Peter Riley must now count as one of our ‘senior poets’, with a large back-catalogue of publications, but he occupies a strange position in contemporary English letters, due in no small part to the sheer range of his work. In some respects, this range, and his interests, rule him out of contention for a number of critics, and it would be fair to say that he probably annoys as many critics from the avant-garde side of the current poetic debate as he does conservative critics, for whom his work as whole will not cohere.
His interests – musical, antiquarian, archaeological, poetic, hiker – make of him an engaging traveller and observer. A good deal of his best work engages with landscape, often English, but also French, Italian or Transylvanian. He is no tourist-poet however. Riley engages with landscape as a person within and of the landscape, not as an omnipotent observer moving doll-like figures around upon it. And his interest in place can lead to tunnelling beneath the earth, as in Tracks and Mineshafts, or as in Excavations, which plunders the records of 19th century archaeologists. There is in some respects here a nod towards (Charles) Olson’s employment of deep time and geology, but Riley’s work seems rooted in a peculiarly English tradition, even when it is straining at the leash.
Peter Riley says of himself:
I was born in 1940, in Stockport, near Manchester, in an environment of working people, and entered higher education through Britain’s post-war socialistic educational policies. After an interesting year selling kitchen furniture and lampshades in Manchester department stores, I went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read English. Vocational uncertainty led to over a year in London with varied employment but mostly walking the city and getting married. Having located a thesis subject – the novelist and story-writer T.F.Powys – I moved to Hastings where the Powys family kept a hoard of unpublished manuscripts, and then to Hove, working on the thesis part-time at the University of Sussex and employed occasionally as bus conductor, then language teacher. Having become acquainted with an association of poets centred on Cambridge I subscribed to the privately circulated worksheet The English Intelligencer, and took over its editorship for part of 1967.
The thesis was never completed, mainly because the mass of the unpublished texts was too much to handle, but also because the foci of poethood moved me away from the subject as I strove to grasp the mysteries of the Cambridge nova and its companion, the “New American Poetry”. In 1969 I got a job as lecturer at the University of Odense (Denmark), then a group of portakabins in a field, and stayed there until 1972. On return to Britain I discovered quickly that working at a Continental university was not considered a wise career-move, and abandoned an academic career, and indeed any other.
Somewhat adrift now, and separated from poetical intimacies, I got married again and we lived for a while in a worker’s cottage in Macclesfield which was due to be demolished, and then achieved a long-held ambition to live in the Peak District, first in a rather splendid Georgian stone farmhouse called Harecops on a low ridge-top overlooking the Dove Valley. While here I undertook a part-time M.A. thesis on Jack Spicer at the University of Keele, supervised by Roy Fisher. In 1978 we moved to the far, eastern, side of the Peak, getting a stone cottage in a small village called Bolehill which clung to the valley side overlooking the town of Wirksworth. While here I discovered that the ever fraught “earning a living” question might be settled by acting as an independent second-hand mail-order book dealer specialising in poetry, mainly by picking up choice items from second-hand bookshops and passing them on at an increased price, and continued doing this until 2005. The business succeeded without ever making any profit worth knowing about, and took up ever increasing amounts of time.
The last move, as yet, was to Cambridge in 1985. The place had remained a centre of independent poetical activity, but this was not the main reason for moving there, which had more to do with access to the University Library and other cultural manifestations such as concerts, films, theatre and possibly a sociality of poets and readers to whom what I did would not be simply weird . . . expectations which were only foiled to a degree.
Love-Strife Machine, Ferry Press, London, 1969
The Canterbury Experimental Weekend, Arc, Gillingham, 1971
The Linear Journal, Grosseteste Press, Lincoln, 1973
The Musicians, The Instruments, The Many Press, London, 1978
Preparations, The Curiously Strong, London, 1979
Lines on the Liver, Ferry Press, London, 1981
Tracks and Mineshafts, Grosseteste Press, Matlock, 1983
Sea Watches, Prest Roots Press, Kenilworth, 1991
Alstonefield: A Poem, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2003
Snow has settled ... bury me here, Shearsman Books, Plymouth, 1997
Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2000
Aria with Small Lights, West House Books, Sheffield, 2003
Excavations, Reality Street Editions, Hastings, 2004
A Map of Faring, Parlor Press, West Lafayette, 2005
The Llyn Writings, Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2007
Two Essays, Grosseteste Press, Lincoln, 1983
Company Week, Compatible Recording and Publishing, London, 1994
The Dance at Mociu Shearsman Books and Gratton Street Irregulars, Exeter/Cheltenham, 2003
In conversation with Keith Tuma
An article from Jacket Magazine
Peter Riley's website
Peter Riley's website
A review of Alice Oswald
Peter Riley reviews Woods, Etc for Shearsman Books.
A discussion about Excavations
A conversation between Melissa Flores-Bórquez & Edmund Hardy about Excavations.