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