Way beyond the Beat
by Keith Taylor
For more than half a century now certainly since the famous reading in San Francisco in 1955 when Allen Ginsberg first unveiled his Howl, Gary Snyder read from his Riprap poems, and the Beat movement entered the popular culture Snyder has been a central figure in American letters. He has won his Pulitzer and received the Bollingen Prize to honor his literary achievement. But all of that sounds terribly stuffy, and Gary Snyder is anything but stuffy. Writing for him is closer to the gardening, home repairs, and firebreaks he works on constantly, even as he nears eighty.
His has been an active life and intelligence, moving through serious study of Asian languages and religions (including a ten-year stint in a Zen monastery) while traveling widely in pursuit of the questions, essentially moral and ethical, that have driven him. Through most of this he has worked to stay grounded in one particular landscape. Born in the Pacific Northwest, he has lived almost forty years now in the high Sierras of northern California, and much of his best work has been an exploration of that place and of how he can live there without damaging it.
And he has made mistakes. The central fact and metaphor of his most recent collection of essays, Back on the Fire, is about the necessity of fire in maintaining a healthy forest. As a young man Snyder worked rather famously as a fire lookout in the Cascades, trying to suppress forest fires before they had a chance to start. But as the foresters have learned and as Snyder, still constantly studying these things, has learned from them regular low-level fires are necessary to clear the understory of many of our western forests. It's yet another lesson we are just now learning from the original inhabitants of the continent.
And, of course, Snyder has always connected all of this to the poems and essays he continues
to write. Back on the Fire ends with the aesthetic concerns that grow out of Snyder's effort to find the ethics demanded by the landscape. Even as he recognizes that he has often been fascinated by a complicated, even ornate kind of poetry, he writes eloquently about the force of directness and clarity: "The idea of a poetry of minimal surface texture, with its complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool, under the bank, a dark old lurking, no fancy flavor, is ancient. It is what is 'haunting' in the best of Scottish-English ballads, and is at the heart of the Chinese shi (lyric) aesthetic."
Gary Snyder reads from his poetry and his essays as part of a conference honoring Shaman Drum Bookshop owner Karl Pohrt at Rackham Auditorium on Thursday, March 6.
[Review published March 2008]