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Review by Julie Swarstad
Born in 1930, Gary Snyder has published sixteen collections of poetry and prose including Turtle Island (New Directions 1969), Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint 1996), and most recently Danger on Peaks (Shoemaker Hoard 2004). Snyder is the recipient of numerous awards including the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Turtle Island, the 1997 Bolligen Prize for Poetry, the 1997 John Hay Award for Nature Writing, and the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Snyder is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis.
Although he is often associated with specific movements or beliefs, Gary Snyder above all else is a poet who speaks for what he believes in. Snyder's writing is often firmly labeled Beat poetry or nature writing, and while both of these things do accurately describe his work, his writing never fits as neatly within these categories as one might expect. Rather than pigeonholing Snyder within any one of these categories then, it might be fruitful instead to teach him as a poet who speaks boldly from within his own beliefs and his own ideas.
The final sequence of Danger on Peaks, "After Bamiyan," is a prime example of this type of writing. In this sequence of poetry mixed with prose, Snyder works through his emotions and thoughts following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in March 2001 along with the attack on the World Trade Center. Snyder weaves together prose reflections, quotations, and short sections of poetry to create a startlingly clear and compassionate tapestry of remembrance. Through his writing, Snyder speaks clearly and thoughtfully, writing from a place of personal conviction rather than sentimentalism.
Danger on Peaks also includes a series of haibun, a poetic form that marries a short section of prose with a haiku or a brief poem. Haibun allow for opportunities to explore a subject from two different sides or two different moments in time, as the prose and poetry sections work independently of one another. For example, in "Shandel," Snyder uses the prose section to tell of an encounter with a woman and her daughter named Shandel, while the poetry section gives a account of a Shandel that Snyder knew long before. The combination of prose and poetry allows the two memories to interact with each other without exterior commentary on the full connection between the two instances, leaving readers more space to interact with the writing. Asking your students to write haibun could be one way to explore the differences between prose and poetry while seeing the similarities between the two.
Snyder's writing is truly rich with possibilities for different avenues of approach, but it's also rich with beautiful imagery and a depth of connection to the world around him. I hope you will spend some time with Snyder's work and find something in it that rings true with you to share with your students or the young writers in your life.