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Denise Riley and the ‘awkward lyric’.

By PETER RILEY.

barbed rule

Say Something Back
by Denise Riley.

Picador 2016 | 92pp paper | £6.99  $17.95

 

denise-riley-ssbTHE WORD LYRIC has hovered round Denise Riley’s poetry for as long as I can remember, mainly at her own instigation in her theoretical writings and teaching, and it still haunts commentary on her poetry.[1. Denise Riley, in The Words of Selves (2000), especially “A liar tries lyric” pp. 63-74 and “Lyric selves” pp.93-112. The latter is a self-commentary on two of her poems. In recent comments see for example Sarah Howe, “The Feel of Thinking”, Poetry London 2015; Edmund Hardy, “Denise Riley / soliloquy in a line-break” in his Complex Crosses, Contraband 2014.] I find it an obstructive but necessary word. In practice it means “song-like” but this simple and demonstrable sense is cluttered up with a host of classificatory divisions inherited from ancient genre structures, made a lot worse by what I think is a nineteenth-century divisive and mistaken re-definition which says that lyrical poetry is not a formal category at all but “the expression by the poet of his own feelings”.[2. This is the citation from Ruskin under Lyric in the Shorter OED. The definition prior to this has “directly expressing the poet’s own thoughts and sentiments” with the date 1589 but no citation. Whatever this is it seems a curious belief to be holding at the time of the first flowering of English pastoral song.]

Lyric is understood here as a problem, solved or unsolved, concerning the representation of the self, initially, I think, regarding the processing of the authorial voice in the demands of poetical structuring, the surrender of the author’s full presence into the tension between the subjective and the impersonal, between what the author determines and what “arrives” out of the historical substance of poetry. Both of these can be seen as products of the lyric condition. The incorporation into the text of quotation or quasi-quotation (from poetry, popular song, prose or wherever) in the formation and confirmation of the poetical tenor also raises questions of the self’s authority in the poem, be it a decision or a surrender, a purposeful and meaningful act to incorporate sense from elsewhere or whether it just happens with or without the author’s necessarily noticing it. Riley’s own discussions associate lyric particularly with the risk of surrendering a sense of purpose in the writing to a potentially dangerous unthinking acquiescence. Her dealings with these questions are subtly self-questioning and ruthlessly analytical and bear directly on her own poetry and beyond, but release from the problematisation of lyric seems to me to have already been enacted in the kinds of song-like poems she can now write. She herself, anyway, refers the forms of poetry directly to “song” (e.g. in the title and first line of A Part Song)

We have to ask how the historical progression in English from people like Campion and Dowland arrived at this puritanical quandary. At what point does “fa-la-la” become fascistic?

One of the orthodoxies floating round academic and journalistic criticism of poetry now is that this thing “lyric” is some terrible throw-back which carries outmoded cultural and even political attitudes with it, in the form of a morally reprehensible self-centering with bad public implications.[3. In the academy, especially the American one, lyric is heavy industry. It is an enormous zone of literary study and research which relies mainly, as far as I can see, on an assumed certainty about what lyric actually is which does not have to prove itself. The best working version of this is that it is a short poem which speaks of or derives from experience (i.e. most poems) and has a “poetical” surface. The tradition invoked in this study carefully excludes all reference to actual song of any kind and selects its text from B.C. to the present with gaps sometimes of several centuries. One of its definitions of lyric, as “dramatic monologue”, a genre which already existed and was well recognised before this intervention, seems expressly designed to exclude many centuries of fitting words to music and music to words, which seems to me to be where the business of writing lyrical poetry inherits its problems and its delights from. The most widely ignored definition in this area is of lyrics as the texts of sung music, as widely understood in several music industries, but this seems to me the most faithful to the word’s origins and the most useful with reference to modern poetry. And lyric is of course a big problem and may even have to be suppressed. There are concepts also of “lyric reading” which is rather more sinister than just reading lyrics, and there is a thing called the “lyric self”. I don’t know where this creature came from but we must all have one, for you can pay for courses which will help you to locate yours and put it to good use. It seems lyric is the only self of its kind we have: no one has yet claimed to have a dithyrambic self.] But if the lyric is referred directly back to song, we have to ask how the historical progression in English from people like Thomas Campion and John Dowland arrived at this puritanical quandary. At what point does “fa-la-la” become fascistic?

Lyric cannot at the same time be direct transmission of of the author’s own “thoughts and sentiments”, and the highly impersonal work involved in close attention to the formalities, the metrical and phonetic events involved in fitting words to music or assuring a recognisably song-like writing. It seems more likely that lyric is not a kind of poetry at all, but a poetical technique. The purpose of the technique is to create an illusion of song.

Denise RileyAND WHY SHOULD you want to do that? Song (actual, sung song) is collective. It is sent out into the world in search of auditors and to form or confirm a body of felt mutuality. It is this whether it is social song or art song or graveside lament or “Ta-ra-ra Boom-dee-ay” or whatever. The musical and performative functions of song appeal past the text towards intuitive response to sound patterns on large or small scale, bearing immediate or hopeful senses of recognition, which are necessary for song to function as the invitation to a collective: the village as it always has been or a sense of commonality elicited from within the human spirit, or a fantasy displacement of society to a mirroring Arcadia. The song-text itself is an adjunct which may support the transitive process or interfere with it, spread or restrict the society it implies. Poetry essentially participates in this process but with the text in a central position. Everything which could define a text as “poetical” can be seen as the work of the lyrical poetical technique making an illusion of song — all poetry, great or small, formally or casually conceived, is lyrical unless it deliberately contrives not to be. The very departure from prosaic informational language[4. This departure, conceived as a decision, may be purely notional or even fictional. But it nevertheless takes place, if only in finding that you have taken it, and it takes places as a vocational commitment as well as a singular act each time you make the attempt. I realise that this insistence on the distinction of the poetical medium is now unpopular and widely preached against institutionally in favour of a non-poetical usage indistinguishable when heard from prose, in the name, sometimes, of democracy. But the departure I speak of is not necessarily a departure from plain and direct language.] is and must be a move towards singing, and must be so whether the author purchases the most obvious pieces of song furniture such as rhyme and metre, or the shift into song is felt only in something like a difference and strangeness in the language and the modes of address.[5. Song, especially folk song, and of that especially dance-songs, has always permitted and indeed delighted in bizarre, nonsensical and metalinguistic formulations, including self-contradiction and non-sequitur. “Poor Charlie dead and gone / Left me here to sing this song / Pretty little girl with the red dress on…”] This means, of course that all the “problems of lyric” are exactly the problems of poetry: the loss or gain of authorial presence, the precariousness of “truth”, the marginalising of sense, the automatism of verbal leading…. The author of the poem may feel a need to solve these problems by working out a thoughtful equilibrium, or by kicking them off the field by means of sheer mimetic energy. Denise Riley does both of these and adopts many intermediary strategies in, basically, seeking the full convergence of the writing process and fidelity to the perceived real.

What she has done, I think, is to retain her fascination with “lyric” but to refer it back to “song” and then forward to “poetry”

What she has done, I think, is to retain her fascination with “lyric” but to refer it back to “song” and then forward to “poetry”, which is then seen as song-like in its separation from everyday spoken discourse, and in its distinct use of language. All poetry enacts a release into play. But she will not admit this alluring, anti-thinking substance, this surrender of the mind to martial lullabies, into what she does in its pure form. It is necessary to steer clear of the fake pastoral which the unimpeded song formation encourages, and to insist that the song daze is subjected to a confrontation which questions and perverts it, which either reduces its effects to no more than the usual patternings, tone, poise, etc., by which poetry is recognised, or forces song into a travesty of itself, a grotesque bagpipe music that drowns the clamour that surround us and lays bare the actual conditions.

So the song-like mechanism is undermined, perverted, concealed, exaggerated, fragmented, parodied… and the phrases it speaks rendered strange or disconnected. I don’t know what they call this in the offices of poetry classification, but I call it “awkward”,[6. I owe my fondness for this word to Antony Rowland, author of Holocaust Poetry: awkward poetics in the work of Sylvia Plath, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes, Edinburgh UP 2005, and his book of poems I am a Magenta Stick, Salt 2012. (reviewed by me here). I use the word entirely in its commonplace sense, mainly to avoid the word “difficult” in matters of authorial intent. Rowland uses it especially for a masked awareness of the German Holocaust which he finds in those four poets.] a deliberate awkwardness introduced into the text to provoke a questioning or puzzlement, to break up, if only momentarily, the smooth transition of song-sense from poet to reader and to provoke the back-response which is the book’s title. But the song qualities can also be enhanced to produce the real poetical song, which is only occasionally called for, to resolve more extreme conflicts.

The first poem of Say Something Back

Maybe; maybe not

When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
Thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
But when I became a man I put away
Plain things for lustrous, yet to this day
Squat under hooves for kindness where
Fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
Get it clear, down in the soily waters.

the-clod-and-the-pebble-wikimediaThe prefatory function of this poem is to announce the substance, poetry, which we are entering, especially by echoing (rather than citing) words or sections from past poetry which have entered the memory-stock and are subsumed into the author’s own vocabulary. The Blake and the Yeats are the most immediately apparent (Blake: “The Clod and the Pebble” in Songs of Experience; Yeats: “Down by the Salley Gardens”) but the more definitive echo is I Corinthians 13,11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” And, I think, verse 12 bears on the ending of the poem: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.”

It is not in the least necessary for the reader to recognise these echoes, and for a critic to dig them up and attribute their various belief structures to author or poem would be a needless intervention. There is no reason to think that Riley subscribes to Blake’s puritan dialectic whereby the fall of Man is re-enacted at puberty and the reality we inhabit is so violated that it is only possible to speak the contraries of what we know and mean. Clod and stone do not become allegories of purity and taint—the intrusion of the realist word “thrush” destroys the possibility of such a dialectical structure. They are equal tokens of inert substance, possibly inflected by the colloquial use of “clod” to mean a stupid person. The Yeats song does not involve such metaphysics; its wistful account of interpersonal loss may be enjoined (“But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.”) for such loss is an intermittent presence in the whole book, but in greatly shifted terms.[7. The Yeats phrase might itself be an earlier instance of poetical echoing, and Riley’s use of it a continuation of the process, knowingly or not, for the song is said to be a recreation from three lines Yeats remembered an old woman singing in County Sligo, according to a note he wrote in 1889. Its original title was “An Old Song Re-sung”.] The Biblical passage is much more like a citation. Because of it the phrases of line 3 are very familiar, but even so the word “man” stands there as a surprise, a sudden rebuttal to those who had assumed that the poem was an authentic statement from an author known to be a woman. Not that it prevents such authenticity, but it does make it more difficult for the simplifications and exclusions of gender analysis to be applied in this case.

IT IS NOT only by echoing that this piece proclaims its status as poetry, and thus requests a distinct mode of reading. It hovers throughout on the edge of a song-like condition, with the rhythmic evenness of lines 1-2, and a rather bumpy iambic couplet in lines 3-4. But in the rather strange figures of lines 5-6 it seems that a claimed attachment to song-poetry is followed by a claimed freedom from it. Those lines could be seen as attachments to a more modern poetical texture, marked by unexpected, and contracted figurations, here of hooves in mud, which is plain enough, but “squat under” is more or less impossible to envisage, and “for kindness” is very summary. This is where awkwardness intrudes itself into this song, though there is already a milder awkwardness in the echoes of Blake, Yeats and Bible twisted away from their original formulations. I take this change of direction to indicate a retreat from Biblical assurance and clarity to a defeated and uncomprehending condition begging kindness. There is possible reference to Blake’s illustrated page with cattle and sheep standing in water (do such creatures have “fetlocks”?).

But the final result of all this stress on an essentially poetical condition of the text, is the truth and welcome of the whole poem which the awkward intrusions strengthen by enacting the effort engaged in reaching such conditions. It is a personal poem lamenting the protagonist’s perceptual failure, a failure to understand experience. And it is absolutely this — the voice is distressed as hope of regaining a mature clarity is abandoned, without qualification. At the same time the author is clearly enjoying herself, and this shows above all in the echoes: the clod, the clay, the soil, peering, as it were, through the text from various remote places and forming lightly absurd miniatures in the margin of a ponderous Biblical declaration—these things enact a constant duality, even duplicity, in the poem which it is the reader’s task to recognise, especially the simultaneity of serious and light which leaves both factors intact. Even the first line, hardly echoic at all, imports a certain self-mockery traded against a serious apprehension of time having passed (and “as a lark” also means “as a piece of [possibly mischievous] fun”.) The reader’s acts of recognition (specific or not) enjoin a pleasure which is mixed but unmitigated. Both reactions, both readings, stand together in one.

There is a short poem which gives her own version of the need to prevent the song-like force from remaining intact and swamping the poem—

An awkward lyric

It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
The depth of its shame it starts singing
A hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.

The awkwardness of Riley’s awkward lyrics lies in refusing this compaction and breaking open the shell to admit what can become known, thus disturbing the reader’s dinner.

The awkwardness of the lyric described lies in its self-substantiality, it’s refusal to admit perceived difference into its shell, creating an inevitably enclosed space which in personal terms is self-regarding. This succeeds in terms of true musical (structural) consistency, but fails as it becomes the expert on itself, that is, regards principally the representation to the world of its own existence as an end in itself. The awkwardness of Riley’s awkward lyrics lies in refusing this compaction and breaking open the shell to admit what can become known, thus disturbing the reader’s dinner.[8. This clashes interestingly with the quasi-“Cambridge” belief, exemplified in Veronica Forrest Thompson’s recently reprinted Poetic Artifice (1978/2016), that poetry exists only for its own sake and validates its own structures rather than offering any perception or understanding of such entities as world, or life. The servants will do that for us.]

MOST, IF NOT ALL, of the poems in the book find their purpose in an understanding and accuracy concerning the sharing of experience while the world looks over your shoulder, whatever considerations of a more theoretical or academic kind might seem to be invited by them or involved in their making. They have, in fact, subjects, things not so commonly seen these days as they used to be, and a great range of subjects between personal and historical, but all drawn from experience. The subjects are approached in many different ways, in a range between markedly song-like at one extreme, and deliberative at the other without ever becoming prosaic. Awkwardness is a kind of passage between these states of the text, which are not equivalent to light and serious, for the most weighty subjects seem in fact to attract the most singing and dancing, though not necessarily formally. But however framed, the poem amounts, again and again, to a just account of shared experience.[9. I vividly remember a talk given by the poet and scholar Nigel Wheale in the course of an early manifestation of the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry about twenty years ago, in which he said that for him what her poetry was about, aside from its formal skills, was the principal events and conditions of human life as commonly understood, such as motherhood, bereavement, love, et cetera. This was met by the audience of “advanced” poets and literary academics with something like horror. People were speechless at the appalling suggestion that this new poetry could concern anything recognisable to the uninitiated citizen, and could only stutter a screech of “Rubbish!” without amplifying further.]

“Shared” here is a quality of poetry writing itself as it bears a constant awareness of the singular reader and the need to trust that person’s recognition and response. This is the force of the book’s title, which is quoted from W.S.Graham: “Do not think you have to say / Anything back. But you do / Say something back which I / Hear by the way I speak to you.” (“Implements in their Places”). Set (if it is) in the imperative mode the sentence might indicate a more demanding attitude towards the reader. This reciprocal structure is brought up several times in the book, as in the poem “Pythian” where the voice of the oracle shows impatience and makes emphatic demands in the quest for a substantial realisation of this condition: “…tell me. If it is through finding your listener that you’d come to grasp your own monologue, where next could this call turn…” As if in reaction to the endless evidence of misreadings which reduce the enterprise to the anecdotal self-presentation she proposes “…something more speaker-free. There was and there is a life, I swim in it, but I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly ‘mine’.” This represents a constant testing of the poetry against a sense of reality which is not a singular personal possession– “What purports to be “I” speaks back to me.” (Words for Selves, p.61). This seems to me to be the conclusion of the long tussle with “the expression by the poet of his own feelings” forced into contact with the awkwardness of the world.

THERE ARE THREE poem-sequences in the book, and the distribution of writing techniques among them is significant. The first, A Part Song (reviewed by me as a separate publication in 2014 here) is on the death of her son, a poetical essay on the unique experiences of bereavement. “The patient who had no insides” is an account of her experiences of illness and hospitalisation in five poems. “A gramophone on the subject” which was commissioned as a commemoration of the 1914-1918 European war, concerns the aftermath of the war and is about false healing, or how the illusions of mass comfort cannot balance the realities of mass damage. Public acts and slogans are set against realities, the lists of names in stone in vast cemeteries set against the work of the squads sent back to the trenches to dig up “bodies” for this purpose—

Exhumation squads dug to unearth them
In bits that got dropped in cloth bags
While one man stood by with his notebook
Recording all readable tags.

Comforting slogans suggesting that the dead soldier is in various ways ‘here’, somewhere, intact, named, commemorated, laid to rest, subsumed into the singular “Unknown Soldier”, are all undermined. “Tucked in where they fell” begins—

‘Tucked in’ is not quite how we’ d put it.
We weren’t plumped up neatly in bed.
If you ‘fell’ as one piece you were lucky,
Not dismembered before you were dead.

We wore dog-tags of vulcanised fibre
But those need their dog to stay whole
Or to keep enough bone to be tied on
Not be draped off some tree in a scroll.

Most of these poems are in quatrains of three-beat lines rhymed ABCB which I think she is right in identifying as a typical music-hall song format. (The first and third lines sometimes seem longer but this is music-hall patter rather rather than an extra beat.) She says, “My speakers offer their own laconic thoughts on this matter of names without bodies, bodies without names”. The end of “Tucked in where they fell” extends this laconism to macabre comedy:

So we’ve formed our heavenly choir
Composed of our melded limbs.
Each voices his part in the singing.
We can’t disentangle our hymns.

We get noisy as larks in the sunshine.
Your leg’s with his head over there.
My fist’s stuck upright from a dugout
And it’s clutching a hank of his hair.

This travesty seems to be where the meticulous, studied pursuit of small-song-like poetry leads us. Yet the same format, and the same measure without rhyme, is used elsewhere (twice in Part Song) for more serious items, but normally, I think, with at least a touch of tongue-in-cheek in adopting and disowning a somewhat extreme pose (Part Song xv, but not the final poem of the set.) But the music-hall-poems about the war are serious. They are concerned with people’s blank bewilderment at acute loss shared so extensively as to be incomprehensible, enduring a chaos of brokenness and seeking any tokens of wholeness against it. The songs don’t lose this seriousness by being laconic and formally banal, and indeed the sequence of songs leads in the end to a final poem which is a straight and moving elegiac monologue recasting the whole theatre into dignified speech, declaring the unhealable in the common tongue. I think this is one of the few poems in the book entirely without awkwardness. The others of this set defiantly insist on a voice most awkwardly refusing the manufactured pastoral dream of death by pointing to death’s starkest physical evidence of bodily disintegration, and refusing the metaphors of succession. The simultaneity here which does not blend contraries such as comic/serious, but retains them as independent pillars of support to the discourse, seems to be a thing that is less and less understood. But it is simple, and perhaps something that poetry can do well because of its particularly physical confrontation with the singular reader within an essentially pluralist mode.

IT’S NOTEWORTHY THAT “I am a gramophone on the subjectfaces the horrors of that war obliquely and without rancour, not distancing from them but needing to understand the devastation through the ultimate absurdities of the national and official terms of aftermath, which attempt to reduce mass-death to a village funeral. The resulting incongruity is a signal feature of her poetry in this book, though often smoothly integrated. It may be seen as an acceptance of the poet’s duty to entertain and delight whatever the subject, so that the lament is spiced with alluring harmonies (as they often are) or enacts memories of dance (as they often do) in poetical measures, but it is also a running campaign against guilt, guilt wrung out of the poet and guilt thrust into the heart of the reader.

“The patient with no insides” is a set of five poems following her experience of severe illness and hospitalization. There are no song devices in it at all, no end-rhyme, internal rhyme, metre, patterns of assonance… It is a spoken monologue offering thought, description and event, arranged in groups of three lines, the spoken syntax of which tends to cut across this lineation. But it is unmistakeably poetry. It looks like poetry. It’s in equal stanzas; the lines look as if they’re metrical; above all there is a poise and “measure” in the speaking voice, a calm, sustained, and dignified tone to it, its periods somehow echoic of the ancestral line. It still bears signs of derivation from song and if spoken aloud it could only be mistaken for prose if the speaker forced it to be. More interesting than any of this is the nature of its substance. It describes and tracks in thought the “insides” about which the patient is understandably concerned, detailing the colours and shapes and character of intestines, liver, pancreas…

I’ d glimpsed the radiographer’s dark film, starring
Barium-whitened swags of colon, mine. Blown glass,

Hooped entrails ridged with their glazed diverticules
Like little suckers studded plumply on squid tentacles
Of my intestines.

This is awkwardly unpoetical material! There is other material in the set, including a doctor’s concerns about funding, but the poetry passes through it all unperturbed, musical, resigned, and obviously taking a kind of wicked pleasure in the reader’s dubious relish of these internal travelogues, shielded from disgust by modulation and cadence—musical terms—and by the authenticity of the narrative. Neither are the author’s innards symbolised as the source of “vitalist” energy, the inner heat and flux, the dark forces which in certain philosophies are favoured over the cold, hard intellectuality of the exterior, bone, and sight.[10. See The Words of Selves p.45, quoting Wyndham Lewis.] Again it is not a contradiction and not a merging of diverse effects, but everything remains awkwardly sheer and unmitigated. Among all the hospital or operation poems that might occur to you this one, you could say, gets to the real business of it.

Having previously described A Part Song, I shan’t repeat the exercise here, but in connection with my thesis here I will point out that its title designates it as a “song” while only four of its twenty poems are in lyric metre, most of the rest being the kind of deliberative poetical discourse marked by clarity and passionate questioning that we would expect from her. Also that the set begins in its first line by challenging the purpose of “song”—

You principle of song, what are you for now?

…“now” being of course, following the death of her son. By “principle of song” I take her to mean the doubling of substance which I have been considering, the refusal to let the poetry entirely inhabit the condition of its subject but to keep it apart, a contrastive substance which could even postulate happiness in sorrow, in spite of the fact that there is actually no foreseeable lightening ahead. And by “song” she obviously means poetry. This challenge to song runs through the sequence but song emerges in the end as the trophy itself, in what I previously called “the final Shakespearean underwater song at which the voice is passed back, and the dead boy sings the answer to all this suspension and yearning…” The bones of strife, you could say, become coral.

I THINK THAT probably all the poems in this book show Riley taking care to achieve the full action of poetical writing—it has become second nature to her. And it is a matter of tone rather than semantic play, though semantic awkwardness is rarely entirely absent. There is plenty of figuration but metaphor and simile are used for precision rather than amplification, and there is particularly no tone of appeal for sympathy through subjectivity. The poems depend principally on significant moments of her life, outwardly serious or light, wistful or forthright, reticent or fulsome, and if these contraries are brought together in one it is done in poetry’s terms rather than mechanically or rhetorically—it is done through the resources of poetical language.

There is a lot about loss, especially of persons. When the term used is “death” it is sometimes literal, concerning the death of her son, sometimes metaphorical concerning other kinds of irreparable loss, occasionally hovering among these possibilities. It feels strange, viewing many of these perfectly serious and direct poems, and especially A Part Song, to even think of using terms such as pleasure, light, comedy, play, tongue-in-cheek, entertaining, enjoyment, absurd… But in fact A Part Song is stuffed full of such qualities, all the more firmly securing the faithful transmission of devastating sorrow. This could be seen as a fidelity to the experience itself, a representation of the self-contradicting condition of bereavement, the knowing pretences you enact, as shown in several poems of the set, and the contradiction of living outside time when you know you are within it, which is detailed in Time Lived, Without its Flow, her essay on this bereavement published in 2012. But perhaps it is a condition of poetry itself, which will never be entirely serious, the singing which so eloquently dismisses song in the middle of the song–

Let no air now be sung, let no kind air

and carries on singing.

Riley’s songs are never melancholy in this way: the sadness, however strong it might be, is there for a specific reason…

Even when a true song-like poetry with ancestral resonance and cadential tones of sorrow is reached, as here, it stands in sharp contrast to such confections as, for instance, W.H. Auden’s very well known “As I walked out one evening” (No.17 of Poems 1936-1939) which could be said to epitomise the dominant tone of English melancholic poetry through most of the twentieth century, using the format of an invented replica folk-ballad (the ubiquitous ABCB again, in three-beat lines; the more normal ballad format is alternating four- and three-beat lines) to achieve an anodyne tone of total hopelessness and decadence. Riley’s songs are never melancholy in this way: the sadness, however strong it might be, is there for a specific reason, a personal bereavement, an interpersonal break-up, a serious illness, a horrific war. Like many of my generation I was introduced to the Auden mock-song while still at school and found it very attractive. It was certainly one of the pieces which (with the help of T.S.Eliot) convinced me that poetry is a basically depressing thing; it concerns middle-aged men (also ladies, bank clerks, aristocrats etc.) who have failed to achieve anything in their lives and view themselves in various mirrors with resigned despair, and if you want to get on in poetry you must at least approximate it. Riley’s “An awkward lyric” could be the perfect gloss on it. This depression is also, in Auden, a condition of the whole society in a way which is not analysed but enforced through images, poetry’s cheating instruments. And it is in parts quite nasty (‘You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart”). This tone was very prevalent in England for a long time and is still lurking around in some very successful quarters. Riley’s songs, sung on the most serious and heavy of occasions, offer the brightness of the singing voice worked into extended thoughtfulness as much as into the Fool’s mockery of received versions of existence.

I HAVE NOW missed three opportunities to end this review with a rhetorically effective conclusion, and I still go on. Whatever you say about Riley’s poetry, I find there is always more that you haven’t said; there are other things which you haven’t accounted for. This is inevitable with any poet, but I am particularly nagged by a number of short poems in the book which I am unable to get my head round, and cannot recognise their subjects or the degrees of figuration or the final message of the various factors. The most awkward poem I can find is this one:

With Child in mind

And when he came to the
Broad river, he took off
His coat and swam. There
Were reed beds, whistling.

Smoke. Burning somewhere
On the rainy wind, far
Along the sobbing wind.
Get away with you now.

Perhaps I am being particularly dumb. It should be all right. There is compacted reference to a half-recognised story of the lover desperate to reach his love’s house (if I get it right) and in lines 3 to 7 a mid-story stasis suspending the action in a river scene rich in loneliness and longing, elegantly marked with sparse, displaced rhyme, and involving the abandonment and regaining in a few lines of a cross-line ballad rhythm. So far, a condition of suspended loss or uncertainty with matching off-season setting.

FJ childBut what about the fifth letter of the title? It is not normal in this book to use upper-case initial for any common noun in a title, so I am urged to read “Child” as a proper noun, which has to be the only one I know, Francis James Child, the great Victorian ballad collector. The start of the poem is then immediately reminiscent of the ballad “The Mother’s Malison, or, Clyde’s Water” which Child collected, except that that’s not what happens in the ballad, where the lover’s fatal attempt to ford the swollen river is on horseback, in all versions. And then there is the last line, which seems to dismiss love or author or somebody else or everybody in a completely changed tone, as a fond mother to her child, and means “Don’t be silly”. We are no doubt all silly when it comes to heroic lovers plunging into the separating waters, Clyde or Hellespont, and we are rightly told so here, and free to ignore the reprimand. The unanswered question is, is all this really, authorially, there, or did I dream it out of what I misheard?

But the picture remains, and there is a lot lined up off-stage ready to be read into it, especially the possible relevance of the submerged title “The Mother’s Curse” in the light of several other of her poems, at least three of which are in this book (“Oh go away for now”, “There aren’t any stories”, and “’When we cry to thee’”) but none of them in a straightforward way. I think that a poem like this will be willing to await our determination for ever.

“Maybe; maybe not”, as she herself says elsewhere. I find the whole thing utterly engaging.


duenorth_covFortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.

NOTES:

2 Comments

  1. KMS wrote:

    Wonderful review of a wonderful book.

    I think the Child-collected ballad alluded to is ‘Matty Groves’: in the Fairport Convention version, the swimmer across the river (“and when he came to the broad mill stream / he took off his shoes and swam”) is a servant heading off to inform ‘Lord Donnell’ of the imminent tryst between the eponymous Matty and Lady Donnell. The tale’s roots seem to reach right back to of Gawain and the Green Knight. Also known as ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard’.

    Monday, 3 October 2016 at 19:34 | Permalink
  2. Peter Riley wrote:

    Yes I’m sure that’s right about “Little Musgrave” (Matty Groves). So it’s the approach of death and disaster rather than a lover striving to reach his love. A lot of new implications must crop up, which I leave to the bright reader. Thanks for commenting.

    Wednesday, 19 October 2016 at 21:07 | Permalink

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