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T H O M A S J. L Y O N Utah State University Gary Snyder, a Western Poet* Probably the spirit of poetry works against such categorizing distinctions, but I would like to approach the problem of defining what a Western poet is as directly and particularly as possible by outlining a critical introduction to the 38-year-old Californian, Gary Snyder. Snyder is a highly interesting man, a famous figure in the underground or sub-culture identified with San Francisco, the Beat Generation, and its present-day inheritors. Jack Kerouac made him practically a legendary guru as “Japhy Ryder” in the 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums. In that book, Japhy Ryder was a major in­ fluence on Ray Smith (Kerouac) in getting him into the mountains, teaching him how to backpack and climb, and pointing in the right direction (which is all you can do) in matters of Buddhism. As is typical in Kerouac’s autobiographical “Duluoz Legend” books, the character was taken directly from life. Ryder was, at the time of his meeting with Smith, a graduate student in Oriental Languages at Berkeley, a supreme liver-off-the-land (including Safeway market throw-aways), and a contagiously free mountaineer spirit, the last most vague but most important. Besides Kerouac’s, Snyder has Allen Ginsberg’s admiration: Snyder (as a poet) is “very wise and very reliable,”1 one of the few poets in this country capable of Gary Snyder, THE BACK COUNTRY. © 1968 by Gary Snyder. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York. •T his paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in October 1968. ^■Thomas Clark, “Allen Ginsberg," in Writers A t Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series (New York: Viking Press, 1967), p. 319. 208 Western American Literature writing genuine Haiku. Berkeley professor Thomas Parkinson re­ cently wrote, “Snyder is skilled in the use of his hands. If he were put down in the most remote wilderness with only a pocket knife, he would come cheerfully out of it within two weeks, full of fresh experience, and with no loss of weight. . . . If there has been a San Francisco renaissance, Snyder is its renaissance man: scholar, woods­ man, guru, artist . . . accessible, open, and full of fun.”2 Perhaps the truest signal of Snyder’s standing in the sub-culture is that last year he was invited to be the fourth member of a free-wheeling public symposium on the somewhat large topic of the future of world consciousness, along with Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary.3 So in the great underground American night of the West, to paraphrase Kerouac weakly, Snyder is in. But what kind of poet is he? One more bit of background. When we hear “sub-culture,” we think of “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” But Snyder eschews this formulaic pronouncement: he writes, which means he’s talking, communicating, contributing; he translates Japanese and Chinese poetry, the latter acceptably enough to have his work included in a major anthology;4 and most importantly, he brings to the sub-culture itself the bright clean air of the moun­ tains, a deeply felt connection to the natural world that makes the city drug scene appear unbearably artificial, and which has been a factor, I am told, in the hippie move to the country which has the Nevadans so scared. Snyder has five slim volumes of poems, only the last one pub­ lished by a major firm. This is The Back Country, New Directions, 1968. Of the others, Myths and Texts and Riprap were printed by Totem Press and Origin Press, respectively, and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers W ithout End and Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems by the Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco. So far, about 120 published poems. Basically, Snyder is in the Blake-Whitman-Ginsberg tradition of Reality Poets; that is, he is interested in showing reality in its particulars, absolutely directly, through a clear and uninhibited sense perception. There is almost no abstract philosophizing in his 2Thomas Parkinson, “After the Beat Generation,” Colorado Quarterly XVII (Summer, 1968), p. 46. 8The text of this symposium is...


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