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Index: Poetry Notes


The apophatic poetry of André du Bouchet.

Peter Riley: ”Modernist’ seems a good category for du Bouchet, placing him in such wildly disparate company as Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Paul Celan and many others, all arguably united in spite of everything, by some kind of prioritising of the word which disrupts articulation. The main trouble is that that prioritisation is taken as more than descriptive but also prescriptive, and poets not committed to it wholeheartedly become ‘compromised.’

Christopher Middleton.

Peter Riley: ‘The consistency of [Christopher Middleton’s] work over some seventy years of writing is a sign of a firm sense of purpose, a purpose for poetry in the individual mind which is against harm, and proposes the stabilisation of the tottering edifice by moving a rational, unified discourse into a multiplied one for its truth to experience, which is then entitled to declare its position. It remains a question and a hope…’

Northern poetry: From on high and from the tall grass.

Peter Riley: With Motion and Armitage, ‘We are really among the high-flyers…the rich and powerful of the poetry world, who preside over us from on high, secure in their top jobs, everywhere honoured and praised. There are not many of them — a dozen or so — and their careers are all much the same, though they do not all get the laureateship. Very few outside this elite bunch would ever have one of their poems mounted on the side of a building or engraved on a moorland boulder — it is a sign of their exceptional status…’

Poets once young — with books received.

Peter Riley: ‘Interviewed in 2008, Harwood said, “I think in your early work you have this drive and confidence, and then later on you’re looking more carefully, possibly, to get the words right, not to allow any foolishness, to make it just right — fine tuned.” This quality is present in the precariousness of his tentative scenes at the same time as the sense of an old and practised hand at work.’

Poetry from sleety Wereldesend.

Peter Riley: ‘It might seem silly to engage in a comparison of Bugan and Lehóczky. It is certainly silly to consider them incompatible, as if you must choose one or the other. “Carillonneur” and “The House of Straw” are outwardly polar, but prolonged over-exposure to either book could make you long for the other. I’d insist in principle that in the end it is shared techniques of the poetical craft that secure the validity of both performances. ‘

The French pastoral enterprise.

Peter Riley: Modern French pastoral poets ‘represent a turning away from the unsettled atmosphere of Paris and in their lives and work there is a sense of creating a space aside from a lot of the harsher and more public events in the world, of being free to pursue personal and landscape meditations in peace. This is not to say that the poetry is placid or complacent, but the violence and anguish it reaches come from within, or if from the world indirectly, mediated by immediate individual perception, and the vocabulary rarely extends far beyond landscape, art, and general ponderings.’

Poetry south of the Antilles.

Peter Riley: In surveying Caribbean poets, ‘There is a confidence of audience, a loss of psychological worry, political panic is replaced by political problems, and there is a sense of rich cultural resources across a wide range from village tales to contemporary poetry techniques.’

Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s supra-theoretical poetry.

Peter Riley: ‘It is hardly necessary to know when faced with Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s poetry what her theory is; it is enough to know that there is a thesis which to a greater or lesser extent determines the course of the poem and that the poems were conceived in accordance with the thesis and in some cases as a demonstration of it. Faced with the strangely contorted saying of her poems it is either a comfort or an irritation to know that there is a reason for it, even if you don’t know what the reason is. But it is also a relief to find that at least sometimes the poem gathers its own strength together to the extent that all thought of a thesis is dismissed.’

The God of Robert Duncan.

Peter Riley: How should I, or Duncan, or anyone, know whether all of creation is one act, or whether Osiris “is” Christ or Christ “is” H.D.? I think it has to be recognised that Duncan was carving out a quite narrow path for himself, but doing it with such ambition and fervour that it took on the trappings of an entire world catalogue, while periodically insisting himself that they were trappings and that the heart of the matter was the poet “making things up”.

Lyric, anti-lyric, and political poetry.

Peter Riley: ‘Being influenced responsibly by Prynne means at least two things, and the principal one is that you are made to think seriously and critically about the cultural condition you inhabit, which you probably reject as entirely corrupt and derelict. [Anthony] Mellors sometimes takes on even the lesser details of the polemic, such as the idea that to seek to get anything at a bargain price is reprehensible, which has always baffled me, perhaps because I do it all the time. ‘

Poetry of the second person.

Peter Riley: ‘I think Peter Robinson and John Welsh have quite a lot in common, but handle it differently. With Welch again the reader more-or-less inhabits the poet, and within that persona is led through a lot of streets, rooms, hospitals and cemeteries, always with a problem in mind, a melancholy or a lingering dissatisfaction, a need for resolution, suffering from an “enormous pointlessness”. But we are led further, into different places: an art gallery, the inside of a book, a performance of Hamlet aboard a ship off Sierra Leone in 1607, an Asian estate in East London… and sometimes nowhere in particular. So we do not always know where we are, and do not always need to because some poems are securely based in a conceptual focus, and sometimes we do know, except that bits of the poem escape from time to time into some unknown language laboratory, but this happens less and less these days.’

Martin Harrison: ‘pastoral’ without shrubs.

Peter Riley: ‘Martin Harrison’s poems are brilliant and remarkable meditations on moments of perception (or clusters of such moments) most of which take place in the Australian countryside, presumably the “orchard and vine-growing area” in which an earlier blurb says he lives for half the year. The poems have starting-points which are experiences rather than scenes – being somewhere and looking at something, often in a stillness such as dawn, often with a sense of solitude.’

Narrative poetry.

Peter Riley: ‘I suppose the writing of narrative poetry became a lost art around 1925-1935, last seen from such poets as Yeats, John Masefield, Lawrence Binyon, E.A. Robinson and Robinson Jeffers. That is, real narrative poetry in the tradition filtered down from Homer, and not including accounts of personal experience, transcended or symbolised or interior narratives, anecdotal verse such as Edgar Lee Masters and Osbert Sitwell wrote, or very long poems from Scotland saying what’s wrong with the world.’

Summer’s end 2013: brief notices.

Peter Riley: ‘To subject a book this size to a “brief mention” must be the most absurd or impertinent act I have performed for some time. There is 45 years of Michael Heller’s work here which I can hardly hope to characterise in a few words. But it is an open, vastly expansive enterprise, ranging widely over world and experience, formally free, working out painstakingly the implications for self and humanity of a mass of places, ideas, books, art and what-have-you.’


Peter Riley: ‘All of the blurbs on these books include the word “funny”. My own preferred word would be “zippy”.’