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Cluster index: Peter Riley

Anthony Mellors, Peter Philpott, and the poetry of rebellion.

Peter Riley: ‘I think that quite a few people will still remember Seamus Heaney’s appearance at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1977, in which he read to a large audience as the last of three poets, preceded by Allen Fisher and Lee Harwood. He mounted the podium and began by announcing, “Now we’ll get back to the true tradition of British poetry.” At this distance it is impossible to be sure of the exact wording, whether he said “true” or “real”, “British” or “English”. I don’t cite Heaney here as a criticism of his poetry, which is not relevant. But since some of the commentary now goes so far beyond the literary as to elevate him to the status of some kind of saint, this example of gross bad manners in insulting both a fellow-reader and the organisers at a large-scale public event, and the evident smug self-satisfaction with which it was conducted (I was there at the time) could be borne in mind where appropriate. He went on to read some Wordsworth.

On a poem by John Riley.

Peter Riley: ‘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.’

Pierre Reverdy’s ‘non-novel’.

Peter Riley: ‘The uncertainty between poetry and prose in the early works makes sense when you realise that the fully poetical writing he first reached, principally in The Thief… itself, is basically in prose. That is to say that however much disjuncture there may be among the little separate pieces of language which float around the page, each piece is itself written in perfectly normal syntax, in sentences or parts thereof, in which the parts of speech maintain their proper functions. ‘

The ‘watery business’ of Matthew Clegg and Fay Musselwhite.

Peter Riley: ‘We remain knowing where we are and what is happening while the linguistic medium twists and treks through a fairground of figures and glosses and verbal diversions which may derive from the story directly as metaphors, or indirectly as ornaments, or sometimes apparently not at all.’

Angela Leighton and Geraldine Monk.

Peter Riley: ‘This is a stodgy review of a book interested in language as sparkling, sturdy, personal-political, risk-taking, modern-ancestral, shouting and whispering, essentially a function of the human voice raised against wrong but freely theatrical. It has on occasion something in common with the tradition of northern stand-up comedy. The title-sequence works well, mainly by the intervention through the various apertures of intriguingly inexplicable spell-like episodes, especially in the shanties.’

Karl O’Hanlon and Daragh Breen.

Peter Riley: ‘In Breen, “it is not the hard objectivity by which some poets (such as Karl O’Hanlon) seek to drive the power of self from the poem by ever new twists and faults of language, in search of accuracy.”‘

Denise Riley and the ‘awkward lyric’.

Peter Riley: ‘Denise 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.’

Lorenzo Calogero and other poets in translation.

Peter Riley: ‘By 1945 Calogero had got himself into a fairly dreadful state of hopelessness and was comforted only by his distance from the demands and rewards of urban centrality, in a pastoral location which to him was more real than the university or the state.’

Ilhan Berk.

Peter Riley: ‘It seems that in his later years Berk cultivated an extreme version of what some poets would call “risk-taking” which mainly casts the task of cohering back on the reader. I like to think of this name (of a loved person) somehow represented as one leaf’s contribution to the large symphonic rustling of a tree, and this person having been singled out of a whole population to receive special regard. I feel that it is I who have done this rather than Berk.’

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.’