Friday, April 24, 2015
‘Name Your Realities’: Thoughts on John Riley
John Riley was five years Geoffrey Hill’s junior, and at the time of Riley’s tragically early death in Leeds in 1978 Hill was still teaching in that city. As it has been Riley’s fate since then to have slipped into the bracket of the neglected poet, I’d like to exploit this slender connection to quote Hill on the subject of poetry and value. Contrasting Locke and Ruskin on the subject of intrinsic value, Hill unexpectedly sides with the former against the latter. Sceptical of forms of ‘intrinsic value’ that cling on far from the marketplace, he writes:
One is put in mind of the fate of certain elderly authors who, rescued from oblivion by coteries and the editors of small-circulation journals, are invariably described as having been hitherto been ‘strangely’ or ‘unaccountably’ neglected. The ‘neglect’ by some kind of imaginative fiat is simultaneously held to be both their ‘documentary claim’ to present notice and an intrinsic part of the ‘neglected’ author’s newly proclaimed value. A vicarious solipsism is also a demeaning charity.
I quote these lines in a spirit of caution, as we approach the much-needed rehabilitation of Riley’s work. Hill’s impatience with the dull exhuming of ‘strangely neglected’ topics is perhaps the closest he ever gets to a Lucky Jim impersonation, but in his sceptical way he raises at least two issues we do well to separate carefully. The first is the extrinsic dimension to Riley’s neglect – the factors that conspired to make the relegation of his work not so strange or unaccountable at all in the climate of 70s British poetry and its aftermath. This is the period, after all, of the post-Mottram retrenchment at the Poetry Society and the rise of the Martians and the Northern Irish poets – not, any of them, developments much in tune with the spirit of Riley’s work. Riley entered the 1980s with a now impossible-to-find Collected Works, published by Grosseteste Press, and when he achieved the leg-up of anthologization, in Crozier and Longville’s A Various Art it was courtesy of Iain Sinclair’s Paladin list, most of whose stock was pulped shortly afterwards. The second issue I pick up from Hill is the intrinsic singularity of Riley’s work and its determination to follow its own path, with little interest in any ‘documentary claim’ on our attention. Riley’s work is unshowy by temperament, and many of the terms in which we couch praise today – vibrant, representative, edgy – bounce off his poems without much purchase. Something more is required. This is the challenge Riley represents, and one it will take more than ‘vicarious solipsism’ to meet convincingly.
Russia, subject of Riley’s longest poem, ‘Czargrad’, seems a good place to begin. I’ve mentioned Northern Irish poets, and Seamus Heaney’s engagement with Slavic poetry was one of the most visible stages of his elevation in the 1980s to global sage. This engagement involved tracing parallels between poets writing in the shadow of conflict and tyranny, and making the case for poetry as a redemptive act of witnessing. While some found an appropriative dimension to Heaney’s Slavic excursions John Riley represents the more rarely observed phenomenon of cultural expropriation – self-expropriating, in fact, in his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. My remarks on this subject are founded largely in ignorance, as I will now demonstrate by citing the episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza converts to Latvian Orthodoxy to please a girlfriend. Asked by the Orthodox priest what aspect of the faith he finds attractive he replies, ‘I think the hats’. The serious point here is our tendency to eroticize Orthodoxy into a theatre set of smells and bells, of chanting bearded elders, and stern-faced Christs on Tarkovskyan icons. John Tavener’s appeal, one might suggest, is a symptom of this tendency – if the Anglican hymn-book seems too twee to inspire great religious art these days, our high-mindedness can still acquire a new lease of life when outsourced to an Orthodox ‘Liturgy of St John Chrysostom’. As I’d like to stress, Riley’s example pulls strongly against any such touristic tendencies, as well as connecting with a long tradition of Western Slavophilic thought. Vladimir Soloviev’s nineteenth-century syncretic mysticism was a major influence on Hugh MacDiarmid, as well as providing Riley with the epigraph for his 1970 collection What Reason Was: his philosophy of ‘sobornost’ stresses community over individual and revelation over scholasticism. In a letter to Michael Grant of 1976, Riley echoes this when he denounces the ‘Larkins and Brownjohns’ of modern verse, and poetry that ‘comes out of the “individual”’ with its presumed ‘“authenticity” of the self’.
Revelation takes place on a higher plane, then, than that of post-Enlightenment selfhood. In Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, this revelation takes the form of Rublev’s icon-painting. An oddity of that film, for a portrait of the artist, is that it never shows Rublev at work: he throws a bucket of paint against a wall at one point, in frustration, but spends much of the film in a state of moping frustration and self-pity. He also has the Tatar invasions to deal with, I should add, but then at the end of the film black and white becomes colour and we witness the ravishing artefacts the real Rublev produced amid so much chaos and death. The transition from these miseries to the redemptive grace of the icons is as abrupt as it is inexplicable. Something similar, I’d like to argue, lies behind the artistic strategies pursued in the Riley poem I would now like to consider, ‘Czargrad’.
At ten pages, ‘Czargrad’ is more of a Buntingesque ‘sonata’ than a long poem, but it paints on a broad canvas. The ekphrastic dimension of the poem is mirrored by a sense of feeling its way tentatively into the spaces it will inhabit, in ways that register a clear Olsonian influence. Not many poets can claim to have pioneered their own form of punctuation, but in his signature tab-comma-tab Riley shows a sensitivity to questions of timing, pauses and silence. ‘Czargrad’ uses variants on this involving full stops and question marks, and in this passage from section two we find him combining meditations on the space of the poem with questions of church architecture:
The self-correcting movement from ‘was’ to ‘is’ ushers us into the continuous present a theologian might compare to the ‘parousia’, or messianic presence. The paradox of a poem recited without an audience – something ‘not apparent for all’ – suggests something hermetic afoot before the enjambment of ‘for all/that one lives’. Our enjoyment of beauty is set up in conflict with the fact of being alive, in the style of a certain Keats poem, its Grecian urn perfect and deathless for the good reason that it has never had a pulse. Riley pulls back from too simple a life-art dichotomy, introducing the opposition only to override in the knotty complications of the rest of the sentence I’m quoting. Emil Cioran, that gloomy veteran of a Romanian Orthodox upbringing, was adamant that music suffered a disastrous downgrading between the time of Palestrina and Beethoven, since the former wrote only for God and the latter for humanity; and with his little nervous tics of qualifiers, ‘for all that’, ‘and in spite of’, ‘were we able’, ‘how shall I’, Riley worries away at the possibility of a self-sufficient art born of something beyond us, a music that ‘comes of itself, were we /able’ – an aposiopesis followed by one of those tabs plus full stop. For all its full stop, the sentence ends on something closer to an interrupted than a perfect cadence.
Like a show-pony repeatedly refusing to take a jump, Riley’s unfinished constructions have a stubborn and demented logic (why not simply go round the obstacle instead?). One sticking point here, to return to my remark on ‘extrinsic’ factors for Riley’s neglected status, is his unembarrassed way in passages like this with abstractions. ‘Go in fear of abstractions’, Pound was telling us a century ago, advice as much a part of the critical catechism of clichés today as it was in 1913. We simply don’t like poems that use words like ‘beauty’, ‘necessity’, ‘love’ and ‘truth’ without a blush of shame. For a religious poet to swear off abstractions, however, is less easily done. I’ve noted Riley’s distaste for Larkin, but let me invoke that poet again by way a contrast. Reading the early Riley poems of Ancient and Modern I am struck by any number of similarities to Larkin – the visions of leafy renewal in ‘Ancient and Modern’, the railway carriage meditations of ‘Views of Where One Is’, and the comparison of home and abroad in ‘My God, How Sad Russia Is’. To read early Larkin is to read a poetry punch-drunk with abstractions, and purging itself by way of parody Yeats and parody Auden. By the time we come to mature Larkin, it’s not that abstraction disappears, since some of his best-known lines hinge on abstract nouns (‘Life is first boredom, then fear’), but that it has been reserved for special occasions, with a whiff of something shameful and private about it. Whereas in Riley, abstraction remains in the foreground, the figure and ground of his poetic field.
It’s a happy accident of publishing history, as Ian Brinton has noted in his article ‘John Riley: From Lincoln to Byzantium’, that Riley’s poetry lends itself so well to discussion in terms of the theology of Robert Grosseteste, the mediaeval Bishop of Lincoln who gives his name to Riley’s publisher. Among Grosseteste’s innovations in his writing on optics was an insistence on arguing from particulars to generalisations but then back to particulars. The opening paragraph of ‘Czargrad’ is full of dialogue across these categories. In the quiet of the night Riley tries to gather his memories into ‘a book of hours, meanings, hierarchies’, the devotional image subsuming lived experience into religious formula. Instead, random images pile up – ‘blue /flowers yellow flowers a garden a dog a stick’ – before we shift back to the religious register (‘but God decided differently’), leaving further particulars from the garden ‘strangely unrecognisable’. This to-ing and fro-ing can also be seen in a key word introduced on the poem’s first page: city, alternately with and without a capital c. If the line ‘this garden, prehistoric landscape’ can perform the leap from the everyday to the pre-human, I am going to suggest a similarly ambitious leap is possible from Riley’s Leeds to Constantinople, known in Church Slavonic as ‘Czargrad’ – and also to Augustine’s City of God. Augustine’s long treatise addresses the birth of one imperial structure, the Catholic Church, out of the fall of another. Far from being responsible for the fall of Rome, Augustine argues, Christianity was responsible for Rome’s success all along. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a strain of Orthodox thought argued that Russia could become the site of a ‘third Rome’, as the destiny of Christendom passed to the Eastern Church. Could Riley be smuggling Leeds onto the list of cities – ‘Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, /Vienna, London’ – The Waste Land found central to its vision of world culture yet simultaneously ‘Unreal’? With its strong metropolitan bias, that poem might put up a certain resistance to this – remember the sniggering treatment of its ‘Bradford millionaire’ – but with his studied non-specificity, Riley brings something democratic and ubiquitous to his ‘City of God’.
After one of his spaced juxtapositions in section two (‘the poem . the City’), Riley devotes section three of ‘Czargrad’ to a vision of civilizational collapse and dispersal. This is Riley at his most Eliotian – ‘What are these roots that clutch’ from the opening section of The Waste Land crossed with the translation of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis. When the poetry breaks free of these themes in the final lines of the section, it does so in a passage that Ian Brinton describes as a ‘clear reference to an icon’, achieving on the ‘still white page’:
Just before these lines, Riley speaks of the ‘avoidance of error’. The sense of kinetic effort to advance from ‘error’ to ‘love’ is highly Poundian, I find. Riley’s friend John Freeman wrote to him that this passage reminded him of Canto 79, but there is a clear echo too of Canto 116 (‘Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie all about me (…) /If love be not in the house there is nothing.’
The elderly Pound also saw salvation in terms of a light-bearing icon (‘A little light, like a rushlight /to lead back to splendour’), and like the Drafts and Fragments ‘Czargrad’ captures its moments of grace and illumination in quick and almost casual brush-strokes. I have compared ‘Czargrad’ to a Bunting ‘sonata’, and Riley shares with Bunting a sense of the poem as journey. Section three finds us at sea, immersing us in a flux of sensation that gifts the poem an impersonal momentum:
‘A strong song tows /us’, as Bunting writes at the end of Briggflatts. In section two we had a poem ‘with no auditors’; here song creates its own singer and audience. It is an epiphanic moment, to borrow an overworked term. Riley’s illuminations do not ration themselves to grottoes in hillside churches, but do their work en plein air. The quality of the poem’s engagement with the natural world is worth stressing, and here I might return to Bishop Grosseteste and his theories of matter and substance. For Aristotle, matter falls below substance. Dogs and cats share the matter of creation but are not the same thing. With substance, the whole is prior to the parts: its constituent matter will make it black, white or a ginger, but an unborn cat will be a cat and not anything else. As Ian Brinton writes:
For Grosseteste matter was not pure potency, as it was for Aristotle, but possessed in its own right a certain minimal reality. Thus Grosseteste spoke of matter as a substance: form actualising matter.
Here Grosseteste echoes the work of the ninth-century Scotus Eriugena, whose theology comes as close as Christianity ever does to pantheism, identifying God with nature. Brinton’s phrase ‘form actualising matter’ epitomizes the visual transformations we find in ‘Czargrad’. The encounter with the natural world enters a multi-layered dialogue between known and unknown. When a stream overflows its banks, we find a ‘face of waters’:
It’s difficult, at any given point, to work out whether we are dealing with the human or the divine perspective on nature, or both. I have described the halting or apophanic aspect of Riley’s language of prayer, but his use of the capitalized Word here reminds me of Brian Coffey’s ‘Advent’ and ‘The Prayers’, two poems also much exercised by questions of incarnation. The ambivalent perspective is consistent with a misconception about icons corrected by Brinton: ‘we do not look at an icon’, he insists, ‘it looks at us!’ The Christ of Orthodox iconography wears a sterner expression than that of Western religious art, but though he possesses the heavens he covets the earth, to paraphrase Yeats. The sensual particulars of ‘Czargrad’ seem to be both there and not there:
The City is first present, then ruled out as impossible, then reinstated as unsurpassable in its imagined form, while meanwhile its colonnades, prospects and domes are merely there, floating in Riley’s mobile lines like a Christianized stately pleasure dome. Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ stakes out a threshold between the imagination and impossibility, and the space of Riley’s floating domes aspires to a borderline existence too. The cultural edgeland occupied by Riley’s Christianity, between the superseded west and the non-Christian east, adds a precariousness to his vision of the divine city. In ‘The Statues’, Yeats pinned his hopes to ‘plummet-measured face’ of Greek art as against ‘vague Asiatic immensities’, while leaving us in no doubt of the seductive power of that non-Christian Other. For Riley too, there is a seductive dimension to such close proximity to failure and collapse. In the poem’s closing section, ‘The City’s Walls fail’ (note pregnant pause), but without any great drama and without the mood notably darkening. Instead Riley reaches for the kind of downbeat landscape writing that reminds me of Johannes Bobrowski, or more recently Peter Didsbury, Pauline Stainer or Gillian Allnutt (‘slight stir of air through grasses /curtains sucked in, out, to the breathing of the wind’). The downbeat quality is deliberate, not accidental, I think, a fact only underlined by his dropping of the name ‘Ararat’ into the passage I’m quoting. No context is offered, but the presence of deeper layers of meaning is signalled unmistakably. Mount Ararat turns up in work of pilgrimage (Voyage to Armenia) by a Russian poet close to Riley’s heart, and one he translated with distinction, Osip Mandelstam. The sacred mountain becomes a site of encounter and exchange – ‘arc of hand poised before the other’, as Riley writes. I’ve said that our western sense of Orthodoxy often hinges on its ceremonial aspect, but in its closing lines ‘Czargrad’ produces a rich and beautiful religious vision without any great show of ceremony. The poem has named its realities into incarnate being, and requires no smells, bells or funny hats to make us recognise the richness of its vision: