Michael Haslam

The Art of Ethical Meditation

Terms and Conditions

The Poetic Art of Peter Riley is to be (hereby, below) considered as a practice of Ethical Meditation, particularly in regard to Rewritings and Revisions. OK.
            Art is the prime term, poetic Art. My own bias shows through as I characterise the Art as Aesthetic Performance, where Performance is defined so broadly as not to require vocalisation in public presentation. It can exist on the page. It does need starts and stops. It has a time dimension. My Terms and Conditions are elementary stuff. Aesthetics and Ethics are such entangled twins as no complex sentences are ever going to disentangle, but there can be a bias either way. Both Ethics and Meditation need neither Art nor Performance. A distinction can be drawn between artistic meditation and artistic performance, in regard to, for instance, the address to the public. Biases may divide between Aesthetic Performer and Ethical Meditator. E.g.: me: AP; PR: EM.
            There's nothing new or startling in characterising Peter Riley's poetic art as ethical meditation. It's been said before. The meditator may want to question the value of startling novelty. The performer might relish the notion. A performance may seek and achieve meditative effects without being a meditation.
            The writing Art may eschew Rewriting and Revision. The poem as something like an unretouchable photograph is an attractive idea, but it's not the art I practise, and I recognise in Peter Riley a fellow obsessive Rewriter. But there are differences in intention and purpose.
            Revision, from early drafts to publishable form, is generally a matter of sensed improvement. The poem finds its form, and sticks. But poets age, their ideas change with the times. Early work may become, to them, in various ways, unconscionable, to be disowned, or felt to require adaptation, to be brought up to date so it appears less dated. It takes a thick skin, perhaps, to exhibit one's youthful folly. And there are other motives.
            Poetic development may involve rewriting and exclusion in order to shake off influence, find a voice, establish a style, express a personality, create a persona, make coherence. These are all the same thing, with different emphases. Prynne, for example, does not encourage the reading of his work as 'the expression of personality', but he can't prevent that being done, by reader's choice. Once a style is found, a desire may arise to bring early work into conformity with it. Modes of revision may vary between (for example) AP and EM.
            My AP likes to rewrite. If a poem's got life in it, it can be rewritten, perhaps like Ellington might rearrange Mood Indigo. It's still the same tune. I might cut some slop, or let it run looser, add or subtract colour, harmony, embellishment. If it comes out exactly the same, that's almost coincidence. It may not be improved, but because it feels Live, I can always do it again. If a bad 'take' gets printed, agh, tough. A performance may suffer fits of conscience, but that's not the same as Meditation. M's are generally edited on E principles.
            The Meditation, as I understand it, occurs initially in place and time, but tries, however slightly, to transcend Time, in inscribing its moment. That transcendence allows the moment to be re-entered, the meditation revised. The revision will tend to want to correct in fidelity to truth, or manners, rather than to enhance musical effects. That is to say, its bias will be ethical.
            My AP works under the illusion that Poetry is actually a Branch of Music. Peter Riley, who knows far more about real music than I do, employs musical effects, but knows that there's a crucial difference. I remain reluctant to abandon my illusion.
            These are my conclusions. My evidence, though based on some spells of close attention to variations in the evolution of printed texts, detecting odd and surprising substitutions of one word for another; puzzling about what gets excluded, and why, is largely anecdotal, and may even distract from my conclusions. I am, I should say, taking the Excellence of Peter Riley's poetry for granted, and shan't try to explicate extraordinary beauties. Excellences silence me. Carps and niggles re-ignite the verbal scribble.

Longville's Kitchen

Early 1980s. I'd gone to visit Peter at Bolehill, and we'd gone together to visit Tim Longville in Wirksworth, and Peter had gone out somewhere, and I was sitting drinking tea with Tim, in his kitchen, and not making much conversation. Then Tim said something to the effect that the problem he had with my poetry was that he couldn't see what it was that I was on about. As it happened, I was having the same problem myself: a dissatisfaction with what I'd done so far. I had to find out what I was on about. I sensed that what Tim was offering was an explanation as to why I wasn't to be included in the anthology A Various Art (which was plotted and planned several years before its eventual appearance). Feeling as I did, I couldn't quarrel with that, so sipped my tea. Then Tim said something more surprising: that he had the same problem with Peter's work. Clearly Peter Riley had been on about a school trip to the mountains, lead-mining in Derbyshire, spontaneous musics; Grosseteste had published (or were about to publish) significant parts of his œvre. But no, I thought I saw Tim's point clearly enough: it was the range of works, notional books, uncompleted projects, experiments and excursions tangential, perhaps, to some invisible sphere of concern. It was hard to grasp the 'wholeness' of the work as a whole. I sipped more tea, and conversation turned to beer and pubs and local characters.
            I took Tim's comment as 'good advice', and turned to addressing the problem of making things clear to myself, and apparent to others. Meanwhile the bewildering diversifications of Peter's work proliferated. Coherences could be created out of qualities of place; there was a consistent personality behind the writing; there was a tone that I've called here 'ethical meditation'. Perhaps that was it: the ethics forbad the faking of some wholeness that might not be, strictly, true. Each project would generate spin-offs to frustrate any ideal of completion. I'd have fewer qualms about faking things, myself.

High Tide at Wivenhoe

1967. I was one of a generation seduced by a sort of extra-curricular poetry that did make things happen. We've been the object of recrimination ever since. I refer, of course, to 'Beat' poetry with its blatant political and social line on sex, drugs, and the refusal of Authority. Don Allen's New American Poetry anthology widened our scope to include 'Black Mountain' and 'New York' poetries. The appeal of Charles Olson's creed was immediate: Poetry is about more than poems: it can take in Geophysics, Prehistory, Ancient History, Everything. The inspired poet cuts to the quick, and you can throw away the turgid prose of dull scholars. You can break the barrier between poetry and prose. An exciting tide from America was in flood.
            A prime conduit for the tidewater into Britain was Andrew Crozier's Wivenhoe Park Review. My copy of Issue 1. was badly glued and has long since disintegrated beyond repair, leaving only a memory-trace. Issue 2. was stapled, and has withstood the years. It had impact. Here were Olson, Robert Duncan, Steve Jonas, Robert Kelly, Gerrit Lansing, Clive Matson, as well as John Temple, Elaine Feinstein, and Peter Riley.
            The Riley piece, The Antiquary, was unique in my memory of his work: a short story, fiction, laid out with deft use of Open Field techniques. It was crucially different from the U.S. stuff.
            In a sense, the masculine Americans feminised us (mostly males). We couldn't match their macho grandeur. The US government was, famously, taking on the global responsibilities that Whitehall was ducking out of. Their poets, though oppositional in politics, had an Imperialistic spread, as though the world and its history were theirs, while we, some of us, retreated to the grubby café and the kitchen sink, sometimes as grumpily as Phillip Larkin, though we were rather charmed by the quasi-diffidence of Frank O'Hara.
            This possibly unique example of Riley fiction, The Antiquary, finds a way through this quandary. The Antiquary himself, the narrator, somewhat older than the author, has some of the endearing or frustrating qualities of the English anti-hero: timid, scholarly, obsessional as stamp-collector or trainspotter, a meticulous cataloguer, his heart is in a spiritual archaeology of cosmic scope. Author/Antiquarian lays his story out in the manner of Open Field or experimental poetry. Is it a satire, or a self-portrait? Time has told.
            And the flood-tide ebbs, as disillusion follows on illusion. It would be as daft to take prehistory from Olson as to take economics from Ezra Pound. I'll not deny Robert Duncan, a study of whom once restored my faith in The Sentence. Jonas sometimes justified his claims for his ear, but his paranoid antisemitism was odd. Matson and Lansing---- I never followed their careers. So just now, I googled them. Gerrit Lansing I found represented by three poems, one of them one of those published in WPR 2, 1967. Riley's story has not been republished. I don't suppose it will be.

Teaching Aids

In the five or so years when I was doing a lot of Creative Writing teaching I assumed, sensibly enough, that some writing that had informed me could instruct some, if not all, of my students. Robert Duncan's Writing Writing was a good one. Another involved making copies of a couple of pages from an issue of Peter Riley's magazine Collection (4): A John James/Andrew Crozier collaboration Getting Back to Parzifal, echoed and parodied by Peter Riley with Getting Away from Wagner. The rhythms, structures and tones of a rather mannered paragraph of prose, and the effects of particular words are foregrounded by means of substitutions. That teaches something. Another useful tool was a poem, a gem, the last page of a Riley sequence titled The End of III that begins: I talk to you in these pieces as you, in which a play with personal pronouns in perfect rhyme becomes a statement of peculiar emotional intensity. It worked. This is good. Where can we get the book? I'm sorry. You can't. It's not available.
            One purpose I had was to suggest the possibilities of enjoyment of rewriting, partly to overcome the discouragements of class criticism. If it comes out just the same, perhaps you were right all along. If it changes and improves, so much the better. Let the fun of rewriting be your teacher.
            A Riley book I didn't use in class, but in which I found fascination while engaged upon my own revisions and transformations was the 1972 The Whole Band, 'inspired', as they say, by spontaneous musics, in which the verso page is condensed, over-written, transformed, reduced, recto. I drew some lessons from that fascination.
            You might just find the Robert Duncan. The other things I've mentioned I take to be unavailable. Fragments of The Whole Band are included in a section of The Day's Final Balance, but you couldn't guess from them the feel of the original. Can anything be done with Peter Riley's cancelled works?
            There was one little couplet in The Whole Band that impressed me so much that one night I inscribed it with felt-tip pen on the flaking emulsion of the gaslit waiting-room at Hebden Bridge Station:

the stars are a warning that your door is still open
and it's later than you think

1970s experimentalism followed gaslit railway stations, followed steam engines down (Gael Turnbull's phrase) The Sluice of Time.

Rusting Staples; Ethics of Revision

It was clear from early on that rewriting is basic to much of Riley's practice. A couple of sections of Love-Strife Machine (1969) offer sly hints: Poems Written on 11th May 1968 and The Poems I didn't write between 1956 and 1960. The direction of early revisions is not noticeably 'ethical'. Sometimes it's playful, or like surreal misreading; sometimes simply a nicer alternative. Between an earlier version (in The Anona Wynn) of a page of The Linear Journal (1973), 'slight manipulation at the river-bend' becomes 'textual erosion at the river-bend'; 'a slight pulse of light on the road' becomes 'sexual light on the road'; 'the desired cavern fastens itself on my skin' reverts to the echoed line ('the desired condition flattens itself on the wall') as 'the desired condition fastens itself on my skin' again. Well we can creep into our marigolds (that should be madrigals) and die. Incidentally, the declaration made in The Linear Journal that "this is the only true and final version" doesn't hold perfectly true. Some changes are made for the selection in Passing Measures (2000).
            The first intimation that the revisions, or some of them, might have an 'ethical' dimension' came with a poem, a fine poem I thought, Magma-Bowl, where, within the same publication year (1973), between two versions, one in Greedy Shark, and the other in Five Sets in Two Sessions (both ed. Ian Patterson), the poem changes radically, as, for instance in final lines: "we are raising fire in the/ darkest hemisphere" to "the spiritual, the cherished ache in the side?" I'd liked the first ending and, I remember, I wrote to Peter asking him why he'd lost it. His reply indicated ethical reasons. I saw what he meant. And no matter. The whole Magma Bowl is left where it was, as it were, unclaimed.
            One unlamentable aspect of continual revision has been the gradual loss of that rash of quirks, probably caught off Ezra Pound, such as sd. cd. w/ & yr. Good riddance.
            One casualty of the progress of the poet: an unpublished book called The Irish Voyages. I read it more than twice one insomniac night in the spare room at Harecops, and was impressed. Fragments of its wreck, in The Day's Final Balance, don't recapture that impression. Some other pages from unachieved works are put to good use: some relevant pages from a thing called A Green Book Written at the Places Mentioned, rewritten, enhance The Llyn Writings.
            Occasionally the changes seem to positively reverse the meaning. The 1972 sequence Marine Life is thoroughly rewritten and appears in The Day's Final Balance as Northern Harbour:

ten eleven and turn
look back, that
old man at the gate
full of awesome gift it is
not for us to touch.

[NH]……It strikes
ten, turn and
look back, that
old man at the gate
full of awesome gift
ours for the asking.

I'm glad that the gift is easier to accept, but that change is puzzling. It may mean something.
            Another: a poem that starts "I am from language and will return to language" in Love-Strife Machine and A Various Art ends thus:

a device capable of speech
and silence that can
blow up the world
in one syllable.
Because it wants to.

In Passing Measures this poem takes the title Urizon and ends:

a device capable of speech
and silence, that can
turn the world on a syllable
for good or ill.

A reason for the survival of the poem may be that it shows that a concern with language predates Language Poetry, and the futile wash of Saussurian Linguistics. But the change? Did the poet fear he might be thought to be endorsing a petulant incendiarism, or an egomania? It's clear that the I-syllable is dangerously untrustworthy. 'For good or ill' seems rather neither here nor there.
            I'd want to praise PR, but here I am come to carps and niggles. I'll take a separate section for one last example, and conclude. A Study of Peter Riley is, above all, enjoyable. Every word counts for something.

A Great Poem of the 1970s

'Great poems', the phrase itself doesn't sound too great, but they exist, and peak from sheets of good poetry. My list of great poems of the 1980s onwards would include Sea Watches, Ospita, and Alstonefield. I could call them masterpieces of ethical meditation. An essay on the art of EM might concentrate on them. Instead it seems I've been looking at some prototypes of that achievement. I might try to explain how the PR EM is controlled and facilitated by a certain formalism, and maintains a certain temper, so the ethics just flow into excellence.
            My list of great poems of the 1970s would include Andrew Crozier's The Veil Poem, Douglas Oliver's Diagram Poems, and Peter Riley's Birth-Prospectus. The End of Us. It's hard to talk about Birth-Prospectus. It stands out, like a mountain peak or a sore thumb. It breaks the rules of several schools of poetry. The poet must have wondered, Am I really writing this?
            It's easy to see the subject in two senses of this sentence. It's there in the title and in the last lines:

My daughter, you are
still my daughter.

An immense but common tragedy. The experience of reading it is a bewilderment of admiration, and a heartfelt glance at the poet himself. And there's the problem that it sets itself to resolve. If it succeeds it will transcend all the reliable rules we set ourselves. It has an uncontrollable career:

metal retakes its charge, foot
down on the bend, no idea what on
earth is going on

that has driven through areas of attempted meditation, and stopped to view the peaks of spiritual, meditative apprehension,

much as to say that the earth
is as a matter of fact adoration
in its slightest hint of length

and driven on. That is to say, its failure to be an instance of meditation is its inscape of force, the story that makes it a model of aesthetic performance cornering on a precipice of what both Riley and Oliver call 'harm'. One carelessly stressed distraction, and we fall to the doubting thought that a performance on such a subject could be, morally or something, wrong, and topple over with the poet at the wheel. The risk is great, but the flight of the vehicle doesn't fail, but comes with all its loss intact to stop at safe but still. I'll apologise here for my puerile driving trope; it's just that I think this is one of the great poems of the 20th Century.
            It was with consternation, earlier this Century, that I read the fate of Birth-Prospectus in Passing Measures: reduced to two apparent meditations called Clouds and Birds over Wolfscote and Boletus in Narrowdale, and I thought: He's destroyed his own aesthetic performance to expose two gems stripped of dramatic context, and I think he's wrong. For, as a matter of fact, is the earth beneath Wolfscote, or wherever, 'adoration', in any passing measure, except on the edge of the transcendence of a desperate hysteria?
            More calmly, seeing Wolfscote now more comely, it's the legacy of that consternation that led me to think about these things, and conclude, happily enough, that he's not wrong, and neither am I.
            I find a form of moral scrupulousness a stimulating foil to something that may not at core be ethical at all. The other bias might be uneasy about that. I was wrong to describe the Antiquarian persona as 'timid'. A mental ambition scores courageous and judicious goals, whereas my bias is more to a shiver of giggles, panning out personified as someone mock-disqualified, who won't give ground. And that's enough of that, at the end of a round.
            The autonomy that poets want, I suppose, is the freedom to make their own coherence, and to answer in practice Tim Longville's question:----What are you on about?--- can be felt as a free duty, and a moral need. Peter Riley clearly knows what he's doing, and I'd put no objection in the way he seeks to make, and has made, a coherence of style. I'd just like to save Birth-Prospectus and some other things, for a while, from the sluice of time.
            I read in the press and hear down the pub, folk younger than me by twenty or thirty years, accepting a consensus as to the various follies of the 1960s and 1970s, including artistic delusions and poetic styles. Those who lived the follies may have come to know their working through. But where are the tints of glory? Faded from the earth I suppose, though there's always new for old, and to this day experience can be deeper than it looks, and there are styles of looking good. If poetry has a future, then history can clothe it (the social sciences are ill-fitting). Insofaras the poetic past remains amusing there are some things on the periphery, on the fringes, of the 1970s that are worth perusing, that attain a high.
            The rain might stop, and I'm starting to rhyme, and so shall I-----end with socialism and the weight and light of dream.

Michael Haslam
July 5th 2007.

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