Saturday, March 17, 2007

John Riley

John Riley’s early death — he was murdered by two muggers at the age of forty-one — combined with a history of publication by small presses and a talent that doesn’t lend itself to easy categorisation have tended to keep his work on the margins, admired by the few but generally unknown. This is a pity, because Riley was one of the finest poets of his generation. In his lifetime he published three collections, Ancient and Modern with Grosseteste Press, which he founded with Tim Longville in 1966, What Reason Was, and That is Today, published by Pig Press in 1978, the year of his death. The now out of print Collected Works (Grosseteste Press) came out in 1980. Carcanet published his Selected Poems, edited by Michael Grant, in 1995.

I had always been impressed by the few poems I came across in anthologies like A Various Art, edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville. The impression I had of an extraordinarily gifted poet was borne out by the Selected Poems. I first came across this in The Secret Bookshop in Wicklow Street and owned it for about an hour before I left it somewhere. I was so taken with the poems I had scanned in the shop that I spent a forlorn couple of hours retracing my steps in an effort to find it. Some time later I wrote to Carcanet, who informed me that all copies of the poems had perished in the IRA bomb explosion. A little while after that a small parcel from Manchester arrived in my letterbox; a copy had turned up, slightly damaged, and they had sent it on free of charge.

What I like about Riley’s work is a wonderful musical clarity, a rhetoric which is at once backward-looking, tradition-nurtured, clearly English and at the same time distinctly modern, and the restless, searching intelligence that informs every line. That restlessness is evident in the formal experimentation that characterises the poems; each volume is riskier than the preceding, the poems more formally adventurous but always direct and always susceptible to the physical, the sensual, the immediate, the “great excitement among footnotes/away from the iron text”.

A good part of Riley’s manner stems from a talent that seems often divided against itself, that resists even as it embraces the lyric consolations. The love poems, and there are a lot of these, show this clearly. In fact his adoption of the love lyric as habitual means of expression also marks him out both from the ironies of the Movement style and its successors, and from the kind of distancing strategies of the Cambridge school with which he’s associated and in whose anthologies he appears. What I also like is the sense of double focus; in any poem there is the attention to the specific occasion but also where that intersects with the wider reality. He uses the lyric as a probe, as in this fragment from a poem whose title announces two large ambitions, at least one of which has been abandoned:

A stillness encompassing movement.
With enormous beauty still to answer to.

Blackness seeps through the closed door, douses the lamp.
It is a longing for the same world, and a different world.

(‘The World Itself, the Long Poem Foundered’)

The poem that first drew me to John Riley was ‘Second Fragment’, which I read in A Various Art. What attracted me, apart from the obvious formal grace, was the subtle way the poem survives its two opposing impulses, one lyric and celebratory, reaching for a kind of primal pastoral language, the other a sharp undercutting of that impulse, reaching for blunt instruments to disrupt the flow and a neutral, business-like phrasing.

Second Fragment

I put out the light and listen to the rain
Example taken from history— she loved

The rain: but that won’t do for she loves it still
And perhaps awake as I she lies at home

And listens to the rain that once beat on Rome
Or fell gently on the Galilean hills

This time of year is so beautiful
One can almost abandon oneself to it

It is the indifference of believers
That dismays, not the existence of others

We renew ourselves completely how often —
Daily we slit dumb throats and watch the blood run

I put out the light and listened to the rain
Hear how it falls: I wonder if love falls so

This poem ranges with a kind of calm restlessness from the specifics of its occasion across time, moods and subjects — love, faith, indifference, sacrifice, renewal, love again — yet there is a remarkable inevitability about the poem’s progress through its own disjunctions that is achieved by the delicate movement of the lines. A kind of impatience enters the poem in the second line and immediately interrupts the lyric poise of ‘I put out the light and listen to the rain’, a memory, abruptly recalled and brusquely set forth, of an absent lover. But the poem at this point resists the impulse to elegise or memorialise, though it makes effective capital out of the refusal. Something starts to happen in the poem after the double break between the second and third lines, the stop after ‘rain’ and the subsequent correction of the third line. The poem henceforth is a tug of war between its opposing modes, between

for she loves it still
And perhaps awake as I she lies at home

And listens to the rain that once beat on Rome
Or fell gently on the Galilean hills


This time of year is so beautiful
One can almost abandon oneself to it

It is the indifference of believers
That dismays, not the existence of others

or between ‘fall’, ‘fell gently’, ‘still’, the repeated ‘rain’ and the ‘dumb throats’ and the blood; or, again, between the ‘one’ that can almost abandon himself and the ‘I’ that begins and ends the poem. In fourteen lines the poets manages four personal pronouns: ‘I’, ‘she’, ‘we’, ‘one’ , five if we count the implied you (singular or plural) who is addressed in ‘Hear how it falls’.

The early poems are full of this play between the instinctive and the ratiocinative, the lyric and the counter-lyric, the ancient and the modern, to use the terms of the title of the first collection. In a sense, Riley is able to have the best of all possible worlds — the instrument he chooses can play all the old tunes, but can also produce a critical counterpoint. Argument and music shore each other up.

Ancient and Modern

Away from the house the snow falls slanting,
And trees almost in leaf in yesterday's sun
Put on today an elegant new shape,
A complex, streamlined growth. Did you ever see

The maidenhair (some few survive), a pre-
Historic tree? Limpid leaf, irregularity,
A touching intent to grow come what may
With perhaps insifficient means: a pleasure

To look on. As who shall see in winter leisure
Compassionate history take lucid measure
Of our too-obvious nourishment of hate,
And love that can't pass for understanding.

This is a poetry determined to play the traditional keyboard, to write from inside the tradition; in a sense it's anonymous, the lines could have been written by any number of poets.The following lines, from ‘This Time of Year’, strike me as more original, closer to the confidence of ‘Second Fragment’:

I stop to admire
The sky through an arch of branches
And thinking to go higher
Am caught in this gesture of pleasure

Appreciate the sagging hayrick
Its antiquated cottage form
Destined to keep cattle warm
Through winter

How much deeper must the days bite yet
There is a region where it doesn't matter
In the receding sky
Our gestures point to it

The poems have an immediate surface attractiveness that pulls the reader in. Sometimes, as in ‘Love Poem’, it’s an arresting sense of phrase and a sense of serious play. It's a poetry you want to say aloud:

Why shouldn't men blossom in the wilderness?
Hermits of course have their delights: they die

From weariness, renouncing every world.
This other death of ours need too much music —

Can you come out to play coming out
You've always been reluctant towards and I

Don't think too highly of myself for asking you. . .

If I had to pick a single poem with which to be consigned to the wilderness it would be ‘Poem’ (for Rilke in Switzerland) both for what it says and the sound it makes.

for Rilke in Switzerland

I have brought it to my heart to be a still point
Of praise for the powers which move towards me as I
To them, through the dimensions a tree opens up,

Or a window, or a mirror. Creatures fell
Silent, then returned my stare.
Or a window, or a mirror. The shock of re-

Turning to myself after a long journey,
With music, has made me cry, cry out — angels
And history through the heart's attention grow transparent.

Few poems could sustain a closing line like this, but I think Riley's rhetoric allows it.


Paul Sweeney said...

Lovely to see this poet again. I too first came across him in A Various Art. Nice reading of the poems.

Celia said...

Hello, Peter

Cam across your blog by chance, looking to see how well (if at all) Francis Lincoln are advertising Tim (Longville)'s book about Lake District Gardens. (He refuses to look himself!)

Assuming your poetry festival is an annual event, is it possible to get the publicity in advance?. We could possibly be lured across the Irish Sea for it.

It was wonderful that you gave a generous amount of space to quotes from John Riley - with your permission I'll link from my own blog.

Best wishes

Ian Patterson said...

I was pleased to read this, too. It's long past time more attention was paid to his work. But you underestimate his published output: apart from the numerous collaborations with Tim Longville, there are Correspondences (Human Constitution,1970), What Reason Was (Grosseteste, 1970), Ways of Approaching (Grosseteste, 1973), Prose Pieces (Grosseteste, 1974) & A Meeting (Stingy Artist, 1978), and the two vols of Mandelshtam translations. At least.

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