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.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thomas Kinsella’s Dublins

There are established personal places
that receive our lives’ heat
and adapt in their mass, like stone.

(Thomas Kinsella, from ‘Personal Places’)

It’s a critical commonplace that Irish writers are wedded to place, that their imaginations are awakened by the lure of specific territories: think of Joyce’s Dublin or Patrick MacCabe’s small town Ireland. Or think how Seamus Heaney’s recent District and Circle circles and remaps terrain familiar from forty years of previous work. Or again, how Roy Fisher’s poems grow out of Birmingham. ‘Birmingham’s what I think with,’ he once said, and it’s true of many poets that their places are part of their thinking apparatus, their essential imaginative equipment. It would be impossible to even think of Kavanagh without thinking of the places that were his subject. Sligo, Iniskeen, Barrytown, Raglan Road are planted squarely on the Irish literary map along with Eccles St and the Martello tower in Sandycove, yet not every writer uses place this overtly or identifiably – for some place is an underground stream pulsing deeply but mysteriously and only occasionally breaking the surface to course across the social, political and civic. For poets place is always as much a mindscape as it is a landscape.

Thomas Kinsella, whose own work is itself like an underground stream running out of sight of contemporary poetry, is like this. There are few bus tours to the area from Bow Lane to Basin Lane where he grew up and where so much of his work is set. Even if it is within sight of the Brewery, his Dublin will sell few beers, and doesn’t enter the Ireland that gets onto tea-towels or aeroplane headrests. And indeed, from the outset of his career he was seen as a poet who somehow transcended place, as if he were too magisterial for the mortar of the real. For me part of the thrill of the closing lines of ‘Baggot Street Deserta’, ‘My quarter-inch of cigarette/Goes flaring down to Baggot Street’ may have come from the fact that I could picture that trajectory, that I had been in Baggot Street and stubbed out cigarettes on the pavement, but for John Jordan in an early review there was ‘little or nothing in his verse (‘Baggot Street Deserta’ could as well be ‘King’s Road Deserta’ ) to suggest involvement with the city.’ This is both true and not true; it’s true in the sense that there is no overt memorialising of the city in the work, no comforting topographical identification, no sense of the city as city in the epic sense of Joyce’s Dublin, but it misses the poet’s intense and multi-faceted relationship with several Dublins: the city of his childhood with its narrow streets and dark yards; the Georgian city of his young adulthood, and the mangled boom-town with its ‘Invisible speculators, urinal architects,/and the Corporation flourishing their documents/in potent compliant dance...’

Had Kinsella been a different kind of poet and written more directly about his Dublins, he might have mapped them onto our consciousness. But by the time he turned his imagination on his city in earnest, his style had shifted from the crystalline clarities of his earlier work to a suggestive indirection, as he began to explore his own origins; many of the poems in the volume which marks a turning point in his career, New Poems 1973, are extraordinarily detailed recollections of his childhood, with a deliberate troubled intensity of focus that slows time down and creates a series of friezes as in ‘A Hand of Solo’, ‘Ancestor’, ‘Tear’ or ‘Hen Woman’

There was a tiny movement at my feet,
tiny and mechanical; I looked down.
A beetle like a bronze leaf
was inching across the cement...


there is no end to that which,
not understood, may yet be noted
and hoarded in the imagination. . .

These and later poems of dawning consciousness and ‘blood and family’ and were both preternaturally clear in their sharply focused attention on details of places and people and at the same time slightly blurred, their back stories withheld, their architectonics complicated. To read them is to be plunged without preamble or introduction into their immediate, urgent world. ‘I was going to say something/and stopped.’ (‘Ancestor’)


I was sent in to see her.
A fringe of jet drops
chattered at my ear
as I went in through the hangings.

I was swallowed in chambery dusk...

They’re also strangely self-sufficient – they confound the usual expectation of resolution and closure and are open-ended, the dynamic intensely personal. What stops them from sinking into unmediated privacy is the force of their realisation as verbal objects. The paradox of Kinsella’s work is that it often uses very personal material with the flinty objectivity of a Tribunal report. It is part of the process to which the poet subjects his material in order to extract the essentials. The challenge for readers as they follow the poet on his journey to the interior is to learn how to read a poet who resists the usual comforts. Eamon Grennan has said his poems must be experienced rather than understood, and Dennis O’Driscoll once likened reading him to adjusting to the dark in a cinema: ‘you do gradually become accustomed to the kind of atmosphere and the kind of light that you’re working in.’

Our sense of Kinsella, and Kinsella’s Dublin, is greatly amplified by a new book, Thomas Kinsella: A Dublin Documentary, published by O’Brien Press, which presents twenty key Kinsella poems alongside comments, family photographs, prints and other material. The book places Kinsella solidly in his Dublin context and charts the growth of his self-awareness as man and poet. Much of what would have been inferred about the life is now explicit. It fills in gaps, names names: the Kinsellas and the Casserlys and their lives in Inchicore and Kilmainham, a brief spell in Manchester and the family’s return to a Dublin ‘of displacement and unemployment, and short stays in strange houses’. It fleshes out the gallery of strong, definite characters that people the poems: the ‘Boss’ Casserly, Grandfather Kinsella the repairer of shoes and their formidable wives, both of whom ran small shops in their houses:

It was in a world dominated by these people that I remember many things of importance happening to me for the first time. And it is in their world that I came to terms with these things as best I could, and later set my attempts at understanding.

A great deal of Kinsella’s poetic energy still streams from these places and people and that growing self-awareness. Many familiar poems now appear accompanied by family photographs or laconic comments, such as the following after ‘Hen Woman’ : ‘A scene ridiculous in its content, but of early awareness of self and process: of details insisting on their survival, regardless of any immediate significance’. ‘All of these poems,’ he reminds us after ‘38 Phoenix Street’, ‘whatever their differences, have a feature in common: a tendency to look inward for material – into family or self.’

Kinsella’s work in the Land Commission and later the Department of Finance at a time of rapid economic expansion gave another dimension to his work but also further reinforced his steely methodology as a poet. His days began with a walk into Government Buildings and a view of the vista that would give his own Peppercanister Press its name when he began issuing his work in carefully worked sequences, applying the same thoroughgoing control to the process of publication as he applied to the material itself. The Department helped him, he says here, ‘towards viewing things directly. Staying with the relevant data, and transmitting them complete.’

The relevant data, for Kinsella, include the full span of human experience and the huge variety of response the human spirit and psyche has evolved to process it. This means that you can never separate the public from the private Kinsella, you can’t say here is the Dublin of personal memory and here is the public entity, or here is the public and here the private voice. The nature of his pursuit is to find a way of writing which incorporates all of these and moves, often disconcertingly, from one to the other, from Robert Emmet on the scaffold to a Malton print of Thomas St in 1792 and on to the murmur of personal recollection.

The bus tours may not be about to start, but Thomas Kinsella here gives us a valuable key to understanding some of the ‘established personal places’ that continue to absorb and radiate his imagination’s heat.

With acknowledgements to The Irish Times, where this piece first appeared

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hugo Claus

Interesting piece by J.M Coetzee in the Guardian on the Flemish writer Hugo Claus. Claus is an extraordinarily prolific novelist and playwright as well as a poet who who has published over 1300 pages of poetry. The Guardian also reprints 'Ten ways of Looking at PB Shelley', one of the poems which Coetzee translated in Landscape with Rowers - An Anthology of Dutch Poetry which came out a couple of years ago. Some of Claus's work is also featured on Poetry International's site here.
A brief review of Greetings can be found at the complete-review.

Selective translations of poetry

Selected poems, 1953-1973. Portree : Aquila Poetry, 1986.
The sign of the hamster. Leuven : Leuvense Schrijversaktie (European Series 65), 1986.
Greetings - Selected poems. New York: Harcourt Brace, 2005.
Landscape with Rowers - Anthology of Dutch Poetry. Edited and translated by J.M. Coetzee. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

In the graveyard

I'm putting this up for a couple of weeks as people have been looking for it. It seems to be on the list for a poetry speaking competition. The book can be tricky to get outside Dublin (though you can try Gallery Press if you want to feel virtuous and buy a copy). Just don't forget, if you win the competition you'll have to send me a large amount of money.

In the graveyard

They lived and died in the same place.
The same names occurring, same big skies above.
This close, they must move still in their cottages
and walk their fields, or stand now watching
the mountains purpling in the last sun
and hear the sea turning onto the slope of the beach
its calm, insistent weight. The air’s crowded with them
as they move and watch and listen, no-one
having told them otherwise. And if
absentmindedly they drift back here
to this silent field, they’ll find
the gate locked before them and their names
unreadable on the stones. They’ll walk back towards the village
and climb into their beds, whatever was theirs still theirs.

from Nonetheless, Gallery Press, 2004.