Peter Riley: Comment on Michael Haslam's essay

[#] Michael Haslam: The Art of Ethical Meditation
[#] Birth Prospectus. The End of Us. (e-book, free download)

I think Michael is right about Birth Prospectus. The End of Us. The parts of the sequence belong to each other and the whole thing needs to be there. The above text is a 'revised' version which actually differs little from the original publication in Grosseteste Review X, 1977. But there are cruces which still may or may not be settled now, of a kind which caused all this vagary in the first place and a lot more of it elsewhere.

The trouble was one of not, in the end, wanting to allow concealment or suppression. Because with this kind of poetry, perhaps all kinds in varying degrees, when you reveal something you conceal something else; and when you elevate something, you suppress something else, when you "speak" you silence others. There is no guarantee that any of these erased things need to be; it is merely a condition of focused perception as it gets totalised in the poem that something will be. Lurking unsettled behind all that apocalypse were lives, including mine, which understood themselves from day to day as anyone else might, and the absolute exclusion of that dialect claims an exception to commonality and the right to be unkind to the reader, and a whole vipers' nest of bohemian snobbery. The move 'out' was necessary, but I also wanted to return, to the reader, especially at endings, and did, but it was always a precarious moment and at least two of them became long-standing problems.

In 1975 my wife was delivered of a dead baby girl in Stepping Hill Hospital, which is what the whole thing is about. That is what is announced in poem 1. Poems 1-7 reiterate the event, and the still-born child is the 'you' addressed intermittently throughout, the little spinner, the figure of the still point of unlimited potential, the nothing that accounts for all. Everything that is perceived in the poem: land, stars, creatures, everything, is perceived through this death, which guides perception through the world.

By 1975 I had had the knowingness of the knowing poets buzzing round my head for nearly ten years, and the poets knew it all. They knew they had the gift which spread their discourse over and above all other human discourses because they had comprehended it all in its absence, but the baby died. They knew that by pushing imagination into apocalyptic violence they were saving the world by default, but the baby died. It was nothing to do with the poets, there was nothing they could have done about it and their ventures towards the total were, at that time, honest and for the most part caring, but the baby still died. The climactic insistence throughout Birth Prospectus is that we don't know, and we don't have the power, and that is one of the bases on which the authentication of poetry through the person has stood for me ever since.

I said this, but I also wanted to say the absolute particular which had brought me to it. I felt it was dishonest not to. How could I say this? The poetical texture wouldn't let me. I got trapped in an either/or. Either you 'treat' the event as, say, one of the Hull poets would have done, so that everyone knows exactly where we are and Tim Longville himself knows what we're going on about (though Tim would not have liked such a poem), which is to fortify or insulate the event against all other events, and to assume a society of the page which agrees to wrap experience up in acts of confirming recognition. This can be eloquently done and bear considerable weight of transfer – think for instance of Peter Levi's elegies for Seferis and others. It can be done in a width of spirit, and it occurs to me now that Levi's elegies do something of what I thought mine was doing then, making through loss a theatre of the earth, though a different kind of theatre, heavy with resignation (Chekhovian perhaps).

Or else you let the figuration govern the enterprise for what it can open up, and move into a poetical stratum which would be broken if held to singular vision. That is mostly what we did at that time, though as Mike says Birth Prospectus broke the rules of that school too, in, I take it, such things as the outbreaks of plain ethical declaration and the constant reverse gears. But something had been suppressed and there was this lingering unease which was about people really, who need to feel that their feet are on the ground, indeed without which they expect not to be able to walk (and by 1975 it was perfectly obvious that the public sphere was not going to tolerate any other position but the most astringent reduction of this – whatever had been done in the 1910s or 1940s, British poetry was henceforth going to follow sales; it was to be the age of the poetical board-walk. Forty years on we are still waiting for this obstinacy to shift.) Not that the poem wasn't grounded on experience, but that it precluded its contrary, the whole language of its contrary. It shot around all over the place and returned to the earth, but there remained a shadow of truth which hadn't been realised. It was again people, readers, the conception of them by the text, the space they can claim. I wasn't prepared to settle for the manic, bitter, proud and massively alienated types who rejoice in disturbance of the senses, and cannot tolerate being confirmed where we live in the conditions that obtain like most others, the hate brigade. However much closure the poem might bear, it was to be open to more than this bunch.

(The studying I've done in the last twenty years of British poetry of the 1940s, especially Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham and Nicholas Moore, has convinced me that there were at one time various means in operation to achieve a 'high', even 'apocalyptic' poetry, which didn't negate or dismiss a sense of unconditional welcome. There was no opposition whatsoever in Thomas's work between extremely dense figuration and wide appeal, which must be why the academy still hates him -- both 'difficult' and transgressing the educated audience; Graham had to work out assiduously a way to survive the dichotomisation of poetry through the 1950s and did it with exemplary craft; Moore sailed over the whole thing taking no notice of it whatsoever. Without analysing events here, I came to sense that something in the transmission from the 1940s to the 1960s interfered with the continuity, and left us with an either/or condition which has pretty-well wrecked everything except what could be rescued from it with immense effort. What intervened wasn't just 1950s reductionism in poetry, it was also the vacuous and ineffective excitements of the early 1960s, popcult, and American evangelism. These things are important far beyond poetry.)

The poem didn't need explaining or reducing, it needed framing. The problem focused on the last two lines, which Mike quotes. This is where the poem wanted to come down and declare its occasion openly, focus back onto the singularity by specifying the addressee recognisably. It didn't work. The two lines Mike quotes are like fake Tennyson, because they want to be straight but are trapped in poetry, and the pun on 'still' is thus laboured. But I couldn't just step out of poetry, after what had gone before. It went through dozens of versions and finally settled, uneasily, on the one-line version it now bears, a bareness stripped of syntax, clearly within poetry but motionless.

Still. Daughter, still.
It was very worrying. Every punctuation mark of this little tag was tried and re-tried. I thought finally that the introduction of the gentle verbless imperative could sign off with clean hands, like 'Stop all this now, baby, you've had your say.' I don't know. So often what this kind of poetry needs is a bit of drama.

There was another very difficult line, the last of the second poem. After an attack on the ambitions of anti-societal adventurers or soldier-poets, suddenly--

reading the sun.
which was all right, so why did I change the last line to 'reading in the sun' and back, and forth, and then back again, several times? As it stood, it wasn't a withdrawal into quietism. It was 'quietly' all right, but against a blinding light. And at the same time, of course, you can read the sun by watching the ground, or the shadows moving through the day -- so it held its own contrary. It was a perfect answer to the fiery transgressors because it included them. 'reading in the sun' was OK too, it was just me, back on the farm, passing a day, nothing wrong with that but its inertia. The trouble was, of course, Murdoch's wretched newspaper. If that was read into it everything was pitched upside-down and the whole thing was satire. All this failure and death would then devolve upon some kind of male stupidity, and the attack on the soldier-poets would be vicious and unrelenting; they would be cast out of hope with a sneer. I've had to put up with this because I think the poem needs the contradiction held in the original expression. I didn't want the tabloid and hope it will be forgotten, or only thought of by the kind of professional who goes around searching for such things. At least 'reading the Daily Mail' would have been a lot worse.

It's a problem of not being able to control the reaches of the figuration when the poem has no frame, no body, no where to hold its movement. That's been the trouble with this whole species of poetry, which by refusing locative articulation cannot, whatever attached programmes say, escape from the charge of damaging the imaginative faculties of the imputed reader, to the extent that in its further development it offers only to blind and deafen any reader with a barrage of existential guilt through language-hurt. I didn't want to write this kind of poetry and I flaunted its rules, one of which is never to reveal the quite ordinary impulsions you bury in the poem. What we want is a poetry which authentically embodies the dilemma itself with its embodied hopes, and which in declaring our limits refuses to reduce human knowledge (science, history, politics) to what suits the poem's self-laden excesses.

Believing that, I was of course cast into a vagary and have been ever since. Inevitably the writing goes now one way, now another. And inevitably there is a constant re-writing which can see the original realisation lurking behind a 40-year old poem and attempt to bring it into the open, at the risk of losing what the ravelling figuration gained under its own steam.

Peter Riley

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