It’s the birthday of the American poet, essayist, and translator who once said, “Poetry gives you permission to say any kind of language, using any kind of grammar.” That’s Gary Snyder (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1930). He is a practicing Buddhist and an environmental activist. He writes most often about spirituality and the environment. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once called Snyder “The Thoreau of the Beat Generation.”
Gary Snyder grew up in King County, in Western Washington. It was just after the Great Depression and his family owned farm with dairy cows, hens, and an orchard, so Snyder worked hard every day. As a teen, his family moved around a lot, but he found a home in books and fell in love with D.H. Lawrence. He worked as a camp counselor and a mountaineer for a time and refers to his early attempts at writing poetry as, “Phase One: romantic teenage poetry about girls and mountains.”
In the 1950s, he was captivated by the Beat poets in San Francisco for a time and became good friends with Jack Kerouac, who would later become famous for his coming-of-age novel, On the Road (1957). Kerouac and Snyder lived together in a cabin in Mill Valley, California, for several months. The character of Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums (1958) was loosely based on Snyder.
Snyder wasn’t long for the San Francisco scene, which was quickly turning hedonistic. He said: “I’ll just say that I am grateful that I came to meet with peyote, psilocybin, LSD, and other hallucinogens in a respectful and modest frame of mind. I was suitably impressed by their powers, I was scared a few times, I learned a whole lot, and I quit when I was ahead.”
He sailed for Japan, where he spent the next several years living on a small volcanic island called Suwanosejima in the East China Sea, along with several other people. They fished, hunted for food, and meditated daily.
Snyder also began exploring Buddhism. His dharma name is “Chofu,” which means, “Listen to the Wind.” He ended up spending more than a decade in Japan studying Buddhism and living in monasteries. Sometimes, because the monastery had no books, he would leave the monastery for a few months and rent an apartment nearby, just so he could catch up on reading and writing poetry. He made ends meet by teaching conversational English and by taking jobs on oil tankers.
On what Buddhism has taught him about poetry, he says, “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dip stick, don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”
He said, “As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.”
And he said, “True affluence is not needing anything.”