Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder has said, “I hold the most archaic values on earth,” extending even to the Paleolithic. His work is informed by his studies in Zen Buddhism and Asian languages, as well as a deep, earned knowledge of the natural world. While living in Japan for 12 years, he worked as a translator of Zen texts, also traveling and writing prolifically, working to see past the ignorance and unbalance prevalent in our dealings with the life around us and to divine the true nature of his subjects rather than give them his own meanings. His words ring and resonate with an understanding of the things around him, revealing to the reader truths which seem to have been evident all along.

In his first volume, Riprap, published in 1959, Snyder describes his works: “These poems, people,/lost ponies with/Dragging saddles/and rocky sure-foot trails.” The poet creates a verbal riprap, rock path by which we may cross with him the infinite terrains of ecology and human experience. His career, as Glyn Maxwell noted, “has been a remarkable combination of the academic and the contemplative, spiritual study and physical labor.” Snyder has been likened by some to a modern-day Henry David Thoreau, and the poet Edward Hirsch has called him “the most intimate and mindful of poets.”

Snyder’s honors include many for poetry, as well as for ecological literature. He has been awarded the Bollingen Poetry Prize, the Orion Society’s John Hay Award for Nature Writing, and a Pulitzer Prize for Turtle Island in 1975. He was also the first American literary figure to receive the Buddhist Transmission Award, for distinctive contributions in linking Zen thought and respect for the natural world across a lifelong body of poetry and prose. Snyder currently teaches at the University of California at Davis, where he lectures on literature and ecology.

Poetry Center Reading: 

Spring 2006


Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
ppppppppplaced solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
ppppppppin space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
ppppppppriprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
ppppppppstraying planets,
These poems, people,
pppppppplost ponies with
Dragging saddles
ppppppppand rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ppppppppants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
ppppppppa creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
ppppppppwith torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
ppppppppall change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

From THE GARY SNYDER READER (Counterpoint, 1999)

We Wash Our Bowls in This Water

“The 1.5 billion cubic kilometers of water on the earth are split
by photosynthesis and
reconstituted once every two million years or so.”

A day on the ragged North Pacific coast get soaked by whipping mist,
rainsqualls tumbling, mountain mirror ponds, snowfield slush, rock-
wash creeks, earfuls of falls, sworls of ridge-edge snowflakes, swift grav-
elly rivers, tidewater crumbly glaciers, high hanging glaciers, shore-side
mud pools, icebergs, streams looping through the tideflats, spume of
brine, distant soft rain drooping from a cloud,

sea lions lazing under the surface of the sea-
pppppWe wash our bowls in this water
It has the flavor of ambrosial dew-


Beaching the raft, stagger out and shake off wetness like a
stand on the sandbar, rest from the river   being

pppupwellings, sideswirls, backswirls
pppcurl-overs, outripples, eddies, chops and swells
pppwash-overs, shallows   confluence turbulence      wash-seam
pppwavelets, riffles, saying

ppp“A hydraulic’s a cross between a wave and a hole,
ppppppp-you get a weir effect.
pppPillow-rock’s total fold-back over a hole,
pppppppit shows spit on the top of the wave
pppa haystack’s a series of waves at the bottom of a tight
pppppppthere’s a tongue of the rapids — the slick tongue — the

psome holes are ‘keepers,’ they won’t let you through;
peddies, backflows, we say ‘eddies are your friends.’
pCurrent differential, it can suck you down
pvertical boils are straight-up eddies spinning,
pherringbone waves curl under and come back.
pWell, let’s get going, get back to the rafts.”

pppppSwing the big oars,
ppppppppppphead into a storm.

pppppWe offer it to all demons and spirits
pppppMay all be filled and satisfied.
pppppOm macula sai svaha!


Su Tung-p’o sat out one whole night by a creek on the slopes of Mt. Lu.
Next morning he showed this poem to his teacher:

pppThe stream with its sounds is a long broad tongue
pppThe looming mountain   is a wide-awake body
pppThroughout the night   song after song.
pppHow can I     speak at dawn.

Old master Chang-tsung approved him. Two centuries later Do­gen said,
ppp“Sounds of streams and shapes of mountains.
pppThe sounds never stop and the shapes never cease.
pppWas it Su who woke
pppor was it the mountains and streams?
pppBillions of beings see the morning star
pppand all become Buddhas!
pppIf you, who are valley streams and looming
pppcan’t throw some light on the nature of ridges and rivers,

pppwho can?”


Excerpt of “Four Poems for Robin”

Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest

I slept under      rhododendron
All night      blossoms fell
Shivering on      a sheet of cardboard
Feet stuck      in my pack
Hands deep      in my pockets
Barely      able      to     sleep.
I remembered      when we were in school
Sleeping together      in a big warm bed
We were      the youngest lovers
When we broke up      we were still nineteen.
Now our      friends are married
You teach      school back east
I dont mind      living this way
Green hills      the long blue beach
But sometimes      sleeping in the open
I think back      when I had you.

Excerpt of “Four Poems for Robin” from The Back Country 1968

Song of the Taste

Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds

pp the fleshy sweetness packed
pp around the sperm of swaying trees

The muscles of the flanks and thighs of
ppppppp soft-voiced cows
pp the bounce in the lamb’s leap
pp the swish in the ox’s tail

Eating roots grown swoll
ppppppp inside the soil

Drawing on life of living
pp clustered points of light spun
ppppppp out of space
hidden in the grape.

Eating each other’s seed
ppppppp eating
pp ah, each other.

Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
ppppppp lip to lip.

From REGARDING WAVE (New Directions, 1970)

Available as a Broadside.