“Before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
After Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” – old Buddhist proverb
City Lights was so packed that people could barely get in the door. Fortunately we had seats, having arrived early. Gary Snyder was led into the room by a young intern. A few minutes later he was talking to us like an older relative whose philosophical buoyancy has probably prolonged his life. He was born in 1930 and is one of the few writers associated with the Beats who is still living.
He told us about living in North Beach in the early 1950’s, working on the docks, and rooming with the poet Philip Whalen. They would play chess at the Mechanics Institute and use its library. He would take the train across the lower span of the Bay Bridge to UC Berkeley where he studied Japanese and Chinese. In the summer he worked in the forest. When he applied for a job as a fire spotter he asked for the most remote location.
He is not at all remote in person, but he does like solitude and quiet. He has lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills for many years, not far from Nevada City. I know the area somewhat — a friend had a small ranch outside of Rough and Ready when I was 18 (in 1970) and we would go skinny-dipping with girls in the Yuba River. Pickup trucks with shotguns and Confederate flags were common in that area. I have never seen his home, but not many have, from what I hear. He is the embodiment of a practical man who lives in the country.
Tools were important to him, the right kit for the right job. In Kitkitdizze, there are tools everywhere, racks and stacks of them, useful objects respected like artworks. Blades, chisels, axes, boots, helmets, guns. The actor Peter Coyote remembers Joanne Kyger laughing about ‘how much stuff Gary had to store so that he could go off to Japan and live simply.’
The poet Joanne Kyger was his first wife. He traveled to India with her and Allen Ginsberg in 1962, having lived for years in Japan, studying Buddhism. He met Alan Watts at the Berkeley Buddhist Church. I would watch Watts deliver his dry talks on public television in Los Angeles when I was in high school. Snyder noted that they bonded over the fact that they both had exquisite handwriting. He learned Renaissance Italic calligraphy at Reed College in Oregon. The same professor taught Steve Jobs (and had some influence on the fonts that Jobs would eventually use).
There were passing references to Lew Welch, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and Japanese writers from centuries ago. Part of the openness of the man is that, while he keeps his distance when it comes to where he lives, he has no distance from the human condition. He has been an elusive fixture in this culture for half a century or more, and when I hear him speak I have the feeling that I’m on the right path. It’s like locating the North Star, which I associate with a state of grace. I have a similar sense when visiting my father, who is 85, another philosophical person from another era, though he never took acid with Lew Welch on Mt. Tam. Snyder mentioned that occurrence at an event in honor of Lew Welch in 2012. The man has a resonating familiarity for those of us who have spent a lot of time on Mt. Tam, done acid on the Yuba River, and backpacked in the high Sierras.
I have had some lines of his in my head for many years and they float up from time to time. There is one about a woman in a public bath in Japan, standing on the side and brushing drops of water off her bush with her hand. The Buddhist proverb at the beginning of this review has also lingered in my mind, giving off signals of which I am not always aware.
He was at City Lights because there was a new edition of his poems from 40 years ago, Mountains and Rivers Without End, along with three CDs of him reading the entire contents. They were recorded where he lives in the hills. It is so quiet you can hear a leaf drop.
He said he was still learning from his old writings, especially when he talks about them to small crowds and tries to figure out what he was doing at the time. That rings a bell — writers slipping into a form of expression for reasons they are not sure about. They are pulled in a certain direction, or wander off with a lack of certainty which is hard to handle sometimes, but makes possible a new direction. He quoted an old Japanese poet: “Do not be prepared for poetry writing” – especially if you want to include an element of surprise, and avoid the overcooked composition. He said it depends on not knowing what you’re doing – that’s how you get to the new and interesting – but it makes for a few lost weekends, and manuscripts you’re not sure what to do with.
“The notion of emptiness engenders compassion,” he said, quoting the Tibetan writer Milarepa. I think it also engenders nihilism, the Marquis de Sade, and housing developments.
Snyder said his poems are not about nature in the usual sense, but rather “the phenomenal universe.” He read one called “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin,” (also known as a behavioral sink) which ended with “owl calls… late rising moon.”
I like it when he writes about the desert. His poems are the equivalent of a rock garden, embracing emptiness and natural objects on a ground raked by brain waves. His approach reminds me of my father’s training in journalism, which included the ABC’s: accuracy, brevity, clarity. His life is full of mountains and rivers, and he is like a dry branch with eyes and a voice.
He described mountains as having “yogic intention and energy thrusting upward,” which sounds rather phallic. Rivers involve gravity finding its way in the flow of water. This is a “dyadic opposition.” It reminds me of a line from Questlove: “Sometimes you just have to launch yourself out into the river of an evening” (Mo’ Meta Blues). Snyder wondered if one could represent a mountain range in words or on canvas. A mountain strange.
Can the meager efforts of one individual do it justice, thinking out loud with brush and ink? If I wrote about mountains, I would mention how the sub-continent of India broke off from Africa and continental-drifted across the ocean. If it was moving at a rate of one foot per year it could have gone a thousand miles in 5,000,000 years. When it gradually ploughed into Asia, it pushed up the mountain range we know as the Himalayas. Those are the kind of forces involved with mountains, along with snowflakes.
He talked about Black Rock Desert before Burning Man, and how there are a series of inscriptions on the edge of the desert, written by a long-gone loner. He drove with Ginsberg through the high country of Northern California. They encountered a peyote cult (called the Teepee Path) at Pyramid Lake.
“Walking on walking, /underfoot earth turns/Streams and mountains never stay the same.”
Someone asked about Walt Whitman’s influence on him. He said it was considerable. He studied Whitman in high school, making a point that education was not so bad during the Depression, at least for him. It doesn’t require a lot of money, and there was a more literate focus back then. He quoted a phrase from Whitman which Kerouac loved: “The tender and junior Buddha.”
Someone asked him to tell his metaphysical stories. He was amused and said he couldn’t, they were private and might not be true. A man asked if he thought poetic forms were still valid or useful. He said why not, and talked about ballad or hymn meter, 14 syllables, a lively metrical form which is found in country-western music.
A woman asked about a photo of him in the Ginsberg show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. He had no idea which picture it was, but said Ginsberg was “shameless” when it came to taking pictures – whatever he could get away with.
Snyder talked for an hour, then sat down to sign books. There was a line of people, so we went across the street to Specs and had a drink, talking with Jack Hirschman and friends for a while. When we left, I noticed Snyder was just leaving City Lights. I walked up and gave him a copy of our magazine, Out of Our, which he was kind enough to accept. We walked with him for a few blocks, talking like old friends. He reminds me of a line, “Nothing human is alien to me” (Terence, the ancient Roman playwright). We got on the subject of the archives of him and other writers, including videos of readings in the possession of Kush. When we parted, I said something about coming up to the Yuba River next summer and he thought it was a good idea.
“Hay for the Horses”
He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”
(from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder, 1958)
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).