When this landmark work was first published, Gary Snyder was honored with the Bollingen Poetry Prize, the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Orion Societys John Hay Award. Publishers Weekly named Mountains and Rivers Without End one of the best books of 1996. On April 8, 1956, Gary Snyder began work on a long poem entitled Mountains and Rives Without End. In
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I first met Gary Snyder in person in the winter of 1976 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at my alma mater, Calvin College. The previous year, when I had been the Writers Guild chairman, we had invited in three writers, the novelist Chaim Potok who was the first rabbi to speak on Calvin’s campus, the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley. The following year, Snyder came in. His reading was typically gentle and almost aphoristic, unassuming. When we talked with him
Gary Snyder is an American poet once associated with the Beats (buddies with Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac–Snyder was Japhy Rider in The Dharma Bums!!), an essayist and environmental activist. Snyder has sometimes been described as the ‘laureate of Deep Ecology’. His work reflects his immersion in both Buddhist spirituality and nature, and his poetics are grounded in ordinary speech patterns rather than forms like the sonnet or even haiku, though he more than anyone else brought haiku and other Japanese forms into the U.S. and the west generally, and much work by Ginsburg and Kerouac and others was much influenced over time by Snyder’s introduction to eastern religion and culture.
Some of my favorite collections of poetry include Myths and Texts (1960), Regarding Wave (1969), Turtle Island (1974), The Old Ways (1977) and Practice of the Wild (1990), but in many ways his magnum opus is the text he worked on for four decades, Mountains and Rivers Without End, finally completed in 1996.
“I have some concerns that I’m continually investigating that tie together biology, mysticism, prehistory and general systems theory,” he once said, but the poetry itself never feels this heady. It’s common language and not obviously shaped. It proceeds out of the every day. Existential, of today, as is the Zen Buddhism he practiced. This book is not my absolute favorite, not as intimate-seeming for me as Turtle Island or The Old Ways, but it is impressive, scanning the concerns of much of his career. An essay Snyder writes as an appendix explains how the text came to be written and many of its sources in Japanese art and culture that he began studying as an undergrad at Reed College. The heart of it is about mountains and rivers of the Pacific Northwest and the Sierra Nevada, where he has been living since 1970. It’s one long poem, finally, a kind of sutra, “an extended poetic, philosophic and mythic narrative of the female Buddha Tara.”
I first read it when it came out in 1996, and now for a second time, over a month in reading, a poem or so a day. I made a commitment to reread it ever since I passed near his home through the mountains in late August of the past year. I also read his Danger on Peaks (2004). If you are looking for poetry of nature, with a Buddhist sensibility, check out Snyder. He’s a spiritual poet, a poet of the mountains and rivers and soul. I’d love to see him again, but here I (and you) can hear him:
Gary Snyder at 84 on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/04/18/4005736…
How Poetry Comes to Me
It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light
Finding the Space in the Heart
I first saw it in the sixties,
driving a Volkswagen camper
with a fierce gay poet and a
lovely but dangerous girl with a husky voice,
we came down from Canada
on the dry east side of the ranges. Grand Coulee, Blue
Mountains, lava flow caves,
the Alvord desert—pronghorn ranges—
and the glittering obsidian-paved
dirt track toward Vya,
seldom-seen roads late September and
thick frost at dawn; then
follow a canyon and suddenly open to
silvery flats that curved over the edge
O, ah! The
awareness of emptiness
brings forth a heart of compassion!
We followed the rim of the playa
to a bar where the roads end
and over a pass into Pyramid Lake
from the Smoke Creek side,
by the ranches of wizards
who follow the tipi path.
The next day we reached San Francisco
in a time when it seemed
the world might head a new way.
And again, in the seventies, back from
Montana, I recklessly pulled off the highway
took a dirt track onto the flats,
got stuck—scared the kids—slept the night,
and the next day sucked free and went on.
Fifteen years passed. In the eighties
With my lover I went where the roads end.
Walked the hills for a day,
looked out where it all drops away,
discovered a path
of carved stone inscriptions tucked into the sagebrush
“Stomp out greed”
“The best things in life are not things”
words placed by an old desert sage.
Faint shorelines seen high on these slopes,
long gone Lake Lahontan,
cutthroat trout spirit in silt—
Columbian Mammoth bones
four hundred feet up on the wave-etched
beach ledge; curly-horned
desert sheep outlines pecked into the rock,
and turned the truck onto the playa
heading for know-not,
bone-gray dust boiling and billowing,
mile after mile, trackless and featureless,
let the car coast to a halt
on the crazed cracked
flat hard face where
winter snow spirals, and
summer sun bakes like a kiln.
Off nowhere, to be or not be,
all equal, far reaches, no bounds.
Sound swallowed away
no waters, no mountains, no
bush no grass and
because no grass
no shade but your shadow.
No flatness because no not-flatness.
No loss, no gain. So—
nothing in the way!
—the ground is the sky
the sky is the ground,
no place between, just
time being here.
We meet heart to heart,
leg hard-twined to leg,
with a kiss that goes to the bone.
Dawn sun comes straight in the eye. The tooth
of a far peak called King Lear.
Now in the nineties desert night
—my lover’s my wife—
old friends, old trucks, drawn around;
great arcs of kids on bikes out there in darkness
no lights—just planet Venus glinting
by the calyx crescent moon,
and tasting grasshoppers roasted in a pan.
They all somehow swarm down here—
sons and daughters in the circle
eating grasshoppers grimacing,
singing sūtras for the insects in the wilderness,
—the wideness, the
foolish loving spaces
full of heart.
Walking on walking,
under foot earth turns
Streams and mountains never stay the same.
The space goes on.
But the wet black brush
tip drawn to a point,