gary snyder: Danger on Peaks

This review appeared in The Kyoto Journal:

Gary Snyder: Danger on Peaks

By Roy Hamric

“There is a point you can make that anything looked at with love and attention becomes very interesting,” – Gary Snyder. *

Gary Snyder’s Danger On Peaks, his 10th book of poetry, is further proof that since he first published Rip Rap in 1959 we’ve been in the midst of a rare weaving of life and art.

In a few more decades, it will probably be clear that Snyder has claimed the role of world icon of American poetry, bridging East and West, and his life will be a potent force as a model of committment to community and the natural world.

But what will become even clearer is that Snyder’s closest peers are  not only Han Shan, Stonehouse, Bassho, Ikkyu and the other red-blooded, Zen poets whose voices Snyder has extended into modern times, but also Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stephens and his close fellow Beat poets.

gary snyder

Snyder’s cultural impact in America and beyond has been two-fold – practically useful and spiritually useful, in the sense of giving coming generations a model of creative responsibility and right thinking. Over time, my feeling is that his poetic and social influence will likely trump even Thoreau’s place as a writer and man of nature. It will, at the least, be seen as a twentieth century extension of Thoreau’s fierce independence of nature. Such is Snyder’s accomplishment since his famous reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco 50 years ago.

Danger On Peaks is probably the most free and  personal of his poetry books so far. It’s not Old Man Snyder’s wisdom finally revealed, but it is wise. In his poetry, he’s never preached. Each poem hoes the Zen line in each line – naming and pointing. Simple, and yet…

Snyder’s poetry, even for America, is rigorous and hardy, a West Coast counterpart to a venerable American-consciousness lineage, inaugurated by Emerson. And yet, Snyder is also a true man of Zen. How the two esthetics mix is up to each reader to decide. But by looking at his poetry and his writing about poetry, we do get a clearer understanding of his art.

For starters, go back to a criticism that Emerson made, measuring the poets of his day. He said poetry should be written so that meaning trumps meter, which is not to say that poetry should be without meter. Real meaning must carry the day. But what is real meaning? Beside Emerson’s esthetic, which he struggled to apply in his own poetry, largely unsuccessfully, let’s place a question Snyder asked in an essay in A Sense of Place: “Is art an imposition of order on chaotic nature, or is art [also read language] a matter of discovering the grain of things, of uncovering the measured chaos that structures the natural world?” Add to that his view that the world is itself an on-going “making poem,” and we’re off into new esthetic territory. Snyder has laid down markers on how and why his poetry works. Naturally, it is closely linked to his spiritual search, which eventually led him, in 1956, to Zen practice in Kyoto. Extended zazen practice makes one extra sensitive to the role of words and language and their effects on mind. From there, it’s a small step to see the practice of poetry as words that find their right place, which approach consciousness, rather than are made by consciousness.

Snyder would, of course, cringe at being called a Zen poet. He is a poet in the fullest sense, writing in an American-Asian poetry lineage of anti-romanticism and modernism –no matter how far back Zen poetry extends in historical time, it is esthetically modern because it doesn’t rely on symbolic, theological or mythological influences.

Before he had met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and before he had arrived in Kyoto, Snyder, at age 24, had already seen his course: in a letter to his Buddhist pal PhilipWhalen in1954, fives years before Rip Rap was published, he wrote:

“I come to think more and more, poetry is a process and should be, in a Buddhist sort of way, didactic and sensual.” It all comes down to that: a  poetry of attention, almost invisibly instructive, and usually without a pronounced message – a fundamental reliance on words and ordinary reality to carry the “message” rather than tropes or symbols. Let “just that” create the meaning, thank you. The world “making” itself through open mind. The wise and instinctive will see.

While this is an old chestnut in Zen, it was no small feat for an unpublished, young American poet to base his esthetics on – “just that,” freshly seen and vividly laid down.

Snyder has always been wisely reticent in talking about his Zen practice. If we are lucky, though, we someday will get an autobiographical account of his Zen journey, and the people in his life.

In his Paris Review interview in 1992, he speculated a little on the role of zazen in his poetry.

“This taught me something about the nature of thought, and it led me to the conclusion – in spite of some linguists and literary theorists of the French ilk – that language is not where we start thinking. We think before language, and thought images come into language at a certain point. We have fundamental thought processes that are prelinguistic. Some of my poetry reaches back to that.”

Again, in an essay, “Language Goes Two Ways,” in A Place in Space, he talked about, “The way to see with language, to be free with it and to find it a vehicle of self-transcending insight, is to know both mind and language extremely well and to play with their many possibilities without any special attachment. In doing this, a language yields up surprises and angles that amaze us and that can lead back to unmediated, direct experience.” He went on to say, “But, creativity is not a unique, singular, godlike act of  ‘making something.’ It is born of being deeply immersed in what is – and then seeing the overlooked connections, tensions, resonances, shadows, reversals, retellings. What comes forth is new.”

The book is composed of six sections. Part one opens with a series of poems built around Snyder’s 1945 ascent of Mt. St. Helens (the year of Hiroshima) and its later eruption in 1980. The book ends in the period of 9/11 and the destruction of the carved Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Between, we get a full range of auto-biographical moments,  (truck stops, freeways, community workshops), glimpses of the natural world (mountains, rivers, fields, fauna), home life in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains, epiphanies, memories of earlier life, loves, the rhythm of friendship, his mother, assorted prose and haiku combinations and a final blessing gatha.

Here’s a sample of three short poems of the 97 poems that make up the book – many long, complex and demanding of multiple readings:

Steady, They Say

Clambering up the rocks of a dry wash gully,

Warped sandstone, by the San Juan River,

look north to stony mountains

shifting clouds and sun

– despair at how the human world goes down

Consult my old advisers

“steady,” they say


Work Day

They want –

Short lengths of 1” schedule 40 PVC

A 10’ chimney sweeping brush

Someone to grind the mower blades

A log chain,

My neighbors’ Spring Work

Chainsaw dust

Clay-clod stuck spade

Apple blossoms and bees

April Calls and Colors

Green steel waste bins

flapping black plastic lids

gobbling flattened cardboard,

far off, a backup beeper.

Like the coyote, the Native American symbol Snyder helped to put back into public consciousness in the early 60s, he has assumed many roles: mountain lookout, sailor, poet, translator, Buddhist, life-long meditator, counter-culture hero, essayist, agitator, government official and academic, while always casting a calm Bodhisattva aura as a worker for a better world.

This book is a hearty gift, another testament of art and faith from a rare talent. The poems show us again that the world of art and artful living is here now before our eyes and ears. Only the bravest poets have the confidence and mastery to rely on the ordinary to achieve the extraordinary. Traditionally, that has been the work of religious teachers.

Finally, here’s Snyder himself, as poet, on the mystery of mind and poetry:

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

*Paris Review Interview, 1992.

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