‘Riprap’ was first published in Gary Snyder’s first book of poetry, Riprap and Cold Mountains. This book was first published in Japan in 1959. Snyder’s poems draw parallels between nature and language and illustrate abstracts of metaphysical philosophy. This complex poem describes the nature of all things. Snyder’s tone is close to that of a spectator that is merely observing his surroundings.
‘Riprap’ by Gary Snyder describes the order of the world that includes everything, from the words we speak to an unnoticed cobble in a creek,
In this poem, Snyder compares words to “riprap” – loose rocks which a person can assemble before them. The poem draws images of nature, showing how language and words can be controlled and placed in an organized manner. Riprap is often used as a foundation for a breakwater or other structures, which is why Snyder compares it to words, which form the foundation of human language, expressions, and eventually, of society.
You can read the full poem here.
Snyder begins the poem by commenting how words can be “placed” (arranged or controlled) before they are spoken, just like riprap. Snyder then begins to describe how a bark, a wall, a leaf, planets, a cobble in the universe – are all a “riprap” of different things that are assembled by the creator dexterously. The speaker then goes on to talk about the poems, the people, the ponies with dragging saddles that leave firm trails in the sand. They are all leaving a “mark” on the world or covering a distance, just like the “Game of Go,” where the objective is to claim territory.
In the end, the observing tone of the poet changes into a contemplative one. He remarks how “in the thin loam” (soil), every rock is a word, “a creek-washed stone.” It is hidden deep inside the ground (or in our minds) and can change before it comes out, just as graphite changes into crystals under heat and pressure. By this ending, Snyder implies that though nature has set principles and rules, they can change over time just how our words can.
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
The speaker begins the poem ‘Riprap’ by asking the listeners/readers to take the words in their minds and to lay them in front of their minds to examine them, just like rocks. He explains how words can be controlled like rocks – their place of assembly can be decided before them with the mind. This could take up as much physical space and time, similar to how rocks can only be assembled with complete stillness once their balance point has been found.
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
In these lines, Snyder describes an array of things like bark, a leaf, a wall, a stone in a milky way, or planets – all of which exist in the same universe at different frequencies. The speaker essentially calls these to be a “riprap of things.” It is because they are all distinct yet perfectly placed together in harmony. In this way, Snyder indirectly praises the creator or the divine spirit of nature that holds everything in order.
These poems, people,
Game of Go.
Snyder maintains his observative tone at the beginning of this section. He refers to a wide array of things that include poems, people, foot trails, etc. These are set out to leave a mark on the world or to claim some territory as their own. The poet’s tone finally shifts to a contemplative one, where he compares the world to a “Game of Go” (go and get). In this game, the one who claims more territory/space wins.
ants and pebbles
As well as things.
In the last few lines, the poet’s attention returns to the “foundation” of all things – the “thin loam” (soil). This would also refer to how riprap is used as a base in many structures. Here, Snyder describes the layers of the soil where the ants and pebbles are found and then deeper where the creeks end. He compares a “word” to a granite rock, which can change into crystals due to heat and pressure.
Snyder ends the piece by saying that all things are prone to change or alteration, especially in thoughts. Thus, humans have true control over their words before speaking.
The poem ‘Riprap’ is written in the free-verse form. It does not follow the rules of traditional poetry. The text has no regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. There are a total of 25 lines that are grouped interestingly in a single stanza. Snyder makes use of indentation and slides it between the lines for achieving an artistic effect. Besides, the poem is written from the perspective of a third-person speaker. The spectator is aware of the intricacies of the world. According to him, the world is a beautiful “riprap of things.”
Snyder makes use of the following literary devices in ‘Riprap’.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “Game of Go,” “These poems, people,/ lost ponies with,” “ants and pebbles,” etc.
- Simile: Snyder uses simile in these lines, “The worlds like an endless/ four-dimensional/ Game of Go” and “Lay down these words/ Before your mind like rocks.”
- Enjambment: It occurs in “In choice of place, set/ Before the body of the mind,” “The worlds like an endless/ four-dimensional,” etc. Using this device, Snyder forces readers to go through the lines together.
- Personification: In the phrase “straying planets,” “planets” are personified to have an artistic effect.
- Metaphor: The poet says, “Granite: ingrained/ with torment of fire and weight/ Crystal and sediment linked hot/ all change, in thoughts,/ As well as things.” These lines describe how granite forms crystals under high heat and pressure. This transformation occurs to “all things and thoughts.” Everything can change given the right situations and conditions.
- Symbolism: Snyder calls the world a “four-dimensional/ Game of Go,” which essentially is about controlling territory. The game proves Snyder’s point that by observing the world as a spectator, people can control their language and actions, which inevitably contributes to society.
The main theme of ‘Riprap’ is metaphysics in language and the world. Throughout the poem, Snyder describes the world from his eyes and how everything is like the “Game of Go” to him. The world, space, and time are all “riprap” to the speaker – different things assembled to form a complex universe. Snyder’s tone is like that of a spectator observing the world from outside eyes. He describes “people,” “ponies,” “poems,” “planets,” lone cobble of the universe, a “bark,” or a “leaf” to be a “riprap of things.” It is because, despite all their differences, they are aligned in harmony.
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and principles of things. In ‘Riprap,’ the speaker essentially comments on how everything in the world runs on a principle. They can be controlled and altered with time as granite turns into crystals under high pressure and heat.
The poem ‘Riprap’ was a part of the first book published by Gary Snyder, Riprap and Cold Mountains. This book was published in Japan in 1959. This narrative captures the poet’s travels and life working in proximity with the natural world. Snyder is fluent in Japanese, Chinese, and Sanskrit. Upon describing his poetry, he says that he holds the most archaic beliefs as a poet. According to him, “As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals; the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.” This is certainly reflected in this poem.
Gary Snyder’s poem ‘Riprap’ is about the spoken words and how to control them, as they form the foundation or “riprap” of society. This piece can also be taken as implicit praise to the creator and a piece of advice to humankind to think reasonably before speaking anything.
In this poem, Snyder refers to a number of things that include a wall, a cobble in the universe, a leaf, planets, etc. They exist in the same universe despite being so inherently different. Thus, the world appears to the speaker as “a riprap of things.”
The poem is written in free-verse. There is no rhyme scheme or meter. It consists of a total of 25 lines that are grouped into a stanza. Besides, the poem is told from the perspective of a third-person speaker.
The tone of the poem is thoughtful, narrative, and contemplative. In the first few lines, the tone is descriptive of nature. Then, it shifts to be contemplative and wise.
The following list contains a number of poems that similarly evoke the themes present in Gary Snyder’s poem ‘Riprap.’ Explore more Gary Snyder poems.
- ‘The God Called Poetry’ by Robert Graves — This piece centers on the nature of poetry, and it is compared to a two-headed god.
- ‘The Creation’ by James Weldon Johnson — This poem is a retelling of the story of Genesis.
- ‘Design’ by Robert Frost — Frost wrote this piece in response to the traditional depiction of God.
You can also explore these thought-provoking poems about change.