Feature: Gary Snyder, American Man of Letters

“The more completely the world is allowed to come forward and instruct us (without the interference of ego and opinion), the better we can see our place in the interconnected world of nature.”


When awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1974 collection of poetry, Turtle Island, Gary Snyder hoped he might override his “Beat poet” epithet. Yet his personal friendships with other leaders of the movement had forever endeared him as a Beat writer.

In 1951, Snyder graduated from Reed College and began his masters in anthropology. He quit soon after and left from San Francisco to Japan in 1956 to study at the First Zen Institute of Kyoto. During an interview, Snyder explained that “Anthropology was concerned with understanding human nature—but then why go to other people, why not study one’s own nature. So…Zen.”

Two years later, in 1958, he returned to the States and published his first book of poetry, Riprap (1959). “The Zen tradition of Buddhism often defines itself as ‘seeing into one’s own nature,’” Snyder explained, “and its discipline of meditation aims at gaining a clear perception of the self and the external world.” Zen, an echo of the more orthodox Taoist philosophy, was the foundation for Snyder’s work.

Snyder was drawn to poetry; he found his muse in communicating cosmic concepts in a few short lines, paving an ancient understanding that correlated humanity and nature into a meaningful fashion that inspired the readers of a morally deprived post-World War generation.

He called poetry “a riprap [cobbled trail] over the slick rock of metaphysics.” Snyder’s poem “Riprap,” the title his first book was later given, is composed of short words that allow the reader to feel the prick of reality; the simple words themselves are not the pinnacle of meaning. 

In his last edition of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, Snyder explained how, “the title…celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.”

Riprap by Gary Snyder
Lay down these words 
Before your mind like rocks. 
  placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
  in space and time: 
Solidity of bark, leaf or wall
  riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way, 
  straying planets, 
These poems, people, 
  lost ponies with 
Draggling saddles —
  and rocky sure-foot trails. 
The worlds like an endless 
Game of Go. 
  ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word 
  a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
  with torment of fire weight 
Crystal and sediment linked hot 
  all change, in thoughts, 
As well as things. 

When describing the inspiration behind his condensed yet distinctly nuanced poetic lines, Snyder said, “I tried writing poems of tough, simple, short words, with the complexity far beneath the surface texture. In part the line was influenced by the five- and seven-character line Chinese poems I’d been reading, which work like sharp blows on the mind.”

Beginning in Snyder’s lifetime, composing poetry in America was a means of openminded imagination and freedom in a country paralyzed by the fear of the unknown. Poetry was especially influential as science (the study of the natural world) began to break down due to its limited ability to manifest the “straying planets” of the unknown—the other biologies or, essentially—the undefined components of reality.

Language and science have limitations. For most Americans who lived through the War and experienced its devastating global impact, the only recourse was an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services, which Snyder adamantly tried to escape and denounce throughout his lifetime.

“Riprap” is a loaded, multidimensional indication to both the potential and limitation of words as symbols of deeper understanding. Snyder argues the imagery of language—in this case, poetry—can serve as the stepping stones from which we find the means to understand our interconnected, ever-changing environment and, by consequence, our mysterious selves.

In a portrait by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder relaxes at home. (Allen Ginsberg LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Almon, Bert. (1977). Buddhism and Energy in the Recent Poetry of Gary Snyder. Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. XI, No. 1.

Charters, Ann. (2001). Beat Down Your Soul. “Gary Snyder.” Penguin Putnam Inc.

Snyder, Gary. (1995). “Language Goes Two Ways.” A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds; New and Selected Prose. Counterpoint Publishing.

Snyder, Gary. (1965). Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems. Counterpoint: Publishers Group West.

Tarn, Nathaniel. (1972). From Anthropologist to Informant: A Field Record of Gary Snyder. Alcheringa, issue 4.

Featured Image of Gary Snyder © The Washington Post

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