Snyder is of German, Scottish, Irish and English ancestry. His family, impoverished by the Great Depression ,  moved to King County, Washington ,  when he was two years old. There, they tended dairy cows, kept laying hens, had a small orchard, and made cedar-wood shingles,. During his time at Reed, Snyder published his first poems in a student journal. In , he spent the summer working as a seaman.
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Judged simply in aesthetic terms, according to norms of precision, intelligence, imaginative play, and moments of deep resonance, he easily ranks among the best poets of his generation.
Moreover, he manages to provide a fresh perspective on metaphysical themes, which he makes relevant and compelling. Snyder has looked to the Orient and to the beliefs of American Indians for positive responses to the world, and he has tempered his studies with stints of hard physical labor as a logger and trail builder.
He has always had things to tell us, experiences to relate, a set of values to expound. He has influenced a generation. Because he lived close to nature from earliest childhood, Snyder was distressed at a young age by the wanton destruction of the Pacific Northwestern forests, and he began to study and respect the Indian cultures that offered a more harmonious relationship with nature.
Snyder went to public schools in Seattle and Portland, and he augmented his education by reading about Indian lore and pioneer adventures. Wild regions continued to fascinate him as he matured; he became an expert mountain climber and learned back-country survival techniques. A visit to the Seattle Art Museum introduced him to Chinese landscape painting, and he developed an interest in the Orient as an example of a high civilization that had maintained its bonds to nature.
After high school Snyder divided his time between studies at Reed College—and later Indiana University and the University of California-Berkeley—and work as a lumberjack, trail maker, and firewatcher in the deep woods. The balance between physical labor and intellectual pursuits informs his earliest writing. He was already immersed in Zen Buddhism and had begun to write poetry about his work in the wilderness. He became part of a community of writers, including Philip Whalen , Allen Ginsberg , and Jack Kerouac, who were soon heralded as the forerunners of a counterculture revolution in literature.
Kerouac modeled his character Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums on Snyder, and the poet encouraged his friends to take an interest in Eastern philosophy as an antidote to the ills of the West. Just as the Beats were gaining nation-wide notoriety, Snyder moved to Japan in on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America.
He remained abroad almost continuously for the next twelve years. Part of that time he lived in an ashram and devoted himself to strenuous Zen study and meditation. He also travelled extensively, visiting India and Indonesia, and even venturing as far as Istanbul on an oil tanker, the Sappa Creek. After returning to the United States, Snyder built his own house—along the Yuba River in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains—where he has lived since. Harking back to the Stone Age, Snyder sees the poet as a shaman who acts as a medium for songs and chants springing from the earth.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Snyder draws on the traditions of oral literature—chants, incantations, and songs—to communicate his experiences. The poet who was formerly adept at elucidating intimations now seems to be content with simply espousing positions. Snyder puts the present into perspective.
The poem is a conscious effort to recreate the social function of ancient epics: to tell a good story, while offering instruction in life by way of myth and history. In The Practice of the Wild, published in , Snyder muses on familiar topics such as environmental concerns, Native American culture, ecofeminism, language, and mythology. He has done it with a direct, masculine, and beautiful talent for more than four decades.
Although some of the closing poems in the volume address historically current events, including September 11, the bulk of the poems in the volume are set in the past. He is a professor of English at the University of California-Davis. In an essay published in A Controversy of Poets, Snyder offered his own assessment of his art.
They go back to the late Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.
I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.
Riprap - Poem by Gary Snyder