By PETER RILEY
But that the buds are opening and it’s Easter, xxxxxxxxxxxx.1.
A fresh grave, flower-covered; a pheasant gravely
Watches, dressed in the same colours
The wind somewhat fresh and the beer good, xxxxxxxxxxxxx2.
The moon leaves the hills for her own journey,
Leaves them dark, laying trails on the water
xxxxxxxxWent wide in the world but it is here xxxxxxxxxxxx3.
xxxxxxxxWent wide in the world and it is here
xxxxxxxxEmpires find form as readily as man, and lose
xxxxxxxxAs painfully, without the rights of a blade of grass
xxxxxxxxWhat dance will you dance and fall to?
Bound by the curvature of space xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx4.
But to graphs of space – to what else?
I see very little through the window : xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.xxx5.
The reflection of this room in glass, and street lights
What I hear is perhaps xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.xx.x6.
A dog and the wind. It could be more.
Perhaps also the blacker branches of trees cutting the sky. xx.x7.
JOHN RILEY, who I knew intermittently from the late 1960s until his death in 1978, has recently and rather suddenly become an “inexplicably neglected” poet rediscovered and promoted to an acceptance which verges on popularity. He is, for instance, included in Deaths of the Poets by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2017), a book of monumental dilettante poetical culture if ever there was one, most of which is a tourist guide to the death-places of all the accepted British and American (USA) poets of the twentieth century (W.S. Graham, for instance, is not sufficiently accepted for inclusion, nor is Sorley MacLean, nor any other Scottish poet).
I don’t in any way regret this exhumation; it corrects a serious error of memory in the dispersed and numinous mind of the “poetry audience” and demands respect for ways of writing poetry which are vulnerable to populist disdain. But I am at times somewhat worried that the implied description of John Riley’s poetry may not be entirely accurate, or at least not account for the ranges of poetical language he deployed, or simply that the very atmosphere of rediscovery and incorporation into the “enduring tradition of English poetry” (of which there is only ever one on these occasions) leaves us with a standard and entirely unproblematic reading experience. That is, readers might be tempted to read him as he is supposed to be read, as so many accepted poets are.
I therefore wanted to look in detail at what was actually happening in a John Riley poem, without any developmental or contextual narrative concerning his work or anything else, and to steer clear of generalities and automative associations (such as that to some people any mid-twentieth-century English poet worth reading has to be “not unlike Larkin” in the last analysis, however distant he or she may in fact be from the Emperor of Hull). To look, then, at what the language is doing in a John Riley poem.
“But that the buds…” is one of the last poems in his fourth book, Ways of Approaching, written about 1972-3, and would have been mid-career if he had survived to a reasonable old age. It has no title. For ease of reference I have numbered the little sections 1 to 7. These numbers are not present in the original.
1. THE POEM STARTS mid-sentence with a response, a converse: “But that”, which casts all that follows except §3-4 as an exception to an unstated condition. We can connect this condition with “A fresh grave”, or even assume the poet to be attending a funeral, but there is no firm justification for doing either of these. Something has happened or the poet has thought something which requires this healing recourse: the spring and the Easter of deliverance. Riley does on other occasions seem to present a scene or context for a poem which when you look again is not there; we have perceived items (grave, pheasant etc.) without occasion, and this prevents the response to the poem from being rationalised and delimited by a particular event, and so from the start the scope of the poem is open to a far greater possibility. If we had supposed a funeral everything mentioned would be at once explained and coloured by that fact. This is detail without generality, naked detail as it were, standing only for itself, controlled by an undisclosed emotion but held by the verse in a sense of suspended tension. The tone is probably “at least we have this”.
The recompense, that but for which there might be nothing at all, is a lyrical-pastoral mental/poetical zone which is unified by the poetical technique as much as the concentration of detail. A firm rhythm is established which carries the poem through a sequence of items — grave, flowers (dead), spring growth, pheasant, pheasant’s flower-colours (alive). These items constitute a small lyrical process, tied together by the echo of “grave” and “gravely”. But we absolutely cannot at this point know that Riley attached special importance to Easter as a Christian believer in the possibility of resurrection. There is a sense of hope here but it rests delicately on spring renewal and its official calendrical confirmation. “Easter” is another detail, along with flower and pheasant. There is or there is not in the flower-covered grave and the pheasant “dressed in the same colours” a suggestion of both as created things, as the “work of hands”. But any theological sense of creation is strictly dormant.
I find the rhythm of the lines very interesting throughout the poem, and the best way to describe what happens is to point to initial consonants which measure out the rhythm, with a flowing scatter of syllables between them, as the principle enforcement of the poem’s rhythmic structure. I find these consonants more instrumental here than the vowels which surround them, and the effect more what is called a sprung metre, than of measured poetical feet; it is also more primitive. The opening B-B but for the buds perhaps initiates the process but a full rhythmic impetus is given in the second line: F-G, F-C, F-G A fresh grave, flower-covered; a pheasant gravely… The technique used here recurs intermittently through the poem. It is as if the poet is chanting a steady movement across a scene containing opposed features, creating a trance-like poetical texture.
2. THE POEM MAINTAINS its contours, stays in its space, doesn’t transgress the edges of the little sections. The lines are not measured but stay around ten syllables and have an even, walking kind of movement to them (andante) confirmed or given further impetus by the reappearance of the rhythmic stress technique, in line 6: L-D, L-T. The impulsion sags and then revives, but always calm and steady. One of the details (beer) is less elemental (pastoral) than the others, has a stronger sense of the particular, but all the elements (wind, beer, moon etc.) remain items of recompense. The placing of images in the steady calm rhythm is so tentative and the sense of suspension so insistent that we know that something is wrong but we don’t know what. That is to say that the first two words of the poem remain with us. Some might find a sense of threat in the two lines about the moon, perhaps a fearful or apprehensive hint of departure (departure from the occasion, or trance, or life, or belief…) as the moon floats off from the earth into the darkening sky, leaving behind a trace, without durability (lines in water). This is a valid response, and yet it is a natural phenomenon set before us in the same tone as all the other images.
This lyrical performance overlays and supports a scenario of simple and static items moving slowly to towards indicating a place. The action is simply of being there and noting the properties but with overtones of yearning. It is difficult to say how the poem gains this kind of sadness to it when it says nothing on the subject, indicates no personal feeling, and supplies no occasion of regret. Perhaps it invokes the whole history of English elegiac poetry, for in spite of the lack of contextualisation the lines have a quite traditional feel to them. Or perhaps the sparseness, the contemplative lack of action, in itself evokes the elegiac tone.
5-6. IF WE SKIP sections §3-4 (to return to them later) we find in §5-6 the poem steadily enumerating as before, the same tune taken up, but with a difference. The language has changed. It has become more prose-like with an increase in unaccented syllables. It is no longer lilting, still very much trance but in a different tone. It is still calm and small-scale, but comparatively bare. Fewer images occur and those that do are lacking in colour or pastoral extent. Night, a room and a window, is all. Here “I” enters, who was never far away but is now identified as speaker, author, alone. There is no sense of discovery now (mild as it was), nothing is “good”, everything is neutral. The organs of perception are no longer scanning the world, they have entered their own journey or dug their own grave. Whatever went on in §3-4, the discourse continues as if in the footsteps of a much older figure, or the voice has passed though something, an ordeal, a vast apprehension or something, which is chastening.
3. THE THIRD SECTION is a quite violent intrusion into the poem of a different kind of writing. Being inset itself marks it as something from elsewhere, like a section of a different poem with its own margin which has been lurking behind the main text. It is suddenly loud, suddenly broken, suddenly immensely greater in scope, suddenly difficult. It is a passionate and barely coherent outburst in the middle of a quietly murmured country sleep. The scan of the poem, what it looks at, suddenly bursts out of some village somewhere into the world at large, expressed as facing contradiction and historical loss and failure. It is the intrusion from nowhere or everywhere of a greatly extended sense of loss, loss of calm, loss of the particular, loss of belonging, loss of the comprehensible. It is a sudden leap into a discourse of immense size but broken, destroyed. You could say it retains a sense of yearning, but the yearning is for something infinitely greater. The lyrical tone is dropped in favour of quick rapping hammer-blows followed by insistent and emphatic address. And to turn everything upside-down, the steadily marked consonantal pacing turns into a cluster of the semi-consonants W-W-W-H, immediately repeated.
What can we do with this? What “went” but is “here”? Why is it said twice? What difference is made by the change from “but” to “and”? The poet doesn’t say, and we would have to supply the answer to these questions ourselves. Human attention or thought, you could say, mine or the world’s, “went wide in the world”, which is the very antithesis of the country-graveyard location, but it ends up “here” (in the graveyard?). And it immediately happens again with a slight modulation from “but” (regretful? failure?) to “and” (as expected? of course? ). But this depends anyway on “here” being precisely the grave(yard), which it may not be. The outburst/extension of attention, it is made clear, is to “Empires” and so not to a modern definition of large-scale events or politics, but to a history, and one which has failed, lost its form, for there is no security to be found in them. Loss of form is death, which becomes here a fate uniting the singular person and “Empires”.
But then we are asked what “dance” we will dance, “and fall to”. This is a particularly challenging and resonant line, as it defines the crux of a life as depending on a decision, whether to enter a dance, and which (the dance of empire or the dance of the country churchyard?). But whichever “dance” you “enter” you ”fall to” it. This is particularly ambiguous because as well as collapse of some kind the verbal phrase “fall to” means to join in, especially to start eating an offered meal, and I can’t be sure that this is acknowledged.
Faced with this kind of challenge one tends to adopt strategies. Mine was to abandon my rule of knowing nothing about John Riley and to read §3 as a reference to the fall of Constantinople, 500 years ago and still lamented in Greek villages (sung laments mostly in dance rhythms) and no doubt in Orthodox literature too, as the end of Christianity’s hopes of becoming a global order, and the focus of an east-west hostility which of course is still with us. John Riley was always concerned about religion and was entered into the Orthodox Church in 1976. If you want to bring the poem entirely down to the biographical you could see the worry which permeates it as his doubts and anguish before making this commitment, but that is a guess. Certainly the Orthodox, or any other, church or major belief “went wide in the world” and (or but) is still here. In the end I prefer the poem not to be conceived thus but that’s my decision.
This outburst could represent what is set aside of John Riley’s poetry if he is to be re-defined as a standard, accepted poet, “not unlike Larkin”. Indeed the determination not to be “like Larkin” could be one motivation for the risks taken in episodes such as this. We could bear in mind that three pages before this poem in Ways of Approaching is the poem “in memoriam Charles Olson”. Both it and §3 could be said to be “not unlike Olson”. What interested Riley in Olson was the use of disturbed language to affect an enlarged scope, reaching the world itself, into which the reader is drawn (or at which the reader is challenged) by the natural need to “mend” the linguistic damage, which forces the reader to construct a sense. I don’t myself find this at all helpful, nor the need for it justified by the implied world view, and could almost wish Riley had not chosen, in his later writings, to fall to this particular dance.
Advice to the perplexed concerning this kind of writing, as it occurs in John Riley’s work, which it does quite a lot, though not in such distinct episodes as §3, could be quite straightforward. I’d suggest that the tenor and allure of the whole poem or the whole enterprise encourages you to read such a passage in a spirit of acceptance, to “give yourself” to it and choose to believe it (or dance it). It is perfectly clear what §3 is doing and perhaps the unfulfilled articulation can be experienced as integral to the message, the desperate reach out to a global comprehension which is not actually possible. You place your trust in Empires but Empires prove as ephemeral as a blade of grass. John Riley in fact did place his trust in such structures, and this does account not only for his adhesion to the Orthodox Church and his insistence on “projective” tics (such as the strange punctuation of his last works) but also his distinctly right-wing politics, fortunately not explicitly stated in his poetry.
4. THESE TWO PARTICULARLY interesting lines somehow return the poem to where it was, as they return to the left-hand margin. The absence of specifying agents makes these probably the most difficult lines in the poem. Who or what is bound? Why “but”? What are “graphs of space” and how is [something] “bound” to them and what “else” could or should he she or it be bound to? Again there are no answers, but there is an action, a movement. Grammatically, “Bound” could attach to “trails in the water” before the inset, or the “you” of the preceding line. Both make sense. The curvature of space is what produces gravitation, which the water is bound to but not (as it seems) the moon, and which makes the dance possible. We are returning to the earth from a flight into Empires. We are bound to do this, bound by gravity, which is what prevents the moon from floating away freely. But then we are bound to “graphs of space”, which I take to be human creations (such as poems) which seek to graph or map our position with regard to space. This is a guess. §3-4 are particularly difficult and seem to me to represent a kind of cosmic panic, or at least the sudden realisation of severe alienation from the confining terms of the human and earthly condition including its commonality. A frightening invasion of vastness and emptiness (space, formless Empires) which creates questions, about what we should commit ourselves to (what dance) and what alternatives there may be (what else). The rest of the poem is the result of this drastic excursion and possibly, in some ways, the recovery from it.
5-7. AFTER ALL THAT world, Empire and space, “I see very little”. I do not even see where I am or with what forms I share it. I see only the reflection of myself created by exterior darkness. The author, the pronoun “I” newly admitted to the action following an attempt to address a total “you”, is in a room at night, stripped of thought and image, large or small, reduced to three or four percepts, two of them prefaced by “perhaps”. Also stripped of poetry: the lines of §5-6 are simply prosaic. But the last line, §7, with perhaps a faint pre-echo in the preceding line, could represent a recovery of poetry (or the wish for one) in the renewed rhythmic marking by consonants: P-a-B-B-T-C-S. In fact the line is a passable heptameter.
The last five lines are beautifully conceived and positioned. By the renewal in them of simple enumeration, there is a movement from an enclosed and reflexive prosaic stasis, just finding yourself somewhere (§5), into three short phrases (§6) in which the entire drama of perception and extent is reduced to slightness and uncertainty, a percept which is also an unanswered question, a suspended condition, an empty kind of trance. Then (§7) what could be seen as a last bid for poetry or the attempt to regenerate it, in a much longer line, an expenditure of breath the imagery of which regains the exterior and the sky, which is as-if cut up into segments by the branches blacker (even) than the sky itself. And which regains the sense of movement marked by hard consonants. Possibly a gesture of acceptance, by nothing other than a simple image, of the new blindness of human perception which is felt as an expansion of being by no more than poetical rhythm.
I think it’s important to emphasise the emotional neutrality of these last lines. It would be too easy to read them as simply the depressed nadir of the swings of emotion through the poem. They are not necessarily bleak, and they are not Beckettian. The central phrase, “It could be more” is held ambiguously between hope and despair, and hope is stronger in the last line just as the negative effects in it – blacker – cutting – are felt as a regaining of verbal strength. In these lines it is as if a chastening has taken place — as if, even, the crime of aspiration lands him in a prison or monastic cell — but also, by stripping down to a neutral nil and raising the head, a beginning.
Peter 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.
This is one of 21 transcripts of lectures to be included in The Kava Poetry Lectures (The High Window Press, Spring, 2018) edited by Anthony Costello. It was first delivered at the English Faculty, University of Leeds, in February 2017, at the launch of John Riley’s Selected Poems, convened by Ian Duhig and Helen Mort.
The poem “But that the buds are opening…” has been published as follows:
John Riley, Ways of Approaching. Grosseteste Press 1973
John Riley, The Collected Works edited by Tim Longville. Grosseteste Press 1980
John Riley, Selected Poetry and Prose edited by Ian Brinton. Shearsman Books 2016.
© The Syndics of Cambridge University Library 2016.