At the age of seven, Snyder was laid up for four months by an accident. “So my folks brought me piles of books from the Seattle Public Library,” he recalled in interview, “and it was then I really learned to read and from that time on was voracious — I figure that accident changed my life. At the end of four months, I had read more than most kids do by the time they're eighteen. And I didn't stop.”
Also during his ten childhood years in Washington, Snyder became aware of the presence of the Coast Salish people and developed an interest in the Native American peoples in general and their traditional relationship with nature.
In 1942, following his parents' divorce, Snyder moved to Portland, Oregon with his mother and his younger sister, Anthea. (As Thea Lowry, Anthea is the author of Empty Shells.) Their mother, Lois Snyder Hennessey (born Wilkey), worked during this period as a reporter for The Oregonian. One of Gary's boyhood jobs was as a newspaper copy boy, also at the Oregonian. Also, during his teen years, he attended Lincoln High School, worked as a camp counselor, and went mountain climbing with the Mazamas youth group. Climbing remained an interest of his, especially during his twenties and thirties.
In 1947, he started attending Reed College on a scholarship. Here he met, and for a time roomed with Carl Proujan, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. At Reed, Snyder published his first poems in a student journal. He also spent the summer of 1948 working as a seaman. He joined the now defunct Marine Cooks and Stewards union to get this job. (He was to work as a seaman again in the mid 1950s. As much to experience other cultures in port cities as to earn money, this work served to put him more in touch with the oceans and other aspects of the hydrosphere.) Snyder married Alison Gass in 1950; they separated after seven months, and divorced in 1953.
While attending Reed, Snyder did folklore research on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon. He graduated with a dual degree in anthropology and literature in 1951. He spent the following few summers working as a timber scaler at Warm Springs, developing relationships with its people that were less rooted in academia. This experience formed the basis for some of his earliest published poems (including "A Berry Feast"), later collected in the book The Back Country.
He also encountered the basic ideas of Buddhism and, through its arts, some of the Far East's traditional attitudes toward nature. Going on to Indiana University with a graduate fellowship to study anthropology (where Snyder also practiced self-taught Zen meditation), he left after a single semester to return to San Francisco and to 'sink or swim as a poet'.
Snyder worked for two summers in the North Cascades in Washington as a fire lookout, on Crater Mountain in 1952 and Sourdough Mountain (both locations on the upper Skagit River) in 1953. His attempts to get another lookout stint in 1954 (at the peak of McCarthyism), however, failed. He had been barred from working for the government, due to his above-mentioned association with the Marine Cooks and Stewards. Instead, he went back to Warm Springs to work as a chokersetter. This experience contributed to his Myths and Texts and the essay Ancient Forests of the Far West.
Snyder met Allen Ginsberg when the latter sought Snyder out on the recommendation of Kenneth Rexroth. Then, through Ginsberg, Snyder and Kerouac came to know each other. This period provided the materials for Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, and Snyder was the inspiration for the novel's main character Japhy Ryder in the same way Neal Cassady had inspired Dean Moriarty in On the Road. As the large majority of people in the Beat movement had urban backgrounds, writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac found Snyder, with his backcountry and manual-labor experience and interest in things rural, a refreshing and almost exotic individual. Lawrence Ferlinghetti later referred to Snyder as 'the Thoreau of the Beat Generation'.
Snyder read his poem "A Berry Feast" at the famous poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco (October 7 1955) that heralded what was to become known as the San Francisco Renaissance. This also marked Snyder's first involvement with the Beats, although he was not a member of the original New York circle, but rather entered the scene through his association with Kenneth Rexroth.
As recounted in Kerouac's Dharma Bums, even at age 25 Snyder felt he could have a role in the fateful future meeting of West and East. Snyder's first book, Riprap, which drew on his experiences as a forest lookout and on the trail-crew in Yosemite, was published in 1959.
In 1955, the First Zen Institute of America offered him a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan, but the State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that "it has been alleged you are a Communist." Fortunately, a subsequent District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruling forced a change in policy, and Snyder got his passport. In the end, his expenses were paid by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, for whom he was supposed to work; but initially he served as personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokuku-ji in Kyoto, where Dwight Goddard and R. H. Blyth had preceded him. Mornings, after zazen, sutra chanting, and chores for Miura, he took Japanese classes, bringing his spoken Japanese up to a level sufficient for koan study. He developed a friendship with Philip Yampolsky, who took him around Kyoto. In early July 1955, he took refuge and requested to become Miura's disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.
He returned to California via the Persian Gulf, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and various Pacific Islands, in 1958, voyaging as a crewman in the engine room on the oil freighter Sappa Creek, and took up residence at Marin-an again. He turned one room into a zendo, with about six regular participants. In early June, he met the poet Joanne Kyger. She became his girlfriend, and eventually his wife. In 1959, he shipped for Japan again, where he rented a cottage outside Kyoto. He became the first foreign disciple of Oda Sesso Roshi, the new abbot of Daitoku-ji. He married Kyger on February 28, 1960, immediately after her arrival, which Sasaki insisted they do, if they were to live together and be associated with the First Zen Institute of America.
During the period between 1956 and 1969, he went back and forth between California and Japan, studying Zen, working on translations with Ruth Fuller Sasaki, and finally living for a while with a group of other people on a small, volcanic island. His previous study of written Chinese assisted his immersion in the Zen tradition (with its roots in Tang Dynasty China) and enabled him to take on certain professional projects while he was living in Japan.
Snyder received the Zen precepts and a dharma name (Chofu, "Listen to the Wind"), and lived sometimes as a de facto monk, but never registered to become a priest and planned eventually to return to the United States to 'turn the wheel of the dharma'. He was married from 1960 to 1965 to Joanne Kyger, who lived with him in Japan.
During this time, he published a collection of his poems from the early to mid '50s, Myths & Texts (1960), and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965). (This last was the beginning of a project that he was to continue working on until the late 1990s.) Much of Snyder’s poetry expresses experiences, environments, and insights involved with the work he has done for a living: logger, fire-lookout, steam-freighter crew, translator, carpenter, and itinerant poet, among other things.
Ever the participant observer, during his years in Japan Snyder not only immersed himself in Zen practice in monasteries but also was initiated into Shugendo, a form of ancient Japanese animism, (see also Yamabushi). In the early 1960s he traveled for six months through India with his wife Joanne, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky.
Snyder and Joanne Kyger separated soon after their trip to India, and divorced in 1965.
Continuing on in the path of the naturalist while in Japan, Snyder educated himself on subjects like geomorphology and forestry. These interests have probably surfaced as much or more in his essays and interviews as in his poetry.
In 1966, Snyder joined Allen Ginsberg, Richard Baker, and Swami Kriyananda to buy 100 acres in the Sierra foothills, north of Nevada City, California. In 1970, this would become his home, with the Snyder family's portion being named Kitkitdizze.
Snyder spent the summers of 1967 and 1968 with a group of Japanese back-to-the-land drop-outs known as "the Tribe" on Suwanosejima (a small Japanese island in the East China Sea), where they combed the beaches, gathered edible plants, and fished. On the island, on August 6, 1967, he married Masa Uehara, whom he had met in Osaka a year earlier. In 1968, they moved to California with their infant son, Kai (born April 1968). Their second son, Gen, was born a year later. In 1971, they moved to San Juan Ridge in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, near the South Fork of the Yuba River, where they and friends built a house that drew on rural-Japanese and Native-American architectural ideas.
In 1968 his book The Back Country appeared, again mainly a collection of poems stretching back over about fifteen years. Snyder devoted a section at the end of the book to his translations of eighteen poems by Kenji Miyazawa.
Snyder also wrote numerous essays setting forth his views on poetry, culture, social experimentation, and the environment. Many of these were collected in Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977), The Real Work (1980), The Practice of the Wild (1990), A Place in Space (1995), and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999). In 1979, Snyder published He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, based on his Reed thesis. Snyder's journals from his travel in India in the mid 1960s appeared in 1983 under the title Passage Through India.
In interviews and in articles about him, Snyder provided much food for thought, starting back in the mid 1960s. In these, his wide-ranging interests in cultures, natural history, religions, social critique, contemporary America, and hands-on aspects of rural life, as well as his ideas on literature, were given full-blown articulation. In 1967, for instance (in a taped round-table discussion in the San Francisco Oracle), Snyder's friend Alan Watts brought up the world problem posed by the population-explosion. Snyder's comment was the "change or bend of mind that seems to be taking place in the West, today especially, is going to result — can result ultimately — in a vast leisure society in which people will voluntarily reduce their number." It was a prediction that would prove partly true.
Snyder had readily accepted the far-reaching implications of the Hubbert "peak oil" prediction emerging into public policy discussion in the 1970s. Snyder often spoke of the "fossil-fuel subsidy," in the form of fairly cheap petroleum and coal, that had distorted many aspects of human activity and relationships (e.g., farming, suburban life, wealth and poverty).
In the 1980s and 1990s, Snyder expressed a lot of his insights and ideas in public lectures and in essays, including ones published in major outdoor and environmental magazines (and later collected in books).
In 1985, Snyder became a professor in the writing-program at the University of California, Davis. Here he began to influence a new generation of authors interested in writing about the Far East, including Robert Clark Young, whom he mentored. Snyder is now professor emeritus of English.
Snyder was married to Uehara for twenty-two years; the couple divorced in 1989. Snyder married Carole Lynn Koda (October 3, 1947 - June 29, 2006), who would write Homegrown: Thirteen brothers and sisters, a century in America, in 1991, and remained married to her until her death of cancer. She had been born in the third generation of a successful Japanese-American farming family, noted for its excellent rice. She shared Buddhism, extensive travels, and work with Snyder, and performed independent work as a naturalist.
As Snyder's involvement in environmental issues and his teaching grew, he seemed to move away from poetry for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, in 1996 he published the complete Mountains and Rivers Without End, which, in its mixture of the lyrical and epic modes celebrating the act of inhabitation on a specific place on the planet, is both his finest work and a summation of what a re-inhabitory poetics stands for. This work was written over a 40-year period. It has been translated into Japanese and French. In 2004 Snyder published Danger on Peaks, his first collection of new poems in twenty years.
Along the way, Gary Snyder was awarded the Levinson Prize from the journal Poetry, the American Poetry Society Shelley Memorial Award (1986), was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1987), and won the 1997 Bollingen Prize for Poetry and, that same year, the John Hay Award for Nature Writing. Snyder also has the distinction of being the first American to receive the Buddhism Transmission Award (for 1998) from the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation. For his ecological and social activism, Snyder was named as one of the 100 visionaries selected in 1995 by Utne Reader.
The author and editor Stewart Brand once wrote: "Gary Snyder's poetry addresses the life-planet identification with unusual simplicity of style and complexity of effect." (CoEvolution Quarterly, issue #4, 1974)
Snyder has always maintained that his personal sensibility arose from his interest in Native Americans (“Indians”) and their involvement with nature and knowledge of it; indeed, their “ways” seemed to resonate with his own. And he has sought something akin to this through Buddhist practices, Yamabushi initiation, and other experiences and involvements. However, since his youth he has been quite literate, and he has written about his appreciation of writers of similar sensibilities, like D. H. Lawrence, William Butler Yeats, and some of the great ancient Chinese poets. William Carlos Williams was another influence, especially on Snyder’s earliest published work. Starting in high school, Snyder read and loved the work of Robinson Jeffers, his predecessor in poetry of the landscape of the American West; but, whereas Jeffers valued nature over humankind, Snyder saw humankind as part of nature.
In 2004, receiving the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize, Snyder highlighted traditional ballads and folk songs, Native American songs and poems, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Jeffers, Ezra Pound, Noh drama, Zen aphorisms, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and Robert Duncan as significant influences on his poetry, but added, "the influence from haiku and from the Chinese is, I think, the deepest.
"I have some concerns that I'm continually investigating that tie together biology, mysticism, prehistory, general systems theory," Snyder once said in interview (New York Quarterly "Craft Interview," 1973). Besides 'non-human nature', sexuality is something often expressed or contemplated in Gary Snyder's poetry. A self-admitted and somewhat famed ladies' man through most of his life, Snyder has also been married four times.
Aside from content and style, Snyder's interests in anthropology and Native cultures, along with his Buddhism and environmentalism, have formed his attitude to poetry. He has often spoken of the poem as work-place, and, for him, the work to be done there is learning to be in the world.
Snyder argues that poets, and humans in general, need to adjust to very long timescales, especially when judging the consequences of their actions. His poetry examines the gap between nature and culture so as to point to ways in which the two can be more closely integrated.
The "re-tribalization" of the modern, mass-society world envisioned by Marshall McLuhan, with all of the ominous, dystopian possibilities that McLuhan warned of — subsequently accepted by many modern intellectuals — is not the future that Snyder expects or works toward. Snyder's is a positive interpretation of the tribe and of the possible future.
Be these things as they may, in Snyder’s work what some of his critics may deem romanticism is balanced by an evident devotion to facts, appreciation of human practicality and capability, expressions of joy found in physical work, interest in science, and continual rumination on responsibility.
Gary Snyder is widely regarded as a member of the Beat Generation circle of writers: he was one of the poets that read at the famous Six Gallery event mentioned above, and was written about in one of Kerouac's most popular novels, The Dharma Bums. Some critics argue that Snyder's connection with the Beats is exaggerated and that he might better be regarded as a member of the West-Coast group the San Francisco Renaissance, which developed independently. Snyder himself has some reservations about the label "Beat," but does not appear to have any strong objection to being included in the group. He often talks about the Beats in the first person plural, referring to the group as "we" and "us".
A quotation from a 1974 interview at the University of North Dakota Writers Conference (published in The Beat Vision):
...I never did know exactly what was meant by the term "The Beats," but let's say that the original meeting, association, comradeship of Allen [Ginsberg], myself, Michael [McClure], Lawrence [Ferlinghetti], Philip Whalen, who's not here, Lew Welch, who's dead, Gregory [Corso], for me, to a somewhat lesser extent (I never knew Gregory as well as the others) did embody a criticism and a vision which we shared in various ways, and then went our own ways for many years. ...
Where we began to come really close together again, in the late '60s, and gradually working toward this point, it seems to me, was when Allen began to take a deep interest in Oriental thought and then in Buddhism which added another dimension to our levels of agreement; and later through Allen's influence, Lawrence began to draw toward that; and from another angle, Michael and I after the lapse of some years of contact, found our heads very much in the same place, and it's very curious and interesting now; and Lawrence went off in a very political direction for awhile, which none of us had any objection with, except that wasn't my main focus. It's very interesting that we find ourselves so much on the same ground again, after having explored divergent paths; and find ourselves united on this position of powerful environmental concern, critique of the future of the individual state, and an essentially shared poetics, and only half-stated but in the background very powerfully there, a basic agreement on some Buddhist type psychological views of human nature and human possibilities.
However, Gary Snyder has also been quoted as saying:
The term Beat is better used for a smaller group of writers ... the immediate group around Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, plus Gregory Corso and a few others. Many of us ... belong together in the category of the San Francisco Renaissance. ... Still, beat can also be defined as a particular state of mind ... and I was in that mind for a while.