Gary Snyder:
Smokey the Bear Bodhisattva

One of the surviving or junior members of the pre-war Reactionary Generation, the Old Left Establishment, one of the numerous clones of Philip Rahv, once referred to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and myself as “members of the bear-shit-on-the-trail school of poetry.” Was it Lionel Trilling? Was it Leslie Fiedler? Was it Norman Podhoretz? I can’t remember; they all look alike to me, and, as Lenore Kandel says, an hour after you have eaten them you are hungry again. Regardless, the characterization was appropriate and even just. As a description of spokesmen for a way of life only dimly discernible by a two-hundred-inch telescope from Morningside Heights or the roof of a thirteen-story office building on Union Square circa 1930, it is the complaint of the senile establishment that the counter-culture has no ideologists, no critics, except their own renegade, Paul Goodman. What they mean by ideology in criticism is prose that quotes predigested Freud and misunderstood Marx and concerns itself with a verbalized relationship of a completely urban society in the bygone industrial era. No bears shit on the grass, alas, in Central Park.

Gary Snyder is unquestionably the leading ideologist and critic of the counter-culture, but he is that, not discursively, but as a poet whose values are exposed in the factual experience of the poem with the presentational immediacy of concrete happenings. The ideology is the perspective. The criticism is in the arrangement. The dead culture is challenged not by rhetorical judgment but by unassimilable occurrences. The Old Guard’s reaction to Gary Snyder is much like their reaction, when they were a very young guard, to Laura Riding. She wrote the best poetry of her time, but since it implicitly challenged all the presuppositions of interbellum culture, that culture found her totally indigestible and forgot her. Even the bright young homosexuals of the country house weekend soviets who when she came to England sat at her feet to learn the ABC’s of modernistical versification, ran away when they found out what she meant. They fled from her who sometime did her seek.

Allen Ginsberg is assimilable. We can always make room in the canon for Hosea. The prophet, the nabi, is a standard appurtenance of the Solomonic court. Ginsberg must struggle continuously to keep from being digested. Even so he is one of America’s Hundred Best Celebrities. Whalen minds his own business and is scarcely aware that the dead world exists. Snyder is a master of challenge and confrontation, not because he seeks controversy but because his values are so conspicuous, so plainly stated in the context of simple, sensuous, impassioned fact that they cannot be dodged. Young people make up the huge audiences at a Ginsberg reading to be exhorted. They come to the almost as large ones of Gary Snyder to learn. Who else will teach them? When Snyder some years ago in the Early Flower Children Days visited one of the first communities of love in the wilderness, he said, “Gee, you ought to build a couple of latrines.” An otherwise nude girl wrapped in a torn lace curtain said, “What’s a latrine?” Snyder went and got a shovel. If thee does not turn to the inner light, where will thee turn? Over the entrance to every respectable quarterly and the New York Review of Books is a sign in letters of gold: “Bears are forbidden to shit in this office” which translates “Mene mene tekel upharsin.”

Snyder is the principal controversialist of the counter-culture because he simply refuses controversy altogether. He acts on the assumption that the old world is totally, irrevocably, stone dead. He confronts it simply by being there. Why does he stay around? The bodhisattva’s vow is, “I will not enter Nirvana until I can take all sentient creatures with me.” But the bodhisattva doesn’t consciously make a vow. He is a bodhisattva out of transcendental indifference. As far as he is concerned he is just plain old Smokey the Bear.

The dead society was urban, its culture the pleasure of a clerkly caste. Allen Ginsberg cries, “Woe, woe to the bloody city of Jerusalem!” Snyder, like Benedict of Nursia, or the yamabushi of Japan, goes to the wilderness. His values are those of the wilderness, of the lynx on the branch, the deer in the meadow. The confrontation is total. There are no bears amongst the roses, only a critic who supposes things false and wrong.

I once long ago said to Gary that Buddhism was the assumption of unlimited liability for the community of love, and Gary said, “The best way to put that is unlimited interiority in the community of love.” For the Buddhist vision is the empirical, prime reality. Nirvana is samsara. The world is the transcendent. Illusion is illumination. The disciple holds up a flower and Buddha laughs, and all the Buddhas of all the Buddha worlds of all the infinities of infinities light up and laugh. The point is flower. How right the interbellum culture was to make a saint of that sick man, Kierkegaard. There is no interiority there, only a horrified utter exteriority. “Who is Buddha?” “I think I’ll cook bean cake for supper.” In the necklace of Shiva every diamond reflects every other and is itself reflected.

Twenty years before ecology became a fashionable evasion with the public and a profitable lie with Shell Chemical Gary Snyder, still in college, was talking about the ecological revolution. In fact the first time I ever met him we talked all night about it while some wandering girls from Reed College listened in rapture. He came into my flat in San Francisco very brown, in boots and blue jeans. “Looks like you’ve spent the summer in the mountains,” said I. “Yes,” he said. “In the Northern Cascades.” “I used to work up there,” I said. “My first job for the Forest Service was at Marblemount on the Skagit River. My boss was a wonderful guy named Tommy Thompson. It was his first year as District Ranger.” “What did you do?” said Snyder. “I packed mules to build a lookout on Mount MacGregor. It was the first lookout in that country.” “That’s where I was,” Snyder said. “I was in the lookout. This summer was Thompson’s last year with the Forest. He’s retiring.” Snyder has great respect for trees. Can a tree become a Buddha in some future incarnation? This is a tree viewed from the perspective of karma. The tree already is a Buddha. Ecology is not a religion but a science. Science, say the professors, is value neuter. This is the essence of Western civilization: All intellectual and physical activity tends to approach the condition of being totally value neuter. Newton’s laws are all reducible to Carnot’s Third Law — from Carnot to Carnap’s inexhaustible exegesis of moral entropy. Marx called it the cash nexus. We fight fire with fire. Ecology is the science of values. A college student on vacation sitting in a fire lookout in the Cascades, Gary Snyder was evolving in his head an ecological esthetics. The poem is the nexus of the biota, the knot of macrocosm and microcosm, a jewel in Shiva’s necklace. But the poem is a perspective on a person and a person is a totalized perspective on all the others. For a world epoch Shiva dances; for a world epoch he dreams. We think of this as the time of Shiva’s dancing. It is not. The world of limited experience is the dream of being. What we call being is illusion, the dream of Shiva. It is an instant or a million times a million years before he wakes. Knowing, acting, loving, you are Shiva, but you dream.

“Far East” — “Far West” Snyder calls two sections of his first collected poems, The Back Country. It’s there he found wisdom, where the antipodes merge. The Indian alight with fasting seeking a name at the edge of the mountain snow. Which Indian? American Indian? India Indian? Or the mad mountain monk Han Shan whose Cold Mountain Poems Gary Snyder has translated, or the wilder mountain monks — yamabushi — of Japan, or Old Coyote, coming down the smoke hole, or the Siberian shaman full of mushrooms, flying over the North Pole. Only those who do not deny the web of beings have vision. It’s not just that Snyder has learned from the songs of the American Indian translated by Frances Densmore or the shaman odes of early China. It’s that he’s lived a certain kind of life, a life that lingers on all over the world waiting for the television screen to go blank and the skyscrapers to fall. Is this “an apocalyptic world view”? Snyder is an eschatologist as seen by the denizens of apocalypse. Apocalypse is taking place in the world of grasping. For those who have put away grasping it is not there. “Don’t own anything you can’t leave out in the rain,” says Snyder. For those who turn to the extended family merged in a tribal society from which all acquisitiveness is disciplined away by the only opponent of grasping — contemplation, apocalypse will not matter. The community of love will survive in the mountains and on remote islands and some places in the cellars of burnt-out cities, or the whole planet will go out like a light, or all the million insoluble problems will solve themselves in a technological society where only a new tribalism can be an efficiently functioning social order. “Are you ready for Armageddon?” say the Jehovah’s Witnesses when they ring your bell on a Sunday morning. It’s always Armageddon. Lenin said his Bolshevik state would realize itself in the application of the philosophy of American efficiency experts and the development of electricity. The Buddha word, the myths of Northwest Indians, the IWW Preamble and the technology of electronics. What is Buddhism? What shall we have for supper?

Snyder’s poetry and his prose, collected in Earth House Hold, are full of small dramas of an utterly noncombative character played out in naturally limited microsocieties. Men in the mountains, at sea, in monasteries and ashrams, and in the special little ashram he and his Japanese friends developed on a lonely, volcanic island between Kyushu and the Ryukyus living on fish and yams and spending a good deal of their time in the hard work that makes all other work easy — contemplation. Karma means work, and contemplation is the karma that changes the signs from negative to positive and finally erases them in the empty circle that ends the Zen pictures of the boy hunting the buffalo.

I do not believe that there is a single individual who has more influence on the youth who leave the dead society for the counter-culture than Gary Snyder. He makes explicit what the musicians play and sing. He doesn’t get the publicity; the journalists and the sociologists scarcely know he is there. Jerry Rubin, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger — these are all readily recognizable by the Time researchers because they inhabit the same world, the flickering simulacra of the television tube. The journalists and the sociologists create the revolution in their own image. The lictors of hell, are they sentient beings, or merely automata created especially for the purpose?

Gary Snyder and Masa Uehara were married on the lip of the crater of a very active volcano on a tiny island in the midst of the bright, empty Pacific — viii. 40067 (reckoning roughly from the earliest cave paintings).



This essay appeared in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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