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Index: Poetry Notes


Vahni Capildeo.

Peter Riley: ‘Vahni Capildeo’s contrariety is an exemplary way of coping with a cultural condition which seeks to package and label experience according to unsubtle and restrictive categories. She simply says “Yes No” to it, and in the process, with the help of her multicultural resources, produces poems and prose of expansive eloquence and sometimes challenging complexity, which insist on the multi-form, Protean status of the lived realities, as well as the bare paradox-songs and stories…’

The little boxes of David Gascoyne.

Peter Riley: ‘Gascoyne’s modernity rests mainly on rhetorical gestures inherited from the nineteenth century. For all the outlandish figuration he never ventured into the linguistic basis of the act, never regarded the machinery of transmission. This would not necessarily have meant falling into a wilful avant-garde inchoation but could have meant the cultivation of a stronger lyrical tension in such matters as lineation and sound-values. Basically, the structure of language stayed as it was: both surrealism and the prophetic urge forbade its disruption; it was needed in its stable form to connect the wild or monumental substantives into a discourse.’

Poets, calm.

Peter Riley: ‘ I don’t just mean placid, gentle or any suchlike gloss. It’s possible to speak of a mental calm in the act of composition which opens the mind to progressive thought and enlarges its resources by overcoming the inhibitions created by anxiety. It’s a quality of the text rather than the author, though I think certain mental habits must be conducive to it. It’s not by any means incompatible with protest or even anger. This definition will not be found in any dictionary and I might have invented it, but the word “serene” could hold some hint of it.’

Poets, angry.

Peter Riley: ‘Always someone is under attack and the difficulty is in identifying him (usually a he) in any way operable in the real world. The masked personae and the strong tone of blame inevitably make the reader feel that it is himself (or even herself) who is to blame, along with everyone else. But if we accept that blame, as we perhaps should, we still don’t see a way out of it…’

Retrospectives 1: Thomas, Moore, and Craig.

Peter Riley: ‘In most critical accounts of English poetry, the period called “the 1940s” has for a long time been considered a disaster. The conventional history is that all was going well enough with Auden, Spender, Day Lewis et al., and suddenly under the cover of war a race of demented poets were let loose who produced incomprehensible ravings which cannot be taken seriously for a moment. In fact the 1940s was not a disaster zone for poetry, it was a disaster zone for criticism, which was caused initially by moves in academia, especially Cambridge, to apply the established forensic expertise in locating literary frauds through the centuries to current production, thus assuming the right to intervene, with praise and blame as appropriate, in the production and reception of new poetry.’

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. ‘