Saturday 24 October 2015

Gary Snyder...The Cold Mountain Poet

Gary Snyder: Photo Arya Degenhardt: Mono Lake Community

Who can leap the world ties/and sit with me amongst the white clouds
Han Shan,a Tang Dynasty poet.

Almost half a century ago, I was walking back to Camp 4 in the Yosemite Valley, accompanied by the legendary US climber, Chuck Pratt, when we met up with another outdoor enthusiast walking in our opposite direction. This stranger, unknown to me, was known to Chuck, and they exchanged greetings, and I was introduced in that off hand way that climbers think of as sufficient, and we went on our way, eager to reach camp and slake our thirst after a day, climbing in the intense heat of August.
Once back in camp, I ventured to ask Chuck who the guy we had met earlier was, ‘Oh he is from California University. Many years ago he worked here in the Park trail-building. So he knows a lot about Yosemite and Its history’. I had only heard that his name was Gary in our introduction, and it was some time later that I realised that this was Snyder, one of the most famous writers in the States, already with a legendary back story, and a mountaineer of some experience beginning with a very youthful initiation into the sport.

I had been introduced to his writings by one of my own mentors also when young, the late Harold Drasdo. Who in one of our discussions bivouacking under Castle Rock in the Lake District, had enthused about an essay he had recently read by Gary Snyder about hitch-hiking. As it was at that date our own mode of transport, this was what had caused him to take up on this work, and he opined that ‘it was the best such piece of writing he had ever read about the activity and he recommended me to read it!’ High praise indeed for Harold had a keen critical eye for such literature.

So from a young age the name Gary Snyder was known to me, and after our chance meeting in Yosemite Valley I have followed his career with more than a little interest, and it is one of the most fascinating life stories that I know of. For he is a poet, essayist, environmentalist, logger, academic, mountaineer, Zen Buddhist, trail builder, fire-lookout and much more.

Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg visiting the Lama Govinda, Kausani, India 1962
He was born in the San Francisco area in 1930, but moved as a schoolboy to Oregon at the break-up of his Parents marriage; whence he started with other school friends travelling out into the countryside, and then as a young teenager he started to climb. He joined the Mazamas mountaineering club, based in Portland where he went to school and eventually college and over the next immediate years he ascended many of the major peaks in the Cascade Mountains, Mounts Hood, Baker, Rainier, Shasta, Adams, and St Helens.

Descending off the last as a 15 year old he learnt with some horror of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the time he was 20 years old he was a highly experienced mountaineer, but his ascents were accomplished with a brio where he wished ‘to develop a fresh mountaineering mind-set that was totally opposed to the notion of conquest. I and the circle I climbed with were extremely critical of what we saw as the hostile Jock, occidental mind-set which was to conquer it…… I always thought of mountaineering not as a matter of conquering the mountain, but as a matter of self-knowledge’. He went on to also note ‘that my first interest in writing poetry came from the experience of mountaineering. I couldn’t find any other way to talk about it’. Only someone who has climbed could write a poem like the following;

After scanning its face again and again
I began to scale it, picking my holds
With intense caution. About half-way
To the top, I was suddenly brought to
A dead stop, with arms outspread
Clinging close to the face of the rock
Unable to move hand or foot
Either up or down. My doom
Appeared fixed. I must fall
(An extract from a longer poem, ‘John Muir on Mount Ritter’) 

Snyder studied Literature and Anthropology at College, and became interested in folk lore research, and spent some time at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon. This experience was to be a major influence upon him, drawing on their songs and poems and feelings about nature and mountain scenery. This was also the beginning of an interest in Buddhism, particularly because of its attitudes pro nature, and each winter there was also mountain skiing. He ran around with a group of older ex-ski troopers, who called themselves ‘The Wolken-Schiebers’.

After graduating he obtained a Fellowship at Indiana University to study anthropology, but he left and moved to San Francisco to follow his growing interest in Asian culture, languages and poetry. For this he enrolled at the University of California, specialising in ink and wash painting and Tang dynasty poetry. He continued to climb, and spent time in Yosemite and a whole of a summer working there as a trail-builder. He studied under Hasegawa who introduced him to landscape painting as a meditative practice, and he began work on his most famous poetic work, ‘Mountains and Rivers without End’ which he did not complete for forty years. He also embarked on a translation of the ‘Cold Mountain Poems’, by the legendary 8th century Chinese recluse, Han Shan, which means simply in translation ‘Cold Mountain’.

These poems from the Tang Dynasty are some of the most famous, and have been translated into many languages. No one knows who really wrote them, but in Japan they have a similar recognition as Shakespeare in the UK. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was the golden age of Chinese poetry, it is hard hitting authentic verse, and here is Snyder’s translation of poem number eleven (there are hundreds of them in the sequence)

Spring water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge-The spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: This world exceeds stillness.

During these early years of the 1950’s San Francisco was a gathering place for poets and a focal point for what became known as ‘The Beat Movement’,which actually had its origins on the East Coast of the USA with William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but it moved west and ended in California along with it leading proponents. Snyder got to know Kerouac through these associations and persuaded him to become, like himself a ‘fire watcher’ in the Northern Cascades. Kerouac was later to recall of their first meeting that unlike the other urban dwelling so called ‘Beats’ (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso etc), outdoorsman Snyder did not look like a ‘poet’. My memory of him from my own short introduction was of a physically powerful, dark and lithe individual of above medium height, with a wispy beard.  Who could have been a lumberjack, which it transpires he has also been in between courses.

It was in the summer of 1953 that Snyder and Kerouac worked as fire Lookouts, and this is now the subject of a coffee table book of photographs and text by John Suiter, ‘Poets on the Peaks’ published in 2002. Snyder’s Lookout was on Sourdough Mountain, and Kerouac’s Desolation. One feels reading about this now that the latter took some persuading to take this on, but was converted to the idea by Snyder’s mantra, that ‘the twin of the active life is the contemplative one’ and as a fire lookout for six weeks one has many hours in which to undertake this! As Snyder wrote as he left his peak…..
I the poet Gary Snyder
Stayed six weeks in fifty-three
On this ridge and on this rock
And saw what every Lookout sees
Saw these mountains shift about
And end up on the ocean floor
Saw the wind and waters break
The branched deer, the eagle eye
And when pray tell, shall the Lookouts die.

Amazingly now Snyder’s activities as a poet interested in Chinese studies, and working as a lookout in the summer months, brought him to the attention of the infamous senator Joe McCarthy, head of The House, un-American activities committee. And he was blackballed for not being patriotic enough to work any longer for the US government as a Lookout. At least he was in good company over this for many of the most outstanding artists and writers of that era suffered a similar fate, everyone from the playwright Arthur Miller to Charlie Chaplin.

Snyder made poetry out of such viciousness.

I never was so broke and down                                                              
Got fired that day by the USA
(The district ranger up at Packwood
Thought the wobblies had been dead for forty years
But the FBI smelled treason-my red beard

The experience however working as a lookout led Kerouac to write one of his most famous ‘Beat’ novels, ‘The Dharma Bums’. In this, three friends head off into the High Sierra Mountains in search of Dharma or Truth and to experience the Zen way of life. The climb therein described up the Matterhorn Peak is one of the most memorable in American literature, and Snyder is the inspiration for the novels main character, the mountain climbing, haiku writing Japhy Ryder. The novel closes with a vision of the aforementioned Han Shan at Snyder’s suggestion, and the work is dedicated to this fabled Tang dynasty poet.
Snyder and Ginsberg

The literary fame of the Beat poets was launched in October 1955 at a reading in the 6 Gallery in San Francisco, and whilst it is Ginsberg’s long poem ‘Howl’ that is best remembered, Snyder’s follow on contribution ‘The Berry Feast’ has also stood the test of time. Most of the Beats were enamored of Eastern religion and psychedelia  (way ahead of groups like The Beatles and other popular artists of the ‘sixties) and for Snyder it was Zen Buddhism that was to be his spiritual muse. Zen is a fusion of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. This latter a purely Chinese construct as is Zen which is known in China as Chan. Bidding goodbye to the Beat poets, he took off in 1956 for Japan, where he enrolled at a monastery in Kyoto to study Zen, but also to continue his writing and translating poetry. His 1957 collection of poems ‘The Back Country’ also includes translations by him of the now famous Japanese poet Kenji (1896-1933). He stayed in Japan until 1964, and then returned home to the USA as a crew member on an oil freighter.

Once back in the USA he started work on building his own house in the northern Sierra Mountains, found occasional employment as a logger, but never stopped writing and lobbying for wilderness preservation. Over the next decades he became acknowledged as America’s primary poet-celebrant of the wilderness, a nature poet in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson. He mused himself on his own work: How Poetry Comes To Me

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my camp fire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light.

From the late sixties onwards Snyder’s poetry and essays have never ceased to flow, in 1969 ‘Riprap* and the Cold Mountain Poems’, in 1975 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his ‘Turtle Island’ collection. (Turtle Island is an old/new name for the USA).And over the ensuing years there have been over 20 volumes of poetry or essays published by him. Some like ‘Turtle Island’ have been reprinted many times. Others of his works, like ‘Danger on Peaks’(2004) might be readily identified with by climbers, including as it does poems of Snyder’s own first ascent of Mount St Helens. He finally published his great work in 1996, ‘Mountains and Rivers without End’ after 40 years of labour on its contents, winning the Bollingen poetry prize for his efforts. If he lived in the UK he would now be seen as a National treasure, loaded as he is with awards including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Bess Hoskin prize, the Levinson prize for poetry and so much more, including a major award in Japan for a collection of Haiku (2004).

His essays are equally notable, especially ‘The Practice of the Wild’ (1990), a series of ten essays which are now identified as a central work, on the interaction of nature and culture, calling amongst its pages for an ecological consciousness. He has been described as the poet laureate of deep ecology.

His latest book of poems ‘The present moment’ was published in 2015, and for many years he was a Professor at the University of California. At which he is now an Emeritus Professor. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987, and the impressive fact of all this recognition is that he is still highly regarded by his fellow poets and the critics. There has even been a biographical film made about him, ‘A Zen Life’ by D.T. Suzuki. Not a bad outcome for someone who originally only started writing to express his feelings about his mountaineering experiences, so maybe we can claim him as one of our own?
Gary Snyder and Friends

A short finishing poem perhaps sums up best how he feels about the wilderness experience:
For All.
‘Ah to be alive
On a mid-September morn
Fording a stream
Barefoot, pants rolled up
Holding boots, pack on
Sunshine, ice in the shallows
Northern Rockies.’

Dennis Gray:2015
*Riprap…. A cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains.