Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Poets on the Peaks": Snyder, Whalen, and Kerouac in the Cascades

Although he has been linked with the Beats since the mid-50s, Gary Snyder is less the shaman or the showman than Ginsberg and Kerouac, and his writing shuns the wild word-is-a-virus pyrotechnics of William Burroughs. He shared the Beats' post-war restlessness: he studied in Japan, and learned Japanese and Chinese and traveled to India; his interest in Buddhism was coincidentally shared with Ginsberg and Kerouac when they came to San Francisco in the mid-50s, meeting up with poets Kenneth Rexroth and Philip Whalen. That became Beat poetry's East-meets-West moment, New York-to-San Francisco's transcontinental linkage. He was present at the Six Gallery when Ginsberg read "Howl" in October 1955, the first Beat cannon shot across the bow of 50s conformity.

Yet Snyder's individual impact on twentieth-century poetry and ecology -- the actual sinew, flesh and bone of man's place on the planet -- has been considerable, and has continued so for more than 50 years. Reviewing The Gary Snyder Reader in 2000, William Pitt Root puts Snyder's contribution pretty nicely: "Except for Gary Snyder, post mid-twentieth century American poetry might never have gotten further out-of-doors than the nearest garbage dump, golf course, or catfish farm." And Snyder's essays on nature (Earth House Hold, The Practice of the Wild) prove that these ideas are not the stuff of airy, lost-Edenic poetry. To the careful reader, his essays reveal exactly what America is losing more rapidly with every passing season.

Writer and photographer John Suiter trekked to the mountain lookouts where Snyder and others spent several summers in the mid-50s and captured images of the western mountains that inspired them. Poets On the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (2002) is a literary and photographic recreation of the Beats' original sojourn in the wilderness. Snyder began his long poem, Myths and Texts; Kerouac found inspiration for The Dharma Bums (Snyder was the model for the book's main character, Japhy Ryder) and Desolation Angels; Whalen's Sourdough Mountain Lookout was published in 1957. Suiter pulls together the books, notebooks, letters and diaries of poets and writers creating a wilderness ethic in mid-century America, away from the cities and highways that were beginning to mark the country, and into one of the last great wilds on the continent.

The Dharma Bums was published the year after On the Road, Suiter writes, Jack was tremendously excited and wrote to Snyder that 1958 would be "the Year of the Dharma." Snyder, in his fashion, was planning another trip to the wild, but wanting to include Jack in his plans. Returning from sea aboard the oil tanker Sappa Creek, Snyder wrote:"Maybe this is the Year of the Dharma. Now Arabian Sea and heading in for last load and trip home. Tiger, if you like, join me in the mountains this summer. I mean to wander the Sierras and Cascades both. Also, bhikku cabin around SF area -- we'll look into it."

To Whalen, Kerouac wrote that Gary's arrival would spark big changes:
"With Dharma Bums I will crash open the whole scene to sudden buddhism boom and look what will happen closely soon ... everybody going the way of the dharma ... then with the arrival of Gary, smash! Watch, you'll see. It will be a funny year of enlightenment in America."

It was telling of them both that Kerouac's comments envisioned a grand change in American values, while Snyder was planning a return to isolation and the high mountains. For Snyder, there was the real work to be done of living, creating and conserving. Kerouac's wild enthusiasm was not bound to last; within ten years he was disillusioned and drunk, full of despair -- even if his roman candle of a book inspired a generation, he was not part of the social revolution it created, and he despised the unintended counterculture that came up around
 On the Road.

What a contrast to the ecological awareness Snyder's work has encouraged. His poetry and essays have been enjoying a rediscovery, with a lengthy appreciation in the October 20 issue of the New Yorker ("Zen Master") being the most recent. Snyder's long career as a poet, his translations of the Cold Mountain poems by Han Shan and others from the Japanese, and his ecological essays have made him, in a way, the remaining Beat presence. It's ironic that his quiet and unassuming poetry (and his life away from the literary spotlight) would continue to give meaning to Kerouac's "rucksack revolution" and its subsequent 60s fireworks.

Now 82, and after a lifetime of writing and contemplating what he once called "the real work", Snyder is still at it -- though his tools have changed from those he used at his Sourdough Mountain lookout in 1953. Here's an excerpt from "Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh Computer":

... Because its keys click like hail on a rock& it winks when it goes out,
& puts word-heaps in hoards for me,
dozens of pockets of
 gold under boulders in streambeds,
identical seedpods 
strong on a vine,
or it stores bins of bolts; 

And I lose them and find them,
Because whole worlds of writing
can be boldly layed out and then highlighted,
& vanished in a flash at "delete"
so it teaches 
of impermanence and pain ...

The book is a valuable (and very beautiful) addition to Beat literature, putting into pictures as well as words what made this brief period of 1952-1956 so important to the scene that followed. Suiter is at work on a Snyder biography, and his research has turned up an unexpected find from this period: the autumn 2008 Reed College magazine carries information about a recording of Snyder's February 14, 1956 reading with Allen Ginsberg on the Reed College campus. The two reels of audiotape -- a copy made by a student -- contain Snyder speaking about his Cascades lookout experiences, and the first known recording of Ginsberg reading "Howl."

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