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Pulitzer Prize poet Gary Snyder featured in Stanford workshops

With a talismanic painting of a bristlecone pine tree for a backdrop, poet Gary Snyder encouraged his SRO audience in Kresge Auditorium to relax and simply "be present" when he read from his latest work Thursday evening, Oct. 9.

"No one ever said you had to understand it," Snyder said in response to the question he hears most often about his poetry. "Feel free to fall asleep. Feel free to walk out and come back."

And so they did. Students in bell bottoms and tie-dyed shirts who had crowded into the aisles settled back on their packs and faculty in the front rows reclined in their seats as the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet spent the next two hours reading and chanting from Mountains and Rivers Without End, the compilation of 39 poems that took him more than 40 years to complete. The epic work will be the focus of a year-long series of workshops on campus.

The performance did not quite stretch from dawn to dusk, like the poetry readings Snyder and fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg experienced in India in the early 1960s. But Snyder's easy-going inflections and soulful haiku gave his audience much to consider.

A native of Washington and graduate of Reed College, Snyder has worked as a deckhand, logger and forest-fire spotter as he's written about nature and human nature. He also draws on 10 years he spent in a Zen temple in Kyoto, learning Buddhist precepts, and a lifetime study of Japanese and Chinese brush painting.

Canonized as the Zen-spouting hobo, Japhy Ryder, in comrade Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Snyder now teaches English at the University of California-Davis, where he helped to found the nature and culture program. He lives on a 100-acre homestead high in the Sierra Nevada with his wife, Stanford graduate and writer Carole Koda, and makes the trek down the mountain for classes and readings.

Snyder, the author of 18 books, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Turtle Island, and recipient of the 1997 Bollingen Prize for Poetry and the John Hay Award for Nature Writing, told the Kresge audience he was "delighted and deeply touched" that his new work had been so well received on campus.

"I always thought Stanford was an intimidating place," he said. "But I'm charmed."

The seminars are sponsored by the Humanities Center and organized by Mark Gonnerman, a doctoral candidate in religious studies, and his faculty adviser, Carl Bielefeldt, professor of religious studies.

Earlier that day Gonnerman welcomed more than 30 students and faculty to an introductory workshop presented by Anthony Hunt, professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico.

When he first heard Snyder read sections of Mountains and Rivers Without End last year, Gonnerman said, the poet had used whitewater rafting analogies to describe his work. Some of the 39 poems could be considered Class III rapids, Snyder suggested, which any adventurous traveler could approach on his or her own. The Class V sections, though, required a professional guide.

Snyder provided program notes to guide listeners through his reading at Kresge. He explained that his poem was inspired by East Asian landscape paintings, Japanese Noh drama and 20th-century long poems. He described his work as "a poem-sequence that reaches toward an imagining, a visualizing, of the whole planet as one watershed, one great place." Like an old-time Buddhist pilgrim, Snyder wrote, the poem "tries to move through the world in the spirit of Compassion and Insight / Emptiness / Transparency."

On Saturday, Oct. 12, 23 students, faculty and alumni had turned out for a day-long circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais, or "circumTam," following in the tracks of Snyder's 1956 climb with Kerouac and his 1965 trek with Ginsberg and poet Phillip Whalen. At designated stops ­ where an old oak grew out of a rock, for example ­ the group paused to chant Hindu mantras and Jewish prayers in honor of Yom Kippur, in between intervals of walking meditation.

On Monday, Oct. 13, Susan Matisoff, associate professor of Asian languages, launched the Humanities Center series with an introduction to performance aspects of Japanese Noh theater and its relation to Snyder's poem. She suggested that his work was informed by his experience of having seen several stagings of Yamamba, a play about a mountain spirit.

Stanford faculty who will present additional workshops in fall quarter include the following:

  • Monday, Oct. 20: Carl Bielefeldt, professor of religious studies, speaking on Dogen's "Mountains and Waters Sutra."
  • Monday, Oct. 27: Richard Vinograd, associate professor of art, talking about "Words on Paintings on Words and the Esthetics of Endlessness."
  • Monday, Nov. 10: Philip J. Ivanhoe, associate professor of religious studies, speaking on "Views of Nature in Early Chinese Thought."

In winter quarter Stanford faculty presenting workshops are Tom Hare, associate professor of Asian languages; Rush Rehm, associate professor of drama; Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian; Marjorie Perloff, the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities; and David Fryeberg, professor of civil engineering. Spring quarter participants include Albert Gelpi, the Coe Professor of American Literature, and Charlie Junkerman, associate dean of the Continuing Studies Program.

Funding is provided by the Center for Buddhist Studies; Center for East Asian Studies; departments of art, Asian languages, comparative literature, drama, English, and religious studies; Humanities Special Programs; Office of the Dean of Humanities and Sciences; Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education; the Stanford Humanities Center; and the Continuing Studies Program, with funds provided by the Mellon Foundation.

In spring quarter, Continuing Studies also will offer a team-taught course on Snyder's epic poem, plus another Saturday "circumTam." Snyder will participate in several classes and will return to Stanford on May 16 for a day-long symposium and reading of his work.

For more information about the Humanities Center workshops, contact Mark Gonnerman at 497-0923 or by e-mail to markg@leland. For information about the Continuing Studies Program course, call 725-2650 or check the website at


By Diane Manuel

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