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.


Title Richard Gray: On "Riprap" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Gray Criticism Target Gary Snyder
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry of the Twentieth Century
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