SAN FRANCISCO — If they’re starving, the best minds of this generation can order $19.50 lobster rolls at the former site of the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Today, it houses Tacko, where customers can pacify themselves by listening to Phil Collins or gazing at a wall map of Nantucket. Old framed copies of Yachting Magazine hang from the new walls.
Slightly more than 60 years ago, the debut public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” consecrated this Marina District landmark. Now, you’ll find a bronze commemorative in front of the nautical-themed restaurant that serves New England-meets-“Mexican-street-style” fusion to baying tech bros and yoga mom Yelpers.
In previous incarnations, it was an auto-body shop, then an art gallery where anywhere from 25 to 150 people (the numbers fluctuate in every retelling) gathered on the night of Oct. 7, 1955, to hear poems read by Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Allen Ginsberg.
Jack Kerouac was famously present, wine-drunk on Burgundy. “Go! Go!” he kept shouting. The following morning, City Lights publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti cabled Ginsberg: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” That evening’s fallout led directly to the full flowering of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, mass liberations of sexuality and literature, and eventually, a James Franco film.
Late last spring, I drove up the coast from Los Angeles in search of surviving members of the Beat Generation. Interview times had been procured with the poets Ferlinghetti (now 98), McClure (84), Snyder (87), and Diane di Prima (82), as well as Beat-adjacent novelist Herbert Gold (93). When I told people about my plan, the most common response was, “They’re still alive?” After all, the loose collective’s three most famous avatars are long gone. William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg died within four months of each other in 1997. After chronic alcoholism, Kerouac’s organs finally burst in 1969.
Those three were the icons that later figured in Gap ads and a Kurt Cobain collaboration. They offered equal inspiration to geniuses including Bob Dylan and David Bowie, as well as every arrogant fool in your college creative-writing seminar that actually believed that “first thought, best thought” applied to him. I was one of those fools.
More than a half-century after their emergence, the Beats still offer up wild style, a sense of freedom and wonder for the natural world almost unrivaled in postwar literature. But their work has perhaps been more misinterpreted than nearly any literary group in history — partially because there was no consistent ideology binding them. As Ferlinghetti put it succinctly: “The Beat Generation was just Allen Ginsberg’s friends.”
The stereotype largely stems from the unshaven romanticism of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the manic alienation of “Howl” and subsequent Time/Life caricatures of Beatniks — the hipster millennial scapegoats of their time. While reporting in Oakland, Calif., a girl with a side ponytail berated me in a Mardi Gras-themed bar for glorifying “worthless straight white men of privilege.” Yet the truth is more complex and nuanced than can be captured in a drunken conversation or two-hour adaptation starring Kristen Stewart.
Radically diverse and tolerant for the Eisenhower era, the Beat poets encompassed all races, genders, religions, classes and sexual preferences. If Kerouac consumes the popular myth, a more accurate portrayal includes LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Bob Kaufman, whom the French branded the black American Rimbaud. Some shared the regrettable misogyny of the period, but the broader constellation produced enduring writing from di Prima, Anne Waldman, Joyce Johnson, and Ruth Weiss (all still living), and Joanne Kyger, who died in March.
You can see their progressive slant in contemporary attitudes toward drug-and-environmental policy, same-sex marriage and creative expression. During the Atomic Era, they were considered eccentrics at best, pariahs at worst. Here in the iPhone age, they seem enlightened. The world they prophesied only partially took root: The hippies they inspired got rich; Steve Jobs swaggerjacked Kerouac for an Apple commercial; the Bay Area that the Beats once electrified has been terraformed into an anthropomorphic app.
San Francisco isn’t merely under siege from gentrification; it’s been sacked. The median one-bedroom apartment costs $3,500 a month. To quote Ferlinghetti again, the city once resembled an offshore republic in the Mediterranean. Now, it’s a Bohemian theme park. And the poet owns its literary Disneyland — City Lights, the North Beach national treasure that originally published “Howl.” (Ferlinghetti later stood trial on obscenity charges, and won.) It remains a rite of passage for analog pilgrims.
Many memento mori still adorn this onetime locus of Beat life. There’s the Beat Museum, the lone American shrine solely dedicated to a literary movement, housing assorted ephemera, first editions and the 1949 Hudson used in the 2012 “On the Road” film. There’s Vesuvio Cafe, the charming 68-year old ex-artists bar where stained-glass lamps and yellowing Beat collages decorate the walls. You can sip a “Jack Kerouac” (ingredients: rum, tequila, cranberry juice, lime) and hear a waitress retell an old story about a visit from the belligerent and flirtatious poet Gregory Corso, now more than a decade and a half in the grave.
But the jazz bars that once hosted poetry readings and spontaneous jams now are mostly strip clubs and tourist traps. No young writer without a trust fund can afford to live near the crossroads known as “Poets Corner.” But for at least a little while longer, a few flesh and marrow legends survive. You just have to know their addresses.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently watched a man go mad. It occurred at Cafe Francisco in North Beach, a dozen blocks from City Lights. For a half-hour, the tormented party took off his sweater and put it back on — over and over to the soundtrack of big-band jazz — until he finally left to warmly complete the psychic unraveling in the seal-gray San Francisco fog.
Despite suffering from glaucoma and macular degeneration that have left him nearly blind, Ferlinghetti was the only one to observe the afflicted.
“Everyone around him was on their laptops or iPhones. No one even noticed,” the former San Francisco poet laureate recalls several weeks later in the same space, an erstwhile Italian restaurant with wood-grain booths and black-and-white photos from the 1940s on the wall. “The best writing is what’s right in front of you. Sometimes, I’d walk down the street with poets and they wouldn’t see anything. I’d have to shake their arm and say, ‘Look! Look!’ ”
For the past 60 years, that forced attention has been the explicit intent of Ferlinghetti’s elegant subversion. As he wrote in 2007’s “Poetry as Insurgent Art,” the poet should “write living newspapers . . . be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bulls---.”
His philosophy frames much of what he has pressed at his City Lights house: Charles Bukowski, Frank O’Hara, and, of course, most of the Beat Generation. But he has also published scholarly meditations on Selma, children’s books about “Rad American Women,” international literature and noir thrillers. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” was regrettably declined because he said he was “pretty square in those days” and didn’t want to spread that “junkie mentality of death and hate.”
Ferlinghetti might be the most influential independent publisher of the past 60 years. His bookstore is a West Coast Wailing Wall that survives amid a distressed industry. His 1958 collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” sold a million copies. Nostalgia or senescence inflames many still alive at his age, but Ferlinghetti has become increasingly unsentimental and radical. During the George W. Bush years, he was one of the administration’s most scathing critics. Among 2016’s presidential aspirants, he was most interested in social democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Everyone in the ruling classes is too well fed to bother about anybody proposing revolution,” he says.
Is this the dream? To live nearly a century and sustain a serrated intellect, righteous integrity and good health? His failing eyesight has been swapped for oracular vision. He looks vaguely like a bust of Socrates, bald, white-bearded and wise — except Ferlinghetti beat his charges of corrupting the youth. Beneath pudgy glasses, his eyes are hauntingly blue and compassionate. His posture remains youthful and upright. One ear is pierced and his socks are tropical candy-striped. He’s a responsible shopkeeper and subversive arsonist rolled into one.
Shaking off the slanders of age, he carefully walked here alone, sans cane, carrying a City Lights satchel filled with advance copies of the 60th anniversary Pocket Poets Series collection and his collected letters with Ginsberg. There’s also “Writing Across the Landscape,” his travel journals from 1960-2010, published recently by a division of W.W. Norton & Company. Outside of his verse, the latter offers arguably the most interior examination of the multidimensional artist.
“I never wanted to write an autobiography because I don’t like looking back,” Ferlinghetti says, curling his lips into a half-smile. “I told my agent this is the closest he’ll get.”
His life story is littered with the twists of serial fiction. Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1919. He never knew his father, an Italian immigrant who had died six months earlier. Shortly thereafter, his mother was committed to an asylum, scattering her five sons among relatives. Her uncle’s ex-wife wound up caring for the newborn, taking him to Strasbourg, France, where French became his first language.
After moving to Bronxville, N.Y., she disappeared, leaving the 5-year-old with her former employers, the Bisland family — descendants of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College. Ferlinghetti discovered the aunt’s whereabouts two decades later, when he learned of her death in a Long Island insane asylum. He’d been listed as her only survivor.
A love of Thomas Wolfe led him to the University of North Carolina, where he failed to make the basketball team (“I was only six-foot tall. . . . Too short.”), studied journalism and covered sports for the school paper. He commanded a submarine-chaser ship during the D-Day invasion and saw time in the Pacific theater, touring Nagasaki, Japan, weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped.
“The city had just vanished from the face of the earth,” Ferlinghetti wrote in a travel journal anthologized in his new book. The experience left him an ardent pacifist. “Skeletons of trees on the horizon. Not a soul in sight . . . all souls melted too.”
Postwar graduate studies followed at Columbia University (M.A. in English literature) and the Sorbonne in Paris. (His thesis: “The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry.”) Settling in San Francisco, he co-founded City Lights in 1953. The nation’s first all-paperback bookstore shared North Beach with working-class Italian neighbors, many of whom kept the fledgling shop in business by purchasing imported anarchist newspapers from the Old World. Then Ginsberg uncorked “Howl” at the Six Gallery.
“He did a lot of other ‘Howl’ readings, but the first was the most famous,” Ferlinghetti says. He recalls it in austere terms: white walls, a dirt floor, no stage, 25 to 30 folding chairs in a converted garage.
“That shows the power of ‘Howl,’ ” he continues. “No one had heard anything like that. You can tell if it’s a great work if it makes you see the world as you’ve never seen it.”
“There wouldn’t have been a Beat Generation without Allen Ginsberg. There would have been certain writers along the landscape but no organized movement,” Ferlinghetti says. “As soon as he arrived in every city, he’d call up the papers and say, ‘This is Allen Ginsberg, I just arrived in town.’ Then he’d bring all his friends that he wanted to get published.”
Ferlinghetti himself benefited from the exposure, selling millions of books that combined pellucid street reporting, surrealist and modernist imagism, and damning wit. Like many closely associated with a specific era, his early efforts are what end up in anthologies. But 2004’s “Americus” and its equally brilliant follow-up, 2012’s “Time of Useful Consciousness” found the nonagenarian poet in wintry glow, eulogizing the last half millennium of America in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
“I don’t know what the publisher was doing but they never got me a single review,” Ferlinghetti quips about “Americus.” He acknowledges his modernist influences as a kiss of critical apathy, death by being ignored. Besides, he adds, “attention spans are too short.”
It’s easy to dismiss that as aloof cantankerousness of an old man. But if you spoke to Ferlinghetti for 10 seconds, you’d realize the error. He’s as close as you can get to visiting Homer, a purblind chronicler who has seen it all. Orphaned and abandoned, scarred by the firsthand horrors of nuclear hell, crucified by grotesque bureaucrats, recovering to watch his San Francisco Poetry Renaissance save the art from arid dweebs, temporarily restoring it to a popular oral and written tradition, only to watch it evaporate.
It’s Ferlinghetti alongside Ginsberg onstage at the 1967 Human Be-In, where the latter whispers in his ear, “What if we’re wrong?”
That’s Ferlinghetti protesting all forms of hypocrisy and inequity, marching against nuclear weapons and Vietnam and in favor of environmental protections and fair treatment of farmworkers.
He’s the one reciting the “Loud Prayer” onstage with the Band in the movie “The Last Waltz.” Ferlinghetti, who never has stopped wondering what it all meant, worrying where we’re going, what will be lost to history and what may never be noticed at all.
“It’s all going to be underwater in 100 years or maybe even 50,” he says when asked what he sees for San Francisco, the beloved adopted city that partially betrayed him. “The Embarcadero is one of the greatest esplanades in the world. On the weekends, thousands of people strut up and down like it’s the Ramblas in Barcelona. But it’ll all be underwater.”
That repetition of “underwater” lingers for a second, as though it’s an anchor that he can’t stop from sinking. At that moment, it’s not hard to imagine this cafe as an Atlantean ruin, filled with drowned corpses tethered to their laptops and iPhones until the soggy finish. He half-smiles again and shrugs, unapologetic for what he sees, as though to say one last time, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Shortly after Michael McClure invites me into his aerie in the East Oakland Hills, he turns on the stereo and plays a melodic indictment of American brutality set to the psychedelic keyboard stabs of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek and the occasional flute trill.
“Let me be raw. . . . I’m sick of this monkey-eyed idiot decadence, this military mechanical and maniacal greedy drooling,” McClure roars on “Me Raw,” from “The Piano Poems: Live From San Francisco,” a collaboration with Manzarek recorded shortly before the keyboardist’s 2013 death.
“I wanted to keep alive the understanding of the environment, consciousness and inspiration that started with our bio-romantic early poems at the Six Gallery reading,” McClure elaborates on his collaborations with Manzarek, which spanned nearly 20 years. After this poem ends, he replaces it with another one from his full-length collaboration with the legendary avant-garde minimalist composer Terry Riley.
McClure doesn’t do casual conversation. It’s terrestrial nightmares and transcending consciousness or nothing. The 84-year-old poet, playwright, novelist and essayist speaks with a Buddha’s baritone — a Zen timbre that could make a grocery list sound like the Lankavatara Sutra. In “Big Sur,” Kerouac described him as “the young poet who’s just written the most fantastic poem in America, called ‘Dark Brown,’ which is every detail of his and his wife’s body described in ecstatic union.”
He also called him the “most handsome man he’d ever seen . . . enough to play Billy the Kid in the movies.” No exaggeration. Do an image search of McClure and you’ll find a sepia triptych of him, Bob Dylan and Ginsberg in 1965. Somehow, the Wichita- and Seattle-bred poet is the most stylish, looking like a young Orlando Bloom in a Percy Shelley biopic — a man cool enough to pull off owning a pet hawk for most of the 1960s without seeming preposterous.
In his 80s, a debonair charm remains unmistakable. A blue jacket and black jeans loosely drape his lanky frame, a plaid scarf rakishly wrapped around his neck. His hair is a rich shock of silver. But the erosion of eight decades has left some wear. A tremor palsies one hand and he’s blind in his right eye. A few weeks before this interview, McClure slipped while hiking among the redwoods . Doctors implanted a titanium plate in his hip, and he now must use a cane to get around his home. While convalescing in a nearby hospital, poems came surging out.
“Cool breeze on brown tulips, fat black and yellow beef feasts, life and lemon lollipops . . . Steel tower home squeeze,” McClure declaims after picking up a notebook next to him. “I am a lion and you are a lioness. Our hideout is in the midst of overcast. Will we roar and stretch in the sun. . . . Stardust. Star. Sand. Now I claw your sign. Aspire. Inspire to touch your light hand.”
The motifs aren’t much different from those explored by the 22-year old McClure, who read the ecological requiem “For the Death of 100 Whales” that fated night in 1955 at the Six Gallery. In fact, McClure was first tasked to organize the gathering, but in the wake of impending fatherhood, bequeathed the responsibilities to Ginsberg.
“They’re all poems I stand by, as much now as ever. They were the beginning of ideas, Dōgen-esque ideas,” McClure says, referencing the 13th-century Japanese poet-philosopher.
Arriving in 1954 to study abstract expressionist art at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), McClure quickly transferred to San Francisco State to learn from Robert Duncan, a major influence on the area’s poetry renaissance. After the Six Gallery reading, he ascended into a rarefied stratum.
“What the Six Gallery really did was show us that there was an audience out there that really wanted to hear poetry off the page,” McClure continues, surrounded by overstuffed bookshelves and clay kiln-fired statues of spirit guides made by his wife, sculptor Amy Evans McClure. The decor reflects McClure’s own obsessions with Asian, Native American and abstract art. “That night at the Six Gallery greatly inspired us to go ahead.”
Fluidly gliding through worlds, McClure bridged the gap between Beats, hippies and Hell’s Angels. He invented his own “beast language” and growled those poems to the lions at the San Francisco Zoo. It’s right there to watch on YouTube. His early psychedelic experiments and subsequent “Peyote Poem” blew the mind of Francis Crick, who would soon co-discover the structure of our DNA. Among other songs, McClure co-wrote “Mercedes Benz,” which was soon turned into a hit by his close friend Janis Joplin.
Fame and infamy arrived in 1965 with his play “The Beard.” Chronicling the interplay between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow in a “blue velvet eternity,” it ended with the Western outlaw performing oral sex on the silver-screen ingenue as she bent over a chair bellowing, “star . . . star.” Needless to say, the censors didn’t approve.
Zealous to remedy their failures in prosecuting Ferlinghetti and comedian Lenny Bruce, the San Francisco police arrested the play’s lead actors for “lewd or dissolute conduct in a public place.” More handcuffs followed in Berkeley and Los Angeles. The latter performance found an outraged theatergoer sucker-punching McClure after the show, which set off a counter-thrashing by the poet and another close friend of his, actor Dennis Hopper.
The controversy and artful rebellion attracted Doors vocalist Jim Morrison, who quickly became McClure’s drinking buddy and partner in adapting McClure’s novel, “The Adept.”
“I hated him at first. I thought, ‘Who is this guy with leather pants and long hair?’ ” McClure says and laughs. “But we eventually started talking about poetry and drinking. I don’t think there was a better poet in America at Jim’s age.”
McClure helped crystallize the modern Rimbaud mystic archetype that Morrison ran with. If there’s a hint of the familiar in him, it’s because he’s been so frequently emulated. Every freak-folk accidental shaman in Topanga Canyon and abstract Earth poet owes some creative debt to the former English professor at Oakland’s California College of the Arts.
His poems are less obsessed with reality than with the malleable forms and shapes that reality can take. They reverse engineer art back into the elemental building blocks it comes from: an archipelago of syllables, stark images, clumps of flesh and leonine wildness. He looks to eradicate the barriers between biology and poetry, bebop and abstract canvases. It’s both comically serious and playfully childlike.
Like most of his peers, McClure is gravely concerned about the future. He’s haunted by the prophetic ideas of Herbert Marcuse, whose theory of one-dimensionality warned that late Western capitalism created a pliant consumerist class whose rebellious streak would be crushed by false needs and banal distractions.
“I know that young people are striving for change, but it seems like they don’t know how to rebel or what to rebel against. The ones I know don’t have the fire in them that makes them dislike things. Everyone is amenable,” McClure says. “We’re living in an electronic world of communications that ontologically doesn’t exist, where we’re all one-dimensional. They’d be happier if they found their inner life, but they can’t. This is a flashing world of passion, which can be a beautiful thing and a terrible one.”
But at his core, he’s an optimist, one who believes that rebels still exist in hiding, waiting to create a world that exists offline and untrammeled by obscene wealth and poisonous noise. He’s aware that it’s a grim time, but is quick to invoke Alfred North Whitehead’s maxim: “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”
It’s this stereoscopic vision that makes it feel like you’re going to a shaman for advice. Not some spirit-hoodied Burning Man casualty, but someone who has seen it all, wide-frame — from whom Morrison and Kerouac absorbed style — whose ideas aren’t beholden to contemporary mores but ripped out of some primordial version of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. So I ask him the only question left to ask: What are we supposed to do?
“Turn off the television set and turn off the distractions. Turn to your most intelligent friends, and begin to imagine what’s really going on,” McClure says without pausing. It’s an epiphany long realized.
“We live in a state of free information, but that’s somehow absolutely muzzled. If we can eliminate these distractions and start to feel and think together again, and let our imaginations and inspirations let go . . . that will bring more change than anything.”
Inside this overflowing apartment in the outer rung of the Mission district, you’ll find Diane di Prima and her partner, Sheppard Powell. And also the ghost of Burroughs. Over the last several months, the two corporeal residents have carefully read the collected works of their late friend aloud. These inadvertent seances for the author of “Naked Lunch” have led them to call him “our invisible roommate.”
Back when Burroughs was alive, di Prima’s disarming charm forced him to abandon his infamously stoic veneer.
“He was a thousand people, but there were two that I saw all the time. The cynical tough-talking guy, and the other [Bill] who showed me the machine he used to heal his cats,” di Prima, 82, says, recumbent in bed, wearing a red silk gown.
“The machine was based on the 19th-century theory of pulling energy out of the air. You need an antenna, a clamp and the picture of what you want to heal,” the Brooklyn-born poet continues. “He said it’s much easier to heal cats than heal people — because cats don’t put up any resistance.”
Visiting di Prima feels like meeting the Oracle in “The Matrix.” She’s propped up by pillows, partially debilitated by arthritis, stenosis and Parkinson’s disease.
The treasons of time have taken many of her teeth, made walking difficult and compressed her stature to slightly less than 5 feet. Her once waist-length, curly red locks have been replaced with a short, amber trim. Her eyes remain a stark blue-black — inquisitive, alert and incapable of dimming.
The former San Francisco poet laureate can still conjure revelatory anecdotes about nearly every person in Beat lore. Many are contained in her twin memoirs, the semi-fictional “Memoirs of a Beatnik” (1968) and the fearless self-examination of “Recollections of My Life As a Woman” (2001). Published at the height of the hippie ascension, the former’s raw, omnivorous sexuality — complete with an orgy scene involving Ginsberg and Kerouac — makes Lena Dunham’s work look like “My Little Pony.”
“Recollections” contains a less licentious retelling of a Lower East Side Beat party. Weed orbited and wine flowed, but when di Prima announced at 11:30 that she was returning home to relieve her daughter’s babysitter, Kerouac thundered, “DI PRIMA, UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER.”
I ask di Prima if she considers this direct evidence of Beat sexism, one of many minor aggressions endured. She shakes her head and slightly laughs.
“Jack wanted me to hang out because everyone was gay and I was straight,” di Prima demurs. “He was probably hoping to get laid later.”
Kerouac’s sentiment, nonetheless, seems particularly absurd in the present. Di Prima is the author of more than 40 volumes of poems, prose and stage plays, co-founded the New York Poet’s Theatre, operated her own independent press and ran the celebrated Floating Bear literary journal alongside her then-clandestine lover, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka.) In 1961, the FBI arrested both for “sending obscene material through the mail.” A grand jury failed to indict them, but she incurred massive legal debts.
Upon moving to San Francisco in 1968, di Prima helped organize the Diggers — community activists and occasional mimes — into a charitable organization that helped feed the hungry in Haight-Ashbury. At the Band’s “Last Waltz” concert, she read a one-line poem called “Get Yer Cut Throat off My Knife.” McClure describes di Prima as the “best living poet in America.”
“Read a lot,” is her advice to writers. “Read out loud a lot. If there’s something that you’ve written that bothers you . . . sometimes I’d read into a tape machine. I wouldn’t listen hard; I’d would put it on in the background while I was doing things,” di Prima continues, offering strategies dispensed during innumerable lectures at the California College of the Arts, the New College of California, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Columbia College and private courses offered in her home.
“My subconscious would tell my mind to catch where the poem had fallen down,” she says. “You’re just receiving the poem, and there are inevitably going to be places where your attention breaks or you reach for a word and can hear the rhythm of it but it’s not there. Sometimes I’d write in a substitute, and fix it later.”
If mothers are our first teachers, di Prima embodies the amniotic and instructional spirits of both. Her five children figure heavily in her work, as does the mythology of motherhood, whether in animal or human form. Her poems can be startlingly empathetic or fiercely barbed, simultaneously romantic and realist, invoking imagery that juxtaposes pagan, Buddhist and communal anarchism. She penned the brilliant “Revolutionary Letters,” a guide to weathering the brutal lunacy of the late ’60s;” the epic “Loba,” hailed as a feminist analogue to “Howl;” and “Brass Furnace Going Out,” in which she communed with the soul of her aborted child.
The orphic transmissions continue unabated. Several notebooks surround her, containing shakily scrawled sketches of dreams, vivid memories, phrases and poems. They’re nestled alongside pens, books, paperclips, rubber bands, homeopathic vials, a Blue Shield medical brochure, yellow cylindrical pill bottles and miscellaneous Buddhist decor. There’s a TV but it’s only turned on for San Francisco Giants games.
More than 120 pages are written for a second volume of memoirs, but arthritis and stamina limitations have stifled progress. It’ll have to be dictated and structured in short bursts, but she hopes to resume soon. Her latest project reimagines the verse of Sappho, the bisexual poetess from the 6th century B.C.
“I wasn’t trying to translate it so much as see what happens. I’d read something and see if it evoked anything. As time went on, it felt like Sappho was talking to me,” di Prima says. “One I remember was, “love has taken the sword out of my hand.” That’s the whole poem.”
As the work evolved, Aphrodite added herself to the chorus, and di Prima began writing hymns equating modern America with the ancient goddess.
“I promised Aphrodite that I would renew her worship in this age,” di Prima adds. “I want her to say what she wants in this weird world.”
It’s easy to instinctively dismiss this as overripe California occultism. But that perception shifts in the same room as her. Di Prima’s writing is replete with the belief in the properties of “magick.” Not like broomsticks and eye of newt, but a way of accounting for inexplicable intuition, gaps in logic, the tarot dreams beholden to a few. Di Prima is one such rarity: a conductor of benevolent spells, a natural-born Gnostic, an antenna for arcane prophecies.
Her frail condition forces you to face the existential dissonance between eternal time and the temporal ravages awaiting all of us. There is that diamond infinity where di Prima exists as she did in those memoirs and on their covers: mysterious, brooding and carnal. Better than the men, and an object of permanent allure. There’s also the present where mere survival requires tremendous will. In a way, it always has.
As for the Beats, she always saw them as less of a literary coven and more as a node of free thinkers who existed within a long historical continuum — a state of mind constantly pushing the envelope. At the request of Powell, di Prima reads from “Keep the Beat,” one of her poems that can explain things better than any extemporaneous response to an over-asked question:
“It’s not a generation . . . It’s a state of mind . . . a way of living, gone on for centuries, a way of writing, too.”
She pauses to put on a pair of bulletproof black glasses.
“Beat poetry is older than the Grove of Academe. . . . It’s one of the ways that Dionysus prays. I know for sure it’s not a generation. Not once, one time, one country.”
If the surviving male poets foresee a bleak future, di Prima is more sanguine. She points to the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements as evidence of a healthy resistance, but notes that she expected more progress in terms of racial, gender and sexual tolerance.
“I thought we’d be way more civilized,” she admits. “But I love how the various lines between women and men are fading. I think we’re all naturally bisexual and the world should just relax and not put labels on everything. We don’t know who we are or where we’re going. Just like I don’t know what the poem is going to say until it writes itself.”
The 93-year-old novelist is calmly arguing for the creative advantages of hate. For the last several years, Herbert Gold sought revenge the old-fashioned way: withering lampoon and literary slander. His most recent novel, “When a Psychopath Falls in Love,” slips a fictional tint on his autobiographical tale of getting ripped off by a low-rent Bernie Madoff.
“I had a crooked lawyer friend who stole a lot of money from me, which inspired some writing,” Gold says from the rent-controlled garrison atop Russian Hill that he has surveyed for the past 56 years.
“My eldest daughter, a psychologist, said, ‘Dad, it’s not good for you to hate.’ I said, ‘It’s very good for me to hate.’ I’ve drawn that hatred into the book.”
Whether employed by Voltaire or Ice Cube, acidic fury has been flipped into artistic retribution for centuries. Some make millions promising that a ceaseless positivity ensures longevity, but the San Francisco writer reminds you that no one really knows anything. Unbridled optimists can die at 34, or caustic skeptics can become Methuselah.
Gold would be the first to tell you that’s he’s not a Beat, but his legacy and historical context remain inextricable from his more well-branded peers. The author of 30-plus novels, nonfiction tomes and short-story collections jokes that this is his “Beatnik pad.”
Shortly after I arrive, Gold pulls out a reprint of an old Columbia Review, recently sent by Bill Morgan, archivist for Ginsberg. Poems by the Lakewood, Ohio, native run alongside early salvos from the future author of “Howl,” then the 18-year old associate editor of their college literary magazine.
“[Ginsberg] was a couple years younger than I was, and openly gay, although we didn’t use that word at the time,” Gold says, seven decades later, in this apartment that inadvertently doubles as a literary tabernacle.
Framed photos of Gold’s five children are juxtaposed next to black-and-white poses with George Plimpton and William Saroyan. Degrees hang from Columbia (including a master’s in philosophy) and the Sorbonne, where he was a Fulbright Scholar. A psychedelic voodoo canvas adorns one wall, a gift from a Haitian weed grower — one of many friends made during myriad trips to the island that culminated in Gold’s brilliant 1991 travelogue and cultural history, “Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti.”
“We’d to go to bars near Columbia and Allen lectured me on Saint Teresa, whom he loved. Jack Kerouac, whom he loved,” Gold continues. “He’d always ask why I didn’t try homosexuality. How would I know if I didn’t like it?”
Gold was the least tolerant toward Kerouac, which led to occasional acrimony between him and Ginsberg.
“I crossed the street to avoid [Kerouac],” Gold says. Underneath spectacles, his soft brown eyes temporarily become marble. “He was an arrogant, anti-Semitic bully.”
Upon the publication of “On the Road,” Gold famously sniped at his former classmates in the Nation. It caused a brief rift with Ginsberg and permanent rupture with Kerouac.
“Ginsberg and Kerouac are frantic. They care too much, and they care aloud. I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now,” the 34-year old Gold wrote in 1957. “That they care mostly for themselves is a sign of adolescence, but at least they care for something, and it’s a beginning.”
The criticism aligned him with Truman Capote — who inveighed of Kerouac, “it’s not writing, it’s typing” — and John Updike, whose parody “On the Sidewalk” appeared in the New Yorker. Many Beat contemporaries attributed Gold’s dismissals to jealousy, but it stemmed more from fundamental divergences in style and thought. If most Beats slanted toward squinting mysticism, Gold was a sarcastic realist, quick to caricature the excess and occasionally juvenile philosophies.
“Kerouac destroyed himself with alcohol by 47. Like James Dean, he looks great stenciled on T-shirts,” Gold says. “Ginsberg inspired people to work. Kerouac inspired a speed-rap style that came out of taking speed. Although I have to admit now that the image he projected of camping out and cooking Jell-O over a fire could be appealing to a young person.”
There was also the matter of the company he kept. During Gold’s Paris sojourn, Saul Bellow became an early mentor and lifelong ally. So was James Baldwin. Vladimir Nabokov considered Gold one of the finest American writers, selecting his short “Death in Miami Beach” as one of six “A-list” personal favorites (alongside J.D. Salinger, Updike and John Cheever). Following the success of “Lolita,” Nabokov hand-picked Gold as his teaching heir at Cornell.
“You must haff one martini but no more,” Gold recalls Nabokov coaching him through the interview process. A decade later, Gold conducted the famed Paris Review “Art of Fiction” interview with the erudite Russian expatriate.
It underscores a question at the core of literary posterity. Would you rather live a doleful, abbreviated and tormented life like Kerouac in exchange for the immortality that only populist success can offer? Or would you rather live more than nine decades, celebrated by the greatest authors, raise five children whom you deeply love and leave behind an indelible but overlooked body of work?
As usual, the answer is more complicated than simple binaries allow. In the late ’60s, Gold’s novel-in-the-form-of-a-memoir, “Fathers,” afforded him the Luce magazine features and commercial rewards that had largely eluded him to that point. He sold more than 100,000 copies, appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and became a literary celebrity at a time when the phrase wasn’t an oxymoron.
Nor has his life been bereft of tragedy. In 1991, his ex-wife, Melissa Gold, was killed in a helicopter crash alongside her boyfriend, the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. Much of Gold’s subsequent writing has been haunted by her memory, most notably his poignant meditation on memory and aging, “Still Alive! A Temporary Condition.”
But should you spend any significant amount of time with Gold in this citadel overlooking the sailboats of San Francisco Bay, or walking up and down the seven hills, there’s no question which option you’d select. Despite breaking a hip a few months prior, he asks if I want to get dinner at his favorite old-school San Francisco Cantonese restaurant, Sun Kwong. The steep grade of the concrete highlands could leave any man winded, but Gold shows little strain.
“My stamina isn’t all the way back,” he admits, pausing only to offer a tour of old habitues priced into oblivion.
“If I moved, they could get $6,000 a month,” Gold muses, enumerating a figure roughly 10 times his current rent. “I told the landlord that they’ll have to carry me out in a stretcher.”
In the quarter-mile stroll to the Chinese restaurant, he jokes with practically every neighborhood character that passes — some known, some not. It strikes you with a Midwestern geniality, maybe carried over from his boyhood in suburban Cleveland. A few weeks earlier, the library in his hometown feted him with a tribute night, complete with bookmarks and posters on the walls.
“As you get older, nostalgia becomes a problem,” he says as soon as we sit down at the restaurant, with its weak Oolong tea and heaping platters of fried food. It just got fresh menus, but the place feels permanently faded. “You start to think, ‘Oh, things were better back in my day. You should’ve been here in North Beach then.’ But it’s wonderful to be alive at 20 in any era.”
Gold accrued stories so singular that they defy modern analogue. Many are recollected in his 1993 memoir, “Bohemia,” which inadvertently plays out like an antecedent to Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” There’s the time he mistakenly brought a woman to Burroughs’s Latin Quarter apartment, which drove the junkie author to shock her by urinating in the sink as he prepped the dinner salad. He nearly fought Norman Mailer on a balcony at Plimpton’s house. Jean Genet failed to seduce him. Anais Nin maybe made a pass. It was Herb Gold who actually brought Tom Wolfe to what he wrote about as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” a favor that went unreturned when Wolfe described him as having an “aftershave smile.”
It may have been intended as a mild pejorative, but that description captures the innate complexity of an artist worth remembering. When he needed his charm to open doors, it unlocked them. But there’s something invaluable in Gold’s refusal to buy into prevailing fads, trends or literary movements. Maybe the skepticism was occasionally unfounded, but he was a writer who kept other writers honest.
“The great thing about writing is that you master your experience and are able to control it in some way,” Gold says. His vision of the future is unusually even-keeled: neither summarily bleak nor sanguine or upbeat. He sees the novel ultimately becoming a niche interest. When I ask why, he points to my phone.
“Maybe it was better for writers in the ’60s and ’70s,” Gold adds. “But there’s excitement everywhere; you just have to look for it.”
If there is a secret, perhaps this is it — find the silver lining amid the scrap heap. But Gold foregoes such fortune-cookie profundities. He’s the type of author to offer meaning in minor gestures: one more meal at the Chinese restaurant, the ignored joy of another inhale, the ability to continue walking these hills.
Head north on Highway 49, a half-mile high in the Sierra Nevada foothills, past Nevada City and the Yuba River gorge where teenagers on giant boulders sip from beer cans, and you’ll eventually come to the San Juan Ridge. This was once Gold Rush territory, not far from where the Donner Party cannibalistically passed. Now, it’s mostly a loose confederation of semi-isolationists living amid sprawling woodlands of ponderosa pines and manzanita shrubs.
If you veer east at the first highway of consequence, you ascend into a vertiginous congregation of dirt crossing roads, stately disinterested trees and an elementary school named after the grizzly bear, the region’s largest nonhuman predator. Hook a right at Jackass Flats Road, past a chalk-gravel lunarscape. Eventually, if you successfully follow a series of woodland turns without a cellphone signal or working GPS, you might discover Kitkitdizze, the 100-acre sanctuary of Gary Snyder — a man who doesn’t particularly want to be found.
For the first half of last year, I attempted to track down the enigmatic Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (“Turtle Island,” 1975), one of the “Dharma Bums” bronzed by Kerouac in the 1958 novel. For the last half-century, the professor emeritus from the University of California at Davis has been plagued by those who surely exhaust him: restless seekers, sycophantic Beat bros and tedious journalists who mostly ask minor interpretations of the same questions.
It’s obvious why he doesn’t want to meet me.
After an extensive search, I procure his address from a friend’s father, a poet and conservationist who offers advance warning: “Gary is very jealous of his time.” My first letter to Snyder — carefully typed out, placed in a manila envelope and mailed up north — predictably goes unanswered. Apparently, he is much better with email. Even if you’re trying to find a reclusive 86-year-old Zen master, your best bet remains Google.
I dash off a straightforward inquiry, introducing myself, this publication, the slant of the story and my hopes of being granted an audience.
“Please say more about yourself and experience so far,” comes Snyder’s almost immediate reply, in a different email with a subject line that just reads: “you.”
“I try to do interviews that venture into new territory, and go deeper in the old, don’t just repeat what’s been said and done before,” he writes. “Education? Work? hands-on work? Back country experience? Family? Yr Practice? Age? Watershed? Etc.”
His email signature includes a 17th-century English folk poem about the perils of goose larceny and man’s pernicious encroachment on nature. Suffice to say that his definition of backcountry experience slightly differs from mine. Snyder grew up on a Depression-era dairy farm outside of Seattle, the spawn of radicals and atheists. He hiked Mount St. Helens alone at 15, and worked as a fire lookout, logger and seaman. His collection of essays, “The Practice of the Wild,” is arguably the closest thing the last century produced to Thoreau’s “Walden.”
As for myself, I grew up in a condo in the slums of Beverly Hills, the son of a tax lawyer and part of a blood lineage of urban Jews who haven’t camped since their ancestors wandered the Sinai.
“I can’t set aside time to meet and talk with you,” Snyder responded that same night. “Too much to do right here right now. At my age you don’t have much time left. You are old enough to have got it figured out already. Meeting me is not essential, doing your own practice and doing more and deeper reading in history, anthropology, and Buddhism is more to the point. The high Sierra still awaits you.”
The response forced me to reconsider exactly what sparked this story, this quest: the inexorable creep of mortality, the notion that by the time you read all of this the principals could already be ashes. I hoped to understand their interstitial thoughts, final opinions, offhand theories and hard-earned wisdom that often exists outside of formal writing. Out of pure selfishness, I hoped to learn secrets scarcely divulged, attempt to apply them to my own life and come to some slightly better understanding of what it means to be alive at this particular accident of time.
But Snyder is an outrider of the outsiders. His best poems, essays and interviews balance satori with self-effacing humor that would chop down those who deify him.
To assess Snyder’s tectonic effect on the Beats, you only need to know a familiar quote from McClure: “Just look at Kerouac. He didn’t go back on Route 66, hugging Neal and weeping big sad tears. He climbed a mountain,” he told the New Yorker in 2008. It’s possible, but ultimately unthinkable, to profile the survivors without including Snyder. So I make plans to drive up to the San Juan Ridge, armed with his address and the narrow hope that he won’t emerge with a hunting blade and a Koan cryptically ordering me off the premises.
Before I depart, I visit my Buddhism professor from Occidental College, hoping for some scholarly insight capable of changing Snyder’s mind. Afterward, I write to Snyder as humbly as possible, apologizing for my nerve and invoking the Zen legend of Rinzai and Huang Po. According to the parable, Rinzai spent three years studying at the latter’s monastery without receiving an interview with the master. Each time he stepped forth to ask the meaning of Buddhism, the pupil received a slap. Yet he still kept coming until he discovered the way. Instead of a slap, I receive silence.
If my plan to crash his Sierra Nevada solitude fails, I figure I’ll spend a week at a Zen monastery in Big Sur. It’s the closest equivalent to “What Would Gary Snyder Do?” Except that Snyder went to Japan to study Zen and translate ancient poems, and stayed off and on from 1956 to 1969. But it never comes to that, because by random chance, while I’m in San Francisco to conduct other interviews, Snyder gives a pair of readings — one in support of his first volume since 2004, the ruminative and elegiac “This Present Moment,” which he says will be his final poetry collection; the other finds him at the opening of “California’s Wild Edge,” an exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library, featuring his words alongside a dazzling series of coastal woodcuts by artist Tom Killion.
When the 90-minute discussion is over, I linger around the desk where Snyder signs books, waiting until everyone has gotten his autograph and made the requisite small talk. After I introduce myself, he interrogates me on what this story will be about. When my answers are satisfactory enough, he tells me to email him again, which I do several days later. Two emails go unanswered. Finally, I rope in representatives from his publishing house, who tell me to write him once again with a more formal proposal. A few more missives are exchanged, a few more personal essays are written, and finally I receive the directions to Kitkitdizze.
Except at 9 a.m. on the morning of my appointed interview, I am hopelessly and perplexingly lost in the Sierra Nevada. Despite meticulous instructions emailed by Snyder, I take the wrong prong at a fork on an unnamed road, which sends my SUV barreling down a six-foot-wide dirt trail clearly not built for automobiles. A minor twitch or sneeze could cause me to ram my car into a bulky black oak. If I die here, it’s clearly fate and at least the natives will know how to properly turn me into compost.
I swerve into a clearing and wander outside — birds tauntingly chirp as I frantically jump on top of the car in an effort to get a bar of cellphone service. Theoretically, this should be impossible because reception cut out about 30 miles ago. But miraculously, the call goes through, and after being dropped three times, Snyder tells me to wait there and he’ll come and get me. After 20 minutes, it becomes clear that I’m not at our agreed upon meeting place and that the Donner Party had a better sense of direction.
“You weren’t where you said you would be,” Snyder barks as soon as I finally reach him again on his landline.
I profusely apologize; all I had to do was follow an email printout.
With his Buddhist compassion almost evaporated, Snyder agrees to meet me once again. And after a short and agonizing wait, there he is, the aggravated lama, rappelling down the hill in a pale-blue Subaru Forrester, his apricot poodle Emi hanging out the window. Because this is Gary Snyder we’re talking about, even his Westminster-caliber dog has experience chasing bears.
“Get in the car and follow me,” he growls.
I leap into my 4Runner and drive off at whiplash speed, forgetting to take the scalding cup of coffee off the hood. No time for that, as he’s already hurtling through the gravel wasteland, shaded woods and tortuous curves, up the mountain at a velocity that you would expect from a teenager, not a man midway through his ninth decade. When we finally park at Kitkitdizze, he unleashes a stern but justified lecture on the importance of following directions and setting your odometer. The punishment is one hour with him instead of the two originally allotted.
“Even some Europeans found this place all right,” he says, with a prickly hacksaw laugh belying his small but sturdy physique.
“I have other things happening today,” he continues. “It probably doesn’t look like it to you, but I’ve got a busy schedule. Which I should apologize for but I can’t. When you get to be my age, everybody wants to talk to you.”
His gait is stiff but merry, his face sun-weathered; his almond-shaped eyes a deeply inset green granite color, still glowing with animist trickster glee. He wears olive shorts and a salmon-pink shirt. Only the usual etchings and fault lines of time differentiate him from Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” description: “He wore a little goatee, strangely Oriental-looking with his somewhat slanted green eyes, but he didn’t look like a Bohemian at all. . . . He was wiry, suntanned, vigorous, open, all howdies and glad talk . . . and when asked a question answered right off the bat from the top or bottom of his mind I don’t know which and always in a sprightly sparkling way.”
Kerouac has his Ginsberg surrogate describe him even more effusively as “the wildest, craziest, sharpest cat we’ve ever met . . . a great new American hero.”
“You saw all those cars up there?” Snyder asks as we sit down outside in a rough-hewed gazebo with a hanging New Mexico license plate. Wheelbarrows, kettles and steel canteens are scattered. “Do you know what those people are here for? You didn’t even ask me!”
When I shake my head, he tells me that they’ve arrived for a week-long intensive Zen retreat, where the participants meditate practically 24 hours a day — just down the hill in the Ring of Bone Zendo, the Buddhist center built on the property in the early ’80s. He’s abstaining for health considerations, but also because he considers himself retired from teaching.
Shortly before the Summer of Love, Snyder, Ginsberg and Richard Baker, the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, purchased Kitkitdizze. (It is named with the Wintu Indian word for “bear clover.”) It’s scenic, but in a subtle way, minus the spectacular panoramas and natural wonders you’d expect from a prime vacation destination.
“When they think about beautiful land, they think about Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Well that’s charismatic land. I’m glad this is not a charismatic landscape,” Snyder says. “So I can just say to people, ‘Nah, you don’t want to come here. There’s rattlesnakes and poison oak. And that’s true, too.”
Before I ask a single question, Snyder strafes me for hard specifics. What is the main concern of the piece? What do I hope to pursue? It’s an inquiry so boundless that my brain goes blank, and not in the salutary Buddhist way. It’s like when someone asks what kind of music you like and your only answer is the worthless “everything.” So I tell him that I’ve read all his books and have a cursory grasp on his philosophy of economic self-sufficiency, community responsibility and respectful engagement with the wild. I want to know what a man so steeped in past mythologies and cultures thinks about the constant lunacy of the present.
“Isn’t that something you’d ask everybody?” Snyder parries with that mellifluous sandpaper voice, a turquoise stud in his left ear — pierced since the early Eisenhower era.
“Presumably, yes,” I mumble.
“Can you be a little more precise?”
I start babbling about goddess worship in ancient cultures and how it pertains to the modern culture of celebrity, but within a few sentences, Snyder has picked apart my illusions. It’s Socratic method applied by a Zen guru, question after question until you’re humbled and confused, all hubris destroyed. This is like a scene in an old Western where a character is effortlessly disarmed as soon as he walks in, forced to watch his arsenal lying in plain view.
We talk about the California drought, which he sees more as a few dry years rather than a full-scale ecological crisis. I ask if he followed Black Lives Matter and the ensuing protests.
“You’re treating me like a public intellectual, right?” he interrupts. “ ’Cause that’s what I really am. There are two things that I really do. One is poetry, and the other is thinking about attitudes toward the environment in practical terms, the meaning of the world wild, and in particular what we have taken of that from East Asia.”
To understand Snyder is to artfully reconcile paradoxes. Every insight seems long contemplated, but his poems present themselves in lotus bursts of inspiration. Shortly after I arrive, he hands me a folder containing a copy of “Remaining Unprepared,” an essay based on a lecture he delivered at the University of Michigan in 2013. It’s Tao in condensed form, clearly a way for him to circumvent having to answer redundant questions about the craft. A few of the gems:
He ends the lecture by quoting the “marvelous haiku poet Buson: ‘More than anything else, it important to remain unprepared for verse writing.’ ”
But few, if any, have prepared so thoroughly for unpreparedness. He seems to possess total recall, referencing the names of polyandrous castes in Southern India, the various manifestations of Hindu goddesses, 18th-century Japanese poets, contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist thinkers. Yet for a man who prizes seclusion, his engagement with the world defies Luddite cliches and romantic notions of the wildlife poet.
For the last half-century, he has publicly advocated for a more long-term approach to settlement patterns, encouraging people to put down roots and engage with their local community and its organizations. At California Gov. Jerry Brown’s behest, Snyder chaired the California Arts Council in Sacramento. Closer to Kitkitdizze, he has closely worked with the Yuba Watershed Institute, a local environmental protection group, which has partnered with the federal Bureau of Land Management to help manage the region’s forests, reduce fires and catalogue its flora and fauna.
“Being called a nature poet’s not a bad thing. That won’t hurt you for long. I don’t think of myself as a nature poet though,” Snyder admits, wary of tags, but aware that when you’re surrounded by 100 acres of manzanita groves, pines, Douglas firs, buzzing insects, scampering lizards and the occasional grizzly that wanders into your pantry, it’s part of your narrative.
“Somebody said to me not long ago, ‘Well, you write about nature but you also write about the rest of the technological and industrial side of society, too,” Snyder continues. “I’m not a nature poet; I’m a poet of reality. They’re all real.”
This desire for specificity undergirds his particular strain of genius. His intellect delineates minor but crucial distinctions from things that more pedestrian minds gloss over. For instance, he refuses to make broad, sloppy generalizations about America, instead picking apart regional and class differences, the stark contrast between High Plains cattle culture and the South, the rural culture of the Upper Midwest and the Scandinavian labor-union culture of urban areas of the Lower Midwest. It can come off as mildly pedantic, but it’s consistent with his approach to culture and politics.
As for his long-dead hiking buddy Kerouac, Snyder offers the tempered praise that you rarely hear in reference to such a divisive artist.
“Jack wasn’t a terribly good thinker, but he was a good writer, who certainly did have a way with language,” Snyder says. “And a wonderful human way of connecting with people, trusting and respecting them. He’s never really cruel to anybody, even in language. It’s a wonderful, naive, Catholic-boy energy.”
The afternoon warms, the conversation progresses and Snyder becomes more affable. His authoritarian temperament reflects Zen strategy, a timeless device to toughen up flabby reasoning, destroy the ego and lead the benighted toward the path. To paraphrase Biggie Smalls: He’s nice, but it’s on the low.
As his first email recommended, the discussion drifts toward new territory: the immediate crises of the present, the nagging terrors of the future, the gradual drift toward death.
“I’m not one of those people who say technology will somehow pull us out of it,” Snyder says, referring to the threat of diminished supplies of water and food in an overpopulated world. “The same thing that might help Greece, biting the bullet and being more austere, expecting less, settling down more, might help the world at large. But there are parts of the world, like Bangladesh, that I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to help. What do you do with a starving population of that size?”
We tend to view modern-day prophets in a cultish light, favoring ancient Magi who had access to only a remote fraction of worldly information. But Snyder is as close as we’ll find to a legitimate visionary, a man simultaneously attuned to the present and asymmetric to the last millennium — whose prescient views on recycling, overconsumption and leaving a modest footprint are now accepted wisdom among all but the most gluttonous.
His philosophical journey took him through Trotskyism and classic European and Southern European anarchist thought, but he’s aware that none of it properly fits modern complications.
“We need a political position that can handle science and technology and these rapid changes, the complexities of handling money and finance and fundamental morals. And it’s hard to work through that,” Snyder says. “I think a necessary politics for the future would be one that includes a moral sense of the nonhuman world. And religiously speaking, that is only the Buddhists, some Hindus and nature religion-based people scattered across the globe in tiny numbers.”
If the story of the present is inflamed extremism, whether through social media, homicidal rampages or political demagoguery, Snyder strives for an unusual subtlety. He’s not a pure pacifist, acknowledging the need to kill for self-defense or to fight back against something unreasonable and hopeless. For him, it’s not merely the attack strategy, but the attitude of the reprisals — the tenet of non-harming, or ahimsa in Hindu and Buddhist tradition, being the ultimate goal.
Then there is enlightenment, the rarefied end that he has presumably spent a lifetime to achieve. Of course, there’s no answer, but I can’t resist asking him if he believes he has found it, and if so, what the difference is between enlightenment and wisdom.
“You know, Buddhists wouldn’t answer the question, ‘What is enlightenment?’ How can you explain what enlightenment is to someone who not enlightened? Anybody who asks the question is not enlightened, so why tell them?” Snyder says, letting loose that winking coyote laugh once again.
“But you know, Zen commonly says enlightenment is your ordinary mind,” he continues. “Try to take account of your ordinary mind. Thich Nhat Hanh once said, ‘The good thing about meditation is it’s boring. So if people can just get really bored with themselves, then, they’re making progress.’ ”
With the hour almost elapsed, he asks if there’s anything else. I can’t help but notice that he’s still wearing a wedding band on his finger, a constant reminder of his late wife, Carol Koda, who died of cancer several years ago. It’s the subject of “Let Go,” his final poem of what might be his final book — a paralyzingly beautiful requiem.
“It was amazing that it came to me just like that,” Snyder says about the poem, which he wrote two months after Koda died. “It was effortless and I wrote it all down at once. I couldn’t have thought I could do it. So that’s the meaning of unprepared. And it’s true, some of our best work is that which we are least prepared for. Except we might say that years of your life went into the preparation.”
As for his own mortality, it’s not something that necessarily haunts him, but it’s an inescapable reality to confront.
“The main shift, and it comes about gradually, is realizing that you really will die,” Snyder laughs. “It’s not a joke. You really have to die. Even though you think you know it already, you don’t know it until you feel it around the corner.”
Then he looks at his watch and it’s 20 minutes past 11. There are people coming and phone calls to make, and he has no more time left. As he walks me out to the car, he apologizes to me that it didn’t work out for quite as long as I hoped, and thanks me for the experience.
We shake hands and I open the door to my car, and start to get in. But before I can, Snyder calls out to me and says:
“Robert Frost had a guy who drove up to his farm in Vermont one time, and they talked for a while, and then Frost said to him, ‘Do you remember how you got here?’
“And the guy said, ‘Yeah.’
“And Robert Frost said, ‘Well, then you can go back the way you came.’ ”
We both laugh this time.
“I think you can figure it out,” he adds. “Next time, you’ll be able to come right away.”
I turn the key in the ignition and start the long descent down the mountain, slowly navigating back to civilization. I only make one wrong turn.