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Poster poems: mountains | Billy Mills


Down the centuries, they have supplied many poets with symbols, subjects and inspiration. Your tall order this time is to follow their ascents

Fifty years ago this October three American poets, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, met at the bottom of Mount Tamalpais, a small mountain at the northwest end of San Francisco bay, to perform a ritual of their own devising. Following the example of Tibetan Buddhist monks, they walked clockwise around the mountain, imitating the path of the sun as a kind of meditation. Nowadays, the 15-mile circumambulation of Tamalpais is celebrated four times a year, but minus the poets.

This may seem like a typical bit of Californian hippie-dippy nonsense, but the association of poetry and mountains dates back at least as far as the classical myth of the Muses and their link with Mount Olympus. The Beat poets’ interest in mountains was not purely spiritual, either. Many of them spent their summers working as fire lookouts in the western ranges, a handy way to earn a bit of money and make time for thinking and writing. Both Whalen and Snyder wrote poems about their experiences on Sourdough Mountain, one of the most gruelling climbs in Washington State.

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