Gary Snyder’s ‘Riprap’

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder’s “Riprap”

paper by Marc Patterson

“Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands”

The foundation of poetry, and the essence of the natural world, is found in the carefully placed language of Gary Snyder’s Riprap. In examining Riprap Snyder provides a blueprint for writing poetry; more importantly, he provides an example of how man connects with nature, even further, how man is nature.

Riprap is the beginning of Snyder. This collection of poems was his first published work and what he deemed the beginning of his career as a poet. Riprap, the individual poem, is the final poem in this collection of twenty-three poems, not including Snyder’s translations of Han-shan’s Cold Mountain Poems. Though Riprap is the final poem in this collection it stands as a defining statement on poetry, right living, ethics, our connection to nature, and our responsibility to nature. It is from here that Snyder leads us deeper into the waters of ecology and the bioregional thinking that would emerge later in his career.

What is “Riprap”?
Fundamental to this poem is the understanding of what riprap is. Snyder aptly defines riprap on the title page to this collection of poems as “a cobble of stone laid on steep, slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains.” (Snyder, Riprap) In the afterword, he explains further, “The title Riprap celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.” (Snyder, p. 65) While the whole of this body of poems, twenty-three in all, touches on each of these themes, in Riprap, Snyder lays down the foundation – the base – for us to follow, and so this is where our exploration begins.

Life and Poetry as Labor
In Riprap Gary Snyder gives readers his view of the natural world, a view that spans both the universal realm as well as the minutiae of individual creek rocks. He explicitly ask us, the reader, to join him in his labor. Indeed, whether or not we are aware of it, we are already involved. His opening statement demands active participation: “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks / placed solid, by hands.” He specifically does not use “I”, as in “I lay down these words”. He says to the reader “Lay down”. While the labor is intensive, back breaking trail work it is important to note that Snyder avoids calling out class distinctions. This is a universal poem where every individual, regardless of race, gender, or social status should participate. The labor we are called to is common, making us all equals. Establishing this early on is key to all that follows.

The labor he asks us to participate in, common though it is, is not menial labor that should serve only to subjugate and marginalize our existence, such as the labor of the factory worker, or the man who would drive spikes into the railway, or even the monotonous existence of a white-collared middle executive toiling in a cube farm from 9-5. Laying riprap is toilsome, often monotonous, but purposeful, thoughtful, intentional, and deliberate work. It serves a larger purpose both for the individual and those who would follow. In the following seven lines Snyder provides a sense of setting for this poem, but also opens the poem to its far-reaching expanses and implications. Here also Snyder opens the poem beyond the literal realm and into the metaphysical, the spiritual. We connect the riprap to the universe, to the mind, and see all things as connected: rock, body, mind, space, time.  It is a place and mindset of “mystical anarchism” (Rivard, p. 5):

“in choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time”.

These lines aren’t simply about our laboring in a mountain path. Riprap becomes a metaphor for our daily labors and these poems are ourselves, “lost ponies with dragging saddles”. This is perhaps the saddest line in the poem. Yet, as Rivard points out, it is important to understand that “Snyder sees loss a necessity for renewal in the natural world, part of the changefulness of being in time. Emptiness, for him, is transforming.” (Rivard, p. 6)

The Game of Go Considered
The Japanese game of Go, referenced in the seventeenth line of this poem, is a two player game similar in essence to American checkers, or chess. The game is devised where players, in turn, place stones upon a square board until one player has successfully surrounded his opponent’s stones. However, unlike checkers or chess, the board starts empty and once a stone has been placed it is unmovable. The strategy is to place your stone is such a manner that, though unmovable, it will serve a long sighted, strategic goal. Such is Snyder’s intent. Twice in the poem he mentions “solid”, or “solidity”. He uses terms as “sure-foot” and “ingrained”. Yet, in the closing he juxtaposes this solidity with the following:

“Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.”

Though we place the stones with intent and solidity we understand that life is constantly subject to change, to evolution. In its essence this is classic Buddhist thinking.

Understanding Snyder’s Ecology
In Snyder’s worldview, heavily influenced by his Zen Buddhist beliefs, as well as his anthropological studies in Native American culture, the biosphere is a considerably old living organism, all connected, all dependent on the parts. To find meaning in Snyder’s text requires that we venture off the path, away from the poem, to more fully understand the ecology of Snyder’s mind.

Snyder defines a path as “something that can be followed”. This is the most simple definition imaginable, one that any individual who has spent any length of time in the outdoors would agree on. However, this does not summarize the totality of the trail. For Snyder the trail is not a place where an individual will spend much of their time, their life. “The relentless complexity of the world is off to the side of the trail. For hunters and herders trails weren’t always so useful. For a forager, the path is not where you walk for long… The whole range of items that fulfill our needs is out there. We must wander through it to learn and memorize the field… for the forager, the beaten path shows nothing new.” (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 155)

Snyder’s Ecology is deeply rooted in the wild, the place that exists off the path. The path – then – is the starting point, the foundation of reaching the wilderness of both mind and earth, but it is only that. Nonetheless, the path must be solid. One must have solidity in their thinking and ethics if they are to be able to wander off the path and find their way back.

Snyder continues to speak in this chapter, “On the Path, Off the Trail” of controlling one’s time, “master the twenty-four hours”. (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 163) We live moving through repetition and ritual of our daily chores, whether that is getting ourselves and our family off to school and work, or taking time for mediation and chanting. These things are the same. “One move is not better than the other” (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 163) It’s important to recognize that he refers to our daily tasks as “moves”. Again, this brings us back to the universe in an endless, “four dimensional game of Go”. We are microcosmic players in this galactic “game” and our seemingly mundane tasks are, in fact, our practice of right living. Right living is not limited to those few moments where we contemplate and meditate. He beautifully summarizes this chapter by stating “‘Off the trail’ is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild… But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.” (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 165)

On Writing Poetry:
Having looked at the more metaphysical side to this poem, as an instructional manual for right living, and right action, we should conclude by examining Riprap as the blueprint for Snyder’s poetry. In a talk Snyder gave at UC Berkeley, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Riprap he told the audience that his poem Piute Creek was his first serious poem, “the first poem I wrote after I wrote all the bad poems.” (Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Riprap) There was something to the “riprap quality of laying rocks down” that Snyder particularly enjoyed. The simple, straightforward, nature of writing was no doubt inspired a great deal by his studies of Zen Buddhism, but also by his study and translation of Han-shan’s Chinese poetry, a style that is largely monosyllabic in nature. It is no wonder that Snyder includes twenty-four of Han-shan’s translated poems in the second half of Riprap.

David Rivard, in his article A Leap of Words to Things: Gary Snyder’s Riprap, makes mention of this style of writing, referencing Ezra Pound’s use of ideograms, stating that “Snyder’s metaphor for the process was ‘riprap’… ‘poetry a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics’”. (Rivard, p. 7) When one listens to Snyder recite Riprap they gain an immense insight to this form, tone, and cadence. It is this punctuated style that makes Snyder’s poetry highly accessible, yet incredibly complex and layered.

To close, Riprap – both the individual poem, and the larger collection – represents more than simple sentiment and appreciative musings on nature. Riprap is a deeply meditative poem that has the ability to take the receptive reader to a transcendent place of enlightenment, allowing them to see themselves as one with nature, as an active participant in nature, and further – to challenge the reader to venture off the path and into the wild. Though it remains heavily grounded in the literal, organic world of the living, its beauty is in the simple symbolism that makes this poem infinitely expansive, from the “cobble of the Milky Way” to “a creek-washed stone”.

Works Cited:

“Gary Snyder: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Riprap”, UC Berkeley Events. YouTube, 23 November 2009. Web. 20 April 2013.

Kern, Robert. “Mountains and Rivers Are Us: Gary Snyder and the Nature of the Nature of Nature” College Literature 27.1 (2000): 119-138. Print.

Rivard, David. “A Leap of Words to Things: Gary Snyder’s Riprap.” American Poetry Review 8.4 (2009): 5-9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Apr. 2013

Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild, With a New Preface by the Author. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990. Print

Snyder, Gary. Riprap ; And, Cold Mountain Poems. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009. Print.

Takahashi, Ayako. “The Shaping of Gary Snyder’s Ecological Consciousness.”Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002): 314-25. Print.