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Sunday, April 6, 2003



A legend from Kyoto to Kerouac and way beyond

Special to The Japan Times

Gar Snyder is a legendary figure. The real-life original of Japhy Ryder -- traveling companion, friend and spiritual inspiration to the novelist Jack Kerouac -- he appears in that guise in Kerouac's 1959 novel, "The Dharma Bums." There, speaking as Ryder, he announces that, after study in the East, he intends to write an epic poem called "Mountains and Rivers without End." Following some early drafts, the poem finally appeared in 1996.

News photo
Gary Snyder

Snyder's career was launched in Japan. A native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, he came to Japan in 1956 after doing graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley. He spent a number of years in Kyoto, partly practicing zazen at the renowned Zen temples of Daitokuji and Shokokuji.

Although he had written poetry for several years before this and was associated with the Beat movement then developing in California, "Riprap," his first book of poems, was published by a small press in Kyoto. After the first edition sold out quickly, leading to a second, the book was issued in the United States.

Snyder's 1974 book, "Turtle Island," notable for its environmental concerns, received a Pulitzer Prize. He has since published several volumes of essays, many of them dealing with ecological matters, and now lives in Northern California.

Last month, before war was launched against Iraq, Snyder gave the keynote speech -- titled "Ecology, Literature and New World Disorder" -- at a "Literature and Environment" conference sponsored by the watchmaker Omega, which was held at the University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa. This interview was conducted in a hotel in Tokyo after that.

You studied Japanese and Chinese poetry before you came to Japan in 1956.

I studied classical Chinese poetry, and then Japanese language and literature. I started reading classical Chinese poetry with some remarkable Chinese professors -- these were men who could write any Tang Dynasty or Song Dynasty poem on the blackboard from memory. And it had a strong influence on my own writing, partly because the sensibility was very accessible to me but also, interestingly, because classical Chinese, with its strong monosyllabic force, can be to some degree approximated in English, which has a large number of monosyllabic words that are usually words with a punch. I enjoyed developing the monosyllabic potentialities of English-language poetry in my earlier poems.

After you left Japan and went back to America, your association with Kerouac became famous, and you appeared in one of his novels. Have you ever felt burdened by that identification?

Oh, it's not much of a burden [laughs]. It's kind of fun sometimes.

Can you tell me about the long poem announced in the novel?

I announced it, or to be exact Jack Kerouac wrote down that I announced it [laughs], back in the fall of 1955. I first got the idea of working on something like this, of "Mountains and Rivers without End," then it went through several transformations on the way toward finally becoming what it became 40 years later.

What were other influences on your work?

Well, I absorbed a kind of a wide-spectrum influence from Modernism that took in bits of [William Butler] Yeats [1865-1939], and bits of [Wallace] Stevens [1879-1955], and [William Carlos] Williams [1883-1963], and all of them, as we all did, you know, my generation of poets. But the one I ultimately learned most from, and whose work I most still look at for little tricks that he gives me, is Ezra Pound.

In an early journal, you wonder about how to connect nature to poetry. Do you feel you have done that successfully?

I don't know if I've done it successfully, but I've made my efforts in that direction, many times over, although I don't really think of myself as a "nature poet," and the representation or description of nature per se has never occupied me much. I'm more interested in the dynamics of what we today call ecology, the energy exchange, the critters eating each other [laughs].

Did you talk about that when you were in Okinawa?

Well, in my speech I noted that, although the word "nature" and the word "environment" actually imply basically the same thing -- the physical, phenomenal world -- they have different weights of feeling. A "nature-lover" sounds very different from an "environment-lover," which is an interesting thing. And then "wild" is a very specific term for the self-organizing and orderly aspect of nature. In ecology also, talking about nature is talking about process, it's talking about dynamism, it's talking about the energies that are flowing and functioning through a system. So it's also systematics, and that's what interests me. It's the system.

Do you think that our relationship with, or use of, the environment has been improving, or getting worse?

It's getting worse, worldwide, and being rapidly hastened on its downward path by economic globalization, and the spread of corporations that have no roots in any value system, or in any organic society whatsoever anywhere, and have no concern but the bottom line, ripping the world apart.

Do you see any halts or checks on this?

Yes, there's always the possibility of unpredictable turns and cultural shifts that catch you by surprise -- just like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that was a political and cultural surprise to us, it was a change of heart. So a change of heart, somehow, has to be allowed as a possibility, but if you just project a straight line, a cause-and-effect sequence from here, it doesn't look good.

Now we're in the hands of McDonalds and the Pentagon.

And the Bush clique, at the moment.

How do you feel about the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States does not subscribe to?

Oh, the people of America subscribe to it, it's only the administration that doesn't subscribe to it.

Do you think the world has changed significantly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

It's undoubtedly changed. For one thing, it launched American foreign policy in an entirely new direction that is having a ripple effect around the world. It's changed American priorities, and it's changed global priorities. So right there, there's a huge historical change.

The symbolism of it is multifarious, but one of the important meanings of it is obviously an attack on global commercialism. Has this been taken on board in the United States?

It's going to take some time for the people of the United States to sort out what all this means to them, and what it means globally. One can say that America in a certain way has lost its innocence, has lost its sense of safety and distance from the rest of the world, and what it should be learning is that it is involved totally now in the forces that Europeans and Asians have been more conscious of for a long time.

But the directions that all of this can go, are really quite varied. On the one hand, there are lessons against proceeding further with economic globalization in the hands of rogue corporations. It could also have the opposite effect, of a kind of world globalization backed by military power enforced variously on practically every country, except maybe everybody would just pull out of Africa and leave it alone. Poor Africa. You know, there's a number of different possible scenarios, but regardless of which direction it goes, the environment's going to take a hit.

There certainly is an ideology that is strong in the United States right now which is that resources were made to be used, and it's almost unpatriotic to suggest that we should scale down our standard of living and be more modest. I've heard that attacked as paganism. And environmentalists are now being tagged, by the extreme rightwing in the United States, as another variety of terrorist.

How do you feel about the impending war against Iraq?

Well, I think it's appalling and, somewhere on the higher levels of diplomacy and strategy, it may be that Bush and his advisers are anxiously trying to figure out a way to get out of it all without losing too much face, because you'd have to be pretty stupid not to realize that this is not the direction to go in, with the world turning against you, and with the people of the United States very, very uncomfortable with it. Or, maybe that guy, those folks in charge, really do think that they can be the new Roman Empire, and dominate the world, in which case we're in for a very rough ride, all of us.

There seems to be no one to oppose them any more.

In this morning's paper it says that Sen. Edward Kennedy, Joe Leibowitz and a whole lot of other leading Democrats are finally coming out of the woodwork and saying this is a really lousy foreign policy. And the hardening antiwar position of the European nations is also significant, and it's kind of embarrassing that [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi is going along with the United States while it seems the public of Japan is not. So it's a fascinating moment in history. Recently I heard somebody from Europe saying there is not just one superpower in the world, there are two superpowers. One is the United States, and the other is World Opinion. And World Opinion is shaping up.

W.H. Auden famously remarked that "Poetry makes nothing happen." Would you agree?

Ah, that's like Auden, when asked if he wanted to go for a nature walk in the afternoon from somebody's mansion on Long Island, he is reputed to have said, "What in the world for?" In a sense, he's just being campy, because we all know that poetry doesn't make a whole lot happen, but once in a while it does make something happen.

Do you feel that, when you give talks and readings, you're sharing an awareness of certain matters and concerns with the audience?

Matters and concerns which are social and political, as well as economic and environmental, actually. It's hard to talk about it, to generalize about it, without getting specific. Actually in "nature writing" in the United States, for example, right now some of the most vibrant and effective literature is nonfiction prose, creative nonfiction.

At the same time, the invocation of more and more, and richer and richer, collections of scientific knowledge does have an impact. We don't have a functioning tradition that would be analogous to haiku, which is undoubtedly a remarkable, nature-connected poetic tradition. At the same time it must be said that it's highly codified, and the lists of plants and animals and seasons is all figured out, and it's somewhat rigid. However, it's educational. I mean, it is simply educational. You can't read a bunch of haiku without having to learn a lot of plant names.

You once said that you were working on essays about nature in Japan and China.

In one of my recent books, called "The Gary Snyder Reader," there is a selection of some of the finished essays. And I am still working on the book, and hope maybe to be able to pull it together a few years down the line, as an overall, somewhat informal, history of the environment in China and Japan, with some commentary.

Did you find the tradition or way of thinking very different?

Not enormously different. In both cases you have a culture that still maintains animistic connections, and for whom a sense of organic identification with nature is very easy, and for whom the values that inhere in Daoism and Buddhism are still present, even though people may not be conscious of it. Plus Confucianism, and modern scientific thought. They share a lot, but China for other reasons suffered much greater deforestation and species loss, from earlier on, than Japan did. Japan has a climate that makes trees grow back. Still, a lot has been lost in Japan, and now they've covered everything with concrete. Oh, Japan has a pretty good, although excessively agricultural, forestry program which replants monocultures, but it's not so good at mixed-age, all-species forestry, which is what we're trying to push through in the States now.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have two writing projects at the moment. One is a book of essays, and the other is a book of poems. These will be brief poems. Some of them are like haibun, with prose and a short poem, prose and a short poem, just two or three paragraphs. And ideally -- I don't know if this is a Japanese idea or not -- I want the poem to say something that the prose did not.

The haiku has become enormously popular overseas.

It may be the biggest single cultural item that Japan has exported. But, you know, whether or not people understand what the original haiku tradition is about doesn't concern me. The exercise in writing brief poems that have some focus in the present moment, and push one towards observation, is all you need.

Any final comment on Japan?

What I'd like to say is that every time I come back to Japan, I am surprised again.

I've come to appreciate Tokyo. When I was younger and more rigid in my thinking, I didn't like Tokyo and I wanted to stay closer to what I thought the traditional Japan was. But, turning that over, the model that Japan in a sense proposes for the 21st century, is for a high-tech, highly industrialized future, and for intense population levels, with the marvelously functioning infrastructure that Tokyo has, the efficient public transportation and so on. And that it is done with such a low level of violence, and virtually no ideology or fanaticism -- looking at what's going on in the world today, fanaticism from every side -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, capitalists and ex-communists.

The few places in the world that aren't fanatic are a relief [laughs]. And so I honor Japan for a certain kind of nutty sanity.

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