“How true it is that if men strive to walk in the way of truth and uphold righteousness, fame will follow of itself.”
The above is a line from Basho’s text, generally known as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It was on my mind over the weekend because I saw Gary Synder do a poetry reading at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where he referred to Basho’s work as The Narrow Trails to the Back Country, which sounds like a translation of a very different color.
Snyder was born in 1930 and after Lawrence Ferlinghetti he is, I think, the last of the Beats, and I confess that I regarded this reading as something of a “last chance to see.” I also didn’t know what shape he’d be in; to which the answer, I now know, is “Probably better shape than you and me.” I think he’s probably the best poetry reader I’ve even seen and heard. And I don’t think I’m just being sentimental towards the old guy.
Snyder makes an appearance in Iain Sinclair’s book American Smoke. Sinclair goes to visit him in at his 100 acre estate in the Sierra foothills, north of Nevada City (Allen Ginsberg and Dick Baker were co-owners at one time, but he bought them out), Sinclair describes Snyder as a poet, bioregionalist, teacher … skier, climber, trail walker.
One of Snyder’s poems is titled “A Walk.” It’s easily available in its entirety online, but it begins like this:
Sunday the only day we don't work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I've eaten breakfast and I'll
Take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Sinclair suggests that the younger Snyder may have been a little less lovable than the current one appears to be. From the 1950s onward he made trips to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Sinclair writes.
“The novice monk insisted that his future wife clear her credit-card debt, which had climbed to $1000, before she travelled out to join him. On arrival, she discovered a list Snyder had compiled, numbering her faults and the ways she could improve. The big difference in Japan, Snyder explained, was the necessity of having the right manners.
“His fourth wife, Carole Lynn Koda, was Japanese-American. But in Japan, she got everything wrong. ‘I walked too fast,’ she said. ‘I swung my arms too much. My stride was too long. I looked at people in the eye. That marked me out as American right away.’”
My life being the glamorous rollercoaster it is, I got to meet Gary Snyder back stage (meet as in a chance for me to shake his hand and say, “I really enjoyed your reading”). And I was, I admit, star struck. My mouth and my brain weren’t very well connected and I found myself rambling on about the Iain Sinclair piece.
“Oh yeah,” said Snyder, “that was a funny piece”
I think he meant it in a good way.