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  • The Move WestGary Snyder
  • Alan Williamson (bio)

The notion that the West would play a crucial role in my adult life I think first came to me when we were flying to California, Elizabeth ten months old, to visit my mother there for the first time. Crossing Wyoming or Colorado, I watched the almost uninhabited green plateau tops, separated at intervals by deep valleys, unfold beneath the wings. Such country had been, if rarely deeply penetrated, central to my imagination during the long car trips from Chicago to our summer home in Monterey; these were often the happiest times I spent with my parents in childhood and adolescence. Vaguely I wondered if my heart, and even my poetry, hadn't lost something from the fact that, as an adult, I saw such landscapes only from airplanes. Though I could see no way at the time to remedy this, I wondered if I hadn't become too much an easterner.

Perhaps that too explains my first interest in Gary Snyder. I actually bought The Back Country on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, when my father was dying of leukemia in Monterey Peninsula Hospital. It was, in a strange way, a kind of consolation; my mother and I even spent some of our quieter hours discussing the poems. I knew enough about poetics in the William Carlos Williams tradition to appreciate the cleanness of Snyder's writing and was fascinated to see it applied to the depths of those landscapes I had glimpsed, tantalizingly, on our trips west.

And so I kept up with what Snyder was writing over the succeeding years. His eco-political essays particularly impressed me. They were radical enough, but seemed to come from a calm, centered place outside the melee, free of the temptation to posture and dramatize that afflicted other major figures of the counterculture. [End Page 333] While others were glamorizing "revolution" and "guns," he held sitting meditation just outside the barbed wire of the Oakland Army Base. But when others rejected the youth movement as a barbarous threat to culture and learning, he wrote, "the traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious through meditation" ("Buddhism," 92–93). So, when the University of Virginia gave me some extra money to bring poets to campus, Snyder was the first poet I invited. It was, he told me, the first reading he had ever given south of the Mason-Dixon line.

I saw the Japanese thank-you bow (gassho, as it's called in Zen) for the first time when I offered Gary his glass of bourbon. It was a blustery November evening in our Cameron Lane house. A fire was going. We had invited Eleanor and Peter Taylor to dinner with Gary, and everyone (except Eleanor) had opted for the southern drink-of-choice. Gary raised his hands in prayer-position to chest height, bent forward at a brisk angle, then took his drink.

We'd had many anxieties, in advance, about his visit. He had brought along a young woman disciple; would we be expected to put her up as well? What would he eat? My wife, Anne, had made one of her best dishes, a French pot roast—but suppose he was a strict vegetarian?

In the event, things couldn't have turned out better. The disciple had found a motel room for herself before they came over. At dinner she ate only the vegetables, carefully scraping off the gravy; but Gary cleaned his plate, and said it was the best meal he'd been given on his travels.

Over drinks, Gary and Peter sat side by side on the sofa and got along famously. Gary pressed Peter for stories about the Southern Agrarians, and said it was too bad the left-wing anarchists and the right-wing anarchists in America had never gotten together. We talked of other things too: the Women's Movement, which, despite his macho reputation, Gary approved of wholeheartedly. He spoke of the return of the Great Goddess archetype, in...


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pp. 333-346
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