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At 84, Poet Gary Snyder Lives In 'This Present Moment'


Gary Snyder is a poet. He was born in 1930 so he's been around for most of the important things that happened in the last century and this one. And he has had quite a life. He's been a fire lookout, a logger, a Buddhist monk, a translator of Chinese poetry, a painter. He was there when Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets of San Francisco read Ginsberg's poem "Howl." And Snyder is theoretically the man on which Jack Kerouac based a character in his novel "Dharma Bums." At the age of 84, he has published more than 20 books. His most recent is a slender volume of mostly short poems, and we hope he'll read some of them for us. He joins us from KVMR in Nevada City, Calif. Gary Snyder, welcome to our program.

GARY SNYDER: Pleased to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what about getting right down to it and reading a poem? This one is called "From The Sky."

SNYDER: "From The Sky." (Reading) The sand hill cranes are leaving, soundings from the sky. Songbirds from Central America begin to arrive. Flitting through the bushes, snow patches on the ground, truck still in four-wheel-drive.

WERTHEIMER: It's interesting, though, that in some of your poems, there's - you know, there's just sort of the - you're purely dealing with nature, and then you'll stick something in like the truck that's in four-wheel-drive.

SNYDER: Well, you know, that's the world we live in. Poetry isn't about just nature. It's about reality. And as a Buddhist, Buddhism does not just favor a nice side of the phenomenal universe. Buddhism says we are all students of reality, whatever it is.

WERTHEIMER: The poem that's on the very next page is called "Here."

SNYDER: You want me to read it?


SNYDER: (Reading) Here in the dark, the new moon long set. A soft grumble in the breeze is the sound of a jet so high, it's already long gone by. Some planet rising from the East shines through the trees. It's been years since I thought why are we here?

WERTHEIMER: Do you want to explain that last bit? What is that?

SNYDER: Well, that is our existential question. And a lot of people think about it all of the time. Now, few people never think of it. I'm one of those people who thought about it for a long time and then quit thinking about it.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Why was that?

SNYDER: Because I was working on it so hard that it was no longer an intellectual or rational exercise. It was more a something in my own nature that I was trying to get around, get close to. And maybe it's not a real question. We're here because we're here, as Mr. Natural says.

WERTHEIMER: Do you still live up in the mountains in a house you built yourself and all of the things that I've read about you? Or - is that all still happening?

SNYDER: Oh, yeah, I drove down here from that house just a few minutes ago. And it still is learning what it's supposed to become, I think. It's a great old house. I felt every tree that went into the framework.

WERTHEIMER: You've outlived lots of your hard-living buddies from the bad-old days. How do you feel about writing now? How do you feel about being alive?

SNYDER: It's wonderful. Every moment is really interesting, and I'm grateful to be alive. And I'm ready to die whenever it happens. So you try to bring some little bit of quality to your choices and, you know, stop and appreciate things maybe a little more than you did when you were trying to meet - match a big steady schedule.

WERTHEIMER: Gary Snyder's new book of poetry is called "This Present Moment: New Poems." Thank you very much for doing this.

SNYDER: Well, thank you for doing this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.