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A Dharma Bum Helps With L.A. River Ode

Benefit: Beat icon Gary Snyder, whose nature- inspired poetry won a Pulitzer Prize, will be featured at fund-raiser.

April 12, 1999|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an economy of pen strokes, poet Gary Snyder sketches a detail of a surreptitious piece of Los Angeles' terrain: "Houses with green watered gardens / Slip under the ghost of the dry chaparral, / Ghost shrine to the L.A. River."

"Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin" is one luminous tile taken from Snyder's 40-years-in-the-making living mosaic of a manuscript, "Mountains and Rivers Without End" (Counterpoint, 1996). Its completion was the realization of his dream to convey the "spiritual power" of the West Coast within the space of a lyric line. No better a compassionate presence to evoke and celebrate the poetry innate in the Earth and its full chorus of elements. No better a figure to attempt to understand the conundrum, or better, koan that is Los Angeles--both unruly city and unruly wilds attempting coexistence.

In a rare Southern California appearance, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and proto-environmentalist will be joined by cultural historian Mike Davis ("City of Quartz" and "Ecology of Fear") and state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-L.A.) at a joint fund-raiser for Beyond Baroque, the Venice-based literary arts foundation, and the Friends of the Los Angeles River. The evening will provide a stage upon which to discuss--quite literally--the nature of things.

Snyder's history with the natural world is sunk deep. He was made unwitting icon by Jack Kerouac's sketch of him as the Zen-beat-hobo Japhy Ryder in the eyes-wide-open epiphany of a novel "The Dharma Bums" in 1958. Snyder had by then made his way to Japan by way of a freighter. His life took a far more muted, inward turn than those of Kerouac and his band of "first thought, best thought," in-the-moment truth-seekers.

He followed instead a road of rigorous study and meditation. Immersed in the teachings of Zen Buddhism, Snyder lived in Japan until the late '60s. It was during this period that he began setting the framework for a form of poetry that mixed natural history and Eastern religion.

With the poet's L.A. River benefit, one thing is certain: If nature's rivers represent compassion within Buddhist teachings, there's a mighty lesson to be learned from a river so misunderstood yet doggedly determined.

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The River Center, 570 W. Avenue 26, Los Angeles; 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $12; students, $10. For reservations and more information, call Friends of the Los Angeles River at (323) 223-0585.

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