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Poets on the Peak:
Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades
Text and Photographs by John Suiter
Counterpoint Press: Washington, D.C., 2002
340 pp.; $40.00 (cloth)
The time is long past when Beat Generation writers were regarded merely as literary figures. Like the Transcendentalist movement of Emerson and Thoreau, the Beat movement of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg is now widely seen as a religious movement. And its religion of choice was Buddhism.
John Suiter's Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades explores Beat Buddhism in the great outdoors of the American West during the fifties. While earlier works on the Beats were set inside cramped apartments in Manhattan, Suiter situates the Beats on Desolation Peak and Jack Mountain.
Suiter is an instructor at the New England School of Photography, and his book is illustrated with dozens of striking photographs of the Cascades, many of them taken while he was on Desolation Peak in 1995 for the fortieth anniversary of the appearance of Kerouac's novel Dharma Bums. Suiter's eye for detail, evident in the photographs, is also plain in the book, which repeatedly presses past descriptions of Beat mountain Zen to discussions of the earliest European settlements of the Cascades and even to the geological history of those mountains themselves.
Given Suiter's interests in the Beats, Buddhism, and the environment, this book should serve a wide variety of readers, introducing fans of the Beats to the natural and human history of the Cascades, and lovers of the mountain West to the beliefs and practices of Buddhism. Suiter draws on a wealth of unpublished letters and journals as well as recent interviews with Snyder and Whalen, and those new materials do yield a few new gems. Readers will learn, for example, that Snyder now sees Dharma Bums as a "second-rate book," not because it misrepresents Buddhism but because Kerouac wrote it too quickly and revised it too meagerly. For readers already familiar with the Beat Buddhism, however, Poets on the Peaks provides little new.
As I read the book, I came to think of Suiter as a mountain guide who keeps getting distracted from his task by the scenery (as if, like Snyder him-self, he were engaged in "the zazen of mountain watching" rather than the zazen of writing). As a result, his book seems to be concerned more with mountains than with men.
In this regard, Poets on the Peaks is not only about Gary Snyder, but also inspired by him. It was Snyder, after all, who called for an ecological consciousness that would give nonhuman beings a seat at the table of democracy—a call that later evolved into what ecoactivists refer to as "The Council of All Beings." In this book, Suiter, too, gives voice to peaks as well as poets. To that effort, some readers will no doubt say "Amen" (or "Om").
Others, however, will be frustrated that Suiter does not make more of his access to Whalen and Snyder. While he goes to great lengths to describe, for instance, the geological history of rocks in Skagit country, Suiter provides few insights into Snyder's years of Zen study in Japan or into now-canonical events such as the Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco in 1955. All in all, he is a somewhat timid interpreter who seems content with describing rather than analyzing the comings and goings of his Beat heroes.
Suiter must be credited, however, with helping to shift the focus of Beat studies from East to West. For too long, the Beat Generation has been seen as an East Coast phenomenon, with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs as its founding fathers.
Suiter's telling, Kerouac remains in the Beat holy trinity, but Ginsberg and Burroughs are displaced by Snyder and Whalen. In the process, Snyder eclipses Kerouac, who seems diminished, even defeated, by the mountains as surely as Snyder rises up to meet them.
In one flash of inspired interpretation, Suiter describes Snyder's early poem "A Berry Feast" as "a broad single canvas," his Myths & Texts as "a wider, three-paneled screen," and his Mountains and Rivers Without End as "a long unfurling scroll." Poets on the Peaks is, at best, a single broad canvas. Beat fans looking for a wide-ranging narrative of Beat Buddhism in the West still await their scroll painter. In the meantime, they remain indebted to Suiter for setting his gaze westward and fixing his sights on the mountains. On the solitary lookouts of the Cascades, the Beat movement seems to take flight even as its poets learn to sit. At least in Suiter's telling, the paradigmatic Beat isn't Neal Cassady ripping across America on Route 66. It is Gary Snyder melting snow and making tea on Crater Mountain. ▼
Stephen Prothero is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University. His most recent book is Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (University of California Press).
Photos: © Walter Lehrman; Michael Rosenberg; Jack Francis