In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the work of a neglected poet
One night in late October 1978, the poet John Riley was tragically murdered by muggers in Leeds, a horrific crime recently investigated in Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Deaths of the Poets. Riley’s Collected Works were published two years later by Grosseteste Press, the publishing house he’d helped to set up, but copies of this hardcover volume remain few and far between (I am currently reading the copy from my university library; the stamps on the flyleaf tell me it’s been borrowed three times previously, in 1983, 1995, and 2000). For 15 years, Riley’s poems lay largely forgotten except by a few devotees. Then, in 1995, it looked as though John Riley’s posthumous reputation would be given a leg up, courtesy of an edition of his selected poems, brought out by the poetry publisher Carcanet. But barely a year later, in the summer of 1996, the Carcanet offices in Manchester were damaged in an IRA bomb explosion, and virtually all copies of John Riley’s Selected Poems were lost. At the time of writing, a single copy is available for sale on Amazon. It will set you back just £10,000. I cannot find any other copies available for sale online.
I was fortunate enough, having kept an eye out for one for some time, to pick up a copy of this hard-to-find volume a while ago, on Amazon of all places, not for £10,000 but for just £6. I first encountered Riley’s name over a decade ago when reading Michael Schmidt’s vast and encyclopedic Lives of the Poets, and tracked down some of his poetry – the little that is available online – through various other bloggers and literary reviewers. So, getting my hands on the Selected Poems, especially given how rare it is, was very exciting indeed. Opening the Selected Poems (pictured below right) was like being granted access to some book of arcane lore, because Riley’s poetry remains so little-known and, even among those who do know him, relatively difficult to get hold of. At least, until very recently.
What makes Riley such a fine and distinctive poet? Copyright restrictions forbid the quoting of a whole poem here, but these few lines from Riley’s remarkable long poem ‘Czargrad’ (depicting a city, perhaps Riley’s own Leeds fused with ancient Byzantium?) give a sense of the experimentation and quiet lyricism of his work:
there are those who are prepared for the ruin
of empire and therefore empire endures
after ruin, a fish gliding to deeper water
there are those who are prepared for ruin
the wind a straight line from horizon to horizon
when the candle extinguished in its pool of water
releases the floodgate of moonlight silver
on shelf on bed on books on faces the measure
of our fall upward into night
The repetition of the first line as the fourth line, along with the distinctive syntax of that penultimate line, recall T. S. Eliot’s long religious poem, Ash-Wednesday (‘On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained / In the hollow round of my skull’), and Riley is among other things a religious poet, but whatever Riley has learnt from Eliot he has transformed (‘moonlight silver’ rather than the more conventional ‘moonlit silver’ or ‘silver moonlight’ is a quiet masterstroke). And like Eliot’s The Waste Land, ‘Czargrad’ is a long poem focusing on big themes: cities, empires, the place of art in the modern world. Everyone has heard of The Waste Land. How many people have heard of ‘Czargrad’?
In a BBC radio documentary about the poetry of Leeds, the poet Ian Duhig discussed John Riley and pointed out that Riley described his poems as ‘verbal icons’. Each poem is an attempt at a showing, a crystallisation of something ineffable or elusive. As with so much modern poetry, Riley is ‘difficult’, but that is because modernity itself is difficult and we are more and more aware of how impossible it is (to borrow from Prufrock) to say just what we mean. In terms of Riley’s influences, he was associated with the Cambridge Poets who were indebted to Ezra Pound and Charles Olsen (Riley wrote a poem in memory of the latter), although in the lyrical longing for another place in Riley’s poetry we also catch echoes of Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, while ‘Czargrad’ – another name for Byzantium – faintly summons ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ while also being somewhat sui generis, distinctive and distinct, a poetic style that is Riley’s and Riley’s alone. There are some very thoughtful analyses of some of Riley’s poems online, which also give you the chance to read some of his shorter poems in full: Carol Rumens discussed Riley’s ‘The Attraction in her Guardian column, while Peter Riley (no relation) has offered a sensitive and insightful analysis of one of Riley’s finest poems here.
Riley’s poetry between the publication of his first volume, Ancient and Modern, in 1967 and his untimely death a little over a decade later, became increasingly fragmentary, bending even the very punctuation he uses, such as the humble comma, to new ends. It was T. S. Eliot who said that verse is itself a system of punctuation; Riley’s distinctive spacing, with a pause before as well as after the comma, is seen clearly in ‘Czargrad’, his captivating unfinished masterpiece which he began in 1973, when Riley had reached the Dantean middle-way of 35 years of age. It appears to have been a turning point: after this, his poetry becomes more typographically daring and experimental. Riley’s trademark use of spacing either side of a comma offers a little breath of air, not just a pause for breath but a pause for thought, mid-line, almost a mini-spasm or blackout, a seizure as much as a caesura. Christopher Ricks has remarked that works of art exist to give us pause, and what better way can poetry do this than by encouraging us to pause in the very act of reading? It’s as if Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetic aphasia has found a new (faltering) voice.
I would name John Riley among my favourite poets, although few of my friends are able to share my enthusiasm simply because Riley’s work remains not so much obscure as obscured. All this may be changing, though. Not one but two conferences dedicated to John Riley have been organised in Riley’s hometown of Leeds in the last couple of years, and thanks to the recent publication, in 2016, of a new selection of his work, Selected Poetry and Prose (Shearsman Books), with an introduction by Ian Brinton and a preface by Ian Duhig, it’s never been easier to read John Riley’s poems. Perhaps, finally, he is going to get a few more readers.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.