Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gary Snyder in Berkeley

Dennis Fritzinger posted this on the Warrior Poet Society mailing list. Hope he doesn't mind my copying it here.

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

Friday we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder, in the Morrison Library on the Berkeley campus.

The place was packed. Robert Hass was there, emceeing, Michael McClure was there and spoke, Gary Snyder was there, looking and sounding younger than his 70-plus years, very active still, and the brand-spanking new 50th anniversary volume was there on a back table, flying off it as fast as the sellers could ring up sales.

The event went from 4:30 to 6:00, after which Gary went out into the hall and sat down at a table where he autographed copies. The line was long, and Gary seemed to be talking with everyone who brought him a book to sign, so it went slowly.

The 50th anniversary volume is very good looking, with cover art by print-maker Tom Killion, who co-authored another worthy volume, Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History & Prints.

After Hass's introduction, when he reminisced about his first encounter with Riprap, saying that the poem "Paiute Creek" struck him like a lightning bolt, Michael McClure read some prepared remarks, apparently hand-written, as he frequently lost his place, stumbled, or mis-spoke and had to recover. Still, what he said established a certain context, as he described the Gallery Six Reading he, Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Phil Whalen, Kenneth Rexroth (acting as emcee) and Allen Ginsberg were all at--the legendary reading that kicked off the so-called Beat Generation.

Michael said that although the East Coast critics focused on Ginsberg and Kerouac (who didn't read but hung in the back of the room shouting "Go - Go - Go" while Ginsberg read), Snyder's poem "A Berry Feast" that he read, introduced the figure of Coyote into western literature for first time (except for the legendary Jaime De Angulo, who brought him up in "Indian Tales"). McClure called "A Berry Feast" an "eco poem", which it certainly is. McClure has written before about the ecological impulses underpinning the literary upwelling of the time, particularly the west-coast members of the so-called "Beat Generation".

Snyder then took the podium and gave background sketches of the poems in Riprap, being careful to locate them in place as well as time. He also brought in a fair amount of personal history to do that.

Snyder's resume includes working on a ship, as a fire lookout, a trail builder, and a logger. All these professions find their way into the pages of Riprap, perhaps Snyder's most accessible book. In fact accessibility was the point, Gary said. He said he thought a poet ought to earn the right to publishing his difficult stuff by publishing his easy stuff first. Which probably explains that the poems in Riprap are mostly about work.

Cold Mountain Poems, translations of a minor Chinese poet named Han Shan, is a different story. These are translations that Gary wrote while an undergraduate at UC taking a class with one other student from a brilliant Chinese scholar. After they were published, Gary said, they were criticized by another Chinese scholar who happened also to be a poet. The critic said that the actual mountain, "Cold Mountain", was in southern China and covered with trees and bushes--in fact not exactly cold at all. Gary made it sound as if the hermit poet Han Shan (it was typical of hermits to go by the name of where they lived) lived in the Sierras (which was where Gary had worked building trails).

There were many other stories and anecdotes I could go on about, but I think I'll stop here.


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