Gary Snyder: Poet as Pedagogue

Nancy Lo

Writer’s comment: When we were assigned a profile article in my English 103C class, I knew I wanted to focus on a writer since that’s the profession I want to pursue. Gary Snyder’s name immediately popped into my head because I’d heard a lot of good things about him and wanted to get to know him and his work better. The fact that Snyder writes nature poetry also attracted me because of my love for the outdoors.
         Most of the pieces I had read about Snyder focused on his poetry and his environmental activism. So I thought it would be both interesting and different to center the piece around Snyder’s role as a teacher. Even though I was terribly intimidated at first—so much that, had it not been for Jayne Walker’s encouragement I would never have written this piece—I found Snyder to be a very friendly and approachable person. This piece was a great learning experience for me because I discovered the rewards of confronting your fears and going out on a limb. Thank you, Gary.
—Nancy Lo

Instructor’s comment: The profile is the most demanding assignment in my English 103C (Article Writing) classes. Weeks before the first draft is due, the students begin discussing possible subjects and analyzing a variety of models. Journal assignments guide them through the preparatory steps Helen Benedict advocates in her indispensible book Portraits in Print: researching printed sources, preparing long lists of interview questions, contacting other people who could shed some light on the principal subject.
         Nancy's preparatory work was brilliant and remarkably thorough—except for one crucial omission: she couldn't bring herself to contact Gary Snyder to set up an appointment. The other students tried to help her overcome her fear. I remember an art history major telling her how helpful and cooperative Wayne Thibaud had been when she interviewed him a few days before. Finally, Nancy screwed up her courage and made an appointment. But before their meeting, to keep on schedule, she had already written a complete draft based on her reading and interviews with other faculty members and students. I'm convinced that the richness of Nancy's final version owes a great deal to the extraordinary amount of work—both research and writing—she did before she ever interviewed her subject.
—Jayne Walker, English Department

People spilling into the aisles of Kleiber Hall were evidence enough of Gary Snyder’s popularity. A diverse audience waited to hear him read from his newest work, No Nature. Next to me sat an older man, and hairy-legged women and bandanna-and-flannel-shirt-wearing college boys were scattered throughout the hall. After squeezing myself into a spot on the steps of the first row, I looked to my right and wondered, “Is that him?” He looked like a Gary Snyder—the years of wisdom, experience, and spirituality etched in every wrinkle and freckle of his weathered face, his salt-and-pepper beard a product of careful neglect. He sported a shirt, tie, and blazer coupled with blue jeans and cowboy boots. A stud earring in his left ear provided the finishing touch to his distinct look. Obviously pleased with the turnout, he joked, “This is an amazing turnout, considering it’s not required.” The audience chuckled appreciatively. As he began reading, images of nature, family, religion, folklore, and animals clung to the air of the crowded hall.
         Everyone writes about Gary Snyder the “eco poet” and environmental crusader. Most articles focus on the fact that he speaks flawless Chinese and Japanese, spent many years in Japan studying and practicing Zen Buddhism (a belief that now plays a large part in his life), lives in a self-designed-and-built log cabin nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Nevada City, and that he’s written fifteen volumes of poetry and prose, one of which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. But how many people know about Gary Snyder the teacher?
         In his classes at UC Davis, Snyder focuses on his loves: poetry, nature, and spirituality. Since joining the English Department’s Creative Writing Program in 1986, he has taught a graduate poetry workshop, an advanced seminar on wilderness literature, a seminar on West Coast Poetry and the Beats, and a creative writing class focusing on poetry. Snyder says, “I’m lucky enough to be allowed by the University to teach courses in areas that I’m curious about.”
         According to his friend and colleague English professor Jack Hicks, getting Snyder to commit to a professorship was quite an involved process. But persistence eventually paid off; Hicks, with a few instrumental grad students, convinced Snyder to officially sign on. The deal proved fruitful since he no longer had to worry about financial stability and could concentrate on writing.
         Even though he has a successful writing career, Snyder never neglects his commitment to students and the University. When I ask Professor Peter Dale, Chair of the English Department, to comment on Snyder’s teaching, he kids, “I’ve never taken a class from him,” and then continues more seriously, “He would be a very wise person to learn from. He is deeply committed to literature and the preservation of the environment. Students need to know about these things.”
         In Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, Hicks emphasizes that unlike “some noted writers [who] rent their names to colleges, Snyder works the job here—he is diligent with his courses.” Hicks explains to me that Snyder’s “teaching is an absolute role to him. It’s part of his own development; the process of teaching is a way of altering, nourishing that [process] of writing.” When I relay Hicks’ observation, Snyder agrees. “I certainly approach teaching as a learning process.”
         One reason Snyder came to Davis was to begin an interdisciplinary program in Nature and Culture that “seeks to find and nourish deep affinities between scientists, humanists, and writers.” He has played a vital role in initiating this innovative major: “I noticed that a number of faculty in the English Department and people from other departments knew about [different aspects of nature] but we never got together and talked. So I organized a little meeting where we talked and shared ideas. I decided that we should pool our resources, and it has now become an accepted program that’s going to start in the spring.” He clearly values this project: “I have a feeling that doing work like this Nature and Culture program is really what I came to Davis for.”
         The aura of this famous poet is inescapable when you write about Snyder. One of his students dramatically says, “When I’m a grandmother, I’ll be able to say I took this intensive poetry writing workshop with Gary Snyder.” Another student describes him as “this wise old sage, very learned, very inspiring.” English professor David Van Leer sums it all up by saying, “He’s beyond famous; he’s mythic.”
         Snyder’s fame sometimes hinders his teaching. “The problem—if there is a problem—is that, because he’s so well-known a figure, his undergraduate classes are filled beyond capacity,” says Dale. “So it makes it hard for him to minister to the needs of each individual student. But I think he does as much as he can.” One of his students says, “Sometimes the stuff he tells us is so overwhelming,” and another student admits that Snyder intimidated her at first, but “after a while, you get used to him.”
         Snyder’s presence and accessibility at UC Davis more than compensate for any difficulties that arise. As one student convincingly points out, “He’s available to us; we can just go to his office hours and talk to him like a regular person without having to make an appointment with his publisher or something.” As a prominent poetic figure, Snyder encourages students as well as faculty to open their minds and expose themselves to the wonders of poetry.
         Teaching is a give-and-take process for Snyder. He says, “I try to use the courses as a way to extend my own education. My Literature of the Wilderness class directly informed and helped me finish up my book of essays called Practice of the Wild. That writing was clearly improved, informed and influenced by my teaching.” When asked what else he gets out of teaching, Snyder responds, “Being around students is interesting, and I get a sense of where students’ concerns are. Also fascinating is the diversity of the students—right now in my class there are three people who are not native speakers of the English language. It’s wonderful to have people from different backgrounds writing contemporary poetry. We’re going to see more of that in the future.”
         Studying and living in Japan has given Snyder a unique perspective on teaching. “One of the useful aspects of me as a teacher is, paradoxically, that I was not teaching for many years. For thirty years I was on the outside, and so there are some strengths that come from living outside of the university, living for a long time in Asia, living as a working writer without the benefit of the university as an umbrella. I speak like a working person from the outside who has seen a lot of different ways of doing things. For a Zen Buddhism class I taught, I brought in paintings, scrolls, calligraphy, and Japanese and Chinese books because I wanted students to get the feel for some of that stuff—details, artifacts, the way the incense smells—and get a feel for what the practice of Buddhism in the temples is like.”
         In his poetry workshop, Snyder offers advice to students aspiring to become masterful poets. “He told us to ‘approach poetry with juice,’ meaning that he knows you’ll be working on [your poetry] a long time; it’s not quick, so you should be loose with yourself and at first just let it all flow. But then you can be critical later.” Another student insists I include the fact that “Snyder teaches us how to think like poets [by] concentrat[ing] on how to mentally be a poet instead of the mechanics of writing a poem.”
         When I sit in on his poetry workshop, I discover for myself what kind of teacher Snyder is. Shirt sleeves rolled up, he waves his weathered hands as he talks. Although he’s soft spoken, he nevertheless commands attention. His students aren’t intimidated and speak freely. One student concludes that poets and creative people are “screwed up and dysfunctional,” to which Snyder just laughs; he doesn’t seem the least bit upset. As I continue to observe the class, I discover that Snyder has an interesting mannerism. When students read their poems aloud, he mouths the words of the poem along with them. It’s as though he tries to get into the rhythm of the poem by reading the words in addition to listening to them.
         Snyder continually experiments with new styles of teaching. “I’ve never found a set formula by which I could teach poetry. I’m never entirely sure what works and what doesn’t work, so I’m always watching and trying different things,” he explains. Hicks told me, “He’s really good at setting up interesting, intriguing situations so that students can talk, debate, hammer out things amongst themselves. He’s particularly good at making very complex issues—spirituality, politics, psychology—understandable without being simplistic.” Hicks thinks that Snyder’s ability to make students think for themselves furthers his success as a teacher.
         Snyder lends flavor and depth to his lectures by sharing interesting anecdotes and rele-vant facts. He constantly relates themes in the poetry and students’ comments to his life’s experiences. When I mention this observation, Snyder thoughtfully responds, “I have a broad background and have kept in touch with many threads of thought—philosophical, literary, political, spiritual, practical—over the years, so I try to bring as much of that whole range of information and insight to bear as I can on any given topic. Sometimes that means that I may stop and take a turn when I’m giving a class—something like the original botany of Yolo County or how a Chinese or Japanese cultural perspective would see something that we’re talking about—it’s those things coming up from time to time that [are out of the ordinary and] make teaching more interesting for me.”
         Snyder doesn’t stop teaching when he leaves the classroom. He travels widely three or four months every year, visiting universities, reading poems and lecturing, leading workshops and seminars, participating in conferences and working closely with environmental groups and indigenous peoples. Hicks admires Snyder’s ability to “recognize the kind of format expected of him and click right into that, whether he’s giving a speech in front of a large dignified audience or talking in a smaller group.”
         As the interview came to a close, Snyder said something to which I could really relate: “I’m interested in making a way of seeing a future California, or United States if you like, in which cultural diversity is appreciated but also in the process everybody from all different backgrounds should get to know the landscape. I want to get Asian Americans and Black Americans equally involved in looking at the landscape and getting out in it. So I want to get all you guys out in the wilderness!” When he said that, it brought everything into perspective for me: his love of nature, his poetry, and his role as a teacher. What Snyder gives to his students is not only an appreciation of poetry but an equally important awareness of wilderness and the natural world.