Natural-born Rebel 

Poet Gary Snyder, the original working-class Zen beatnik wanderer, reads at UC Berkeley

As a young man, Gary Snyder looked like a Hell's Angel: weathered face, squinty eyes, goatee, wiry frame, jeans, serape. He might have just come off a harbor tug in Oakland or a cross-country hauling job in Portland.

Indeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, professor of creative writing and English lit, is one of the original working-stiff philosopher/ writers, a man of action in the Zen spirit. While he was composing such indispensable, back-packable volumes as Riprap and translating Han Shan's Cold Mountain Poems in the 1950s, Snyder was shipping out as a merchant marine, working as a logger and a Yosemite trail crew laborer -- and, of course, studying Zen Buddhism in Japan. Even if he weren't legendary as one of the original Beat Generation personalities (Jack Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums about him), Snyder's grand-as-a-sierra, tiny-as-a-raindrop descriptive verse would make him one of America's elemental voices, a nature poet and ecological warrior who also embraces gnarly humanity. Snyder is a roughneck daredevil peacenik who recites sutras. He once got married on the rim of an active volcano.

These days, the 71-year-old Snyder commutes from his home outside Grass Valley to teach at UC Davis and still travels a bit ("I went to the headwaters of the American River recently to check on the burnt forest there," he says). This Thursday, he returns to UC Berkeley to read at a special edition of the free Lunch Poems Reading Series (12:10 p.m., Zellerbach Playhouse, 510-642-0137), accompanied by musician and professional electrician Daniel Flanigan, who'll play while Snyder reads. "Daniel is one of a group of friends who live on the same ridge as me. We once gave a five-hour reading performance of the complete Mountains and Rivers Without End," Snyder notes. "He's a student of Zen Buddhism. He can also fix the wiring." What does the Beat poet recommend for brown-baggers attending his lunchtime reading? "Corn Nuts and a glass of water."


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