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This piece is about 21 printed pages long. It is copyright © Peter Riley and Todd Nathan Thorpe and Jacket magazine 2008.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/35/iv-peter-riley-ivb-thorpe.shtml
in conversation with
Todd Nathan Thorpe
2007, 2008, face to face and email
Introductory note: I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, working on my dissertation, Poetry, Modernity, and Urbanization from Twentieth-Century Chicago to Twenty-First-Century London. I spent six weeks in the summer of 2007 traveling through England, interviewing poets and artists for my dissertation. This interview begins in Cambridge and has been finished via email. I’d like to thank Peter for making this such a pleasant enterprise.
— Todd Nathan Thorpe
March 22, 2008
The man comes to interview the poet. The poet says a lot of things, which the man records and later transcribes. The poet has been mainly working at forming sentences on the spot which correspond to the questions and later wonders, ‘Do I actually think any of this?’ He’s not the sort of poet who has a stock of these things ready for handing-out, or even a vocabulary for them. Thinking normally begins at zero. This means that everything he has said to the man is tentative and hesitant and all answers are masks of the one central and indisputable answer: ‘I don’t know.’ He tidies it up and tries to realize quickly-made bids into something like adequacy. Dissatisfied, he than intersperses three statements (monologues) on principal topics. The monologues are in the end even more tentative and hesitant than the dialogue was, but cast as strong words.
PR: You asked about lyric. I recently wrote an essay on quotation that appeared on the Jacket website, which had a major aside on lyric. It concerned the poet Denise Riley, who’s been worrying about lyric for a long time. If I understand it right, and I may not, she worries about lyric as a thing which takes away your voice, removes your right to speak as yourself. She’s worried that it takes you over, that you get caught in a rhythm or a music–there are verbal combinations, patterns, impelling the writing that aren’t necessarily your own acts, so that in a sense you become a kind of echo. This surrender of the mind, however partial or slight, is to her a serious problem with far-reaching implications in the take-over of the human voice by structures (‘...my theory of militarism as stemming from lyricism’). This is just one instance of a worrying about lyric which exists all over the ‘advanced’ poetry scene. But these are things that don’t worry me at all, and I don’t understand the connectives. In fact I understand less and less what people mean by ‘lyric’ and why they feel they have to fight it, and in the end it seems to be poetry itself that they’re frightened of.
TT: I think Americans typically come at the issue of lyric from a technical point of view, about the way they construct poetry. Experimental or language poets use so many disruptive techniques, whether it’s collage or parataxis or attacks on syntax or typographical innovation, that at the moment now when they want to have some more engaged, direct styles of writing, given the dire political situation at present, they’re finding themselves boxed out, as it were, by their own techniques. Meta-discourse only takes you so far. On the other hand, lyric subjectivity is anything but immediate and transparent. It’s always a question of artifice.
PR: I certainly don’t worry about such technicalities, but that’s probably because I don’t agree that any format of language carries inherent political or cultural substance with it whatever it says, and so needs undermining or shredding. I tend to think in my quaint Anglo-Saxon way that the best thing to do is to give the lie direct.
People are very deliberately forgetting that lyric is about songs and singing. The music of it has been translated into poetical technique: rhyme, metrics, assonance, etcetera. You never lose those, no matter what sort of poetry you write. They’re always there whether it’s narrative, satirical, free-verse, prose-poems, pseudo-epic, grotesque or whatever. So in a way there is no alternative to lyric.
I’m quite interested in the way texts of songs actually say things which people refuse to accept, I mean in popular songs and lyrical poems you can find meanings which are as it were rejected by the listener. One such is Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only...’ which has been very popular as a sung love poem while in fact it seems to be a poem of rejection. The fact is not noticed. A similar thing happens to Yeats’s poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which is popularly read as a poem of triumphant hope and is actually one of resignation. In both cases it’s lyrical technique which facilitates these misreadings. But I think people have a right to make these choices, to make the poem into what they want it to be, especially to reject and replace the negative. That’s why I’ve taken an interest in the unstable nature of the texts of folk songs.
TT: The song contains a contradiction. Maybe it’s just some real world negative capability, but isn’t that what experience is, as opposed to theory of a certain sort?
PR: Yes, it is contradiction. Song is a thing which enhances our belonging by singing away from our immediate mundanity, and you don’t need any theory for that. Those who aim to demolish our belonging produce anti-song, but that’s just another kind of song that we’ve always had.
‘Lyric’ could be just another way of saying ‘poetry’. Of course it’s useful to have the word to distinguish a small-scale form which returns to home base in a short space, and which stresses closely patterned sonority and echoic syntax, and to distinguish things like love-songs from narrative ballads, but the language factors which define lyric seem to me to be those which define poetry. The complaints about it, which have been going on for at least two hundred years without making any difference to lyric’s progress, are complaints about poetry. Steiner’s famous remark about Auschwitz is the same complaint. Donald Davie has a confusing chapter saying very similar things in his book on Milosz, pleading the complexity and disasters of 20th Century history, and going on as if lyric were ‘feminine’ and poetry needs to be ‘male’. One of the writers he ends up with as model for the poet who rejects lyric is a prose writer, Tolstoy; the other two, Dante and Shakespeare, were lyrical writers as far as I can see. It’s a move towards prose.
Denise Riley finds lyric a problem because it threatens individual articulation. Sam Ladkin in his ‘Problems of Lyric’, speaking for an energetic force in British poetry now, worries about it for pretty-well the opposite reason: because it attracts us into an exclusivity of the person by isolating the felt centre of life or ‘love’, a belonging to which we have lost the right by political harm (rather begging the question, I think, of who ‘we’ are). I read both of these as complaints about poetry itself. I guess it all began as a move against the superficially decorative nature of 18th Century poetry and from a sense which people can’t get rid of, that whatever else it does poetry is supposed to give pleasure, even ‘delight’, that that is and has always been an integral factor of what it’s conceived as being for. That obligation, and I think it is a real one, sticks in the throat of Puritanical voices promoting anxiety, stress, guilt and self-harm as our deserved condition, denying our very right to pleasure and love. Do I really think all this? Derek Bailey once said to me, ‘You can’t fight song–it’s too strong.’ Isn’t this the problem, people creating an enemy of something which they cannot possibly defeat or harm or even touch? Whether it’s ‘lyric’ or ‘capitalism’.
PR: I think of Alstonefield as a ramble, a written ramble referring to an actual one. Especially in part five in the night-long walk where the mind is set free, isn’t it, you can see it wafting and erring here and there and picking up things as it passes by. There are actually no limits or no programmes for what it might do except the physical condition of the walk, the valley and the hill. The mind takes a lot of ‘leaps’, like suddenly to something unprecedented, but that’s not an avant-garde programme, that’s just the mind behaving as it always does, and the strict confines of the route should make this clear. ‘Fantasy’ things happen, like waltzing with a rabbit and meeting a ghost, but obviously they happen in the mind. The feet are restricted to a narrow path but the mind isn’t.
TT: You interrupt the poem, even, at that point and then you say, ‘well, wait a minute, this is a serious poem.’
PR: That’s a pretence that it’s out of control, a comic device if you like, because if you do allow things to happen in the poem in an unplanned way, it can lose sight of any sense of purpose and have to be called back. At one point for instance I suddenly refer to some African singing. That was a record I’d just bought at the time and it was probably playing some of the time I was writing. It was stuff that was lying around and the poem picked it up in passing, rather than some weighty matter that I’ve moved into place on a symbolic chess-board. Such things bear import only from the whole drift of the poem, especially echoic recurrences. There are episodes throughout engaging with what you might call a lost choral conditions, which chime with the African singing. It isn’t a question of relevance because the meditating mind released from specific task knows no conditions of relevance. It’s not an analogue to anything except the sense of loss which is always with us. It’s as ‘real’ as the ground under the feet but elsewhere, places the mind can reach but the feet can’t without getting into a plane. A string of encounters with the world, which come as fragments and connect to other fragments, fragmentary thoughts, glimpses, memories. It helps to have the controlled structure, the fixed stanza to clarify the status of all these fancies and excursions. If it were a free-rambling, Canto-style poem I’d feel much more inhibited about introducing remote, indecorous or irrelevant things because there’d be a kind of homiletic sense of the grand scale making its demands. The Canto tradition is dedicated to teaching anyway, which I don’t do.
TT: One of the things I like about this poem is the human hand is present in the landscape everywhere you look, even in the wildest parts. If for no other reason than the trees have been killed off by pollution.
PR: It’s an area that I studied extensively before the writing and of course lived in for two years. There’s another work Tracts and Mineshafts, that’s the result of a long study of the mining industry in the district, which is what stripped it of its trees. The preface to Alstonefield speaks of a sense of manifest necessity about this place. Here I am among tall grasses and old churches and there’s a sense that this is essential, that it has to exist, in spite of everything. In spite, that is, of the metropolitan prioritization of our culture. I don’t even know why it has to exist but it does. Perhaps it’s a sense that the city is never adequate, never entire, its language and its politics don’t constitute the world. Alstonefield plunges into a different place, ‘pastoral’ if you like, and at the very end agrees to return to the city, I’m not sure with how much reluctance. If it is pastoral it is in a sense which really has nothing to do with turning aside from anything, I mean it doesn’t seek to displace the centre.
TT: Pastoral needs to be seriously reconsidered as a mode. It’s been saddled with a kind of kitsch quality that it doesn’t really merit if you look at its longer history. Certainly if you go to the mode’s origins in Theocritus and Virgil the city is immediately implicated in the countryside, in even the need to represent the country in certain ways. One of the problems with how people think about pastoral is that people forget that the shepherd is the warrior’s shadow, his diminished double with a much circumscribed field of action compared to that of the epic hero. Pastoral is a mode of diminished expectations, diminished capacities. It’s about a difficulty in sustaining a patrimony or accepting an inheritance. In Alstonefield there much about this, but it’s rooted in the sense that this diminishment is socially experienced and the poetry is taken from experience.
PR: Similarly I guess in ancient Chinese recluse poetry there’s a sense that the whole theatre of it is a ‘shadow’ if you like, of the civilised centre, made possible by it and offering a critique of it. Those poets weren’t alienated Bohemian artists in opposition to state power: they were the very officials of state power, in one sense cast to the edge by lapses in state efficiency and morality, in another sense exercising the perceptual rewards of duty, the civilised legacy which made it possible to see a weed by the side of a stream as a beautiful and redemptive thing. Of course there were exceptions, like Han-Shan who was probably on the run from the law.
But pastoral has come to mean rather a lot of things. When I was a student, reading Northrop Frye, I took modern pastoral to be simply an elsewhere, rather than specifically to do with countryside or nature. It was almost a condition of writing itself, absenting yourself from the immediate to make a construct which will always in some sense be ‘elsewhere’. It was a vehicle of transfer.
In spite of its state-park setting I don’t think Alstonefield is the most pastoral of my books, I think that’s certainly A Map of Faring, sequences set in a hermit’s cave in Derbyshire, and in Transylvania and Provence. The writing there is more, you know, ‘suspended’, enacting a dream-like distancing, whereas in Alstonefield it is more active, alert to danger, the inner trajectory of the street-walker. After Part IV it is anyway.
When you look at the big works, they’re all about places I’ve visited, away from home: Romania, Pyrenees, North Wales, Provence, Greece, the Peak District after we’d left it. Any place I’ve visited can be a particular focus of this elsewhere. The pastoral aspect is a kind of mirror, you don’t speak of the metropolis but it’s a constant presence. Having studied the area I knew that Alstonefield was simply imbued with the city, that every aspect of its society and its landscape except for the actual solid geology was a result of the societal whole. Not just the metropolis, but the entire set-up which we inhabit. There’s a footnote about the Peak District being surrounded by industrial conurbations so that whichever way the wind blows it brings pollution but that’s only one of the negative contextualisations. Limestone itself is, after all, tombstone, isn’t it, it’s Tombstone City. I was asked recently why I’ve never written about, or presented, Cambridge where I live. But in a sense I’ve never written about anywhere else since I moved here because the writing presence, the person at the desk, in this very room we’re both sitting in now, is never omitted.
TT: The city is still extracting something from the countryside, even now. Let me read a passage from Alstonefield.
Let go of me and I’ll give you an answer
if I have an answer to give that doesn’t add
to the world’s cold. The towns over the hills
are full of ills and answers but the works die
and crumble, the chimney stands at the valley head
derelict, a tower to lost patience. Not this valley,
which never suffered profit, though a negative light
inhabits it now, bearing modernity’s favourite message.
No parking. Move on, keep going. No hermitage here,
no respite either. Days and hearts are torn asunder. (34)
PR: Stoke-on-Trent is one of the least attractive conurbations of England, and also the closest to Alstonefield, just over a few hills to the west. There’s a sunset glow, at one point in the poem, and I’m heading in that direction. There’s a hesitation about whether to go on down into the city at the end, and I end up in a rural car park but longing for a good record-shop, which a village can’t supply. (Actually the cities can’t either now, for the most part, but I didn’t know that was going to happen). The separate sixth part goes over that again, and finally does head in the direction of a city but I don’t look on that as a closure.
TT: In Book of Spilt Cities, Bill Griffiths says, ‘the city is in a state of trauma.’
PR: I’m not prepared to say that. I may well be in a state of trauma, I often am, but the city is too multiform and variegated and I’m not going to allegorise it. I also have things about the countryside invading the city early in Alstonefield.
TT: Mike Davis has a chapter in his book, Dead Cities, that talks about the recolonization of London by plants that had been pushed out of the city’s ecology. One of the interesting things about the aftermath of the Blitz is that the countryside did reinvade the city.
PR: It always has. Column and arcade is tree-based, which is one way the big buildings managed to stay upright. Bobrowski has a wonderful poem about Buxtehude practising the organ under stone tree canopies, I think. I might just have made that up. New office blocks in London include trees in their atria, trees in the office growing right next to the desk.
TT: Well, the Blitz opened up the city to recolonisation by wild plants. There is a tug of war going on between the country and the city. Aren’t you getting at that when you write in the prefatory letter to Alstonefield,
For nothing up there is quite itself, everything bears the shadow of its contrary. An upland pastoral community run by machines; a weekend break zone for the wild soul which betrays planning permission at every turn; sublimity locked into sordidness on the high pastures, elegance and care struggling with cynical exploitation in the valleys... It finally seemed, set there in the centre of England, the very literature of what people are, the star-wars shooting round anyone’s living-room in Bradford. Am I rambling? I hope so. (2)
PR: Yes I think I am. That preface is trying to indicate what it’s actually like up there: it’s getting rid of the countryside as much as the city so that the poem can start. This rural spot’s overrun by extremely high house prices and degraded farming, so you get that out of the way first and then enter the theatre of it. Walking in darkness, walking at night, is a way of closing my eyes to all of that, all that fact, all that sociology. It’s a way of experiencing the landscape forms like an abstract painting.
TT: Parts of this poem remind me of a Richard Long work.
PR: But his walks are always in straight lines. Mine are circular. Does this mean I go ‘lyrical walks’? [laughter.]
TT: What I think is going to be increasingly interesting about work like yours, and I do think it’s like Bill Griffiths’s work in some ways, or Allen Fisher’s, is its exploration of the urban presence in the rural landscape. Because, as you know, most of the global population now lives in cities and by 2050 that percentage is going to be 75%. How this is going to change culture, nobody knows. So, if my notion of urbanising pastoral has any value as an idea it’s because it helps us to think about this. I think work like yours in which the oppositions between country and city bleed into each other will be critically important to future poets. I don’t care where you live, Sao Paulo or Shanghai, or what your specific literary tradition is, that’s something you’re going to have to reckon with. You’re trying to express what it’s like to inhabit this sort of space. Ultimately, I don’t think you’re representing the space as helping to produce it. Your work explores the process of inhabiting this space. This is why lyric and experience become so important. You aren’t apart from the setting, you’re a part of the setting.
PR: Yes, though you have to work yourself, write yourself, into that condition, which is in a way the point of starting from an elsewhere, it’s a trek home. The completion of the work should realise this. In the image of the walk, you go on until you reach a point of exhaustion, which is a prosaic, adn external way of giving a sense of completion to a long poem. But the real completion is when all the echoes and recurrences which bind it together somehow add up to a full acknowledgement.
TT: I like the open-endedness of it. You don’t make your experience normative, but you hold your experience out as a potential. You can have this type of experience if you just slow down.
PR: There’s a complaint in the bit you quoted about everywhere you go in modernity there’s a no-parking sign. You’ve got to move on. That is what a pastoral site offers. It’s a place where you can actually stop without being jostled by anything and contemplate, or meditate.
TT: You use that word, meditation, a lot.
PR: Yes, I don’t use it in a technical sense; it’s thinking in an unhurried way, taking a space and thinking into it, thinking in the act of writing, thinking through to a completion, the poem should promote that. If the poem isn’t completable it’s wasting everybody’s time. My most important work in that regard is Sea Watches, a poem set in North Wales. That work does set out with a statement of what I hope to do, of some kind of aim, other works just sort of ramble on.
TT: I think the ramble is important. It is a type of knowledge you’re after.
At the rim of land is a return of knowledge,
spilling from the lip. Several pages of worked
time graft my trust to this fair lecture as
the staves ring out... (10)
PR: Or a vocabulary
TT: One of the things that rescued pastoral from its banishment to the world of kitsch was the way in which natural observations and social criticism come to prominence in the genre. Pastoral works by means of critical oppositions: country/city, artifice/nature, past/present, and without that critical edge you can’t have pastoral. And of course, Alstonefield is imbued with such oppositions.
PR: I’m very interested in the opposition between Blake and Wordsworth. Blake’s pastoral is Virgilian, shepherds and flocks, that sort of allegory of care and innocence, and their betrayal. Of course, he hated the idea of nature poetry. It became more and more difficult to conduct that kind of pastoral, I suppose, as scientific insight into natural process increased and the pastures where it happened were enclosed. And of course the Church had attempted to appropriate the ‘pastoral’ vocabulary. But at that time Blake and Wordsworth were equally valid in their implicit opposition to each other. Either could have been attacked as ‘pastoral’ in different ways if anyone had wanted to. If you look at some of the attacks on Wordsworth from the coffee-house poets of his time, they are saying precisely, ‘What are you doing up there in those irrelevant hills? It’s all happening here in the metropolis.’ And this is still being said. I get that myself sometimes. There are even those who make out that an interest in rurality somehow implies ‘fascism’. But Wordsworth looked at the countryside around him and saw soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars wandering around the country destitute. The countryside was maybe a more direct theatre of result. I mean rather than knowing what is happening in the world from political and media sources, you witness what is happening to people, even at a great distance from the causative events, and can enunciate what they gain or lose in an unprogrammed perceptual realm.
TT: Pastoral remains very much misunderstood. It’s not necessarily an idyllic mode and not a form of nostalgia for lost places and traditions. Its vitality as a critical genre is under-appreciated. Its ability to frame the complex relationship of country and city is only becoming more important now on an increasingly urbanized globe. But you were talking searching for a vocabulary.
PR: One of the things that Sea Watches worked out is that you can get an image or a representation or a projection of what it is to be a human body from images of sea and waves and plants, when you touch a certain depth which connects. There are images in there of salt in both sea and blood, and of metal in both stones and cars...
TT: For Allen Fisher, he’s interested in proprioception, in the sense Charles Olson gives it, of how the body functions in poetry, but you’re speaking of something else. A sort of vital, direct connection.
PR: Yes, salt blood, salt sea... There are these vocabulary links. You can see salt waves crashing against the rock, that’s something that’s quite deep for bodily reasons. It threatens life but it also is the material of life. It comes at the end of the poem and maybe somehow evokes conception.
TT: What’s interesting to me as I travel the country talking to poets and artists, is how everyone comes to terms with the provisional. For example, Maggie O’Sullivan’s work might have a very different idea of poetic artifice from yours, but her work is saturated with intense observations of the natural world, of people, and tones of language.
PR: There’s another work of mine, which might have more to do with what you’re saying, The Glacial Stairway. This is another excursion poem. It’s to do with a long walk we did in the Pyrenees starting from France and going up one of those enormous valleys of Ariège and over into Andorra. Frankly, I’d rather have followed Pound’s footsteps on the good tracks of Perigord and ‘the inn by the river’ with its lovely provincial French food. But all that has been erased; you can only go to the wilderness now. Like Alstonefield, it has all this business of things invading your mind while you’re walking. A sort of prelinguistic condition of thought is explored as the poem moves over the mountains. The going up and the going down are much more important than in Alstonefield, because unlike the Peak District, these are real mountains. Uphill creates a struggling kind of thinking, or a struggling towards thinking, a tussling with problems and questions, like ‘Why are we doing this?’ Then the descent is swifter, and elicits a different quality of thought, more progressive. But none of this ‘thinking’ is ever entirely articulate. It gets to the capital city of Andorra and the poem changes its structure there. You’ll find it saying there some of the things you’ve mentioned about the city’s dereliction. I feel I’m saying that in a different way by focusing on a city or town which is a kind of parody of the modern city. Actually it’s rather like the ‘City’ of London: nobody lives there.
TT: You do hear Roy Fisher in the background here too. But where Fisher takes the city on directly, you keep your distance a bit. You see the city as dangerous, but also the place of human commonality. The city is both urban dereliction, source of pollution, but also a space where sociality lingers in however attenuated a form, which you can’t simply disregard, because what else is there? If that’s vagary, then that’s an interesting, profound predicament to articulate. It’s a predicament we’re still in.
PR: It’s also to do with sociality being drained from the countryside into the city from the enclosures onwards. This is one reason why I have taken such an interest in Transylvania, which we’ve been to eight or nine times now. Particularly in the north, in an area called Maramures which has been described as the last true peasant society in Europe. There you can see a sociality that has not been drained into the city, whatever problems they have, whatever toil and hardships they put up with, there is still a strong sociality there, an independence. It was also the music that brought us there, as the local musicians haven’t been creamed off into the conservatoires, but still work in the community with their own ways of modernisation. It was mainly discovering how such a place is not static, but moves ahead or ‘develops’ in its own terms.
TT: Christopher Logue talks about his accounts of Homer being faithful to the sense of the poems as music, not as epic. There’s a vitality to that. It’s interesting that you bring music up in this context of a peasant society.
PR: I think we are too quick to see cities as informants of the conditions, rather than more extensive entities like societies or territories. One of my elsewheres is Greece and I’ve developed a sense there in a big sequence of prose poems called Greek Passages, of the rural hinterland as a kind of widespread or dispersed centrality, open to beyond, threatened permanently, from the start, by the appropriatory powers of the metropolis. Also undoubtedly a sense of the beauty and calm of remote places as figuring the most desired mental conditions, in which the best thought is nascent. When I discussed ancient Greece with a Greek acquaintance he said that in his opinion Athens was never a city, but a centre for smallholdings and estates up to 100 miles around. A gathering-point, market-place, exchange, office, oracle, theatre, but not a home. Homer was a peripheral being, he moved round the territory with a performance that focused scattered experiences onto the whole. Once in Maramures I was at a village festival, and a man was introduced to me as the local poet. He had his complete works with him in a thick manuscript book, which was fastened to a chain hung round his neck, so that wherever he went he was ready to recite. This isn’t simply an anachronism. He probably has more readers or listeners than any British poet you or I know. His poems would have been narratives and praise-poems unless they were comic. He moved round the villages, creating a sense of a larger home, which is what poets still do.
There’s a wholeness about villages which urban entities can’t compete with. The village is a working unit, it is its own economy. You can view our cultural clusterings (groups of poets etc.) as metaphorical villages but I think if you do that you should first understand what a village is and how it works, and especially that it isn’t founded on concord, but achieves it by long-term strategies and is constantly at work against threats of dissipation. The only important factors really are that you know everyone, and you do everything that needs to be done on the spot, through mutual aid. When you’ve got that you can afford to be extremely generous to outsiders.
Alstonefield is actually now a dead village, though it wasn’t entirely when I wrote the poem. This has taken place over quite a short time. When we first lived in the Peak District, in the 1970s, house prices were still very low and all sorts of people including young people of low income, were buying little stone houses in the fields, sometimes for under a thousand pounds. It produced a varied society: there were old country people, commuters, professionals like teachers and doctors, retired people, escapees, a real mix. In twenty years the situation has largely reversed. Some of the old crowd are still there, but mostly they found that they were sitting on such valuable real estate that they couldn’t afford not to sell. So they moved back to the city. And house prices just keep on going up, and that results of course in a drainage not only of sociality but of actual inhabitants, as property is only affordable by those who live somewhere else, unless they’ve come there to die. The last time I was in Alstonefield I was there at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It should be a busy time in a village with people coming home from work, children home from school and playing out, a lot of movement in the place. But there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The pub was still closed and the shop and post office had become an art gallery. Tony Baker watched the same thing happen in a larger village he lived in in Derbyshire. Even that place, with a big school and other major institutions, didn’t prove viable. I think the school has gone, there’s only one shop left now, and so on. Just before he left he found he was living among actual millionaires, that’s the society it was becoming. This doesn’t really appear in the poem Alstonefield. As I said, I set such realities aside before starting the poem in order to get at the landscape itself.
TT: Right. You talk about urban despair in Alstonefield, but now you seem to be suggesting that things have definitively changed, that a mode of life has passed into cultural memory at best. Your line ‘Engels didn’t see the angels in the basement’ is interesting in that regard because you don’t say well, Engels got it wrong. But on the other hand, you don’t idealise the character and situation of the English factory workers. You find a middle position.
PR: It’s also like saying Engels didn’t see himself, since that’s what his name means. He was in the grip of that anti-aesthetic dogma which says that only the worst case means anything. I respect him for revealing what he did but I think he was selective both sociologically and ideologically, especially as compared with someone like Mayhew. You do search for the positive gain, whether rural or urban. You find connectives that nurture the positive. If there’s nothing left which will do that but the solid geology, that’s where you go.
The going is the main point of it. At the end of The Glacial Stairway we reach the nadir of the city, city reduced to an office and shop. You can read a lot of comment or opinion into that, but it’s important too that this theatre comes at the end of a long and demanding journey on foot. Again it figures the formal point of exhaustion and the, er, confrontational laterality or something like that, that demands slowness and earthly space for realisation.
TT: Yes, but also what that indicates to me is that the space is itself unsettled and unsettling. My book project has three key terms: urbanizing pastoral, locative hybridity, and urban materialism. The second term designates the fact that all locations are themselves hybrid formations, not stable, defined places. What you’re articulating with this traversal is a locative project. At no point do you say, ‘I’ve arrived.’ That’s important, because if you had, then that would cast a whole different ideological light on the work.
My thought is that locative hybridity has four aspects: biological, machinic, migrational, and temporal. As with the vegetation that gets stripped off of the mountainside, there’s a real intervention into biological and ecological processes. The machines used to do it are part of the cultural habitus. It’s a machinic assemblage that services a leisure industry that ramifies outward in all sorts of directions. Migrational in the sense that people move through spaces and that movement defines those spaces. Andorra’s home to whom? It was an odd French-Spanish principality through which French, Basque, Spanish, Moorish, WWII refugees, all passed, leaving their traces behind. The temporal dimension of hybridity is composed of such traces in the landscape. Place is always hybrid; it’s always unfinished.
PR: It’s the acceleration of the passing-through and the translation of belonging into absentee ownership and profit-taking. This produces an emptiness: you go through empty countryside and when at last you get to the town centre it’s empty. And you talk to a woman in a coffee bar who says this is a weird country, nobody lives here except migrant workers and at that point the mind leaps back to a fullness, to the industrial north of England in the 1910s. So it isn’t a bathetic anticlimax, because there is always an escape, an elsewhere. Perhaps such leaps are things that only poets can do. The question is of a kind of absence and insubstantiality inhabiting the excitement of high-speed gain, and the answer is in the past, and in the slow realisation of the walking but also in the poetical moment which shoots you off from Spain to Manchester in a flash, faster than technology can understand.
TT: This is the sort of locative hybridity that I was talking about earlier, there are temporal and spatial conjunctures in the poem. You can take a modernist technique such as parataxis and then explore its full range. What’s interesting to me here is that it enables you to pursue a narrative and a form of lyric.
As lyric is a condition of poetry, pastoral is a condition of writing, and of other creative processes. It’s the pause and the absencing, the removal, the sighting of possibility, the setting up of a theatre. It’s like an intake of breath (very fast poetry promotes shallow breathing). If it is inhabited by sheep that’s only as a traditional image of caring, shepherding, guarding the resources, which is integral to the creative act. It’s a surface of songs of innocence which clings to experience. The idea that it can of itself become outdated is absurd.
But this doesn’t account for the fact that my writings have a distinct inclination towards the countryside, and towards places which viewed from a hypothetical metropolitan ‘here’ (which I don’t accept) are remote, way out in the hills at the back of beyond, even archaic... Another excuse I make for this (as well as those above) is that it represents the earth itself, our physical condition, as landscape and breadth, as the city can’t, the city is focused inwards. It thus represents the full potential of the human frame in an essentially solitary mode. I wonder if this is true. It’s also about pleasure again, a refusal to be denied certain senses of protection and scope. I think of people in the city looking out of their windows and hating, poetically, everything they see because it is the condition of now, it is power structure and consumption and the spoils of war. Up in the mountains you don’t see these things proclaiming themselves like this. So you have to understand them more thoughtfully, with a broader passion. I don’t know. I can’t explain this inclination towards remoteness. I don’t think I need to. I go to places where you can observe otherness, and experience distance and think quietly. There’s nothing to explain.
PR: As regards actual verbal technique, Pound is probably the most important poet of the past to me.
TT: Important how? As someone you resist or someone whose technique draws you in?
PR: His positioning and cutting of the poetic line. His ability to isolate phrases or sections of language, cutting them apart from each other by a judged turn of lineation, for instance, across a syntactic continuity. In the craft of poetry it opens immense possibilities. Some people have gone into this in great detail, the modern poetic technique of lineation which leaves things in a sense suspended and echoing against each other, and lets some space in. It doesn’t mean he has revolutionised linguistic perception and nothing can ever be the same again, but it does make things like metaphor harder to define, it opens new angles of vision onto the word and I think finds a real function for poetry, a real difference. In The Cantos Pound hardly ever speaks as himself. A chunk of this, a chunk of that, juxtaposed to each other, and hovering, collecting echoes across the work, resonating together. I love that but I think it’s a lyrical technique, an extended concept of song procedures. Pound had the idea of the poet as the master, the one who sees the whole problem and can put things right but some kind of reluctance in connection with poetry makes him shrink from declaration in favour of presentation.
One of the things that worries me about a lot of modern poetry is that it sets itself up above all other forms of discourse as knowing better. We know better than the politicians, the anthropologists, the scientists, anybody on earth. We have an over-language, which you know, I don’t believe. I once upset a number of people by saying that I thought the role of poetry was decorative. TT: what did you mean by that? That would really piss a lot of people off. PR: It did, but I was questioning the concept of depth that we’ve inherited and which we can so easily slide into without proper consideration, particularly in the fashionable assumption that all our real meanings lie under the surface. This is a pseudo-scientific development in literary studies and poetry writing which devotes all its energies to the act of undermining, specifically to excavate the existential dread and guilt which are said to stand at our roots, on the assumption that our world has completely collapsed or rotted away. A lot of poets really seem to believe this, or write as if they do. By saying that poetry is ‘decorative’ (another way I put it was that poetry is ‘all about daffodils’) I’m saying that its function is to relieve stress rather than exacerbate it, to hearten and embolden rather than to accuse and shame. It doesn’t mean I’m promoting illusion or denying possibilities of crisis. But I do think that if you abandon a healing function for poetry you’re left with nothing but a wounding function, which some poets do seem to get excited by, even with its inherent solipsism and élitism.
Perhaps it is the fate of some poets to enact an anger which the public world won’t validate. But if you’re not going to read some serious studies of what’s happened to society then you’re not in a position to issue a critique. You’ve got to know how it works, but most poets don’t even know how government works, they don’t know how Parliament works, but they have plenty of critique. I don’t claim to know a lot of these things, which is why I prefer the role of witness to that of overseer, which is why I vagarise. But you know there are a lot of places in this country where you can see poets of various kinds charging into subjects they haven’t studied and don’t fully understand: politics, music, history, painting, translation of course, many things, sustained by some sense of superior understanding just by being a poet.
TT: What’s interesting is that you’re abandoning the position of the master. Your position is about the acquisition of knowledge, not the imposition of an attitude.
PR It’s ultimately a question of scale. Because I don’t think contemporary poetry techniques can reach the scale which they intend in their implications and assumptions. I don’t think scale can subsist in implication. The sense of scale that interests me is a quite old-fashioned one which relies on an extended process of narrative or meditation, following a route or accumulating fragments of experience or just going on until you reach what seems to be an ‘end’ which behaves in the summary way that endings are expected to, which asks ‘Well, what have we learned from all this?’
TT: You were talking about having a difficulty knowing if the piece is a whole, if it is finished. So many of the people I’ve been talking to talk about cyclical or fragmented composition: Ken Edwards, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Alan Halsey. Bill Griffiths said that writing in cycles helps him adhere to the jagged edge of the language. There are different rationales, but there isn’t coherence necessarily, it embraces the contingent and provisional
PR: I tend to think of several of the people you’ve mentioned, especially Maggie O’Sullivan, Geraldine Monk and Bill Griffiths, as oral poets, with writers like Joyce behind them. That’s their method of tackling these things, the voice, especially Bill Griffiths with his interest in things like Anglo-Saxon poetry; it has that rotund quality of voicing about it, which is anti-formal, on the edge of infantile language. I’m not sure what ‘cyclic’ means. Things coming round again at regular intervals? That’s surely very formal. I’m not interested in formalism at all, but I do see poetry as a written thing. It’s not to do with performance either. I admire a good professional performance of poetry but I can’t place it at the centre of the craft. I’ve always seen poetry as a written thing on the page, and so my interest in Pound with his carving of the linearity, creating hiatus and silences between things, is very much a written thing too. Chinese poetry too, if you can get at it without all the spaces filled in by translators. A lot of my poetry if you read it aloud, it goes on in a quite normal sort of way, so you don’t get the important lineation that’s on the page.
TT: That’s Williams as well, many of his poems read like sentences though they’re clearly lineated differently on the page. The poem may be left-justified, but it’s clearly a sentence.
PR: Over a long period I’ve questioned my dislike of the end-stopped line, that it is authoritarian and artificial. In fact it isn’t necessarily either and my lineation has changed a lot since my early days. It was a much more broken lineation, almost always ending the lines in the middle of a grammatical structure, enjambement. There’s much less of that in the line now, and I sometimes correct it out of my earlier poems, in favour of a sense of steadiness. Excess enjambement gives a kind of nervy, syncopated effect, a manic hyper-active alienation, hesitation, a constant moment-by-moment refusal, which I think of as American. The best British exponents are John Temple and Tony Baker.
I don’t believe that you can have epic scale without sheer length, that the lyric or for that matter the anti-lyric can be so beaten-about like a tough piece of steak until its fibres break into totality, or that extent can be enjoined without the possibility of telling, with the mechanisms of telling demolished on the page like bits of a burnt chariot-wheel. In the 1960s-70s I and others took a lot of interest in American poetry, and I think the most valid reason for this was seeking to augment the scope of poetry, to gain a sense of large-scale spread, across the nation across the earth, anchored on the person.. Deep breath and extent of vision and free-ranging focus. Maybe we did find some of that there but not so much in the big works, not in the pseudo-epics. There’s no real poetical size in The Cantos or Maximus. They both, the latter especially, are little more than a diary–you read in certain ways and follow certain obsessions and note it down from day to day, poeticising it in one way or another, including a rather perverse denial of reader’s rights. A journal doesn’t make an epic, it doesn’t even begin to. And it’s simply not true that a distorted text ‘projected’ at the reader in violation of connective tissue gains an enhanced access to the soul. All it does is set up its own obstacles to itself. Anyway there’s no size in these works because there’s no possible ending; it stops when you fall exhausted, or actually die. All my ‘walking’ poems re-enact this structure rather ironically. I think the valuable work of Olson and Pound is in smaller-scale works, actual poems, where a passionate concern for the whole doesn’t hide itself behind crackpot world-orders, or the one-man university takes time off to sing a sharp song or two.
It takes some pain for me to say that because I have been possessed by the ambitions of such people and especially Pound’s example in a way made the whole thing possible. Their collapse was an acute disappointment. I don’t now find it possible to work at scale at all except in the rather grim hope that the exposure of authenticity will reach further than the horizon. I did amaze myself at how long that process could be extended in Alstonefield and what it could be witness to when it lost its homiletic burden. I’ve thought recently that the kind of poetic texture I now have may disclose properties of pre-thought, ‘the theatre of what is not yet [fully] languaged’ and which may not yet have fallen to any form of interest. A suspended thing, maybe worth harbouring. What else could all this modernity be for?
Donald Davie, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric. 1986.
Davis, Mike. Dead Cities, and Other Tales. New York: New Press, 2002.
Griffiths, Bill. A Book of Spilt Cities. Buckfastleigh, UK: Etruscan Books, 1999.
Ladkin, Sam. ‘Problems for Lyric Poetry.’ Complicities. Eds. Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves. Prague: Literraria Pragensia, 2007.
Riley, Denise. The Words of Selves. 2000
Riley, Peter. ‘Sea Watches’ in Passing Measures. Carcanet 2000
–––. Alstonefield: a poem. Carcanet 2003
–––. A Map of Faring. Parlor Press (USA) 2005
–––.‘The Glacial Stairway’ . Part I in PN Review 174, 2007. Part II in fragmente 9, 2007.
Todd Thorpe is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame, working on a dissertation entitled Poetry, Modernity, and Urbanization from Twentieth-Century Chicago to Twenty-First-Century London. He spent six weeks in the summer of 2007 traveling through England and Scotland interviewing poets and artists on a grant from the Nanovic Institute. The following interview began in Cambridge at Peter Riley’s house and has been finished via email. Thanks to Peter and his wife for their hospitality last June and to Peter for continuing the conversation since.