When I was very young ? say, seventeen or eighteen ? I had the great fortune to run across the one book (or, should I say One Book) that really changed my life. Not coincidentally, considering my state of mind and lifestyle at the time, it was Jack Kerouac
's The Dharma Bums
. It wasn't really the story itself that caught my attention and caused me to read the book over and over again. Rather, it was the introduction the book offered to me in the ways of Zen Buddhism and poetry.
The book was ? is ? rife with allusions to Zen and to mad bodhisattvas of the open road. One of the most powerful of Kerouac's literary incarnations of these avatars of Buddhist wisdom and compassion lies in the character of one Japhy Ryder, a young man who, when not chanting haikus from mountain tops or trying to seduce winsome young Beatnik lasses while swilling cheap wine, happens to translate classical Chinese poetry into English.
I was bowled over. The poem that Kerouac used as an illustration of Japhy's work was the creation of a man named Han Shan, a magical Zen Taoist hermit and sometime monk of the 7th century CE. It went like this:
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
I thought this was the greatest thing I'd ever read. And, while my fascination with Zen and with Buddhism in general has tended to recede over the years, my fascination with this poem, and indeed with this whole aesthetic sensibility has only increased. It's still, after 25 years, one of the greatest things I've ever read.
Imagine my sense of loss when I thought that this one poem would be the only one I'd ever find in this vein.
Imagine the explosion of joy I experienced when I found that this was the pseudonymous work of contemporary Zen poet and anti-civilizational brigand Gary Snyder. And, that he was the author of several books, one of which, counter-intuitively, had even won the Pulitzer.
Snyder is a madman, a Zen-inspired dreamer of a different world, one where humanity lives in the heart of nature, as an integral, assimilated part rather than as an intruder into a greater whole. As he writes in an essay called "Four Changes, With a Postscript": "Human beings are but a part of the fabric of life ? dependent on the whole fabric for their very existence. As the most highly developed tool-using animal, we must recognize that the unknown evolutionary destinies of other life forms are to be respected, and we must act as gentle steward of the earth's community of being." Snyder's poems, essays, translations, and journals are legion, and his work is enormously challenging on a moral, spiritual, and even religious plane.
Much of this work ? or, at least a generous representation of it ? is available in The Gary Snyder Reader. This humongous 617-page collection brings together much of the best of Snyder's prose, poetry, and translations from the past fifty odd years. Of course, any Snyder freak is going to differ on what should have been included, and what was catastrophically overlooked. I'd love to see the poem quoted above included. Tragically, it wasn't, but several other excellent Han Shan poems from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems help make this collection an exceptionally beautiful thing. I dearly wish that the poem "Anasazi" from Turtle Island had not been omitted, but at least his wonderful elegy to an America gone by, "I Went into the Maverick Bar," is here.
In the end, what it comes down to is that Snyder is a poet that, as residents of this continent, we cannot do without. He deserves to be read, to be read carefully, and to be read again and again. I can't think of anyone, with the possible exception of Wendell Berry, who's more necessary to our current national crisis. There's much in literature that speaks eloquently to our state in the world and to visions of how things could be better. Explore the prophetic voice of Gary Snyder, and find out exactly what I mean.
Let's close with the poem "For the Children."
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers