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Papers unveil influential poet’s life

The Associated Press
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

DAVIS – The chronology of the life and continuing work of Nevada County’s Gary Snyder – Beat poet, environmentalist, Buddhist scholar, character in a Jack Kerouac novel – fills to overflowing dozens of boxes stacked on shelves 12 feet high.

Among the collection that fills 180 feet of shelves are handwritten notes on scraps of papers and published books that all show the development of Snyder’s poetry and reveal the depth of his continuing influence in modern poetry, the environmental movement and American Buddhism.

Sifting through what archivist John Skarstad calls ”little windows on what was new, what was hoped and what was dreamed at the time” is now the mission of archivists at the University of California, Davis.



The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, whose literary career started in the Beat movement, lives on San Juan Ridge north of Grass Valley and Nevada City. He gave his papers – which includes unfinished poems, manuscript and letters from Snyder’s friends and fellow Beat writers Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen – to the university where he taught for 16 years before retiring in 2002.

Each letter, document or scrap of paper will be given a description for an online catalog that will let researchers request copies of the documents.




Archivist Sara Gunasekara, who is sorting the correspondence, said the 50 years of letters represent only half of the conversation, since Snyder’s responses generally aren’t among his papers.

But in the exchanges, ”you can hear the echo of Gary’s response,” Skarstad said. ”It’s a chronology of a relationship between really interesting characters.”

The letters from Whalen, whom Snyder met when both were students at Reed College in Oregon, look like works of art with their calligraphy-like handwriting.

A note from Kerouac discusses the recent publication of his 1958 novel ”Dharma Bums.” Kerouac based the character of Japhy Ryder on Snyder.

Snyder, along with Ginsberg, Whalen, Michael McClure and others, helped launch the West Coast Beat movement in 1955 with a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.

The Beat movement was born on the East Coast by a disillusioned group of young men who fashioned themselves as outsiders in post-World War II America. Their writings rejected conventional structure and tapped experimental techniques such as the stream of consciousness style that marks Kerouac’s ”On the Road,” which was typed on a 120-foot roll of paper.

But Snyder’s work, more influenced by the Zen Buddhism he practiced, was of a different tone than other Beats’ ”poetry of dissent and refusal,” said Steve Dickison, director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University.

Skarstad agreed. ”We fell in love with the Beat poet, only to find out he’s not a Beat poet – he’s a California poet, a Western poet.”

Since then, Snyder has published 18 books of poetry and prose, including ”Turtle Island,” which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He spent several years in Japan, translating Zen texts and poetry. And he’s also known for his devotion to environment causes, said Anthony Bliss, curator for rare books at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

”He gets branded with the Beat label because his friends were Beats, he was there at that time, he circulated with them. But when you look at Kerouac or Ginsberg, I don’t think you’re looking at the same mind-set,” said Bliss, who oversees the Bancroft Library’s collection of Beat documents, including Whalen’s papers.

”It’s very clear that he was a reference point for many of the other Beats,” Bliss said. ”He was one the of guys, along with Philip Whalen, who introduced the Zen influence.”

Seeing the working documents behind the published poems is important, Bliss said, because ”literary texts are not born fully formed out of the head of Zeus. What is particularly interesting is studying the creative process.”

When the archivists are through, the university expects a great deal of interest from ”English literature departments, researchers of the history of the environmental movement or Buddhism in America or the poetry movement on the West Coast,” said Daryl Morrison, the director of UC Davis’ Special Collections.

Snyder’s papers, she said, will inform all of those areas.

”A lot of us on both coasts, but particularly here, are enormously interested in the Beat Movement,” Bliss said. ”It was a major cultural phenomenon.”

The $86,600 federal grant, awarded by the California State Library, allowed the university to devote two archivists to the project. When they are finished, probably by November, researchers will be able to view the catalog at the Online Archive of California.

”It’s too easy for things like this to get in the hands of book dealers and get scattered to the wind,” Morrison said.


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