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Monthly Archives: December 2018

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Peter Riley’s two volumes of Collected Poems weighs in at about 1200 pages and they need to be reviewed. There is no way that a short piece here can do justice to the wealth of this work and so I shall write three or four reviews covering the chronological development of a poet whose voice is a labour of “calm close attention” (‘All Saints’, a short prose piece from the opening section of Volume 1, pieces written in London between 1962 and 1965). When I gave a Paper at a Conference in Birkbeck devoted to Riley’s work I focused on his editing of the magazine Collection. The Paper was written up for PN Review 207, some six years ago and it began rather mischievously. Now that we can see more fully the quality of Riley’s early work from the Sixties I wish to repeat that mischief by beginning with a quotation which will set the scene and trust that this will prove to be in no way contentious:

“For a time young poets of very different backgrounds and temperament may feel themselves, or be felt by critics, to be working along similar lines. Though its long-term consequence necessarily remains unclear, such a shift of sensibility has taken place very recently in British poetry. It follows a stretch, occupying much of the 1960s and 70s, when very little—in England at any rate—seemed to be happening…”

The quotation comes of course from a very reliable source: a Poet Laureate, a highly successful journalist and a highly competitive and long-standing publishing firm: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. And so it’s official: “very little seemed to be happening” in the 60s and 70s and this reminds me of the mischievous title of a splendid little journal founded by Anthony Barnett in 1966, Nothing Doing in London. There were only two issues of that beautifully produced item but they contained work by Andrew Crozier, Edmond Jabès, George Oppen, Tom Pickard, Samuel Beckett and Nick Totton: nothing indeed happening very much at all!
The calm close attention which Riley has given to his wealth of life’s experiences is there from the very start as is evident with the poem ‘Introitus’ written in his Hastings years during the mid-to late 60s. The poem opens with the short phrase “How it begins” before proceeding to examine the difficulty of walking on shingle on Hastings beach. The quiet and purposeful movement recalls the ‘Riprap’ progress of Gary Snyder in a very different landscape:

“To walk effectively on shingle you have to
lean forwards so you’d fall if you didn’t push
your feet back from a firm step down and
back sharp forcing the separate ground
to consolidate underneath you, with a marked
flip as you lift each foot, scattering
stones behind, gaining momentum.”

The year is 1967 and Peter Riley was about to take over the editing of The English Intelligencer from Andrew Crozier. Writing to Crozier on January 12th, having arrived back in Hastings after the two had met up, he told of finding Jeremy Prynne on the doorstep and how they had spent that evening discussing the future progress of the magazine. In a letter from a few months later Riley referred to the need for energetic engagement with the poetry scene, “something not so much finished as in mid-stream, alive and still developing” and this energy pulses through these early poems.
When Barry MacSweeney organised the poetry gathering at Sparty Lea Peter Riley was there of course and the letter he wrote to a newspaper a few years ago emphasised the event’s importance:

“Sparty Lea was a serious event that involved listening to each other carefully and weighing up the possibility of common purposes.”

The publication of ‘Sparty Lea Epilogue’ in the first volume of these collected poems is testament indeed to its importance as a meeting-place for new poets who were concerned about what was happening in the world of British poetry:

“It must be the whole continuance,
of our lives bound through the occasion
it must be this other place given
in return, the small room at night.

The meeting was a specific node
of exchange like a thank-you in a long
conversation, fastening the discourse that
sustains us to a future weather.”

The “long conversation” has continued down the years and when Roy Fisher referred to Riley’s deepening sense of how poetry “can be capable of mediating between inner and outer experience” it was adopted as the blurb on the back cover of Pennine Tales issued by Calder Valley Poetry two years ago. It is within the lyric grace of those late pages, written and published too late to be included in the Collected Poems that one can pick up the mournful wisps of sound from an energetic poetic engagement that is by no means over:

“There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.”

I am tempted to say that Peter Riley is a towering presence in the world of modern poetry and yet even that image of stasis is immediately rendered inappropriate when we can read now the early lines he dedicated to Andrew Crozier in the late 60s when he felt that they were “wanderers not in exile / but at permanent home / in movement.”

Ian Brinton 9th December 2018

The Wedding-Guest by Keith Bosley Eds Owen Lowery & Anthony Rudolf (Shoestring Press)

The Wedding-Guest by Keith Bosley Eds Owen Lowery & Anthony Rudolf (Shoestring Press)

I have started writing a book about English teaching based upon my own experiences over the past forty-five years and am determined to give it the title “There was a ship”. When I mentioned this to a colleague recently he asked what that meant and I explained something about the hypnotic power behind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who stopped a wedding-guest in his tracks:

“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

‘The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’

He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he.

The wedding-guest attempts to break away but is held by the Mariner’s “glittering eye” and he stands still to listen “like a three years’ child” as the old man unfolds his tale of guilt and redemption, a tale in which he tells the listener about how he was

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!”

In his Preface to this fine collection of Keith Bosley’s poems Anthony Rudolf directs us immediately to the central image of the story-teller:

“At the heart of the book is the powerful poem whose title the editors have chosen for the whole, ‘The Wedding-Guest’, a World War Two poem spoken by the poet narrator himself and his friend.”

Rudolf gives us the dramatic scene of Coleridge’s wedding guest standing as a literary antecedent behind Keith Bosley and the Ancient Mariner himself standing behind the friend “just as he did for Primo Levi, who inspired our cover illustration”. The illustration is by Jane Joseph and it was used for the fine Folio edition of Levi’s The Truce. However, as Rudolf also points out for us it is the wedding guest who tells this story and both the host and the reader are compelled to stand fixed, rooted to the page:

Sometimes we are afraid of you
as if you knew too much
from going to the pit and back
so that when you touch

less travelled lives like ours
you burn
and we are scarred with a knowledge
from which there is no return

Keith Bosley’s poem is immensely powerful and in a world where we are surrounded by so much inescapable history I was left thinking what is it about the quality of this writing that so moves me. The style of the narration reminds me perhaps of Brecht’s 1939 poem ‘The Children’s Crusade’; Bosley’s narrative has a similar simplicity in its style. Brecht opens with an almost naïve tone to his four-line stanzas:

“In ’thirty-nine, in Poland
a bloody battle took place,
turning many a town and village
into a wilderness.

The sister lost her brother,
the wife her husband in war,
the child between fire and rubble
could find his parents no more.

From Poland no news was forthcoming
neither letter nor printed word,
but in all the Eastern countries
a curious tale can be heard.

Snow fell when they told one another
this tale in an Eastern town
of a children’s crusade that started
in Poland, in ’thirty-nine.”

Perhaps it’s that word “curious” that rouses the attention, that sense of the singular nature of a tale to be told. Keith Bosley’s narrative possesses a similar sense of understatement as the simplicity of the four-line stanzas is used as a frame for the most awful experiences which will never disappear. The Guest’s narrative begins, like Brecht’s, with a clear and simple picture:

“In January ’43 (he will say)
because I had not enlisted
in the German occupying forces
I was arrested”

The tale is harrowing but it never moves into the sentimental: the craft of the poet’s language keeps us clearly on track:

“We were locked in the hangars to sleep
on sawdust and concrete
and the frost bit uncovered toes
on rows of wood-shot feet.

‘Blow wind…’: we sang the ancient song
huddled on a little hill.
The other nations who had no songs
gathered and stood still.”

Bosley has for many years been recognized as a translator of some distinction and Owen Lowery is very helpful in bringing this status to the fore in his introduction. Lowery reminds us of Bosley being awarded the Finnish State Prize for Translators and being made a Knight First Class of the Order of the White Rose of Finland in 1991. His translation of Kalevala is the one published by Oxford World Classics and an Agenda review of that publication celebrated not only its “scholarly awareness” but also how its freshness provides “sheer pleasure”. Lowery quite rightly also directs the reader to Bosley’s ability to focus on the details of individual stories and lives, “indicative of an intellectual and compassionate curiosity”. That quiet and humane concern for capturing the moment is clear in a previously unpublished poem written for Antony Rudolf, himself a poet and translator of distinction, ‘Visiting A Poem’:

“August, late afternoon: we are in Gloucestershire.
Chipping Campden: we pass through the old market town.”

The purpose of the journey is to visit the source of Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ and to wonder if “great poems” can “be called private?” The “two middle-aged men” go down a track until they are confronted with a notice that spells out “PRIVATE”.

“We drive over a grid, scattering sheep and goats
and arrive at a gate: here is the poem, here”

With a sense of excitement Bosley takes us, now the guests, into a world in which “we have spotted a word, a / phrase and even a line or two”.

“But we waver because no one expects us here
so two middle-aged men take a quick photograph”

The two turn homeward “as if we / heard some bird saying Go, go, go.”

And the echo of that Wedding-Guest’s narrative from January ’43 can be felt as we recall Eliot’s lines:

“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality,”

The integrity and care behind the craft of Keith Bosley’s poems make this volume from Shoestring Press worth getting NOW. Read these poems, then stop, and then read again. An Ancient Mariner is always worth listening to!

Ian Brinton, 2nd December 2018

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