“Riprap,” the title poem in Snyder’s first collection of verse, is an accomplished example of the craftsmanlike yet transcendent nature of his early poetry. He begins with short, percussive words, mostly monosyllabic, which follow the rhythm of the trail work that he had done in the Sierra Nevada:
Lay down these wordsBefore your mind like rocks. placed solid, by handsIn choice of place, setBefore the body of the mind in space and time:Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall riprap of things.
Snyder’s goal is not merely to reproduce the experience of trail work but also to jolt the reader’s mind into higher levels of consciousness through close attention to natural facts and to words experienced as palpable objects. In the practice of Zen religion, masters sometimes deliver unexpected physical blows to surprise their students into satori (enlightenment). Snyder stated in a 1960 interview that he wrote the Riprap poems under the influence of “the five-and-seven-character-line Chinese poems I’d been reading at the time, which work like sharp blows to the mind.” From this foundation of hard physical facts and sharp, simple words, Snyder then launches the poem into cosmic realms:
Cobble of milky way, straying planets,These poems, people, lost ponies withDragging saddles— and rocky sure-foot trails.The worlds like an endless four-dimensionalGame of Go.
In his playful references to the “milky way,” “planets,” “worlds,” and the “game of Go,” Snyder implies that the poet need not be limited to mundane physical facts for his or her choice of words, images, and concepts. Rather, through the placement of words, the poetic craftsman can embed seemingly ungraspable materials in the lines of a poem, just as nature can form into solid rock materials which once seemed too hot and fluid to control:
Granite: ingrained with torment of fire and weightCrystal and sediment linked hot all change, in thoughts,As well as things.
Though “Riprap” is known as one of Snyder’s carefully composed, craftsmanlike poems, in these concluding lines one can see Snyder prophesying other possibilities for his verse, affirming the heated and volatile flow of poetic imagination.