Coffee & A Book: Gary Snyder’s “Danger On Peaks”

imageI only get to run in the mountains a handful of days out of the year, but whenever I do, I think of one of my favorite poets:  Gary Snyder.  He is one of the original Beat Poets, and the one whose poems have stood my personal test of time (although many of Kerouac’s wonderful haiku seem timeless, too).  A Zen practitioner and working advocate for the environment, Snyder has called the Sierras his home for a long time now – the sound and rhythms of his work are spiced with campfire smoke and the incense of pine and cedar, clear and natural as the tumbling of a mountain stream, casual, conversational and completely unsentimental.  But his simplicity and apparent artlessness is a bit deceptive:  these poems grow deeper with careful familiarity.

I fell in love with his collection Turtle Island back in high school, and have recently enjoyed returning to his poetry through a series of new deluxe audio editions published by Counterpoint Press.  Each edition comes with a CD of Snyder reading the poems in the book.  I have found listening to Snyder’s folksy, gravelly voice while following along in the book with a cup of coffee or two is a terrific way to relax after a morning’s run.

Danger On Peaks ranges broad, bookended by Snyder summiting Mt. St. Helens as atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ending with the destruction of the World Trade Center and the great Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley.  Most of the poems in Danger On Peaks are autobiographical in origin, and quite short.  But they delve into virtually everything, often influenced by his own Zen practice and his beloved ancient Chinese poetry, shaped into new ways of seeing connections between everything from California truckstops to the stars and planets, and always deepened by his own compassion for all beings – without lapsing into sentiment or angry protest.

If you have ever run on a mountain trail or just love the out-of-doors, do yourself a favor and read some of Gary Snyder’s work.  While it’s memorable and very rewarding, I don’t know if I would pick Danger On Peaks as my introduction to his poetry.  Perhaps begin with Riprap or Axe Handles and get to know the rough-hewn honesty of a true master craftsman.  The word “craftsman” in its fullest sense really applies here, and I think it’s a word Mr. Snyder would appreciate.

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