Dimensions of a Man

A Life and History of Gary Snyder and His Relationship to Reed College

In a letter from 1967, kept carefully preserved in Reed College’s Special Collections, Gary Snyder writes to a fellow student Charles Leong of “the state of things in Poetland (I actually was intending to write Portland).” Snyder, a student at Reed College from 1947 to 1951, went on in life to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet commonly associated with the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the Black Mountain Poets, and Beat Poetry, an essayist, an environmental activist, and an avid calligrapher. Starting in his time at Reed, he became interested in Buddhist spirituality and would go on to study Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan for much of his life.

Place and space, from Japan to the Pacific Northwest, feature prominently in Snyder’s work. Like many Beat writers of the time, Snyder traveled all up and down the west coast, visiting and writing about sites from Sourdough Mountain in North Cascades National Park to San Francisco. In “Bakers Cabin on Boone’s Ferry Road,” he writes of Portland: “Frogs all night / three white ducks / chanting down the pond / the yowling of the Siamese in heat / the hot iron thud on spitting shirts.” His poem “Athis,” written during his time at Reed, refers to the “long library,” which is presumably our very own Hauser Library. As well as traveling extensively, Snyder supported himself through Reed by working for the Forest Service and he attributes the time he spent logging Ponderosa Pine timber to some of the knowledge he gained about the Pacific Northwest.

Snyder’s time in Kyoto also greatly influenced his work, both in content and in style. It is fitting that his thesis, which consists of an impressive 150 typewritten pages, is titled The Dimensions of a Myth, since myths, from China, Japan, the Buddhist tradition, Greece and Rome (possibly from his studies in Hum 110), and the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest all intersect and interact in his work. He signed each handwritten poem or broadside with a stamp of his name in Japanese, translated as “Canyon Wren.”

Snyder first became interested in Chinese and Japanese culture while working with Lloyd Reynolds. Snyder and Reynolds’s relationship is well documented, manila folders containing their correspondences kept tucked in boxes in Reed’s Special Collections. A brief note on Snyder, typed by the archivists working in Special Collections, is printed on a piece of paper folded around one of Snyder’s more delicate letters and it introduces Snyder as “one of the many students who maintained a correspondence with his friend, Reynolds. Although Snyder wrote his thesis in Anthropology under David French, he absorbed Reynold’s teachings about calligraphy and particularly Asian philosophy and religion.” The letter tucked inside of this introduction, written in 1964 by Snyder, informs Reynolds, “I’m to be teaching poetry writing this fall at Berkeley (but what I mean to try is teach seeing, instead of writing).”

Reynolds worked as a professor at Reed College from 1929–1969, teaching a range of classes in the Humanities. Perhaps one of his most lasting impressions on Reed, however, is the courses he taught on calligraphy beginning in 1949. Reynolds is credited with bringing calligraphy to the college, sparking a tradition that lasts on through Scriptorium to this day. In the archive, among the collection of letters and envelopes, is a small cardstock postcard with the words, “Another boy!” written in calligraphy by Snyder and addressed to Lloyd Reynolds, announcing the birth of his second son, Gen.

While at Reed, Snyder also befriended Philip Whalen, a contemporary Beat poet and Zen Buddhist and another major influence on Snyder. The letters between Whalen and Snyder compose another large portion of Reed’s collection, and Snyder wrote several poems dedicated to his friend Phil, including “A Sinecure for P. Whalen” and “Birth of the Shaman.”

Both of these relationships reveal something about the huge importance of friendships and loved ones to Snyder’s life and work (and not just because what we know comes in the form of letters). The rare books of poems in the collection were almost all personal gifts from Gary to Lloyd, including a personal note in the inside cover of The Fudo Trilogy which reads, “Dear Lloyd—I was able to get an out-of-series copy on this little book ...& here by our fire a raw March day with chilly deer in the garden talking of you, of practical aesthetics & style. ...As always, Gary.” In calligraphy, of course.

In 1957, Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen were the five poets who read at the now famous Six Gallery Reading. Legendary San Francisco poet, Kenneth Rexroth, introduced each poet, as Jack Kerouac sat in the audience passing around jugs of wine and yelling, “go, go go!” While many know of the Six Gallery Reading because it was the first time Ginsberg read “Howl,” this reading also brought Snyder into the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, and for the rest of his life he would more strongly associate with San Francisco poets than with the Beat generation.

Snyder’s family also influenced him greatly. His was married to Joanne Elizabeth Kyger from 1960–1965, who traveled the world with him, Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky. Kyger herself wrote many poems and inspired as well as helped Snyder with some of his. On the back of a letter to Whalen is a smudged footprint of Joanne’s, next to the black lines of her toes, are the brief lines, “Footprints of Joanne Kyger, a girl poet.”

In Japan in 1967, Snyder met the woman in Osaka who would go on to become his next wife, Masa Uehara, with whom he had his two sons Kai and Gen. Both sons appear in many of his poems. In a letter to his mother, he tells her of a night spent fishing with them: “I took Kai & Gen fishing last night after dinner but it was a bit late & got dark too soon; natheless it was charming to watch them seriously sitting on the bank of old lake with handy technique of casting with their little rods far out, knowing what they were doing, under dusk & light of crescent moon low in west illuminating thin strands of cirro-stratus sunset clouds.”

Gary Snyder and Lois Snyder Hennessy, circa 1998. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Gary Snyder and Lois Snyder Hennessy, circa 1998. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Snyder’s mother, Lois Snyder Hennessy, played a large and supportive role throughout his life. When Gary and Masa first had their sons, Lois regularly sent money and other gifts to them to help until it got to the point where Gary had to ask her to stop and tried to send her money in return. It is in fact due to Lois’s diligence and generous donations that Reed has much of its collection on Snyder. Lois Snyder, a newspaper reporter for a number of small-town papers, was deeply loved by both her son and his friends, and among the correspondences in Reed’s archive is a handwritten letter to her from Allen Ginsberg. Lois, in a true journalistic spirit, endeavored to collect as much as possible about Gary for Reed and for other libraries around the country. Thanks to her work in collecting much of Snyder’s correspondences and notes, The Library of Congress also has a sizable collection of Snyder’s writing and art.

In 2011, Snyder returned to Reed for its centennial celebration. For the occasion, he did an interview with the Oregonian, and when he was asked about his work, he responded, “Most of it's OK. Most of it's not too bad.”

A commentator of Snyder’s work once noted that Snyder wanted “to be considered a poet of the ordinary man.” While Snyder himself was no ordinary man, he certainly created a vast amount of work that can be enjoyed by many. When asked in a 1999 interview by poet and writer David Meltzer about the work of a poet, Snyder stated that, “I think the value of all of the arts as opening our senses, our imagination, our hearts, in keeping our hearts available is their deepest role.” And in another letter to Reynolds, he wrote, “The brotherhood of man may not be some eccentric and idle illusion, but a real human potential. I believe it and will work for it ... More than that; ‘the brotherhood of all beings’ is what I want to see. A love that extends to wild things, wild flowers, fish, plankton, the stars even.” This sense of brotherhood permeates both his life and his work. And the letter is appropriately signed, “Love, Gary.”