‘the more diversions the better': Peter Riley on The Glacial Stairway

13 Jan 2012

Photo credit: Kathy Riley

Peter Riley is an English poet whose work embraces both experimental and ancestral modes, and is often concerned with landscape, the processes that have gone into its formation and ways of traversing it. He lives in Cambridge, and during the 1960s he co-edited the Cambridge-based poetics worksheet The English Intelligencer (1965-1968). He has published a wide range of collections, the most well-known of which are perhaps Alstonefield, a book-length circumnavigation of an area of the Peak District, and a selected poems entitled Passing Measures. This Saturday (14.01.12) sees a conference on his work at Birkbeck College; an apposite time to share an interview with Peter on his most recent collection, The Glacial Stairway.


Interview by Dan Eltringham, conducted by email.


The Literateur: The opening of the poem ‘The Glacial Stairway’ seems to place the walking and remembering speaker/poet in a Wordsworthian frame, recalling an earlier visit to the same Pyrenean pass, as Wordsworth does at the beginning of ‘Tintern Abbey’ with the Wye. But as the poem unfolds it becomes increasingly apparent that any desire to write a poem of personal development in relation to a natural constant has to get round the problem of post-industrial society, and the insignificance of poetry as a medium for dealing with it (‘Had I brain and courage, I would chuck all this poetry in the skip’). A couple of questions on these themes:

How can poetry engage with economic and environmental issues? Does it need to? And ought that engagement to be on a formal level too? I am thinking especially here of your reaction to the light-wasting ‘funland’ of Vegas at the beginning of the travelogue ‘Western States (1)’….

Peter Riley: It would be wrong to think of it as a project, as if I’d decided to do something like ‘Tintern Abbey’, plotting the passing of time against natural permanence, but was diverted from this by an awareness of how the Andorran economy works. What began it all was simply that walk, which gave me a route and a shape, a plot for the poem to follow, in which the physical and the intellectual could share the same trajectory. Awareness of the socio-economic reality was thus integral to the first intent. I don’t mean I conceived of the poem as I walked – I never do that – I mean that in the writing I always knew where it was going because I’d already been there. It was going to have, eventually, to go down into that pit. Meanwhile the more diversions the better.

Like Alstonefield it mimics how the mind disports itself when you’re out walking and becomes inventive and acute in new ways because you have escaped from your everyday awareness and have nothing to direct you except the surface of the earth. It gets quite extravagant and talks of chucking poetry, and finds itself quoting parts of lyrics in remote and lost languages. This all belongs within the same area of concern, about what happens to cultures.

There’s a question here of the status of the textual voice, of exactly who makes those remarks in the poem. The separation of authorial and textual voices has now become a commonplace, as in the attempts to defend Larkin as if the poems were written by someone else – that clearly won’t do. The poet’s attitudes and beliefs always deeply inform the poetry, and I think it’s only in lyrical poetry that you can make that separation strongly. All the vagaries in that poem are mine (vagary is a kind of speciality of mine) and the gesture about chucking poetry in the skip is one of them, one of several points throughout which question the wilful venturing stance of the narrative. This renunciation is also contradicted elsewhere and the voice of the poem, whoever’s it is, also mocks itself at times.

The descent into Andorra, Part II of the poem, the reluctant descent into the commercial centre, and the escape from Andorra in the hope of sanity, these are, I think, a vindication of poetry’s power to make a theatre of our condition, which is not to solve it or critique it, but to display the hopes and fears whizzing round the place in a vibrant, engaging language and to make some sort of cohering work out of it all. That’s the hope of it anyway. I don’t know any reason why anyone couldn’t write a poem of personal development (or simply ageing) in relation to an apparent natural constant at any time; the condition is always there, and the constants are there however great the apparent circumstantial transformation, like a place the size of Wales changing from a peasant economy growing tobacco to a tax-evasion haven, and the constants are not just mountains and stars and rivers but also a living human faculty for which I might still be prepared to use the word “soul”.

But to get to your actual question, poetry engages with economic and environmental issues because we live them, personally and intellectually. They are so built into our perception that it hardly seems necessary, sometimes, to mention them, they’re in our breathing. The qualities of the writing, its virtues, are self-sufficient. They offer to be taken up into other areas outside the poem, even into politics, but are not bound to anything except the poem. A “political poem” without writerly qualities defeats its own message. A writerly virtue like “eloquence” is also political; to ask a poem to be eloquent is asking it to recognise certain forms of reality in the human condition, such as our ability to cope with harm and stand above it. It is actually a form of clarity, it means to speak out.

Generally I find it better to leave direct political engagement out of it, or just register the evidence, because I don’t want to step outside the personal earth-theatre in which the poem acts. That’s a theatre of living on earth rather than recommendations for improvement of the arrangements. If it works it’s a total theatre, hinged on the particular. Poetry must be the most inappropriate medium possible for preaching to the world, directly or through linguistic encryptment. It would defeat itself by its very nature because poetry isn’t only sharp and perceptive and incisive, it’s also obliged to be, well, entertaining in some way, or delightful, and always was however serious it got, before modernism. Even Pound recognised this necessity, at first. Or anyway, why should poetry take upon itself a task that prose does so much better?

My remarks about Las Vegas just rehearse what everybody knows really, while registering a stranger’s astonishment. The lack of main verbs, here and in other places, is a habit I seem to have got into which allows me to posit a moral position from a distant platform. I name it, as I think it is, propositionally, without letting the self take hold of it in an active idiom of event and declaration. I like to leave the reader some space around the percept. “Stranger” is exactly my position in a lot of these pieces, including the ones which are entirely at home.

TL: There are many concerns expressed in The Glacial Stairway about the depredations of the market and its effect on various more entrenched, slower-moving, traditional ways of life, with whom the poetic voice frequently aligns itself (‘we share a condition, of/having been betrayed)’. The ‘fiscal paradise’ of Andorra; villages cleared to build hotels – to what extent is The Glacial Stairway a statement of assessment on modernity and its interaction with what we might call ‘pre-modern’ ways of life?

Much of The Glacial Stairway involves non-urban places – in Greece, Italy, Provence – is there a poetics of retreat at work here? If so, how is it different to the way retreat from modernity is traditionally conceived of in nature poetry?

PR: I’ve brought these together because I think they’re the same question. Basically I can’t accept the dichotomy, which assumes the cultural condition of western Europe as central and optimal and to look away from it a “retreat”. Our experiential scope is greater than that. The places I visit are no more “entrenched” than central Manchester, and probably a good deal faster-moving, and they participate in more than the local market. This turns out to be why I went there and what I found. Actually the USA is about the most “primitive” place I’ve been to, in various respects. You don’t evade modernity by going to rural Transylvania, which I do from time to time, it follows you there and it meets you there, it meets you in your separation from what you witness and in your harmonisation with it.

I do think it’s salutary to get to know elsewheres, or at any rate it is for my temperament a necessary venture, perhaps because elsewhere is where I come from, though I recognise that other writers may have no use for it at all. And certainly I’ve been concerned to delineate value in terms which are foreign to us, especially of course in the book of travel sketches, The Dance at Mociu. But my idea is that it’s not a nostalgic exercise, rather a broadening one, that the faculties are exercised to their fullness in a remote Carpathian village as much as anywhere else, the visitor’s as well as the local’s. The sense of time-lapse is inevitable, faced for instance with strip-farming, but you have to understand how the place works within that apparent time-warp, and that nothing there is enviable as such or for its charm, but only as it has been achieved, in for instance the operations of a cohesive local society, all the interlocking functions, and how care is built into the inherited structure and maintained there. And indeed sometimes it’s clear that such achievement is not possible here in those terms, but that then implies the question about what is possible here, by what strategies, or is like a cultural reminder, weighing up gain and loss against what obtains in different conditions. Of course we have lost a great deal, socially, compared with these places, but there are reasons for that, and concomitant gains.

As for “nature” I take it as obvious that exposure to the raw details of the bionosphere is good for you and it would be silly to think otherwise. Air water and distance, plants, stones, birds, weather and all the rest of it. Tremendous ranges of imagery, the imagination liberated as the feet and lungs are, and entirely modern. I’m actually not interested in it until the human spirit is manifest, and sometimes you can see the place as an interactive and shaping force for the self as for the society that lives in it. And I’m happy to indicate the distinctions, the foreign beauties of the place, Mediterranean heat and light etc…I don’t think it’s appropriatory, because the self is seriously caught up in it, and the confrontation stands in a historical process.

Cover art: Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham

TL: There also seems to be quite a lot of anger in the voice, would you say that’s accurate? If so, why, against what?

PR: Do you think so? Compared with the embittered fury which motivates a lot of the young poets I come across in this neck of the woods, I’m Beatrix Potter. Of course there is always a lot to complain about. Especially it has become starkly evident lately that management of the big economy is faulty, and has been for a long time. In fact the quality of life of half the population of the earth is currently being reduced because of the acts of a bunch of gangsters who gambled recklessly with the global economy and helped themselves to untold billions of public money, only to be patted on the back and told not to worry by the various politicians whose job is to arrange for their populations to foot the bill. You realise this when you travel around on the other side of Europe and find that there too almost everybody has been affected, everything is cut back, everybody’s ambitions have been curtailed, quite apart from all those who suffer actual hardship as a direct result.

Yes there is some anger, which is, or should be, directed towards injustices and despoliations which could have been prevented. I get particularly angry about the refusal of the British radical left to engage in practical politics, thus leaving the door open for the far right to walk into power, and look where that’s got us. There is also a lot of regret, which I look on as a larger condition, less specific, something that everyone knows and if they say not I don’t believe them. Anger doesn’t easily produce hope, but on the other hand regret goes hand-in-hand with nostalgia, so you have to be careful.

Beyond what’s in the news, there is a kind of modern melancholy which I think is essential to our condition; without it we’d just be in torpor. And I think there are complicated reasons for that which are to do with industrialisation and population levels and logistics but extend further. Senses of belonging and continuity became problematic, since at least the 18th Century, and the social structure has suffered distortions which seem to be getting worse. A lot of poetical militancy might just be an attempt to evade a resigned sadness which is our reality. But of course I grew up through the crazy and idealistic 1960s, and when you remember the serious dreams that lurked among all that nonsense, and the hopes given rise to, you get a sense of reversal, that societal time is going backwards: re-entrenchment of class system, return of all the authoritarian and militaristic structures, immense divisiveness, government completely out of touch with the realities of living here, really not a clue, just waving big sticks at us, and the police out of control again, and so on. You can’t dismiss regret with all this going on, and my generation did come out of their twenties thinking things were improving in a steady and irrevocable way and could only go on like that. That is, moving into a more and more egalitarian society. Then someone comes along and sets the whole machine into reverse. But to me it is a large issue, and specific temporal conditions have to be weighed against personal and nostalgic forms of regret. There may be forms of regret or melancholy which are existential. The Elizabethans thought so.

TL: A word that recurs with different senses and in different contexts throughout The Glacial Stairway is ‘structure’. It seems the poet is constantly trying to read things encountered structurally – the ‘unreal structure’ of credit finance, the indecisive and lonely world ‘An elite or egalitarian structure’ – what is the significance of connecting these sorts of political and social structures with structure as an organisational principle in your poetry?

PR: I don’t really do organisational principles. The poem grows from a starting-point, which may be a first line, or a title, or a quotation, or a vague picture or image field or the memory of a place, or a sense of a possible tone, a possible weighting, with a feeling that any of these might lead on to somewhere, might reveal something. And from there it grows and finds its form, which is sometimes determined by the intuitive construction of what becomes the first stanza, say it’s a six-line one I might go on writing six-line stanzas for the rest of the poem, though there are no rules in this. I never start from a message that I want to deliver; the message is discovered in the working through of the poem’s materials. And it ends when it’s reached somewhere which consummates the issue or which releases the inhering message preferably in a quite dramatic or rhythmically decisive gesture, though there are also codas sometimes. I used to be involved in improvised music as a listener, reviewer and occasional impresario. There structure is, of course, a non-existent entity until it’s all over. But there are structures all round us, from garden sheds to governmental systems and they’re not all constructed the same way. I look upon my intuitive structuring as a suitable process for a certain kind of fairly modest poetical production, quite disconnected from other structurings, justified as it leads to or is faithful to trustworthy perceptions of the world. That would include a sense of our failure, sometimes nothing else. And indeed I don’t think political, economic or social structures are necessarily wrong in themselves, but only as they fail us, which they often do.

Or to put it differently, in fact to contradict myself, what I’m interested in is how we evade structures. That is, we get by, in the most daunting conditions short of actual warfare. The structures are like mountains and in their shadows we build bars and gardens, both full of lights and music.

TL: It is common in what some people call ‘experimental’ poetics to focus on process, and in The Glacial Stairway there are several pieces whose formal structure are concerned with expressing time and/or distance in a graphical or systematic way (especially the walk-poem ‘King’s Cross to SOAS’). How did you arrive at such methods, and what do you think they can do that more traditional verse can’t?

PR: As above, the notion of a possible trajectory carries with it the sense of an appropriate disposition of the writing on the page and the previsioning of that is part of the initial impulse. The type of emotion, even the type of thought involved in, say, ‘Shining Cliff’ is so different from that of ‘King’s Cross to SOAS’ (though they may share the same kind of message in the end) that they demand different formats. I guess I work between two extremes – the natural obscurity of song, and the open telling of narrative. The two versions of ‘Western States’ at the end of the book stretch this contrast as far out as possible, expanding the distance between them to a maximum, while covering the same ground. I wouldn’t call it a system I don’t think. If it works the form and the content guide each other through the text.

These procedures are all quite closely related to traditional genres I think. The short poems or sets of them embrace the meaning of that abused word “lyric”, the more expansive pieces recall traditional narrative writing in prose or verse, and of course ‘Aria with Small Lights’, like a lot of other pieces in the past, apes traditional procedure closely and irreverently in its not-quite-strict end-rhyming. Like agreeing to a discipline and then occasionally playing truant. I’m very fond of traditional verse and sometimes like to have the poem look like it, in regular sections on the page, even when there are no traditional metrics at work. The forms and appearance of poems have a lot to say in themselves. A sense of stability is just as important to me as disruption. In fact neither makes sense without the other.

TL: The Glacial Stairway includes some versions of poems by the 8th Century Chinese poet Li Ho, having reached this form through several translations and re-workings by 20th Century scholars. In what ways can translation be a poetic act?

PR: I guess that in poetry translation is a kind of collaboration but one which can embrace contrariety, especially when the original author has been dead for half a millennium. I take something not only not by me but also, in this case, quite alien in many ways to what my poetry normally does, with all that languorous aristocratic beauty, and make it at least partly mine, by working on small details. To realise points in it which I can recognise as my sense harmonising with something very far away, and so to come to terms with it. Thus emphasising, for instance, Li Ho’s lamenting of the servile and deprived condition of the palace women. A claim is made that those aristocratic forms of beauty are now open to the commoner as a right. It takes a lot of work and concentration over a long period of time. Some of the most unreadable poetry books I’ve ever seen are the “collected poems” of major foreign poets ruthlessly translated into English as if the translator is a kind of postal worker. Sometimes made worse by a grim determination to represent the metrics of the original.

TL: When The Literateur interviewed Sean Bonney, we began one question with a quotation from your Alstonefield – ‘I could go South, / to the heart of smooth success [. . . ] And come back up here three times a year /for humanity’ – and really, I’d like to ask you a similar question about the existence (or not) of a north/south divide in British poetry, but differently accented. How do you think your writing might have been different had you stayed in the north?

PR: I love the north of England. Apart from the hills, there’s a sense of personal openness and directness, no-nonsense, no frills, and determined and cheerful resourcefulness in comparative poverty. I suppose when it comes to the reality that’s all folklore – what you actually get is the same conditions as anywhere else. But northern hard-headed straightforwardness is a healthy fiction to cultivate as an antidote to the cryptic mannerisms of the southern poetry gangs.

Actually I don’t know any reason why my poetry would necessarily be any different if I’d stayed in the north (and it wasn’t very far north, really, just up beyond the Midlands). I trust I’d still know what was going on in poetry from Cornwall to Orkney if not further, and after all there are no barriers to this information for those who are interested. Where you live makes a difference, perhaps, at that formative stage when poets band together in exclusive groups, but all you can do after that is break it up, you have to; the only people who want the categories you create to become part of history are the academics. In the late 1960s I was in touch with people from the north who wrote a plain-speaking socialistic poetry virtually without figuration of any kind, which they probably thought was “northern” and to some degree they might have been right. But they erected a wall round this poetry, fed it to each other exclusively, turned their backs on alternatives, and we never heard from them again. I think this was a pity. There were possibilities of interaction which were closed. Groupings I knew in the south-east did exactly the same thing.

TL: One of the poems in The Glacial Stairway features the line ‘forgive me if I write badly’. A slightly facetious question, but since the text suggests it – what, do you think, does it mean to write badly, if anything?

PR: All over the poetry world people are throwing around the words “good” and “bad” and nobody hardly ever has a shadow of an aesthetic belief to support those judgements. Normally it’s gut reaction, opportunism, or surrender to endorsed attitudes, conformity to established procedures – and this happens at the “innovative” end of the spectrum as much as anywhere else. Occasionally it’s political, but the attempts I’ve seen to state an aesthetic basis for evaluating poetry have mostly been pathetic. “Poetry is a kind of magic” and so forth. Or the most abstruse philosophical critiques can be seen to be founded on pre-determined aesthetic choices. Most poets, let’s face it, make judgements which support their own poetry. In the commercialist zones, but not only there, were are told not merely what is “good” but also what is “best”, and we are told it again and again. And the prizes and the appointments repeat it. The cast of this theatre of the superlative constantly changes, but the sales-talk doesn’t and hasn’t for at least 40 years. Poets are elevated ridiculously in a quest for heroic achievement which I think is neurotic. Poets are not in fact all that much better than one another. But it’s not only in the big publicity routines, it’s also in the avant-garde claques. The poet Douglas Oliver once suggested that superlatives should be avoided completely in talking about poetry.

Personally I look for a “poetic” quality in the writing. Poetry is after all what I am mainly interested in; so for me it is its own objective. But whatever that quality is, which may well involve certain echoic, historical tones, I’d want to see it as an active force, I’d want to recognise the world in it. And a balance of forces. But the important thing is perhaps that there’s no knowing where you’re going to find this, or how it may be disguised.

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