Gale Virtual Reference Library.