Snyder as a Beat Poet
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the beat movement as an "American social and literary movement originating in the 1950s and centered in the bohemian artist communities of San Francisco's North Beach, Los Angeles' Venice West, and New York City's Greenwich Village. Its adherents, self-styled as "beat" (originally meaning "weary," but later also connoting a musical sense, a "beatific" spirituality, and other meanings) and derisively called "beatniks," expressed their alienation from conventional, or "square," society by adopting an almost uniform style of seedy dress, manners, and "hip" vocabulary borrowed from jazz musicians." The beat movement was one rooted in radical romantic philosophy. Members of the beat movement fell in step with Henry David Thoreau's theories about life, which were sometimes called radical idealism. They also rejected middle class values and strove for individualism (Dealunion). These values, rejection of middle class values, individualism, and idealism, can be seen in the poetry of Gary Snyder.
In order to be a part of the beat movement, one must reject middle class American values, which centered on the pursuit of ease and comfort. They described the middle class as a "pool of stagnant water" that stifled the breath of individual freedom (Dealunion). They preferred to ignore convention and pursue a life of adventure and freedom, eschewing the restriction of conventional moral values. In order to avoid moral restriction and legal sanction, the beats preferred to live in solitude. This often led to vagrancy, but it seemed to be a life that suited them. They traveled around and collected stories as they went, and these values made it into the stories they told.
"Old Bones" conveys a wandering feeling that might be associated with the roamings of the beats. The first stanza depicts a person who is "out there" wandering around, always keeping an eye out for food whether it is a root, an animal, or merely a seed. There seems to be no food to be found, and the speaker is perhaps reminiscing on his former life when he says "out there somewhere/ a shrine for the old ones/…old songs and tales." The poem closes with the lines "what we ate—who ate what/ how we all prevailed." The poem seems to center around food or hunger. Perhaps the message is that some things must be sacrificed in order to break away from the middle class monotony.
"Night Highway 99" depicts a more straightforward wandering. The poem opens with "We're on our way/ man/ out of town/ go hitching down/ that highway 99." The use of the phrase "out of town" might signal to the reader that the speaker is leaving conformity of the city behind, but the speaker plans to travel down highway 99, so he will undoubtedly end up in another city, perhaps one that will offer new adventures. The poem then continues to list the sights the speaker sees in his travels along the highway. He notes weary Indians that sleep in bus stations if Mt. Vernon, shingle weavers that lost their fingers in Everett, washed, leached, burnt-out minds in Seattle, and thumbing it in the rain in Tacoma. The poem as a whole seems to line up exactly with beat values. The speaker seems to have no connection to who he's with or what he's carrying he is simply living as best he can with the tools he was born with and sharing the story along the way. At the end of his travels, he sees San Francisco "gleaming far away," but when he arrives there he finds that "NO body gives a shit man who you are or what's your car there IS no 99," As if to say that San Francisco is no better than anywhere else. Continuing with the theme of travel, Snyder uses the hump-backed flute player to symbolize beats in his poem that is so titled. He describes the hump-backed flute player's travels, as he is seen all over the world, and says that he carries "emptiness" and "mind only" in his pack.
"Finding Space in the Heart" seems to depict a life time spent rebelling against American middle class values. It gives the reader glimpses into scenes that are spaced out. It begins with the speaker riding in a car in the sixties with a "fierce gay poet" and a "lovely but dangerous girl." Based on their descriptions, neither of his companions seems to be embracing middle class values either. They prefer to travel down roads that seem to be forgotten and take them to places not as many people have seen, until they reach San Francisco. Time jumps forward to the seventies where he again pulls off the main road/ he gets stuck for a while but eventually frees himself. Later, in the eighties, he and his lover, not girlfriend or wife as would be deemed appropriate by middle class standards, go on a hike and experience a feeling of no boundaries. In the nineties his lover becomes his wife and, after some reminiscing, the poem comes to a close with the same lines as "Endless Streams and Mountains," again leaving the reader with the feeling of not being satisfied.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the beat movement is individuality. The beats felt that Americans lost their respect for individuality when the importance of industry became paramount. Beat writers broke the rules in content and form. Snyder can be seen establishing his individuality in his poetry. His disregard for the "rules" of literature can be seen in the structure of his poetry. Readers and writers of the time preferred a nice, clean, left-aligned page of writing with regular capitalization and punctuation, but Snyder did not always adhere to these conventions. This disregard for literary conventions is showcased in "The Blue Sky." The structure of this poem is very sporadic and seems to have no order at all, but it is likely that that is part of the message Snyder is attempting to deliver. He seemingly randomly decides to add line breaks, entire lines in caps, and italics. The format of this poem is a blatant rejection of what would be considered literary norms of the time and a clear attempt at establishing individualism, and many of his poems have a similar seemingly random format.
Snyder's individuality goes beyond form though. The content of many of his poems would also be considered distinct. Several of his poems consist of fragments of ideas or lists of things. This is not what people expected to see when they read poetry. They expected to finish a poem and have a fair idea of what it was about, but Snyder did not always deliver that sort of experience. The content of some of his poems would also be considered vulgar. In "The Flowing," Snyder describes the mouth of a river as "vomiting outward." Most people would not associate the source of a river with vomiting because it is not a pleasant image. Snyder pushes the boundaries later in this poem when he describes the water curling "round [his] testicles/ drawn crinkled skin/ and lazy swimming cock." He once again uses language here that would be considered inappropriate and distasteful, but in the end, he does stand out as an individual.
The beatniks' concept of idealism involved a strong desire for a return to "naturally idyllic life." This idea came from their study of Buddhism. While they did not adopt all the tenets of the religion, many took up meditation which caused a shift in the beat movement from acting out to looking in. Their new philosophy stressed compassion and respect for all creatures. They came to exalt nature and animals and thought of their own civilization as crass in comparison. An example of the exaltation of animals can be found in Snyder's short poem "Jackrabbit." In the first part of the poem, Snyder merely observes the rabbit. He notes that the rabbit's "great ears [are] shining." His choice to use the word "great" here could simply mean large or it could mean awesome, which would evidence his reverence for animals. Snyder goes on to say that the rabbit knows him a little, a lot more than he knows the rabbit. These last three lines seem to be conveying the message that Snyder considers the rabbit to be wiser or more insightful than himself.
Snyder finds wisdom in a rabbit again in "The Black-tailed Hare." He says that the grizzled hare on the side of the road shows him everything beginning with the irrigation ditch that is near them to the trees, mountains, and sky that is beyond. Snyder's use of the word "grizzled" to describe this rabbit sets a wizened and worldly image in the readers mind, once again placing the rabbit on a higher level than himself.
Intelligence is also given to animals in "Boat of a Million Years." In this poem, the speaker is on a boat on the Red Sea. He sees other boats on the water around him, and he does not deny them presence in the picture of his world. He also pays attention to the sun on his shoulder blades and the fish playing in the water. He ends the poem with the line "we are led by dolphins toward morning" as though the dolphins are better equipped to lead them through the uncertainties of the night. Once again, Snyder depicts nature triumphing over man.
Another short poem that showcases Snyder's exaltation of naturalism is "Earth Verse." This poem is six lines long and each line describes an attribute of the earth. In these six lines, Snyder manages to compile everything one might need in order to live a full life, and it is all provided by the Earth. This suggests that Snyder believes that nothing else is needed, that Mother Earth provides everything. "The Canyon Wren" also expresses a wholeness that is found in experiencing nature. The speaker of the poem is rafting with his friend down a canyon and finds himself looking up in wonder at the sights around him. The task at hand is to raft and not end up in the water, but he can't help but be distracted the by awe-inspiring nature around him. The poem ends with the stanza "these songs that are here and gone, / here and gone, / to purify our ears." These lines speak to the renewing and purifying quality of nature.
Snyder expresses distaste for the way nature has been over run by society in "Covers the Ground." It begins with a quote from John Muir that states "When California was wild, it was one sweet bee- garden." The use of this quote to open the poem clues the reader in to the sense that something has been lost because the message is in past tense. The first stanza depicts the small portion of nature that is left in this interpretation of California with images of almond orchards in the Great Central Valley, but the image is over run in the following stanzas by a listing of atrocities that now offend the eye. The ground is covered with cement and there are culverts as "far as you can see." Amongst this list of atrocities are images of nature trying to make its way back in in the form of "scrappy ratty grass and thistle" and "frizzy lonely palm tree[s]." Perhaps the strongest image of the violation of nature in this poem comes in Snyder's description of the walnut orchard which is "irrigated, pruned and trimmed" suggesting that it is even more disgusting that society is attempting to tame nature than simply pave it over. The poem ends with the line "us and our stuff just covering the ground." The use of the words "us" and "our" in this line suggest Snyder's resentful resignation to be counted among those who are destroying nature.
Unlike the previous poem, "Endless Streams and Mountains" seems to depict the utopia that Synder whishes he could be a part of. The image the speaker is looking at is one in which mankind and nature seem to be able to coexist. A man-made path can be seen weaving in and out through the forest, but nature is clearly supreme and is merely allowing people to inhabit it. The poem seems to end with a wistful sigh in the line "streams and mountains never stay the same." This might suggest that the speaker recognizes that this utopia is one that is unattainable and also hints at the nihilistic values of Buddhism.
Despite his association with the Beat movement and his blatant disregard for cultural and literary norms, Gary Snyder is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The beat values of idealism, rejection of middle class values, and individualism can be seen in his poetry.
Dealunion. "Beat Generation." Blues for Peace. N.p., 2004. Web. 16 Mar 2010. ..
"Beat Movement." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan 2009. Web. 16 Mar 2010. .com/EBchecked/topic/57467/Beat-movement.