“From a certain point onward there is no turning back. This is the point that must be reached.”
They came from the streets: from Fillmore and Broadway, from Columbus and East 7th, from Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. From Lower Burnside. Cross-country. Cross-town. There was talk of a renaissance.
On this first Friday of October, 1955, a waning gibbous moon was rising in the east. It had been hot that day, eighty-two and windless. The sun means nothing in San Francisco. It’s all about the wind. It would not be a cold night, the fog, mercifully, offshore, but it would be cool. It would be very cool.
Kerouac was everywhere. Hand out. A dime here. A quarter. There a nickel. Three jugs of California burgundy. Not enough for the one-hundred and fifty in the room, but, when empty, big enough to play. And Jack did.
He wouldn’t read, nor would Cassady. Or Rexroth, Kenneth – midwife of this rebirth – who’d brought everyone here. Here, the Six Gallery, in the Marina.
That’s the thing about a renaissance, you don’t know you’re in one until someone says you are. Quiet as gravity.
They are revolutions. Coups of the senses. And here in attendance, the children of Rimbaud and Baudelaire; the Lake Poets; Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman; William Carlos Williams. Picasso, Miro and Bowles. Lester Young. Coltrane. Miles. Basho.
Philip Lamantia (cross-town) read first. Poems by a recently dead friend (peyote overdose). Lamantia would later say of the event, “We had gone beyond a point of no return.”
Michael McClure read “Point Lobos Animism” and “For the Death of 100 Whales.”
From the Willamette Valley, Gary Snyder’s roommate at Reed, Philip Whalen read “Plus Ca Change.”
From the other side of the continent, Allen Ginsberg, this one of his first public readings of what would become “Howl.”
“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked . . . “
Rexroth was in tears when he finished. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder – the previous year – of City Lights Books, sent Allen a telegram the next day saying he’d like to publish him. A year later Ferlinghetti and the manager of City Lights were arrested for selling Howl and Other Poems to an undercover police officer. (A headline at the time read: “Cops Don’t Allow No Renaissance Here.”) The obscenity trial would last most of a year.
Gary Snyder was last to read. He could not claim any city, but a part of country claimed him; north of the Siskyous, north of the Willamette, the mist-filled peaks of a younger range, a longer river, the mountains and rivers of the Pacific Northwest. He wisely let the buzz die-down, the howl, fade. He would not talk about nightmares but dreams. His ‘beat’ not a generation, but all generations. He spoke of people, berries, and coyote. The Trickster.
Then it was over. Back to the streets. The same way back as there. But different. Thanks to Lamantia, McClure, Whalen, Ginsberg, and Snyder, thanks to the words, different.
Some would go back the way they came. Some would go to The Place for a few drinks. Of those that went, some stayed until they were asked to leave. No matter. (If you come from the street, you’re always home.)
“Beat.” Look it up. If Huncke was the source, then yeah, ‘beat-down’, but never up, as Huncke himself said, “it was never about elevation.” He’d met Burroughs in ’45, bought a box of morphine syrettes from him, and a machine gun, in a park.
Beat was anything you wanted it to be. A noun. Verb. Adverb, adjective. It was slang, colloquial. I think it has to do with music; it was in their books, that’s why much of older Middle America had a hard time with them: they were expecting words.
Then Huncke told Jack, or was it the other way around? But it was Jack that told John Clellon Holmes, and he told the world, Nov. 16, ’52, “New York Times Magazine”. But ‘beat’ was different now. Jack took it off the street, brought it down from the mount; no longer a blunt instrument but a blessing, honed to a mystical edge. He told Holmes, “. . . it involves a sort of nakedness of mind . . . of soul . . . of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness.” Maybe down is up. Ginsberg said as much.
It was time to go, but where? (Yes, it mattered this time.) To the East. Asia. Yes! From where they sat, there was nowhere else to go. Music was going that way. And so they each followed what they heard.
Allen and Gary started out, if not in the same direction, with a similar destination. But at a point, Allen turned left and Gary right. Allen was searching for answers, at best, validation. Gary was well on his way and simply wanted a peaceful place to listen. His was a quiet truth, a minimum of ornaments and iconography. You need only open your eyes. Wake up.
Jack went too, but in another direction, the opposite way. A different ocean. They’d planned to meet, but he only got half-way. Ironic, too, for a searcher to turn around at the place where the Spirit takes leave of the Senses and travels on alone. What were you searching for, Jack?
Victory wasn’t what you thought it would be, (or hoped; tell me again what you hoped), wasn’t the same as you’d imagined, but then, what is? Alan Watts said something, remember, one of those nights in the cabin with Gary, in Marin, maybe January, ’56, “it is, what it is,” what else can it be? It depends some on how you look at it; it depends entirely on how you see it.
Victory doesn’t look the same from your knees. It’s bigger than you think. Stronger. At its feet you understood that it’s not someplace you get to, but something you beat. Or it beats you.
You died at the feet of Victory. On your knees, yes, but not begging, never begging. Beat-down. Beat-up. Beat. Praying, always praying.
In the same way that a poem is not a string of words, a life is not a list of events. It matters where you study (Reed College, Indiana University, UC Berkeley, the Academy of Asian Studies) and with whom, but there’s more to it than that.
It might be enough to say that his moves were thoughtful. Maybe climbing taught him that. Everywhere he went he found mountains, and knew that a part of his answer was there. But something was missing.
Much of education is quantitative, inherent in it are ‘things’, and lie behind the door labeled “What?” Behind that door lies knowledge. But there is another door. Gary’s questions were questions of the spirit, his inquiry qualitative, his door labeled, “How?” Walk through the first door and what you know is what you’ll find. Walk through the second and there is nothing you cannot know.
At Reed College, Lloyd Reynolds taught him to hold the calligrapher’s pen, Chiura Obata did the same with the sumi brush at Berkeley. While studying at the Academy of Asian Studies with artist-in-residence Saburo Hasegawa, he learned of the meditative nature of Japanese landscape painting and their equivalence to the mandala of Tibetan Buddhism. Meditative in contemplation. Meditative in conception and creation.
On, April 8, 1956, the Buddha’s birthday, Gary drank his first cup of powdered green tea with Saburo Hasegawa. He left Hasegawa’s apartment promising the birth of a long poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End.
Eight months and a day after the Six Gallery reading, Gary Snyder boarded a passenger-freighter and sailed west for Japan. He would spend most of the next thirteen years living and studying in Kyoto.
As a resident at the Shokoku-ji Rinzai Temple, Gary had come to deepen his practice. Within days of arrival he found himself in the mountains, in the company of kindred spirits.
The yamabushi, the mountain Buddhists, invited him on a ritual walk on The Womb-Diamond Trail along the Omine Ridge. The yamabushi are a society of Shinto, Shaman Buddhists. “The way of hard practice”, or Shugendo is their way. Walking their practice.
In 1962 Gary and his wife Joanne met Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in India. At the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar, Allen and Gary first heard of the circumambulation of Mt. Kailash in Tibet. Circumambulation (in Sanskrit, pradakshina), is the act of moving around a sacred object, idol or person. Kailash is sacred not only to Buddhists and Hindus, but to them the 32-mile circumambulation represents the walk of life, old age, death and rebirth. For Buddhists it is a clockwise walk, the mountain always on the right.
It was my intention to write about how Gary, Allen, and Philip Whalen first circumambulated Mt. Tamalpais on Oct. 8, 1965. They called it “opening the mountain,” a phrase used to denote the initiation of a practice. How they walked consciously, reciting, at various places around the mountain, the Heart Sutra, Dharanis for Removing Disaster, The Four Vows.
I would have written about my own circumambulation. With a bow to Gary Snyder’s poem “The Circumambulation Of Mt. Tamalpais” in Mountains and Rivers Without End and Carl Jung who wrote, “There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self.” I came to walk around myself. To see and not blink.
I would have written metaphorically about my shadow, my shadow as ego, and how when I started walking, when I was walking west, the sun rising behind me, my shadow was in front of me, there to be seen, always; always, it seems, one step ahead of me. And how later in the day, when I started to walk east, my shadow was behind me, nowhere to be seen. In truth, the shadow was always there, though I didn’t always notice. It wasn’t pretty all the time. But I saw what I came to see.
I came across many answers, though some not to the questions I’d asked. In time I recognized these as koan. Usually in the form of a question, a koan is meant to transcend reason and intellect, and is used to force a novice into different states of consciousness and comprehension. And, if Anne Lamott is right when she says, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace; only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us,” there is something of grace in them as well.
I paid attention to what I received, imagining them answers to questions I didn’t know I had, not yet honest or brave enough to ask.
How do we approach Gary Snyder? I, for one, will keep him on my right. His knowledge broad and his wisdom deep, he reminds us of what we’ve forgotten, and from that, creates something we can imagine. He hears the dreams of the land and its peoples. He speaks their language, sings their songs, knows their stories and shares their fears, which are ours.
Forty years to the day after beginning Mountains and Rivers Without End Gary sat down in San Francisco “with a few of us old mountain-Buddhist-poetry-green-avant-garde-types.” They raised glasses to “the supreme theme of art and song”, and to the end of Mountains and Rivers Without End.
“The space goes on.
But the wet black brush
tip drawn to a point,
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