Tuesday 2 September 2008

Letter 16

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on MiPOradio.


In my last talk I mentioned that Andrew Crozier shared some affinities with the poet, John Riley, an early contributor to The English Intelligencer. This is particularly noticeable in Crozier’s poem, ‘The Veil Poem’, where he employs a probing lyrical self to see beneath cognitive perception to unveil the shifts of light and dark. Moreover, Crozier repeatedly refers to light, mirrors, windows and glass in his poetry to indicate a concern with the processes of perception. Thus in the first stanza of ‘Light In The Air’ we read ‘Light floods the retina / then vanishes along the / optic nerve to reappear / as what we see/’ and in ‘The Veil Poem’, Crozier seems to be concerned with probing and enacting the processes by which the self articulates the shifts not only between the shades of light and dark, waking and sleeping but also between partial and impartial knowledge. The poem effectively shows how the self is ‘drawn’ as vessel and vehicle, hemmed and pressed in by a wall of both light, darkness and disputed colour. There are echoes of Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, John Dee in its reference to ‘the repeated tracery of magic in / cardinal numbers’, John Donne in its metaphysics of incompleteness and John Riley in his probing of how to respond to light and the world. Although Riley might well have wished to move beyond the concept of ‘the hermetic / correspondence of forms hidden beneath appearance’ into a more commonplace understanding.

I would like to contextualise John Riley’s poetry and give some idea of its field and integrity. Far from Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s contemptuous assertion in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry page 11) that ‘very little seemed to be happening’ in the Sixties, the scope of Riley’s work and that of other English Intelligencer contributors would indicate otherwise. When I first encountered Riley’s poetry in the mid-Seventies in the various pamphlets and poetry magazines that I found in Compendium Bookshop, it was like a revelation to find an English poet that was speaking in the present and yet out of time and in the visionary tradition. This was a poet quite distinct from the official poets and seemingly in touch with a wider European humanism that allowed for difference and the idea of a melting pot and also with post-Poundian American poetry.

John Riley (1937-1978) was born and went to school in Leeds, Yorkshire. After National Service in the Royal Air Force, which he spent in Germany and during which time he learned Russian, he read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge from 1958 to 1961. He was thus an exact contemporary of Tim Longville and the satirist, Peter Cook also studying English at Pembroke, and near contemporary of J.H. Prynne and R.F. Langley who studied English at Jesus College. Bill Oddie, who followed Cook into writing and performing radio comedy, began studying English at Pembroke College in Riley’s final year. Cook was a precocious undergraduate figure at Pembroke creating a legend even greater than that of Ted Hughes in the early Fifties. Whereas Cook left Pembroke for Soho, after graduating Riley worked in various schools around Cambridge and became acquainted with other Cambridge based poets. In 1966 he took up a teaching post at Bicester near Oxford. It was during this period that Andrew Crozier invited him to contribute to The English Intelligencer and he began to write his distinctive poems. He founded the Grosseteste Press and Grosseteste Review, with Tim Longville, and published his first book, Ancient And Modern in 1967. Here in its title we have possible notions that the author advocates both the old and new or that the new comes out of the old and are mutually held together. Riley’s poetry is precise and attentive to detail. It has a tremendous clarity and that probably stems from an admiration for the techniques of George Oppen, Charles Olson, to whom he wrote a memorial poem ‘in memoriam Charles Olson’ (The Collected Works Grosseteste 1980 p. 147) and Robert Creeley. Its broken exactness owes something to Creeley’s early sixties love poems. Thus in the poem, ‘January 1966’, we read:

if there’s time
I’ll plant a tree

there where that blackbird is, a
for speed

against the black wall (The Collected Works p.43)

Beneath the Oppen, Olson and Creeley admiration, one might detect a background in Pound studies. Indeed his press was named after the Neo-Platonist theologian and philosopher, Robert Grosseteste (c1170-1253), who inspired Pound. Grosseteste argued that light was the first corporeal form and that light was the basis of all matter. Love and truth were reached through illumination by divine grace. From studying thirteenth century Neo-Platonists, including Grosseteste, Pound derived the idea of light, the radiant world, the self-interfering patterns from which and through which all corporeality flows and this impacted upon his poetry in the Cantos. He wrote in an essay on Guido Calvacanti about the significance of light and the loss of the radiant world ‘where one thought cuts through another with a clean edge, a world of moving energies’ ... a world of ‘magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible, the matter of Dante’s paradiso, the glass under water, the form that sees a form in the mirror …’ (See Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era 1991 p.451).
According to Donald Davie in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1965), which compared Pound’s use of language to a sculptor’s use of stone, the constituents of the Cantos are components arranged in space. It is a poetry, Davie writes, ‘that characteristically moves forward only hesitantly, gropingly, and slowly; which often seems to float across the page as much as it moves down it; in which, if the perceptions are cast in the form of sentences, the sentence is bracketed off and, as it were, folded in on itself so as to seem equal with a disjointed phrase; a poetry (we might almost say) of the noun rather than the verb.’ This is a useful description of the technique of Pound, Olson and Creeley and one that Riley doubtless would have known through his contact with Davie and others at Cambridge.

Riley’s poetry has that slow movement and lucidity and that same floating across the page as well as something different.

Here’s ‘The World Itself, The Long Poem Foundered’

The beating of my heart ripples the lamp
Oh this constant expectation of good news.

A daisy grows. A girl passes. A girl passes along
The wet night street, the houses opposite are luminous.

The sky appears colourless but it is not so,
It could be a love, or longing, or both of these.


In full voice, in full throat, in full cry, in full
Flight. To trace, round-eyed, the flight of birds,

As a poet said. How to trace longing beyond sight,
Removed beyond sensible reaching? And to give it voice?

Perhaps, high up, the clouds are frozen rain,
And the stars – we read time backwards, watching it go by.


You would not believe how the birds sing round our home.
How easy to consider beauty timeless.

I know of no longing to appease this longing, be it even
Your voice, moving me to a celebration of it, love.

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.

Let us love while the sunlight lasts.
By night the moon will light us.
Where’s the moon’s disc, in you?

Clouds move between the moon and me,
I watch them, not stirring from my chair.
Your hair, your brow, your eyes.

Your eyes, your face. Our slow time.
A driving wind sweeps the market-place bare.
It is intolerable, that you should die.

Rain, rain, rain. (The Collected Works pp. 103-5)

Here the first person narrator is characteristically looking out of a window and probing with a calm restlessness. It is a knowing inner voice that is caught at the edge of his knowledge and relationships and love. Note the large gaps between some of the parts of the poem and its title indicating a compression or rejection from a long poem. The ‘Long Poem Foundered’ could for example be a rejection of Pound, as the modern founder of the long poem and that would entail the rejection of the institution around Poundian aesthetics. It could equally indicate a broken and abandoned longer poem of which ‘The World Itself’ resembles and is the equivalent of. The idea of the world as broken and abandoned in poetry and elsewhere might give the first person narrator some edge. This poem indicates Riley’s constant probing of how ‘to trace longing beyond sight / Removed beyond sensible reaching? And to give it voice?’ Birds, emissaries of the spiritual, are also to be traced ‘round-eyed’. A restless, searching intelligence informs every line as well as a successive movement of stillness that serves to suspend each image and verbal event in a continuous present. Riley’s poetry characteristically has a calm restlessness in which the calm and restlessness, the lyric and counter lyric, are held in balanced conflict and repetition. It is this ability to hold both the balance and conflict and repetition together with fresh language that distinguishes Riley’s work. Note the repetition of key words, such as, ‘A girl’, ‘love’, ‘longing’, ‘full’, ‘voice’, ‘trace’, ‘birds’, ‘beauty’, ‘world’, ‘light’, ‘moon’, ‘hair’ ‘eyes’, ‘face’, ‘time’ and ‘rain’. The third part of the poem consists of a full repetition of key words, such as, ‘birds’, ‘beauty’, ‘longing’, ‘voice’ and ‘love’ and serves to re-set the poem’s theme in the fourth line, ‘Your voice, moving me to a celebration of it, love’. A line that refuses any easy closure as it holds the possibility
of ‘voice’ and ‘love’ both being subject and object in both cases. Several of these key words occur in repetition in many other poems. He was drawn by the ‘ancient’ certainties of ritual repetition, as John Hall has written, (John Hall – ‘John Riley, poet’ Tears in the Fence 20 Spring 1998 p. 63) where ritual itself is a set of repetitions and a way of ending without ending. Many of his concerns are encapsulated in the fourth part of the poem:

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 seemingly contradictory statements of the first and fourth lines serve to enact their own contradictions as fixtures of the world by a perceiving self that seeks both the certainties of the past and transformation of the present world.

In 1970 Riley gave up primary school teaching in order to spend more time writing and editing. He moved in the winter of 1970-71 briefly to Fowey in Cornwall, which provided the stimulus for a number of poems, such as ‘Rough Tor, Cornwall, this landscape what song’, and then returned to Leeds, where he lived for the rest of his life. He married Carol Brown in 1973. He became absorbed in French, German and Russian poetry, translating Holderlin, Pasternak and Mandelstam. This reinforced his disposition to view the world in religious terms and in 1977 he joined the Russian Orthodox Church. He was mugged to death in uncertain circumstances on the night of 27/28 October 1978. A memorial volume, For John Riley edited by Tim Longville appeared in 1979. Tim Longville edited The Collected Works (Grosseteste) in 1980 and Riley’s work was included in Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s A Various Art anthology (Carcanet 1987) and Keith Tuma’s landmark Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford University Press USA 2001). Tuma selected the long poem, ‘Czargrad’ to illustrate Riley’s concern with the Orthodox Church and post-Poundian poetics. A Selected Poems (Carcanet) edited by Michael Grant appeared in 1995.

Riley’s poems characteristically look out, from a window, to probe what is known of the world. They typically proceeds through an accumulation of statements about the phenomenal world with all its pain, longing and loss and end in an unsettling doubt where the song is undone. I take the perceiving narrator in Riley’s poetry, following Andrew Crozier (See Andrew Crozier ‘The World, The World: A Reading of John Riley’s poetry’ in For John Riley Grosseteste 1979), to be transfigured by love and concerned with placement. The narrator is absorbed within a metaphysical world of linkages that are set up in the poems as binaries and opposites. Thus the domestic is linked to the divine, One is linked to All, and here and now to everywhere. There are no spiritual discoveries or epiphanies but rather there is a journey into the world, the planet and eternity, from certainty to an unsettling doubt. This journey is in the continual present and takes the form of an intense response to light, love and the world and is re-enacted with each new day and poem. After re-reading his poems, one is struck by the realisation that Riley is one of the greatest philosophers of love and incompleteness since John Donne.

Poem after poem in Riley’s work seems to sing and yet deny the possibility of song. Each lyric contains its own counter lyric and an evasion of easy closure. Thus in ‘Love Poem’ (The Collected Works p. 66) we read – ‘Not that anything has to be improved. / Simply that everything must be done away with.’ This impulse to undercut the lyrical voice with an opposing one is also seen in the poem, ‘Second Fragment’ (The Collected Works p. 62), from the start:

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

Note the beginning of the second line undercutting the attempt to elegise and the correction in the third line and then the recourse to placement within the history of Empire and Christianity. The poem continues:

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

This attempt to eulogise is again interrupted, cut up and counter pointed to the point of anguish culminating in the final three couplets:

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

Internally then this poem has a number of continuous struggles between the ‘I’ and the ‘One’, the ‘still’ and the ‘rain’, the ‘fell gently’ and the ‘slit dumb throats’, the ‘indifference’ and ‘believers’, the ‘light’ being put out in the present and in the past, and so on.

Riley’s second book, What Reason Was (Grosseteste 1970) is linked by the progress and breakdown of a relationship and the longing for a permanence that is beyond reach. It is marked by loss and absence and hope against fear, through eternity or the eternal return. This is perhaps seen best in ‘Poem On These Poems’ (The Collected Works p. 126), a commentary on earlier poems, a technique subsequently employed by Bill Griffiths.

Poem On These Poems

Myrtle tree of heaven, white-scented flowers
Of Venus. Look, I will tell you of a dream I had
When speaking men were sleeping : moisture ran down the windows
Like rain. Outside the full moon, one day old. It seemed
I saw another tree, laden with light, the clearest of crosses.

Love, love, the great love, or the unexpected,
My God my love I cannot see or sing,
There is no part left of me that does not hurt,
Even dreams hurt my eyes, sober mind’s image.
Eighteen months ago the seasons

Became seasons and more than seasons, I had not seen
How slow death is, quick life – blossom
As flower, tree I thought we had done and we cannot die.
Days go by and the scent of the flower
Will kill me for ever and ever.

It is cold beyond the reaches of our air,
Our slow time; its trappings are gold and silver.
And poetry a voice, a voiceless eye
A dream from which I do not hope to wake. Love,
We find ourselves at the foot of the tree. We have always been there.

Here Riley as ever holds the tensions of the binaries and opposites in balance and the loss and absence inherent in love and light, again leads to brutal anguish, as in the second stanza’s:

Love, love, the great love, or the unexpected,
My God my love I cannot see or sing,
There is no part left of me that does not hurt,

This reinforces the idea that love and light both blind. If Riley’s
world is constantly threatened by loss and absence, the longing to sing out that is curtailed by an unsettling doubt, this poem finally finds a placement beyond the usual binaries that frame and limit the probing self. The ending gives two placements for the narrator and reader, one in the ‘voiceless eye’ of the poem and the second ‘at the foot of the tree’ of knowledge.


Middle Ditch said...

A good introductory essay.

Rick said...

Hello David. I have taken to printing your blog entries and reading them with my children (ages 20 & 28). For my grandson, I buy the Baby Einstein DVD series so my daughter can play it for him. Now, I think I will include the little tyke in my aloud readings of your blog.

After all, if he wants to become a Baby Shakespeare, he must read challenging literary commentary like yours.

I'll be back to ask questions about some of the specific points later.

Best to you.

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Mark Yoxon said...

I just found this post via google - thank you very much. I'm currently writing my master's thesis on Roy Fisher's 'A Furnace' and have in the course of researching it stumbled on the poetry of John Riley, which I believe I'm coming to love. There are some very interesting parallels between Fisher and Riley (re. space and light in particular) which I'm hoping to explore further at some point.
Thanks again.

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Richard said...

This is a coicidence! I picked up my copy of 'A Various Art' (ed Crozier) which I'd had for some years (as friend, Scott Hamilton, over here (Auckland, NZ) was showing poems of Barnett in a little mag here called Salt. We were interested in various kinds of innovative or interesting writing.

I struggled a bit with Prynne and even bought a book into the library re him but it was jsut too abstruse. So I decided to revisit the anthology (I had liked Iain Sinclair's "Flesh Eggs and Scalp Metal" ) and decided to read a poem by John Riley. Then I wondered if he was related to Peter Riley. I started reading his first few poems in there (starts with 'Views of Where One Is'). Then, inevitably I started wondering if there was more about him. So Google, and here is a whole essay! It pulled me up when it said he'd been murdered...terrible. But you might nelarge what is on Wiki which is usually pretty informative. RT

Richard said...

Mark Yoxon - have you read Alan Fisher (not related to Roy Fisher as far as I know). His books are hard to get out here, but a poet called Jen Crawford mentioned him to me once and he looks from (things written of him) to be interesting.

Unknown said...

شركة نقل اثاث بالمدينة المنورة

شركة نقل عفش بالمدينة المنورة

شركة مكافحة حشرات بالمدينه المنوره

شركة مكافحة حشرات بالمدينة المنورة

شركة مكافحة النمل الابيض بالمدينة المنورة

شركة تنظيف خزانات بالمدينة المنورة

شركة غسيل خزانات بالمدينة المنورة

شركة نظافة خزانات بالمدينة المنورة

شركة غسيل شقق بالمدينة المنورة

شركة تنظيف منازل بالمدينة المنورة

شركة غسيل كنب بالمدينة المنورة

شركة شراء اثاث مستعمل بالمدينة المنورة

تسليك مجارى بالمدينة المنورة

التقوى اسطول الخدمات بالمدينة المنورة 0550617882

شركة تنظيف خزانات بالمدينة المنورة

Unknown said...

شركة نقل اثاث بالدمام
شركة نقل عفش بالدمام
شركة نقل اثاث بالخبر
شركة نقل عفش بالخبر
شركة نقل عفش بالاحساء
شركة نقل اثاث بالاحساء
شركة نقل عفش بالجبيل
شركة نقل اثاث بالجبيل
شركة تخزين عفش بالدمام
شركة تخزين اثاث بالدمام
شركة تخزين عفش بالخبر
شركة تخزين اثاث بالخبر
شركة تخزين اثاث بالجبيل
شركة تخزين عفش بالجبيل
شركة تخزين عفش بالاحساء
شركة تخزين اثاث بالاحساء
شركة تخزين عفش بالقطيف
شركة تخزين اثاث بالقطيف

forsan.elkhaleg said...

الدقة فى تنفيذ خدمات التنظيف فى شركة تنظيف بالمدينة المنورة فرق العمل تقوم باداء المهام فى هدوء تام دون التسبب باى ازعاج لك بالمنزل

Unknown said...

I'll just bookmark this web site

صيانة said...

تعتمد جودة مراكز صيانة كارييرعلي المهندسين ذات الخبرة والفنين الذي لديهم باع طويل في ذلك المجال للتواصل مع مركز صيانة كاريير من خلال الرابط الموضح

Unknown said...

يمتاز مركز صيانة يونيون اير عن غيرة من مراكز
الصيانة انه لديه فريق متخصص
من الفنيين والمهندسين ذات خبرة وباع طويل
في مجال الصيانة والقدرة علي مواجهة
جميع المشاكل والاعطال الفنية
وللتواصل بسهولة مع مركز صيانة يونيون اير
من خلال هذا الرابط

رواد الحرمين said...

تعتمد شركة الحرمين على احدث الاجهزة وافضل الخدمات الاساسية التى تساعد فى التعرف على مكان التسرب والتعرف على الاسباب التى ادتت الى حدوثها فلا تتردد فى التعاون مع
شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالاحساء

شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالاحساء

شركة كشف تسربات المياه براس تنورة

شركة رش مبيدات بالاحساء, شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالاحساء, شركة تنظيف بالدمام, شركة تنظيف شقق بالدمام, شركة تنظيف فلل بالدمام, شركة تسليك مجارى بالدمام, شركة تنظيف بيارات بالدما

شركة عزل اسطح بالاحساء

شركة عزل اسطح بالاحساء

شركة عزل اسطح بالاحساء

شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالاحساء

شركة الحرمين افضل الشركات التى تعمل فى مجال التنظيف بشكل عام والعمل على كشف تسربات المياه باحدث الطرق ومكافحة اى نوع من انواع الحشرات فى اقل وقت ممكن فى الرياض والدمام والاحساء
شركة تنظيف بالاحساء, شركة تنظيف شقق بالاحساء, شركة تنظيف فلل بالاحساء, شركة مكافحة حشرات بالاحساء, شركة رش مبيدات بالاحساء, شركة كشف تسربات المياه بالاحساء, شركة تنظيف بالدمام, شركة تنظيف شقق بالدمام, شركة تنظيف فلل بالدمام, شركة تسليك مجارى بالدمام, شركة تنظيف بيارات بالدما

Unknown said...

تتفوق شركة النسر الذهبي فى تقديم خدمات غسيل شقق وغسيل سجاجيد وموكيت بالمدينة المنورة حيث نستخدم البخار فى تنظيف كنب ومنازل بالمدينة المنورة
للتواصل معنا على الجوال
زورونا على رابط موقعنا

toshiba said...

يتقدم توكيل وايت بوينت بافضل العروض والمميزات على الاجهزةالكهربائية كما انه يوجد توكيل ماجيك شيف الذي يحتوي على مجموعة من احدث الاجهزة ويمكنكم ايضا معرفة العروض المقدمة من توكيل توشيبا العالمي .

Unknown said...

افضل الصيانات المتميزه الان وعلي مستوي الان من التميز وب اضفل كفائه الان صيانة يونيون اير الان من التميز من جانب اشراف افضل المهندسين صيانة كريازي و علي اعلي مستوي الان في التركيب و الصيانات صيانة هايسنس و بافضل كفائه تواصلو معنا الان

toshiba said...

تمتعوا الان بافضل مركز خدمة عملاء وايت بوينت الذي يعمل علي صيانه خدمة عملاء وايت ويل لصيانه الاجهزه الكهربائيه باعلي جوده ممكنه ويمكنم الاعتماد عليهم جيدا في صيانه خدمة عملاء وايت بوينت الكبري في صيانه الاجهزه الكهربائيه ياعلي جوده ممكنه من مركز خدمة عملاء توشيبا الكبري 

صيانة said...

الان من صيانة كلفينيتور اقوى العروض والخصومات واسرع خدمة عملاء توجد في صيانة امبريال التي تحتوي على فريق من الخبراء متخصص في صيانة جميع الاجهزة الكهربائية بالاضافة الى صيانة اوشن العالمية واقل التكاليف في صيانة فيلكو المتميزة