Poem As WorkPlace Gary Snyder

Poem As Work-Place: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Poetics Essay, Research Paper

Nick Selby


the American poet Gary Snyder the poem is a work-place. The idea of work, I shall argue

throughout this paper, is central to Snyder’s ecological poetics because it allows him to

throw explicit attention on to the act of ‘writing the land’. This is clear from his

well- known environmental concerns, and his work with various ecological projects in

America since the sixties. Critics have thus tended to see his poetics as an assertion of

the interconnectedness of all things that is both Buddhist and ecological. According to

Helen Vendler Snyder is better known as an ‘ecological activist’ than poet, but I

shall argue that his poetics is an ecological poetics: it is the site for acts of reading

that are ecological in their attempt to read land and poem as one. I want to suggest,

however, that Snyder’s ecological poetics discovers dualities — land versus poem, human

versus nature, self versus other — even as it seeks to overwrite them in what Snyder

terms the ‘real work’ of integrating self, society and, most crucially, environment.

Whilst this marks his challenge to the ideology of mainstream America, it also marks the

extent to which his poetry is a product of deeply ingrained patterns of American culture.

Snyder’s poetic work ethic, this paper argues, is the ground upon which anxieties about

the annihilation of personal and cultural identities, anxieties at the heart of American

thought, are worked through. This is because the dualities which Snyder’s work expose

indicate a troubled relationship to the land, they discover faultlines that are deeply

ingrained in American culture. Snyder’s ecological poetics recognises that these can no

longer be sublimated into romantic myths of the land, but must be seen as the traces of

divisive self-division at the heart of the American psyche.

The poem ‘I went into the Maverick Bar’ from

Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Turtle Island (1974) bears the traces of such

anxieties in its nostalgic recollection of fifties America. To read the poem’s opening

lines is to enter an apparently hostile environment, a working-class bar in

‘Farmington, New Mexico’. Not only does the poem’s first-person narrator tell us that

his ‘long hair was tucked under a cap / [and] I’d left the earring in the car’ (lines

5-6) as a measure of his sense of alienation from the other people in the bar, but the

waitress’ question ‘where are you from?’ (line 10) is eerily ambiguous, made more

threatening by its being set against the syntactically strange ‘Two cowboys did

horseplay / by the pool tables’ (lines 7-8). Interestingly, such anxiousness results from

the fact that the bar is seen as a place of leisure, not work. The cowboys ‘play’, as

does a country-and-western band, and a couple get up to dance. Against (or within) this

setting the narrator remembers working in Oregon in the fifties:

They [the dancing couple] held each other like in

High School dances


the fifties

I recalled when I worked in the woods


the bars of Madras, Orgeon.

That short-haried joy and roughness —


— your stupidity.

I could almost love you again.

(lines 15-21)

The narrator’s sense of his relationship to

America, though fraught and ambiguous like the syntax of these lines, is one which he

seeks to clarify through his relationship to the work he once did in the woods and bars of

Oregon. If his alienation seems to frame a challenge to the complacent America portrayed

in this bar, it is also seen to be the product of imagery traditionally thought of as

‘deeply’ American. Thus, although the poem specifically recalls the fifties — itself

a period fraught by questions of Americanness — its nostalgia is a complex site that

brings together a series of typically American readings of the land as a work-place. It is

in this relationship between work, land and identity that the poem is able to play with

various American personae. In the space of these few lines, and because of their

indeterminacy of reference, we encounter the Beat outsider of the fifties (the apostrophe

to America’s ‘stupidity’ leads to a declaration of allegiance that sounds strikingly

similar to the Allen Ginsberg of Howl and Other Poems); a ‘joy and roughness’ which

recalls Walt Whitman as ‘one of the roughs’; and a romanticising of work in America’s

Northwest that recalls a mythology of rugged frontiersmen who see the land as a space for

the testing of individual and national identities.

The variety and complexity of such personae mean

that the poem does not express Snyder’s ‘unbecoming egotism’ as David A. Carpenter

claims, nor does it fully manage to accomplish, as Bert Almon believes, the ‘real

work’ of turning America back into ‘"Turtle Island," the aboriginal name

for the continent’. What we do encounter, though, is a poem that works by turning back

(seemingly without irony) to a ‘real’ experience of America as that which ultimately

validates identity. Thus, in the final lines of the poem, we witness a re-inscription of

founding ideological assumptions about America, ones that write of the American land as a

place for a mythical regeneration of self:


the tough old stars —

In the shadow of the bluffs


came back to myself

To the real work, to


is to be done."

{lines 23-27)

Myths of the New World as Eden, or as God’s

plantation, as a virgin land, or the land of opportunity have all sought (paradoxically,

perhaps) a way of writing America into reality. In just such a mythic space we see

Snyder’s narrator ‘rediscovering’ his ‘real self’. The ‘real work’ of this

poem, then, involves recognizing the patterns of traditional imagery that turn America as

workplace into America as poem.

The pattern of identification between poem, land

and work is already well established in Snyder’s first two published collections, Riprap

(1959) and Myths and Texts (1960). His ‘Statement on Poetics’ for Donald

Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry (1960) makes this clear:

I’ve just recently come to realise that the

rhythms of my poems follow the rhythm of the physical work I’m doing and life I’m leading

at any given time – - which makes the music in my head which creates the line.

However, it is in the very emphasis upon the

physical, upon the attempt to ground poetry in the ‘real work’ of the world, that

Snyder’s texts display a deep anxiety about seeing the land as poem. This is not just an

anxiety of American poetics, but one which lies at the heart of American thought because

it is coupled with anxieties about the effacement of identity within, and by, the land.

Such anxieties disclose typically American concerns in the way in which their focus is

transferred on to questions of the textual. I disagree, therefore, with Lawrence Buell who

contends that an attention to the textual in American culture leads to a dissociation from

the land. Whereas Buell argues that the marking of the gap between world and text

effectively silences any environmental concerns, my point is that the anxiousness American

culture displays in its marking of this gap is indicative of the anxiousness of its

environmental imagination. The ‘real work’ of Snyder’s ecological poetics, then,

involves the paradoxical recognition that reading the land and poem as one is to assert

their discontinuity, it is to recognise the gap between culture and nature that any

representation of the land as a work-place implies. To see American Literature generated

from a ‘sequence of spiritual appropriations of, and by, the land’, as Marshall

Walker claims, is to mark how concern for the American land has always, in American

thought from colonial times onwards, been marked by the turning of that land into a scene

of writing. The considerable anxieties about selfhood and identity that are evidenced in

American texts generally, and in Snyder’s poetry particularly, thus disclose and write

over anxieties about the land as the cultural determinant of American identity.

This helps to explain why Snyder’s poetry is

usually read as a fairly untroubled meditation on the visionary relationship between

environments of work, mind and land. Typically, his poetry is described as one that

‘integrat[es]‘, in the words of Patrick Murphy, ‘the routines of physical work

with the life of the mind’. What this paper seeks to challenge is the assumed ease with

which such integration takes place. I shall argue, by looking at Riprap and Myths

and Texts, that Snyder’s poetry works to make troubled those notions of lyrical

voice, imagist clarity and the poem as environment that are assumed ‘natural’ to his

visionary poetics. Indeed, it will be seen that the categories of ‘the natural’ and

‘the visionary’ which have troubled Anglocentric American thought since the Puritans,

and were the particular focus of concern for the romanticism of Emerson and Thoreau,

remain troublesome to Snyder.

The opening poem of Riprap,

‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, clearly announces the book’s major theme:

an exploration of the relationship between land(scape) and self that is established

through work. The poem derives from Snyder’s experience working as a fire-watcher at

Sourdough mountain in Washington State during the summer of 1953. Critics have tended to

read it as a poem of visionary experience in imitation of the classical Chinese poetry

that Snyder was studying at this time. What these readings forget is that it is a

work-poem. Work as a lookout depends upon visual experience, on the act of looking. The

narrator is thus defined by his relationship to the landscape because of his work of

reading it for signs of fire. This relationship is embodied in the poem’s structure, with

its first half describing the landscape and its second half the ‘I’ within that

landscape. The work of the poem lies, therefore, in its bringing together of land and


Down valley a smoke haze

Three days heat, after five days rain

Pitch glows on the fir-cones

Across rocks and meadows

Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read

A few friends, but they are in cities.

Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup

Looking down for miles

Through high still air

The poem’s attention is upon the work of mediation, or as I shall develop later, upon

an idea of exchange. Not only is this implicit in the poem’s form but in its imagery. And

in both cases the insistent demand of reading the poem is that we see it as a work-place.

In formal terms the poem works because of the way

in which the apparently unmediated description of the landscape in its first half

(‘Down valley …’) mediates and is mediated by the gaze of the narrator (who is

‘Looking down for miles’) in the poem’s second half. But that gaze, his reading of

the landscape, is the lookout’s work. And in terms of imagery the smoke haze, heat haze,

and swarming flies in the poem’s first half alert the attention because they look like

signs of fire, like smoke. The work of reading these signs is therefore crucial, and

determines the process of reading the poem. This is seen both in the way that ‘smoke

haze’ is, upon further reading, shown to be the result, not of a forest fire, but of

‘Three days heat, after five days rain’, and also in the fact that the final

smoke-like image of the stanza turns out to be ‘Swarms of new flies’. Our work of

reading the poem is thus analogous to the work it describes.

This is also evident in the line ‘Pitch

glows on the fir-cones’. The line is not simply at the physical centre of the stanza. It

balances — mediates between — the two smoke images because it discovers the poem’s

central pattern of imagery. The line’s image, in which the natural is closely attended to,

or read, is also an image that depicts such an act of reading as, inescapably, an act of

mediation. The ‘fir-cones’ are not seen directly, but through the medium of glowing

pitch. This, in turn, alerts the reader to the work of the poem itself whereby the

landscape is always mediated through acts of reading. The valley is seen through haze;

‘rocks and meadows’ are seen trough swarms of flies; and, importantly, the poem’s

final image looks down at the environment surrounding Sourdough mountain ‘Through

high still air’. Clear as this air may seem, it is still a medium through which the

landscape must be read. Even the narrator’s apparently clear vision of the landscape is a

matter of mediation between the human and the natural. Thus the work of the poem means

that we see the landscape through the poem just as the narrator sees the landscape through

the ‘high still air’.

The poem suggests, therefore, that an apparently

visionary experience of the land is marked, in fact, not by clarity and transparency in

the relation between the human and the natural, but rather by a sense of that relationship

as one of inescapable mediation. Always, the poem suggests, the land must be worked upon,

it must be read. Snyder’s poetics of the real, then, both throws attention upon the gap

between text and world, and seeks to abolish that gap through the work of reading. Thus,

although the act of reading is the poem’s controlling trope, its real work, such an act

does not signal a coming back to oneself so much as an anxious recognition that selfhood

and identity are continually effaced by the land. At the moment of its realisation in the

poem, the narrator’s ‘I’ is obliterated, forgotten, even as it reads itself into the

land and the text: ‘I cannot remember things I once read / A few friends, but they

are in cities’.

Such moments, in which the speaking subject is

obliterated even as it speaks, have commonly been read in American Literature (and in

Snyder) as moments of visionary transcendence. This results from the romantic legacy of

Emerson, and has meant that the relationship between the human and the natural is seen as

visionary, unmediated, a transparent integration of self and universe. Famously this finds

expression in the passage — according to Harold Bloom ‘the most American passage

that will ever be written — from Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ (1836) when, for a moment

on Boston Common, the self becomes all-seeing:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by

the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a

transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being

circulate through me …

Cary Wolfe points to the paradox at the heart of

this passage, noting that here the ‘pinnacle of selfhood … disappear[s] at the very

moment of its attainment’. Indicatively American, such a paradoxical economy of the self

may seem, initially, to operate similarly in Snyder’s poetry. Accounts that situate

Snyder’s poetry, for example, in the post-Poundian objectivist ‘school’ stress that

its lyrical effect is powerful precisely because, paradoxically, it witnesses an

Emersonian obliteration of ‘all mean egotism’. It thus seems to enact the

‘getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego’ by which Charles

Olson characterises objective verse. However, the visionary moment for Emerson’s

‘I/Eye’ works through an obliteration of any sense of the land itself as real. This

is clearly in stark contrast to Snyder’s poetics of the land as work-place.

If Emerson’s vision seems ‘most American’ it

is because the relationship to the ground it describes is one of unmediated exchange

between self and other, inner and outer natures. The image of the ‘transparent

eyeball’ does not describe a working of the land but a transcending of it. Emerson’s

symptomatically American moment therefore portrays a refusal, or at least an inability, to

read the land: Boston Common becomes an unreadable blank page, ‘bare ground’. Thus,

whereas Snyder’s poetics of work marks a troubled exchange between land and text,

Emerson’s moment of visionary transcendence signals a spiritual appropriation of the land

that turns its gaze away from that very land. What seems quintessentially American about

this is the way in which anxieties about America’s ideological foundation, the colonial

appropriation of the land, are expressed as anxieties about the obliteration of the self.

From its very beginnings, the writing of America has sought to transfer issues of the

working of the land onto issues of selfhood. An early example of this is John Smith’s

dictum of 1608, directed to the first Jamestown settlers, ‘he who doesn’t work,

doesn’t eat’. The real process of the colonial working of the land is here disguised, in

Smith’s work ethic, as a discourse of pragmatic self-preservation. For both Smith and

Emerson the land is not real, it is a blank mythic space, a tabula rasa, upon which are

written the struggles of American selfhood. The typically American, and romantic, gesture

encoded in their work, then, seems to be the turning of the land into a text, moreover an

American text.

Emerson makes this explicit in his 1844 essay

‘The Poet’. Once again the exchange between poem and land is visionary, a matter of

seeing: ‘America’, he writes, ‘is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography

dazzles the imagination’ (emphases mine). This vision of America, its geography, is

dazzling to the imagination because any real sense of the land is subsumed by the desire

to see that land as a site of cultural exchange, as the ground upon which the work of

literary nationalism can take place. But such a transformation of the natural environment

into a cultural and textual one effectively displaces the kind of troubled concern with

language’s representative power that, as I shall argue, becomes evident in the work of

reading Snyder’s poetry. For this reason, reading Snyder through Emersonian models of

visionary transcendence, models that ultimately fail to read the land, is to unread him,

to assume the poem is the land and not a site for a working of the land.

A more useful model for reading Snyder’s poetry

is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a text, moreover, that Snyder read during

his time as firewatcher at Sourdough mountain in 1953. Both Snyder and Thoreau trace the

working of the land in an attempt to critique American ideology, to reground its work

ethic. I shall argue, however, that, in the case of Snyder, to see the poem as a

work-place is to disclose the extent to which his poetics is as much a product of deeply

ingrained American concerns as it is a challenge to them. In fact, it is as a work-place

that the poem becomes a site for the production of a specifically American — though not

Emersonian — reading of ‘the natural’. What Thoreau and Snyder share, in such an act

of reading, is a troubled sense of the gap between word and world that stems from deep

seated anxieties about the turning of the American land into a text.

For Thoreau such anxieties are expressed in his

mistrust of the process of exchange by which American culture of the mid-nineteenth

century was increasingly implicated in the demands of the market-place. His hostility to

the discourses of capital emerging at this time results from his romantic sense that any

true and meaningful relationship to the natural is obliterated by an economy of symbolic


I have … learned that trade curses everything

it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade

attaches to the business.

The ‘curse of trade’ is that it mediates the

real, replacing it with a system of exchange that clouds our vision of the land we


I perceive that we inhabitants of New England

live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of

things. We think that that is which appears to be. If a man should walk through this town

and see only the reality, where, think you, would the "Mill-Dam" go to?

The central business section of Concord, the

Mill-dam, is thus, according to Thoreau, a fiction of exchange that displaces the real by

the symbolic. Though Thoreau may attempt to ‘live deliberately’ at Walden Pond in

order ‘to front only the essential facts of life’, this attempt is underscored by an

anxiety that arises from the recognition that such ‘facts’ are accessible only

through the system of symbolic representation that is language. Thus the settling of the

land becomes, itself, a trope for the struggle to apprehend reality. ‘Let us settle

ourselves,’ Thoreau writes

and work and wedge our feet downward through the

mud and slush of opinion … till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we

can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.

Snyder’s attempt to render the (work) environment

as a mythical space means that his poetic attention is similarly cast onto the

problematics of textual representation. This can be seen in the following passage from

‘Piute Creek’, another poem from the Riprap collection. Though this poem offers an

apparently unmediated description of the landscape, it is controlled by a sense of the gap

between word and world. The poem is thus haunted by loss, by the way in which the actual

land is obliterated by the text that seeks to represent it:

All the junk that goes with being human Drops

away, hard rock wavers Even the heavy present seems to fail This bubble of a heart. Words

and books Like a small creek off a high ledge Gone in the dry air. (Riprap, p. 8)

As the poem continues, it envisages such a

dropping away of human junk to be part of the process described by Thoreau of setting

‘rocks in place’, of struggling towards a sense of grounded reality. But the clarity

of selfhood and the attentiveness of mind that seem to be produced by this process are,

however, less the result of an apprehension of reality, than the product of a

mystification of the relationship between the human and the natural. The poem presents

this relationship as part of a mutual and visionary system of exchange whereby the self

and the land read each other

A clear, attentive mind Has no meaning but that

Which sees is truly seen. No one loves rock, yet we are here. (Riprap, p. 8)

The difficulty of these lines lies in their

dramatising of the problematics of representing the land in/as a poem. Just where

‘here’ may be is subject to the slipperiness of a poetic language that struggles to

negotiate between the literal and the metaphorical. Here, in this poetic landscape that is

also a place of the mind, where even ‘hard rock wavers’, the difficulty of settling

ourselves and not mistaking reality becomes insurmountable.

Myths and Texts is generated from a

similar sense of the precipitousness of linguistic exchange, wherein ‘words and

books’ become symbolic tokens of an object world of ‘small creek[s]‘ and ‘high

ledge[s]‘. Its opening line — ‘The morning star is not a star’ — is troubled by the

same disjunction between appearance and reality that troubled Thoreau’s attempt to see

beneath the surface of Concord’s business centre. As an explicit reference to Walden’s

closing sentence ‘The sun is but a morning-star’, the line introduces a text that,

like Thoreau’s, mythicises the American land as a workplace. Whilst, in so doing, Myths

and Texts describes how the work of logging destroys the land, it also effaces that

very land by exchanging it for the symbolic economy of a text. The text has no meaning but

that which is generated from its relationship, not to the land, but to other texts. Thus,

in ‘Logging’, the first section of Myths and Texts, the destruction of the

‘woods around Seattle’ by ‘San Francisco 2?4s’ (Myths and Texts, p. 4)

comes to signify a wider anxiety about American culture itself as destructive because it

is framed by two other accounts of how exploitation of the land leads to cultural


The first of these texts, a biblical quotation

from the book of Exodus 34:13, seems here to depict the destruction of the forest as an

act of sacrilege: ‘But ye shall destroy their altars, / break their images, and cut

down their groves’ (Myths and Texts, p. 3). Snyder’s irony, though, is acute. In

its original context the words are an injunction forming part of God’s covenant with Moses

and His chosen people: if the land is to be a promised land then its original inhabitants,

their rituals, and their culture must be destroyed. This formative myth of the West, which

resonates so strongly with Anglocentric myths of America as the promised land, is followed

in the poem by a description of the destructive effects of working the land in the ancient

East: ‘The ancient forests of China logged / and the hills slipped into the Yellow

Sea’ (Myths and Texts, p. 3). The work of logging thus becomes significant, an

image for the precariousness of American culture as a whole, because through it the land

is mythicised as a text of loss:

San Francisco 2?4s

were the woods around


Someone killed and someone built, a house,

a forest, wrecked or raised

All America hung on a hook

& burned by men, in their

own praise.

Such an inscription of the land betrays the

desire to turn the land into that which it is not, a text. Thus, the preservation of the

land as a text, as a critique of an economic system based on the commodification of that

land, means that the land itself is obliterated within the text’s own symbolic economy.

The ecological disaster upon which all America hangs like a hook, and out of which

Snyder’s poetics is generated, is, paradoxically, one that can be apprehended only through

metaphor, the exchange of text for land, word for world. Here, then, Snyder’s poetics

forces a confrontation with loss as the condition of language itself whereby the sign is

substituted, exchanged, for an object already lost.

That Myths and Texts is acutely aware of

language’s lateness, of what Jacques Derrida has described as the way in which ‘the

sign is … put in place of the thing itself’, is apparent in the closing passage of the

‘Logging’ section. The gap, Derrida’s l’?cart, between the world and its

representation is here anticipated by an imagery of splitting and rupture in which the

bifurcation of the natural and the manufactured is predicated upon loss, a loss of the

land that also witnesses the loss of an empire:

Pine sleeps, cedar splits straight

Flowers crack the pavement.

Pa-ta Shan-jen

(A painter who watched the Ming fall)

Lived in a tree:

"The brush

May paint the mountains and streams

Though the territory is lost"

(‘Logging 15,’ Myths and

Texts, p. 16)

The poem’s recognition of this gap leads to the

attempt, in its second section ‘Hunting’, to reconnect with the earth through the

description and poetic enactment of the ritualized observances of the hunter and the

shaman. Though this recalls Thoreau’s description of hunters as displaying a

‘peculiar sense [of being] a part of Nature themselves’, it also envisages the

integration of self and other, the human within Nature, through a shamanistic

reinhabitation of the land which the poem describes as the ‘Hatching [of] a new myth’

(Myths and Texts, p. 19). Again, the land is mythicised as a text of otherness

and loss, a site in which the colonial imperative underpinning American culture is played

out. This is felt starkly in the following passage with the poem’s attempt to name, and

thereby consume, the things of the land:

Now I’ll also tell what food

we lived on then:

Mescal, yucca fruit, pinyon, acorns,

prickly pear, sumac berry, cactus,

spurge, dropseed, lip fern, corn,

mountain plants, wild potatoes, mesquite,

stems of yucca, tree-yucca flowers, chokecherries,

pitahaya cactus, honey of the ground-bee,

honey, honey of the bumblebee,

mulberries, angle-pod, salt, berries,

berries of the one-seeded juniper,

berries of the alligator-bark juniper,

wild cattle, mule deer, antelopes,

white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, doves, quail,

squirrels, robins, slate-colored juncoes,

song sparrows, wood rats, prairie dogs,

rabbits, peccaries, burros, mules, horses,

buffaloes, mountain sheep, and turtles.

(‘Hunting 13′, Myths and

Texts, p. 31)

Not only does this push Snyder’s poetics to the

limits of its metonymic economy, its representative power, but it also engages an Adamic

myth of naming, the sort of myth that has commonly been seen as central to American

cultural identity. This textual working of the land, reminiscent of colonial descriptions

of the New World, thus struggles to close the gap between myth and text in an attempt to

integrate self and land, to see them in a relationship of productive exchange. Rather than

providing a poetics of integration, the final poem of the sequence actually marks the

fissure between myth and text, word and world. With its two sections entitled,

respectively, ‘the text’ and ‘the myth’, this poem sees the identity of the land

as something that can never come back to itself, something that is always subject to

disfigurement, even as it is traced in the text. Thus, in the poem’s first section, the

land as text is a workplace, and the poet (again) a firewatcher: ‘Sourdough mountain

called a fire in: / Up Thunder Creek, high on a ridge’ (‘Burning 17,’ Myths and

Texts, p. 53). In the poem’s second section the reading of that land appropriates it

to myth, and it is thus disfigured, becoming a property of mind, and not of solid reality:

‘Fire up Thunder Creek and the mountain — troy’s burning! / The cloud mutters / The

mountains are your mind.’ (‘Burning 17,’ Myths and Texts, p. 53).

To conclude I want to return, briefly, to the Riprap

collection, and, finally, to its title poem. Throughout this paper I have been suggesting

that to read Snyder’s poetics as one striving for a visionary integration with the land

is, necessarily, to mark the divorce between nature and culture, land and text and thus to

expose a faultline in American culture. Riprapcannot simply be read (as it often is) as a

text of universal interconnectedness. It is a text shot through with a sense of fissure,

and breakage, of the act of sundering that is at the heart of the act of working the land,

whether that be in the cleavage between land and self from which the structure and imagery

of ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ is generated; or in the figure of the

‘single-jack miner, who can sense / The vein and cleavage / In the very guts of rock’

in the poem ‘Milton by Firelight’ (Riprap, p. 9); or in the split between word and

world that is exposed in our work of reading these poems, and which can be read as a

product of a capitalist economy of exchange.

In his ‘Afterword’ to the North Point Press

edition of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems Snyder explicitly aligns the work poems

of Riprap with Chinese and Japanese poetic models by noting how they strive to

read the world without being affected by language’s mediation. The poems in Riprap perform,

he asserts, ‘… the work of seeing the world withoutany prism of language, and bring

that seeing into language’. In its ‘work of seeing the world’ the title poem of the

collection, I would argue, confirms an anxiety at the heart of American culture, one not

so easily dismissed as the book’s ‘Afterword’ implies, namely, that the land is

unknowable except through the prism of language, but to bring the land into language, is

to obliterate it.

This poem (‘Riprap’) opens with this

paradox, with its laying down of words before us becoming a metaphorical path for a

sensing of the vein and cleavage between word and rock, idea and thing, America and its


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:

The work of the poem is not, therefore, its overt

attempt to integrate the environments of land and poem. Rather, the poem asserts that

‘rocks’ are not ‘words’, only ‘like’ one another, and that romantic

transcendence, that which sees the poem as a riprap, a cobbled path leading up a mountain,

is only a metaphor, moreover a metaphor of working the land. To see the poem as work-place

is to expose the workings of language, and to make fraught our relationship to the object

world. The ecological lesson of Snyder’s poetics lies, finally, in an attending to the

fracture in the very guts of the real:

In the thin loam, each rock a word

a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

with torment of fire and


Crystal and sediment linked hot

all change, in thoughts,

As well as things.

It is in recognizing the deeply ingrained

patterns of America’s acculturation of the land that the real work of ecological reading

can begin.

From Sycamore 1:4 (Winter 1997). Copyright ? 1997 by Sycamore. Online Source


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