A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End
Edited by Mark Gonnerman
352pp. | June 2015 | US$28.00 | ISBN 9781619024564 (Hardcover)
Berkeley: Counterpoint Press
Buddhist poet Gary Snyder once introduced a reading with reference to whitewater rapids, saying most of his writing is like a Class III run where you will do just fine on your own, but that Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996) is more like Class V: if you’re going to make it to take-out, you might need a guide. As a collection of commentaries and background readings, this companion volume to Snyder’s remarkable creative accomplishment enhances each reader’s ability to find their way into and through this adventurous and engaging work of art.
In 1997, Mark Gonnerman organized a yearlong research workshop on Mountains and Rivers Without End at the Stanford Humanities Center. Members of what came to be known among faculty, students, and diverse community members as the Mountains & Rivers Workshop met regularly to read and discuss Snyder’s epic poem. Here the poem served as a commons that turned the multiversity into a university once again.
The Workshop invited writers, teachers and scholars from North America and Japan to speak on various aspects of Snyder’s great accomplishment. This book captures the excitement of these gatherings and invites readers to enter the poem through essays and talks by David Abram, Wendell Berry, Carl Bielefeldt, Tim Dean, Jim Dodge, Mark Gonnerman, Robert Hass, Stephanie Kaza, Julia Martin, Michael McClure, Nanao Sakaki, and Katsunori Yamazato. It includes an interview with Gary Snyder, appendices, and other resources for further study.
From the Introduction
Mountains and Rivers Without End evades simple classificatory schemes. Is it an “American epic poem” (M&R dust jacket)? A multimedia poem cycle? A contribution to American mythology? A collection of poems depicting major ecosystem types? Is it a spiritual autobiography—a pilgrim’s progress—aimed at effecting some kind of religious conversion? Is this “a sort of sūtra—an extended poetic, philosophic, and mythic narrative of the female Buddha Tārā” (M&R 158)? Or is this book a score for the kind of live performance the poet has envisioned and experimented with since 1957? Is the work a thought experiment—a creative, critical Buddhist commentary—on the place of art in human religious life? Though I will concentrate on the last of these possibilities here, the attentive reader will discover that Snyder’s creative effort entails all of the above and more.
Mark Gonnerman was educated at St. Olaf College, Harvard Divinity School, and Stanford University, where he was a Lieberman Fellow. He is currently a professor and Director of the William James Center for Consciousness Studies at Sofia University in Palo Alto. He and Meri Mitsuyoshi share householder life in San Jose, California. Visit www.futureprimitives.info