Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gary Snyder, Zen Poet

American poet Gary Snyder studied oriental languages in the mid ‘50’s at Berkeley, where he hung out with Beat writers such as Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Though he is still often grouped with the Beats of the fifties, he actually missed that movement in American literary history because he moved to Japan in 1956 to study Buddhism and write. He won a Pulitzer in 1975 for his poetry. He said, "I don't want to be known as a Beat poet. I was there and I knew Alan and Jack and the others but they went a different direction. That was not me."

Snyder recently graced the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center with his presence and read some of his classic and recent work. He is now 85 years old, one of the last survivors of the generation that shaped the literary scene in the 50’s and ‘60s. Picture is from – G. Moretti.

His poetry blends a love of nature he acquired growing up in the Pacific Northwest, with the insights of Zen Buddhism. He uses short, simple words, nearly all observational. A metaphor is rare in a Snyder poem. Yet somehow he manages to straddle the impossible gap between particularity and universality. Example: “Earth Verse”: Wide enough to keep you looking / Open enough to keep you moving / dry enough to keep you honest / Prickly enough to make you tough / Green enough to go on living / Old enough to give you dreams. Longer works are equally thoughtful, moving, humorous and insightful.

At the U of A Poetry Workshop I gained a new respect for him and his poems. I had read and long forgotten some of his work in the 1970’s and he is not a poet I would actively seek out today, but this opportunity got me to sit down and direct my attention to his work and I was well pleased. (He said: "I never say that I am a poet. That is really bad. I say I write some poetry. That is OK.) I am impressed at how keenly observed, well-selected observational statements can invoke themes of universal cosmology, with rarely an abstract noun in the text. It makes me appreciate that abstraction is much easier to write than good sensory observation.

Nevertheless, there is a sour note permeating his work. It is what the Zen literature calls “the stink of Zen,” the parading of one’s superior insight under the pretension of humility. It is subtle, for there is no obvious self-aggrandizement in Snyder’s work. Yet there is more going on than mere admiration of nature and observation of life. There is an implicit pretension that the poem is simply direct description of life keenly observed, but I also see the outline of a large ego badly hidden behind the ostensible impersonality of objective description. That conflict of intentions is what I find distracting in his work. It pretends to be egoless description but isn’t, really, and how could it be? No decent literary work can be written without strong conveyance of its writer but Snyder seems to pretend otherwise. This is a minor annoyance that does not negate the real enjoyment that his poetry brings.

His well-known collections include Riprap ( 1959), and Cold Mountain Poems (1965) and Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965).