Gary Snyder wouldn't mind being identified as the 20th Century and West Coast version of Thoreau. Readers likely to heed Thoreau's call to simplify, simplify, would be equally susceptible to much of Snyder's Zen-influenced advice.
In the poem, "what you should know to be a Poet," for example, Snyder's catalogue starts off: "All you can about animals as persons./The names of trees and flowers and weeds/names of stars; and the movements of the planets/and the moon./Your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind."
One disciple, Jon Halper, a Seattle doctor and canoeing companion of Snyder, has gathered a few pages or so apiece from 65 of Snyder's friends and poetic colleagues to mark the poet's 60th birthday.
Though these friends include accomplished writers like Allen Ginsberg, Wendell Berry and Ursula LeGuin, and natural-born writers like Snyder's brother, Jim, who works at Yosemite, there is not enough watchfulness or elegance here to make a book.
Snyder has been celebrated plenty before. His 1974 volume of poetry, "Turtle Island," won the Pulitzer Prize. Constant Zen student and former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Snyder to the California Arts Commission.
Over the past 20 years, admirers of his poetry and his mystique have made pilgrimages to the Japanese-inspired farmhouse in the Sierra foothills near Nevada City where Snyder lives. By all accounts, in person the poet is amazingly disciplined and clear-minded. Whether he wants to be or not, he has become a moral authority. A poet-friend returning from a trip to the farm in the foothills said, "I'm so relieved, Gary Snyder eats potato chips."
From all accounts, Snyder--who eats steak as well as potato chips--can be ironic about himself, which leads the reader to think that this bulky Festschrift could embarrass him. The worshipful tend to get misty-eyed and give the great man credit for a ton of wisdom when what he has is great talent and an original way of living. The editor, Halper, for instance, muses ponderously of Snyder in his introduction "how integral his perception and thinking were to who I had become."
Childhood friends recall swimming naked in the Portland YMCA in the early 1940s, and a teen-aged Gary wearing lederhosen, moccasins and a Robin Hood hat to Portland's Lincoln High School.
Some fairly stuffy sounding translators and poets remember knowing Snyder in Kyoto, where he studied in the late '50s.
There's one important person who is not included at this point: Snyder's first wife, poet Joanne Kyger, whose book "The Tapestry and the Web" includes poems about their early relationship. Kyger, who now lives in Point Reyes, published parts of her journal about traveling in India with Ginsberg. Wife No. 2, Masa Uehara, who married Snyder in 1967 and is the mother of his two sons, also is not included.
Snyder's son, Kai, opines that his father is generally fair "except when he loses his temper, which seems to happen a lot more often when he's writing one of those damned books."
A sharp vision of Snyder's other son, Gen, comes from Jim Dodge, author of the antic hippie novel "Fup." Snyder, as Dodge remembers, was pontificating on schooling: "I still think the best education is simply kids hanging out and working with adults. . . ." Gen, then 16, said, "Yeah, but you never tell us the stuff we really want to know."
Asked Snyder: Such as?
"Such as how do you figure sixteen-point-nine-percent APR financing on a new Camaro?"
More often, the prose can be stifling, as in one description of the way Snyder lives: "A new kind of contemporary life that was spontaneous and authentic."
And imagine having your principles summed up as follows (this condensation comes from actor Peter Coyote):
"His point, as I understand it, is to nurture ways of life that are more consciously interdependent with other species and with ancient human traditions, whose efficacy in stabilizing sanity and joy, in restraining rapacious human excesses, is made evident by the study of many indigenous and preliterate people today."
Halper felt too cowed, apparently, by the unbridled creative types to trim any prose. Many of Snyder's friends go on about bio-regionalism and mindfulness of the biosphere, when the poet himself once summed up the world ecosystem: "Your ass is someone else's dinner."
This collection of maunderings does certainly demonstrate the power of poetry. Readers of "Dimensions of a Life" will want to go back to Snyder's poetry--rarely inconsequential and never incoherent. In that sense, as well as in its obvious good intentions, this book honors the poet.
Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon" by Jim Paul (Villard Books/Random House).