This autumn Counterpoint Press, heir of the beat- and Japanese-inflected North Point Press of Berkeley, founded by Jack Shoemaker in 1980, brings back Gary Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems in a lovely reissue, as well as a twentieth anniversary edition of Snyder’s summative The Practice of the Wild, with a new introduction by the author. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems combines Snyder’s first book, which was published in 500 folded and bound copies in Kyoto in 1959, with his later translations of the Cold Mountain Poems of T’ang poet Han Shan.
Gary Snyder himself and Jim Harrison will appear at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village tonight to talk about the convergence of meditative, poetic, and activist experience represented by Practice of the Wild, and to introduce a new film, The Practice of the Wild: A Conversation With Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison, which begins a one-week run at the Quad and comes accompanied by a book in which the conversations glimpsed in the film roll on at leisure.
Here is “Piute Creek” from Riprap:
One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm. Sky over endless mountains.
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.
A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.
One marvels, reflecting on these spare and elegant poems and the images of their natural home that unfold across the film, that at certain moments a specific landscape and an aesthetic realization are so closely bound. Usually mountains seem to be involved (the Lake District poets, Hölderlin). In Snyder’s poems the austerity of Eastern meditative traditions and the arresting clarity of the solitude and air of the Sierras seem to converge to sound a note that lingers in our poetry, particularly in the west. In the film Snyder says that while writing the poems that became Riprap he, a recent student of Asian language at Berkeley, was pondering the fact that classical Chinese literary language is monosyllabic, “like rocks,” and he was straining to reduce his own medium to this foundational simplicity. (The film also shows us a young, supple Snyder, with a suave black Nehru collar and a more urbane note in his voice than we are used to, dismounting a motorcycle in a style that would not be out of place in Paris.)
Another window on these reflections is a book of a few years back called Poets on the Peaks, which records in photographs and recollections the fire lookout station on Desolation Peak where Snyder and later Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen spent uninterrupted weeks on their own as fire watchers in the fifties, a rite of passage that left its traces in Riprap and, famously, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. The film also shows us photographs of Snyder at Daitoku-ji Monastery in Japan, where he lived for eight years studying zen, meditating for many hours a day, before returning to California and embarking on the life we know.
These poems, in their reticence, carry with them their encounter with silence and solitude, and give our poetry a proximity to truths on the other side of speech that seem most keenly available when we step out into our still wild country.
Memo to Counterpoint: tell us your history on your web site. It’s a beautiful one, what little we know of it. I still have a copy of Old Friend from Far Away: 150 Chinese Poems from the Great Dynasties, that I bought in San Francisco in 1982, when, I realize now, your work was young.