July 2004

Laura Felch


Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder

We live in a world that is increasingly self-involved. Self help books tell us that if we go deeper within ourselves –- if we think more, plan more, analyze more, we can become more. Life is something to be controlled, managed, and organized, not lived. Writing has been reduced to a mere calculation.

Gary Snyder does not want to break our experience into pieces, overanalyze it, and return readers a melodramatic remnant. He does not give a confessional of his own angst. His poems are beautiful and elegant, their natural simplicity touching readers without complicated intellectual form. He gently exposes what is timeless and disregarded and people emerge from their own heads to remember.

Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems is a two books gathered together in one volume, forty-five years after Snyder’s first book was published. Riprap is a tribute to elegance and all that is good about poetry. Cold Mountain Poem is a translation of the ancient poems of Han-Shan. It lacks the concentrated significance of Snyder’s original work. The antique poems pale in comparison to the Riprap’s grace and their age does not make them unquestioningly more worthwhile.

In “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” -– Riprap’s opening poem -– Snyder captures a moment -- “Three days heat, after five days rain”, “swarms of new flies” -- and reveals a single universal emotion -- “I cannot remember things I have once read/ A few friends, but they are in cities." He immediately brings the reader back to the moment -- “drinking a cold snow-water from a tin cup” -- without allowing the emotion to take over, and remove the reader from being directly involved in the physical existence. Therefore, the reader feels the poem, rather than thinks about it, giving it much more significance.

This technique of sandwiching of universal emotions between precise visual impressions is an effectively used throughout Riprap. In his poem “Piute Creek," he sets his stage with “a million/ Summers” and “Sky over endless mountain” and tells you that “All the Junk that goes with being human/ Drops Away”. He gently brings you back to the visual images, so that even his self-reflective thought drops away, and you are left with “hard rock” and a “small creek off a high ledge” and a impression rather than a thought.

The translations cannot compare to Riprap’s depth. Han-Shan’s poem #20 is an unexciting statement that people are critical and shallow:

Some critic tried to put me down—
“Your poems lack the Basic Truth of Tao”
And I recall the old-timers
Who were poor and didn’t care,
I have to laugh at him,
He misses the point entirely,
Men like that
Ought to stick to making money.

This poem lacks the grace of Riprap. The only notable aspect is that people are still people, with all the same faults and emotions, after thousand of years of evolution. This reflection is neither interesting nor surprising.

However, Riprap is a gorgeous timeless work. Synder knows the importance of being in the moment, truly seeing rather than rather than thinking:

A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.

Synder sees clearly, shows us how to be outside ourselves, and then reminds us what high quality poetry should feel like.

Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder
North Point Press
ISBN: 0865474559
67 pages