Issue 21 – Winter 2011 – Jon Thompson on Harriet Tarlo and Peter Riley (Review)

Reckonings with the Land

The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, edited by Harriet Tarlo (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011)


Bringing together representative selections from sixteen poets in the UK whose work takes up, in one way or the other, the question of the land, or landscape, in “exploratory” or “experimental” terms (read “open form” poetry), this new collection from Shearsman Books showcases an underrepresented, but vibrant, tradition in British letters. Edited by Harriet Tarlo, with a very useful introduction on the agenda of the anthology, The Ground Aslant seeks to offer a collection that demonstrates the coherence and breadth of “radical landscape poetry” in the UK and, implicitly, revises the reader’s understanding of the landscape of contemporary British poetry.

The poets represented here show different lines of influence, often creating a hybrid poetry by synthesizing them. To my eye and ear, the most influential poetic traditions are, in more or less random order, the Emily Dickinson/Susan Howe line, the Ezra Pound/Basil Bunting line, the explosive poetic experiments of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the quieter ones of John Clare, the expansive experiments of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and the historical poetics of place as practiced by Lorine Niedecker. Almost all of the poets here are committed to exploring the poem’s figurative or visual presence on the page as a mode of signification that appeals as much to the eye and ear as to the brain. Or as Tarlo puts it in the Introduction: “Clearly, there is a relationship between the spatial arrangements of the poem and the landscape” (p.9); at other times, the poems stress the sonic over the spatial and work to signify the land in terms of the sounds that define it.

Tarlo takes pains to point out that this is “landscape” poetry—not poetry that views the land as untouched by human hands, but whether subtly or not too subtly, it is land that has been shaped by human hands (the “scape” part of “landscape” which implies a human viewer). Pressing behind these poems is, of course, the great English Romantic tradition of poetry, which often took the landscape as its ostensible subject. Whether in terms of the forms deployed, or diction, or perspective (no one really seeks to continue the Romantic claim to the poet as semi-divine genius) these poets appear to seek to distance themselves from the lofty rhetoric of the Romantics, replacing it with other kinds of rhetoric, whether it is of a frankly personal kind or an abstract-philosophical kind, various kinds of amalgamated discourse, historical rumination, or a hyper-focused particularity. At issue in these developments ultimately is a rethinking of the poet-as-viewing subject. The poets of The Ground Aslant share an interest in experimenting with different ways of presenting poetic subjectivity in poetry outside the perimeters of the declarative, autobiographical “I.” What one does find as a continuity with the Romantic tradition is an emphasis on the consciousness of the poet as witness, even if the poet eschews the first person indicative. The witness becomes displaced elsewhere, often to the language or diction of poem, in which the speaker as a human figure is absent but present everywhere in the material of the poem.

The Romantic tradition also can be felt in the critical posture towards capitalist “development” of the land in the work of these writers. One doesn’t find Blakean denunciation or Wordsworthian deification of nature as Nature, but one does find a persistent, quieter registering of the damage being done to the land and, in many places, its actual loss.

In part because of this tempered language, The Ground Aslant is not, as Harriet Tarlo points out, “a book of polemical ecopoetry, or even of ecopoetics […] Rather this is a book of radical landscape poetry, some of which may also be motivated by environmentalism” (p.10-11).  Part of its agenda is a distancing from, or perhaps, a reinvention of, the venerable English tradition of pastoral poetry: “Whereas Pastoral often sentimentalises the rural life, radical landscape poetry is more realistic in its view of contemporary landscape, rural people and past and present agricultural and social issues. Indeed, the rural working class poet and great resister of enclosure, John Clare, is a significant ancestor to several of these poets.” (p.11).

Ultimately, what I find most arresting about this book is the great creative energy of its poets and their willingness to take risks with language and form, even when those will place many out of the “mainstream.” Not since Keith Tuma’s Anthology of British and Irish Poetry (2001), has there been an offering of poetic language this rich. Restlessly fusing different poetic traditions, each poet in the collection seeks a reckoning with the poetic traditions of the past, but as resources rather than as deadening influences. Using the landscape as a subject of reflection, the poets represented in The Ground Aslant are engaged in nothing less than reinventing poetic language and poetic subjectivity. If you are interested in seeing and hearing an exhibit of the rich variety of ways contemporary poets make themselves present in the poem, buy this book. You will never think about poetry—or the landscape—in quite the same way again.


Peter Riley, The Glacial Stairway (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010)

One of the featured writers in The Ground Aslant, Peter Riley continues to write about the land and its history in his newest collection, The Glacial Stairway, which shows interests that have long motivated his work. Ranging across various excursions to or through the Pyrenees, Tuscany, Provence, Greece, Havana, Essex and Derbyshire, and various Western states in the US—to say nothing of imagined sojourns to places like Iraq–Peter Riley’s latest collection restlessly investigates the transformations “modernity” (a word that crops up frequently) has wrought on these places, the people who live in them and the costs of our commitment to its ceaselessly transformative dynamics.

Largely structured around poetic sequences, Riley’s collection exhibits great formal range: one can begin to get a sense of this by contrasting the long Wordsworthian poem “The Glacial Stairway” which opens the collection with “Western States (2),” the sequence that ends the collection, which is written in numbered, unrhymed imagistic couplets that refashion an earlier, more discursive prose-styled travelogue through Nevada, Utah, Montana and Idaho in “Western States (1)”. The arrangement of the sequences and the recurring motifs in them creates the effect of a sustained meditation on the ways in which modernity–globalized capitalism, its profit-oriented values and profit-oriented, often ignoble actions–has damaged the world, whether the reference point is the UK, Europe, Latin America or the US. Riley is particularly drawn to observing the ways in which globalized capital transforms previously small-scale human settlements in say, Ordino in Andorra, into troubling displays of wealth for the superwealthy (Las Vegas being the American version of this will-to-excess).

The opening sequence, “The Glacial Stairway,” recounts the poet retracing the path of a 50 kilometer hike in the Pyrenees he took at 15 as part of a school-led excursion:

This is me 48 years ago, this is 48 of my years, the same valley
the same sky’s water crashing down the gully, the same 
striving uphill, taking the strain, bearing the weight.
48 years, something happened in the world, what was it?
Intentions conjoined and dispersed, soldiers died.

Examining landscapes disfigured by commercialization, Riley’s speakers again and again wrestle with that question, “something happened in the world, what was it?” That something, of course, is modernity which transformed the world of Riley’s childhood into its present form, shattering the hopes of the egalitarian aspirations of many in the 1960s and substituting for them all the extremes of wealth and poverty Riley observes with indignation in his book. This is a world in which as Marx famously noted, “all that is solid melts into air.”  Riley concedes the siren-like attractions of the transformative dynamics of modernity (Las Vegas being Exhibit A), but the recurring criticism is that modernity’s spectacles too often turn our attention away from the harsher inequalites of life, the dispossessed and the have-nots.

In acknowledging the triumph of modernity virtually everywhere, The Glacial Stairway is driven to ponder the question of hope: that is, what is there to hope for and how can we hope? Like the word “modernity,” the word “hope “ recurs as a leitmotif in this collection. Everywhere Riley scans the landscape, reading signs of modernity’s reifying touch, “excavating the air for signs of hope.” Indeed, the land in this collection is rarely untouched; it is almost always depicted as subjected to highways, planes, urban sprawl or homogenized mass culture.

While “excavating the air for signs of hope,” suggests the difficulties of locating hope in a world Riley sees as maimed by capitalism and war, the book does identify some sources of hope. There is the land itself, which, despite all the despoliation, in many places still possesses a beauty and self possession that defies its status as property. For Riley there is, importantly, poetry itself, which in its artistry, feeling and relation to the land defies materialism and embodies communitarian values. Riley’s poetry addresses the world as it is.

Heart, how can you not break down, that your love
is shrunken to four walls, and everything outside is delivered 
to the empties? They have taken over the whole public world, where desire
planted a garden and they have build a car-park on it
and nothing can stop them now. But the airs and the 
electricity on the mountain tops and things are remembered
that protect us against destructive certainty. A slow history accumulates in
                                                                                                                         [ those 
parts of the world that remain true to themselves, and forget the whole.
The tall hole. Heart speak or die.


For Riley, modernity fundamentally comes down a question of ethics, of choosing the status quo with its reigning powers and values. In The Glacial Stairway a sense of acquiescence to the failures of modernity gives rise to considerable indignation. His sense of urgency and outrage might be read by some as guilty of too much “destructive certainty” (not unknown in the poetry of Lawrence and Blake either, both critics of earlier phases of modernity) but to me, Riley’s commitment to a trans-national vision of what modernity is doing to us—or what we are allowing it to do—is vividly embodied in poetry that continually invents new ways of being intellectually and linguistically alive. Indeed, how many other poets have the ambition or wherewithal to take on this task? Riley’s poetry is distinctive in the language that he has developed to make his vision compelling, a language that blends abstraction, particularity and feeling in an idiom that brings together external evaluation with internal emotion. The following passage begins the long sequence “Western States (1), and in its description of Las Vegas, it captures something of the sweep of Riley’s vision and his distinctive lexicon that blends the abstract and the particular:

1 Unsustainable light, discontinuous song, unpayable debt. A display of 
surplus energy not yet accounted for: a burning cauldron, a mass of bright
lights surrounded by blackness as the plane descends toward Las Vegas. 
And before you’ve got your foot on the ground the music of it surrounds 
you: tinkling gambling machines—mesmerized, already. Hire a car and get
out of it, past towers of light, the shining monuments to credit—look in 
amazement but go on, into the night. The desert on either side of the road pitch 
black, the desert of fun pitch bright disappearing behind to a flicker and we
are alone. Such lights will always leave you alone, looking for somewhere to
lay your head.

Riley’s speaker here casts himself and his traveling companions as refugees of modernity, fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the unbridled power and excess of American modernity; not surprising that he often finds hope in other refugees of modernity, typically low-wage workers, who are resilient in eking out a living in an economy—indeed, a world—that does not represent their interests and that is set against them.

Most of all, though, Riley’s poetry finds hope in the will to find hope, a refusal to concede aspirations and dreams that run counter to the status quo. It may be a utopianism but it is a necessary utopianism inasmuch as to concede those counter-culture aspirations would allow no resistance or alternatives to modernity. Riley quotes the Cuban slogan with evident approval:  Luchar contra lo imposible y vencer! (Struggle against the impossible and win!)

But the dominant structure of feeling in The Glacial Stairway is not one of heroic resistance, but a poignant recognition of the losses that modernity has brought about, a recognition that refuses resignation. Like the Gray of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a figure whom he invokes, Riley is an elegist. Land—nature itself—is in the balance, but so is much else. What this book excels at registering is the ephemerality of the world that is passing before our eyes, a powerful sense of the immediacy of the present, and the history that constitutes it. Riley’s poetry is always seeking to balance the burden of the past on the present, evaluation with observation. Take for example two lyrics from “Western States (2)”:

Empty mind turns looks
Around sees the real

‘land without people’
and fills with bitterness

low grey bushes with yellow flowers
breathe in and breathe out.


Vast fields of silence
in the distance the sounds of distance

miserable assumptions
prisons and nuclear waste.


In its reimagining of the Romantic tradition of landscape poetry via an American-influenced poetics, Peter Riley has arrived at something that not only feels like a summation of various poetic traditions, but a poetry that is distinctly his own. Gertrude Stein once famously declared that imagination is observation and construction. By this criteria, The Glacial Stairway is a work of the highest imagination: it observes reality with crystalline clarity and it renders those observations in a unique, poetically expressive idiom that carries a full analytical charge. The Glacial Stairway is a remarkable book, one that will command attention from future generations, who no doubt will return to it as they negotiate the demanding legacies of modernity in their own time.



Jon Thompson is the editor of Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics and the single-author series, Free Verse Editions, which published an earlier title of Peter Riley’s, A Map of Faring.