Ed. Note: Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder is scheduled for a free public reading on Sunday, July 8, at 8 p.m. in UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium. For more information call (907) 786-4394.
In the fall of 1968 I watched Thurgood Marshall preside over a moot court of law students, and heard Alex Haley speak about his time and conversations with Malcolm X and his current project, Roots. But the most powerful presentation I witnessed on campus at Stanford that freshman fall was a poetry reading and elucidation by Gary Snyder.
Though identified as one of the Beats, he didn't speak at all about that time or those people. In hindsight we can see that he influenced the Beat poets and writers more than they him. He introduced Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen and Jack Kerouac to Buddhist thought, sensibilities, and Zen meditation. He got Kerouac and Phillip Whalen jobs as fire lookouts in the Cascades. Now, at 82, Snyder is one of the few surviving and, other than Laurence Ferlinghetti, may be the longest lived of the Beats.
That night in ’68 he read his poems, mostly from his upcoming Turtle Island, for which he would win the Pulitzer Prize.
After each poem he spoke of connections to Buddhism, the earth, Native American symbology and myths. He talked, knowing poetry was his way to link them together. Then he would recite another poem. He was aware of the difficulty of trying to assimilate so many histories, cultures, identities and ideas into a brief spoken format. He tried his best to inform his listeners – that night to his audience, and ever after to the readers of his poems.
He tried to explain his melded interests, a sacred earth, our environment, how cultures from ancient Chinese to Native American treated their world, and how to translate it into words. He was living in the eastern Sierras, trying to integrate what he knew with the life he lived and observed. He was sympathetic to the loggers and the back-to-the-land neighbors in his mountains, but did not hesitate to point out anomalies. He said the geodesic domes erected by new age wannabes seemed like “warts on the earth.”
Now I occasionally come across one of his poems. It's like running into an old friend. I admire his passion of exploration. He seems never to have stopped, delving further into environmental care and activism. He has never ignored the world he is part of, still striving to preserve and convey what is important. His unifying vehicle has always been poetry, his sincerity overwhelming. This I recall then, and imagine now.
– James P. Welch, Eagle River
WHY LOG TRUCK DRIVERS RISE EARLIER THAN STUDENTS OF ZEN
In the high seat, before dawn dark,
Polished hubs gleam
And the shiny diesel stack
Warms and flutters
Up the Tyler Road grade
To the logging in Poorman creek.
Thirty miles of dust.
There is no other life.
– Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island (1974)