I Cannot Remember Things I Once Read
I pick up a book by a poet I do not know: Gary Snyder’s Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems. Snyder on the cover, with close-cropped hair, squats—loose limbed, at home in his body—in worn jeans, sweatshirt, a woven vest—before a barbed wire fence, and looks out at the reader, with a welcoming smile, a smile that is level, not wide; that is at ease, calm. I pick up the book and pay two dollars for it. Riprap is Snyder’s first book, published originally in Japan in 1959 by Origin Press.
The year is 1977 and I am the same age as Riprap, 18 years old. The edition in my hand has been republished by Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco and includes Snyder’s 1958 translations of Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems. This is to be my second encounter with T’ang Dynasty poetry, having read Rexroth’s translations on New Directions at the public library. Riprap is rich with amazing poems, and some are now standards and deeply admired anthology pieces: “Milton by Firelight,” “Above Pate Valley,” and “Hay for the Horses.” It is the book’s first poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” that taught me a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking in and about poetry. Here are the first lines of that poem:
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.
The most perfect lyric poem I had read, prior to this encounter with “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” was Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” a poem uttered in a single long sentence, which unfurls its elaborate logic phrase by phrase, image by image, and line by line. Stevens, one could say, shows us his work as he offers the proof of his equation. Snyder, on the other hand, allows each line, each image to stand alone, distinct, separate, and yet each is set to vibrating by the line or image next to it. Each thing is discrete yet part of a whole. I had yet to read Ezra Pound, to have explained to me the ideogrammic method, yet here it is enacted, embodied in this flawless ten-line poem.