Gary Snyder Biography

Environmental Activist, Poet (1930–)
Gary Snyder is a poet, environmentalist, Zen Buddhist and educator. In 1975, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.


Born in San Francisco, California, on May 8, 1930, Gary Snyder is a poet and environmental activist. Involved in the Beat movement, Snyder read at the famous Six Gallery reading alongside Allen Ginsberg. In 1956, Snyder moved to Asia to study Zen Buddhism; over the course of a decade he traveled to many different countries. In 1975, his collection Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize.

Early Life

Gary Sherman Snyder was born on May 8, 1930, in San Francisco, California. After his parents' divorce, Snyder moved with his mother to Portland, Oregon, where he grew up on a farm. Snyder was enthralled with nature, specifically mountaineering. At an early age, he took interest in Indian culture, specifically its connection to the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

The Beat Connection

In 1947, Snyder received a scholarship to Reed College. There, he studied Asian culture; in addition, he delved into the relationship between an indigenous people and their land. He also worked many outdoor jobs that involved physical labor, including lumberjacking and making trails. He graduated in 1951, and then spent a year studying anthropological linguistics at Indiana University before moving to San Francisco.

Snyder next enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley's Asian Language Program, where he learned Japanese and Chinese. He also began to have his poetry published. In 1955, Snyder read his poem "Berry Feast" at San Francisco's Six Gallery reading, alongside fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Other attendees at the famous reading were Snyder's friends Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

International Travels and Zen Buddhism

In 1956, Snyder—having received a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America to study Zen Buddhism—boarded a freighter to Kyoto, Japan. He would live abroad for more than 10 years.

During the time he spent overseas, Snyder traveled extensively, even taking an oil tanker to visit Istanbul, Turkey. He also published the poetry collections Riprap (1959) and Myths & Texts (1960), which documented his personal experiences.

Writing Style and Accomplishments

Snyder's writing focuses on environmental concerns and Zen Buddhism. He is an environmental activist who is known for his simple, clear style, as well as his first-person descriptions of his experiences in the natural world. In 1975, his collection Turtle Island was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Snyder's poetry is influenced by Japanese haiku and Chinese verse, in addition to his knowledge of anthropological factors like oral traditions. Over his long career, Snyder has written more than 20 books of poetry and prose. His 1992 collection, No Nature, was a National Book Award finalist. He received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2008.

Personal Life and Teaching Career

Snyder—who returned to the United States in 1970—has been married four times and has two sons. His 1983 collection, Axe Handles, focuses on his role as a father. Snyder taught creative writing at the University of California at Davis from 1986 until 2002, when he retired as a professor emeritus.

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