Gary Snyder is the Henry David Thoreau of the Beat culture – eco-philosopher,
“green poet” and most systematic explorer of non-Western spirituality.
Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930 and was raised in the North Western part of the USA, in Washington and Oregon states. He grew up close to nature, familiar with farm work and other manual work as well as with the culture of local Native Americans, all of which were to be important to his later life as well as his writing. After he had taken a B.A. in anthropology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in 1951, he went on to study Oriental languages at the University of California, Berkeley, while he also learnt Zen meditation and worked as a seaman, logger and dock worker. In 1955 he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and took an active part in the so-called "San Francisco Renaissance". In the October of that year he took part in the legendary poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco with Ginsberg and others. This circle of friends is depicted in Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums (1958) where Snyder is transparently portrayed as one of the main characters, Japhy Ryder.
In the decade after 1965 Snyder spent much time in the Far East, especially in Japan where he studied Zen Buddhism in two monasteries. His two first books of poetry, Riprap (1959) and Myths and Texts (1960), appeared at this time. On his return to California, he took an active part in the radical counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, and published more poetry and prose. His most well-known work is the poetry collection Turtle Island (1974), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. I 1971 he and his family moved to the Sierra Nevada, where a house was built according to Japanese and Native American traditions. Besides continuing his own literary production – his more recent poetry includes Axe Handles (1983), Mountains and Rivers (1996) and Danger on Peaks (2004) - Snyder has for many years taught Literature and "wilderness thought" at the University of California, Davis, where he is now Emeritus Professor. He has been awarded a number of prizes and distinctions and has been a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1987.
Snyder can look back on a long career as poet, essayist, translator, educator and environmental activist. His work, which has been translated into more than twenty languages, fuses the academic with the contemplative and religious experience with respect for practical labour. His sources of inspiration lie as much in biology and natural science as in the mysticism of the East and the culture of Native Americans. Snyder’s philosophy is permeated by a fundamental respect for natural life, for the planet’s eco-systems and for the cultures and societies of aboriginal peoples. Yet, although he is deeply critical of western consumer culture and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, he is never naively "primitive," anti-technological or anti-urban. His main target is the abuse and excess consumption of natural resources and the imbalance between nature and culture in modern Western civilisation, notably in North America.
As poet Snyder has drawn on many varied sources of inspiration – Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, the haiku and other Oriental art forms. His poetic creed can perhaps be read from the title poem, "Riprap", from his debut collection, where the poem is shown as a man-made path through a wilderness, meticulously shaped in words just like the stones in the trails Snyder himself laid out in the forests and mountains out West. In form the poems vary from the short and terse to long sequences of free association. They express a fundamental faith in words and the organising function of words. The vocabulary is concrete and down to earth and reflects the poet’s respect for fact and physical detail. The poems are charged by the poet’s desire for clarity and his wish to crystallize sensed-perceived moments. After Regarding Wave (1969) a more lyrical and emotional mood sets in, with more direct reference to family life and close relationships. His ecological commitment also matures from poetry of protest to a deeper eco-poetry, such as in the title poem from Axe Handles where he writes of the natural organic handing on of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. In his collections of essays – such as The Practice of the Wild (1990) – Snyder reflects on many topics: poetry, nature, the environment, religion and culture. A good selection of his work is available in The Gary Snyder Reader (1999).