One City

One City

Dharma Poetry: Gary Synder’s “Riprap”

As I look out my window and pray for a cessation of this rain, I am packing for a weekend of camping in upstate New York.  I am eagerly awaiting the smells of the woods, the wet grass, the burning fire, the spring flowers.  As a dedicated New Yorker, I am especially looking forward to the peace and quiet that only undisturbed nature can provide.  Most of all, I am excited about the natural mindfulness that such a trip brings. 

Already this morning, I feel a greater concentration and deliberateness in my behavior.  I woke.  I moved the car.  I changed the baby’s diaper.  I brewed the coffee.  I packed a few things.  I sat down to write this post.  There is greater simplicity and clarity on days when we change our patterns.  In the woods, I will climb the hill, pitch the tent, spark the fire.  When in nature–also when relieved from our everyday, working routine–the world sharpens, and I find I can more seamlessly hold my mind in the present moment.


In terms of poetry, going to the woods makes me think of Gary Snyder, our a great American Buddhist poet, the inspiration for the Japhy Ryder character in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, the veritable Zen environmentalist, the Thoreau of the Beat Generation.  Snyder’s famous poem “Riprap” captures the essence of his mindfulness…



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, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles --
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
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.

Much has been and could be said about these lines. Speaking technically, Richard Gray wrote,
"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."  Synder writes with a universal,
plainspoken language.  Moreover, the poems sings of a non-dual view, of the continual flux
between matter and energy: the stones and the laying of the stones produce the poetry, then
the words themselves in the poem are stones, heavy and real.  Synder himself wrote that
the title--which refers to a cobble of stone laid to make a trail for horses in the
mountain--"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."

For me, the thought that this poem combined with my heading off to the woods for a weekend
of camping brings to mind is what I might call country-mindfulness.  I aspire to the kind
of mindfulness Snyder achieved, to his brand of openness and efficiency of mind;
in the poem "Goofing Again", he spills a gallon of pain over "fresh white bulkhead" and says,
"now I have to paint the wall again / & salvage only from it a poem."  Yes, I aspire
to Snyder's transcendental country-mindfulness, but at the same time, I am committed
to the city.  It's an old thought, but a persistent bugger: Is it harder in the  city,
amidst such energy and noise and distraction, to muster such pure absorption and attention?
 I don't know.  In the end, it may not be harder in the city, but I know it's a
little easier in the country.
Comments read comments(2)
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Gregory Luce

posted June 27, 2009 at 9:12 am

What a wonderful poem and your comments are astute! That and “Axe Handles” exemplify the best of Gary Snyder for me. Thanks for posting this. (Found by way of Poetry Hut.)

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