Gary Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930 and moved shortly afterward to the Pacific Northwest. Growing up in Washington state, he worked on his parents' farm and seasonally in the woods. He graduated in 1951 from Reed College with a degree in literature and anthropology. After a semester of linguistics study at Indiana University, he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student of Oriental languages, and became actively involved in the burgeoning West Coast poetry scene.
In 1956, he left the U.S. for what was to become a twelve-year residence abroad, largely in Japan. In Kyoto he pursued an intensive Zen Buddhist practice. During this period he also worked in the engine room of a tanker traveling along the Pacific Rim, and spent six months in India with Ginsberg and several others, where they had a notable discussion of hallucinogens with the Dalai Lama. In 1958, his translation of Han Shan's work, Cold Mountain Poems, appeared. His first book of poetry, Riprap, was published in Japan in 1959. This was followed by Myths & Texts (1960) and the two pamphlets published by the Four Seasons Foundation in 1965 that gained him a wide readership: Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End. The first trade edition of his poetry, The Back Country, appeared in 1968.
His essays have been collected in Earth House Hold (1969); The Practice of the Wild (1990) and A Place in Space (1995). The poetry he has written since his return to the U.S. has been collected in The Back Country (1968); Regarding Wave (1970); Turtle Island, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975; Axe Handles (1983); Left Out in the Rain (1986); and a selected poems, No Nature (1992). In 1996, he published the completed version of Mountains and Rivers Without End, the long poem he had begun forty years before.
Has the Beat thing been a burden for the rest of your life? Are you tired of hearing about the Beats?
I was for a while, but nobody has been beating me on the head with it lately.
I am surprised that very young people now are so fascinated by the Beats, compared to the hippie movement. As an old hippie I think we're much more interesting. What do you think they see in the Beats?
Gee, I don't know if I should say this to you. When I look at the differences, one that emerges is that the political stance of the West Coast Beats was clear. They were openly political, and, in terms of the Cold War, it was a kind of a pox-on-both-your-houses position. Clearly our politics were set against the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and China, and at the same time would have no truck with corporate capitalism. Today you might say, "Okay what else is new? Do you have any solutions to suggest?" I understand that, of course, but at that time the quality of our dissent alone was enough to push things in a slightly new direction. What it led to in the poetry was a populist spirit, a willingness to reach out for an audience and an engagement with the public of the United States. This swell of poetry readings, going to all of the college towns and the big cities, which started around 1956, transformed American poetry. It was a return to orality and the building of something closer to a mass audience.
I do feel that there was a visionary political and intellectual component in the hippie phenomenon, but it is harder to track out what it is. It wasn't so clearly spoken and it was outrageously utopian, whereas the Beat generation's political stance was more pragmatic, more hardheaded in retrospect, easier to communicate, and it didn't rely on so much spiritual rhetoric. So that might be one reason, just as the punks rejected hippie spiritual rhetoric and went for a harder-edged politics, well, the Beat generation had a harder-edged politics.
Your poems are notable both for their extreme condensation and their musicality. Do the lines come out in such compact form? Are the poems initially much longer, and then chipped away? And do you consciously count syllables or stresses, or do you mainly write by ear?
There is one sort of poem I write that is highly compressed and has a lot of ear in it. As a poem comes to me, in the process of saying and writing it, the lines themselves establish a basic measure, even a sort of musical or rhythmic phrase for the whole poem. I let it settle down for quite a while and do a lot of fine-tuning as part of the revision. Doing new poems at readings brings out subtle flaws in the movement or music to be immediately noted. I don't count syllables or stresses, but I discover after the fact what form the poem has given itself, and then I further that. Of course I write other sorts of poems as well—longer, less lyrical, formal, borrowings or parodies, and so forth. I am experimenting with switching back and forth between a prose voice and a lyric voice in some of the work I'm doing now.
I gather that, unlike many writers, you publish very slowly—allowing things to sit for years before they're brought out in the world. Why is that? And what works are currently hanging up to dry?
Well, I have found that if you let a poem sit around long enough, you come to see and hear it better. Not that a poem in progress doesn't reach a point of being pretty much finished. So I don't rush it— it's a matter of allowing intuition and taste to come into play; you choose to hold onto a piece, waiting for some little turn of insight. This is true of prose writing, too. But letting it wait might be a kind of luxury sometimes because there are often urgent reasons to get things into the world, especially essays dealing with current issues. I recently finished up a project I called Mountains and Rivers Without End—a series of longish poems that I have been working at for decades. And I'm glad I let it wait that long, it is more tasty.
You're one of the few poets whose work is accessible to a non-poetry-reading public. Yet, somewhere you say—you're talking about Robert Duncan—that it's the poetry you never fully comprehend that most engages you. I was wondering whether you consciously strike out obscurities, thinking of the general reader, to make the poetry accessible?
Semiconsciously. I've written a number of different sorts of poems and there's a percentage of my poetry—maybe twenty-five percent, maybe forty—that is accessible. I think partly that has been a function of my regard for the audience, my desire to have some poems that I knew that I could share with people I lived and worked with. Certainly a number of the work poems, and poems of travel and poems of place, are works that I could and did share with neighbors or with fellow workers on the job. I've always enjoyed that enormously. At the same time there are territories of mind and challenges that are not easily accessible. I've written a number of rather difficult poems. I just don't read them at poetry readings as a rule.