Thomas Parkinson: On "Riprap"

RIPRAP is Snyder's first book. The title means "a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock / to make a trail for horses in the mountains" In the last poem in the book he wrote of Poetry as a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics, the reality of perceived surface that grants men staying power and a gripping point:


Lay down these words

Before your mind like rocks.

                placed solid, by hands

In choice of place, set

Before the body of the mind

                in space and time:

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

                riprap of things:

Cobble of milky way,

                straying planets,

These poems . . . [R, p. 30]


The body of the mind—this is the province of poetry, a riprap on the abstractions of the soul that keeps men in tune with carnal eloquence. Snyder's equation is one of proportions: poetry is to metaphysics as riprap is to slick rock. Things and thoughts are not then in opposition but in parallel:


                ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
                a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
                with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
                all change, in thoughts,
as well as things [R, p. 30].

The aim is not to achieve harmony with nature but to create an inner harmony that equals to the natural external harmony. There is not then an allegorical relation between man and natural reality but an analogical one: a man does not identify with a tree nor does he take the tree to be an emblem of his own psychic condition; he establishes within himself a condition that is equivalent to that of the tree, and there metaphysics rushes in. Only poetry can take us through such slippery territory, and after RIPRAP Snyder tries to find a guide in his Myths & Texts. RIPRAP was an engaging uneven first book of poems. It is still in print and deserves to be so, but it lacks unity of impact and style, however proper its intentions.

Judy Norton: On "Riprap"

We can imagine a poem such as Snyder's "Riprap"--a poem about building a trail--as itself a linguistic road. Elliptical as it is, Snyder's English syntax is nevertheless sequential, unfolding as a series of traces on the page. And it is a particularly Bakhtinian road, in that it is the location of a dialogic exchange between alien languages and poetics, and spiritual philosophies: . . .

Snyder was taught the technique of riprapping, or cobbling, as a trail crew member in the Sierra Nevada. To adopt this procedure as a metaphor for a poetics is already to dialogize it by transposing it from a distinctly unliterary practical context to a high literary, imaginative one.

To speak of laying down words "Before the body of the mind / in space and time" is to infuse English words, operating out of a Western, largely rationalist, philosophico-literary tradition, with a Ch'an sense of the interpenetration of body and mind. From a Ch'an perspective, poems and people are all "lost ponies with / Dragging saddIes," caught in a historical round of becoming, the reality of which is sheerly conditional.

Nor is the heteroglossia of "Riprap" purely a matter of figuration and thematics. Classical Chinese itself, with its heavy emphasis on nouns, and relative scarcity of verbs, modifiers, and pronouns, is very much a dialogic participant in lines such as

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

                        riprap of things:

Cobble of milky way,

                        straying planets,

These poems, people,

                        lost ponies with

Dragging saddles

"Riprap," then, cannot be made to fit Bakhtin's vision of the lyric; poem as "a unitary, monologically sealed-off utterance." His claim that no linguistic diversity "may be reflected in any fundamental way in [the poet's] work" simply does not hold true for Snyder's practice.

Tim Dean: On "Riprap"

"Riprap," the last poem of the first book, functions as a distilled poetic summation of the Snyderian aesthetic. . . .

Change is in thoughts as well as things because thoughts are figured as things, having an equal status with rocks and with people. Such a notion represents a development of Williams's demand for poetry, 'No ideas but in things', since ideas, natural phenomena and linguistic units are spoken of by 'Riprap' as evidencing the same ontological status. A riprap is 'a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains', according to a note on the title-page of Riprap; the onomatopoeic term and its referent thus appear homologous by the juxtapositional placing of similar-sounding syllables to form a word which describes the juxtapositional placing of similar-looking units of stone to form a means of access. The analogy - which the poem would have us believe constitutes an identity - extends from the poem to the book to which it lends its title and for which it is the summation: the poems in the volume function like stones leading across difficult territory toward the understanding of relation as it is figured in this final poem, and the visual patterned spacing of the words on the page mimics the arrangement of the riprap of stone in the world. The syllabic unit 'rap' as slang for speech serves to strengthen the analogy between word and rock-in-relation, thereby pointing to the analogy between poetic structures and social structures. If 'Riprap' is seen as an aesthetic statement or declaration of poetic method, then a further analogy can be read from the etymology of 'method', which stems from the word for path-cutting or trail-making. The critical bipartite feature of such an aesthetic or method - the characteristically Snyderian method - consists of the emphasis on structure as predicative of access.

It is important here to distinguish both the means and object (the aim, the what-is-to-be-attained) of access, since the prominence of rock as a theme of the declaration of poetics recalls the classic Formalist tenet that 'art exists to make the stone stony'. Although both aesthetics may appear superficially similar, they are in fact counterposed to one another, since formalism declares, 'Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important' (ibid.); while Snyder's poem always privileges the object over its representation: the poem exists not to make the stone stony, but to make the stone real. And as I have already indicated, this real consists in the homologising of word, idea and object to the same level of referentiality - a level of reality which renders each dimension available to use, amenable to manual work. Thus in the riprap of the poem, anything can be used to construct the path, and the imagery expands metonymically outward, casting from the minute details of 'Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall' to include the entire universe, the Milky Way and 'straying planets'. Riprap as a metaphor for poeticity suggests that the business of poetry is the discovery of relations between all elements and dimensions of the cosmos.

It is not only the largest and smallest natural phenomena which must be found to be related; also the world of the text and language in its reflexive - besides its referential - capacity can count in the construction: the referentially reflexive 'rocky surefoot traits' can be included, and even 'These poems', the parts of the book itself (the textually reflexive), form an element in the structure. Thus it is not merely the three-dimensional phenomenal world of 'space and time' which comprises the field of the structural arrangement, but rather whole 'worlds like an endless / four-dimensional / Came of Go' (Go consisting of a Japanese game of unit-structure and relation similar to draughts - in England - and checkers - in the United States). The simile images the hopping over and strategic positioning of elements which is achieved with words in the poem, with things in the world (properly done), and with worlds in the Milky Way.

To elaborate on the structural arrangement of terms in the poem (the textual riprap), we may assert that if riprapping constitutes a metaphor for poem-making, then the method or technique of that making is resolutely metonymic, consisting of the substitution by term rather than by resemblance. The indented third line of the poem - which elaborates the opening, two-line sentence - begins the imitative form of presenting words as objects, elements for construction and apprehension. The arrangement of these objectwords follows in the following twelve lines, in which the metonymic placing of elements juxtapositionally both resists the hierarchic structure of metaphoric meaning and symbolisation (dependent as these latter are upon a literal vehicle or image and an abstract, non-phenomenal tenor or idea), and functions in the radically metonymic mode of the list, in which relations are implied rather than directly indicated. The second part of the poem, beginning a new sentence with 'The worlds like', links by its syntactical structure the words like rocks which begin the poem (and which the intervening lines have elaborated or produced) with the worlds like a game of Go: poetic structure thus relates words, things and worlds in a single plane, a metonymic, non-hierarchic, non-symbolic chain of relations.

From this overarching perspective - the meta-perspective of the poem-maker who can see and order relations - the attention shrinks back to a focus on the minute constitutive details of 'ants and pebbles / in the thin loam', as if presenting another natural image for the visual arrangement of the riprap, and, crucially, in order to avoid any tendency toward transcendence. The reminder that value inheres in the smallest, apparently insignificant elements represents both a tacit endorsement of immanentism and a kind of Emersonian gesture of finding an essential relation between the tiny (the ant) and the sublime (the endless 'four-dimensional / Game of Go' in Snyder, and the endless, sleepless labour of Herculean proportions in Emerson). The difference between the Snyderian system of relations and the Emersonian Transcendentalist system is that no 'seeing beyond' is necessary in Snyder: where for Emerson 'the visible world is the dialplate of the invisible', for Snyder the visible world is the dialplate of the world of natural relations. Transcendent vision is not necessary for Snyder; rather, the requirement is for a kind of vision - named here by 'Riprap' as poetic - which consists in the finding within relations a non-disruptive place for the human - a 'finding' imaged here as a journey, a making way which is the partial effect of poetic utterance properly deemed work.

In this poetic scheme, the figural is literalised, the image literally concretised. That is, in its conclusion, 'Riprap' focuses attention on the rock as that figure of substantiality which may ground the word. Rather than the avowal of word as rock, we read:

each rock a word

a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained


The rock represents both the fundamental element of the riprap and the fundamental element of the cosmological system within which the riprap functions. The simile which begins the poem words like rocks - has solidified into a metaphor - each rock a word - as an effect not of language but of, precisely, rock: 'Granite: ingrained' indexes and is that metaphor, since granite is both rock and word (a type of rock and a particular linguistic unit); etymologically, 'granite' derives from the word for 'ingrained' (Latin granum means grain). Granite forms by the action of volcanic heat on rock, compressing different elements (chiefly feldspar and quartz), so that the geology of each element is implicated in the other. Granite as the effect of this 'torment of fire and weight' bears the physical force of its history locked into both its substance and its name (an analogy is found in the gentler, alliterative 'creekwashed stone', whose shape is the product of an opposite natural action). Hence the link between etymology and natural processes - 'all change, in thoughts, / as well as things'. This allusion to Williams's 'A Sort of a Song' (1944) makes thoughts into things by using the rocks broken by flowers (the metaphor) in Williams's poem to construct the riprap of Snyder's poem.

This materialising of language - of which 'Riprap' is Snyder's best early example - represents the effort to link poetry to the body, to work, and thus to what is taken as the immediacy of the real. Poetry is thereby accorded a continuity with the world and can be seen as effective in socio-political terms. Snyder is indeed correct to emphasise the materiality of language and its potential for effects. However, language's material dimension - the dimension of the signifier - is precisely that which renders it resistant to the manipulation of human intention. It is thus less a question of Snyder's conception of poetic language operating in opposition to the Lacanian account of language with which we ally ourselves here, than it is a question of emphasis: both conceptions of the linguistic properly highlight the realm of linguistic effects; the difference resides in the conception of how linguistic effects are obtained. 

Charles Molesworth: On "Riprap"

If we look at the end of the title poem of Riprap, we can see that Snyder does not offer his dense images as only blocks or stones, thrown into the poem with a longed-for palpability in order to combat sensory drift or imprecision. Rather, the density of words and things contains a kind of impacted or solidified energy as well as a merely material dimension. This energized aspect of the "cobble" of rocklike words defines the mind's power to move from one solid place to another, both creating and exploring a field of awareness for itself. Snyder introduces another, ancillary comparison to clarify the mountaineer's "riprap"--one of "worlds like an endless / four-dimensional / Game of Go." This is a Japanese game much like the American child's hopscotch, where a rock or heavy object is thrown to determine the possibility and order of movement. The game utilizes a combination of will and accident, and it tests the limits of both by bringing them into play with one another. Likewise with the mind, or at least the mind as it is structured and reflected in and through the poem, for the mind creates a field of forces, rather than striving for a fixed object or floundering in unobjectified process. Here is how "Riprap" ends:

In the thin loam, each rock a word

    a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

    with torment of fire and weight

Crystal and sediment linked hot

    All change, in thoughts,

As well as things.

The mental world and the object world are places of constant change, where an apparently granitic solidity conceals a process of flux and even "torment." So the objectivism of Snyder should never be understood as a lapidary poetic, or a static building of mosaic patterns, but rather as a "trail" of cobbled stones that leads to a higher state. Yet the higher state is impossible to reach without the very dense and lithic underpinning of close observation. "No visionary without the visual" might be a way of summarizing it.

The habits of mind that Snyder exhibits in dealing with the natural world, and the grammar of understanding that these habits generate and are supported by, are, as I've suggested, analogous to those he uses for the social world. His utopia remains a place of social bonds and values that work in an immanent way, unsanctioned by any larger theological order.

Patrick D. Murphy: On "Riprap"

"Riprap" speaks of how to live as well as how to write and read poetry. Poetry as a material thing, in the form of the written poem, the performed text, and as a relationship, forms part of the world in which humans find themselves and is a source of clues by which they may interpret that world and their place in it. But place is also a relationship, an activity, a "Game of Go." This poem, while embodying in its theme and form the aesthetic concepts displayed throughout Riprap, also embodies a way to learn the world, and a world by which to learn the way. This way is nothing short of "being-in-the-world," a constantly transitory process. It is crucial to realize that the Riprap collection ends with an emphasis not on coming to terms with the world but on the recognition that the world constantly changes, and humans must change their perceptions to keep pace. As Snyder says in his afterword to the 1990 edition of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, "the title . . . 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" (65-66).

Richard Gray: On "Riprap"

A 'riprap', Snyder tells us elsewhere, is 'a cobble of stones laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in mountains'; it provides sure footing for a literal ascent just as poetry, 'a riprap on the slick rock of metaphysics', provides sure footing for a metaphorical one. Like some Imagist poetry, these lines are as remarkable for what they omit as for what they exclude: there are no elaborate figures; no closewoven argument, no irony or introspection. As the poet intimates, the words here have the substance and weight of rocks; and the poet himself is the good craftsman, who works with not against the grain of things, allowing them, to express their nature. There is no forcing of the material: the voice is clear and quiet, cleaving faithfully to the enacted experience. And there is no insistence of feeling: the emotions are not denied but neither are they insisted on, rather they are distilled into significant activity. Just as 'torment of fire and. . ./ Crystal and sediment linked hot' has eventuated in stone and pebble, so passions encountered and then refined into language have generated the firm, particular surfaces of this poem. Energy has produced matter, cool, solid, and specific; and that matter in turn invites us into mystery, the 'preternatural clearness' that can issue from being 'Attentive to the real-world flesh and stone'.

'I hold the most archaic values on earth', Snyder insists, 'They go back to the Paleolithic'; 'I try to hold history and the wilderness in mind', he has added, 'that my poems may approach the true nature of things, and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times'. For him, identification with 'that other totally alien, nonhuman' can be experienced in tilling the soil, shaping word or stone, 'the lust and ecstasy of the dance', or 'the power-vision in solitude'. And it has led him on naturally to a hatred of human assumptions of power and 'the ancient, meaningless / Abstractions of the educated mind'. His work celebrates such primary rituals as hunting and feasting ('Eating each other's seed / eating / ah, each other') and the mysteries of sex and birth ('How rare to be born a human being!'): but, with its commitment to participation in nature rather than possession of it, it is equally capable of polemic, an unremitting radicalism of consciousness - something that is especially noticeable when Snyder directs his attention to the ecology and the 'Men who hire men to cut groves / Kill snakes, build cities, pave fields'. It is at this point, in particular, that the Eastern and Western strains in his writing meet and marry. Snyder has learned about 'the buddha-nature', the intrinsic vitality lurking in all things, not just from Zen but from poets like Whitman; just as his habit of meditation rather than appropriation has been borrowed from Thoreau as well as the Buddhist tradition, and his belief in renewal springs from the spirit of the frontier as much as from oriental notions of the etrernal cycle. . . .

In his eyes, enlightenment remains perpetually available, a fresh start can always be made. As Thoreau said at the end of Walden - and Snyder borrows the line for one of his poems -'The sun is but a morning-star: each day represents a new opportunity to recover the nobility of life, another chance to turn aside from use to wonder.