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. 


Title Tim Dean: On "Riprap" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Tim Dean Criticism Target Gary Snyder
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious: Inhabiting the Ground
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