“A Part Song”


You principle of song, what are you for now
Perking up under any spasmodic light
To trot out your shadowed warblings?

Mince, slight pillar. And sleek down
Your furriness. Slim as a whippy wire
Shall be your hope, and ultraflexible.

Flap thinly, sheet of beaten tin
That won’t affectionately plump up
More cushioned and receptive lays.

But little song, don’t so instruct yourself
For none are hanging around to hear you.
They have gone bustling or stumbling well away.

— Denise Riley

“The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song,” Denise Riley said in an interview with Shearsman Books on the topic of her poetry. Throughout her lengthy career, Riley has adopted the guises of feminist critic, philosopher, and poet, but has kept a consistent and undeniable music to her writing. However, in this selection from her most recent book Say Something Back, she challenges this fundamental aspect of her poetry and poetry in general.

This selection is part of a longer “song cycle” called “A Part Song,” a long work that cycles through a variety of different expressions of song, elegy, and voice in order to process the death of Riley’s son. This section, which begins the poem, acts a sort of thesis statement, posing the major question which Riley addresses through the rest of “A Part Song:” “you principle of song, what are you for now?”

Within the context of Riley’s poetry, this question represents a huge break with her tradition as a lyric poet. In this first stanza, Riley emphasizes “song” as capricious and ineffective. “Spasmodic” shows the fleeting and ephemeral nature of song, while reducing lyricism to “warblings” emphasizes the feeble and wavering nature of song. Riley expresses a need for structure and stability in this trauma that she characterizes poetry as not possessing. This continues in the next stanza, as song becomes a “slight pillar,” with the mocking word “mince” ascribing weak and potentially effeminate connotations. The words of the poem itself break from lyricism as Riley ends the stanza on the ungainly word “ultraflexible,” a latinate construct that sticks out like a wrong note at the end of a musical phrase.

This section concludes by dismissing song entirely. Riley addresses the concept of song in second person, insulting it by saying “none are hanging around to hear you.” Riley silences the voice of music, the same lyricism that had been a fundamental aspect of her poetry for her entire career. Riley emphasizes the disconnection from music by saying that everyone has “gone bustling or stumbling well away.” From the perspective of someone who sings with a choir, both “bustling” and “stumbling” sound distinctly anti-musical. The run of consonants in the middle of both words (“stl” and “mbl” respectively) force the reader to chew through the words in a way that prevents them from being “singable” or easy to read musically.

The selection I’ve chosen as this poem of the week is filled with jarring words, mocking metaphors, and phrases that can sometimes be difficult to work through. It’s angular style and strange diction are, admittedly, a poor indication of the rest of Riley’s work, or even the rest of “A Part Song.” But the central question it raises is a necessary one, and one that haunts the work of not just Denise Riley, but every poet: In a world filled with sorrows, like the death of Riley’s son, what purpose does the lyric and beautiful have? The inability of traditional “song” poetry to reflect a new world motivated the modernist and postmodernist movements in the 20th century and continues to influence the avant-garde poetry of the Cambridge school as well as the adoption of colloquial internet slang in new contemporary poets.

I would hate to spoil “A Part Song” for you, so again I strongly recommend reading the rest of it before reading this. Riley does reach a conclusion. After cycling through different verse forms and voices in an attempt to reconcile with the death of her son, Riley ultimately concludes with a simple eight-line section of rhyming, metered poetry in which she adopts the voice of her late son calling out to his mother. The last quatrain reads “O let me be, my mother / in no unquiet grave / my bone dust is faint coral / under the fretful wave.” The use of antiquated words and phrases (“o,” “unquiet grave”) as well as the meter and rhyme call an immediate association with English lyric and romantic poetry, marking a reversal from the techniques used at the beginning of the poem. Riley ends the poem by letting her son’s body become a part of the natural world, as her words to fold into the flow of the “fretful wave,” the rhythms moving like the ebb and flow of the water. Riley finds peace in the lyric. She finds solace in the natural rhythms that feel like the waves. And ultimately, she answers the question she began the poem with. “You principle of song, what are you for now?” she asked. It is for expressing pain and accepting it.

— Henry Luzzatto ’18

Riley, Denise. “A Part Song.” London Review of Books, Web. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n03/denise-riley/a-part-song

[ For more by Denise Riley, her book Say Something Back can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Say-Something-Back-Denise-Riley/dp/1447270371 ]

Maximus, to himself

Read by Charles Olson

I have had to learn the simplest things 
last. Which made for difficulties. 
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross   
a wet deck. 
               The sea was not, finally, my trade. 
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged 
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed, 
and not content with the man’s argument 
that such postponement   
is now the nature of 
               that we are all late 
               in a slow time, 
               that we grow up many 
               And the single   
               is not easily 

It could be, though the sharpness (the achiote)   
I note in others, 
makes more sense 
than my own distances. The agilities 

               they show daily 
               who do the world’s   
               And who do nature’s   
               as I have no sense   
               I have done either 

I have made dialogues, 
have discussed ancient texts, 
have thrown what light I could, offered   
what pleasures 
doceat allows 
               But the known? 
This, I have had to be given, 
a life, love, and from one man   
the world. 
               But sitting here 
               I look out as a wind   
               and water man, testing   
               And missing 
               some proof 

I know the quarters 
of the weather, where it comes from,   
where it goes. But the stem of me,   
this I took from their welcome, 
or their rejection, of me 

               And my arrogance 
               was neither diminished   
               nor increased, 
               by the communication 


It is undone business 
I speak of, this morning,   
with the sea 
stretching out 
from my feet

— Charles Olson

I discovered Olson on an oppressively dreary day in southeast Scotland, locked inside a library cubicle with an impenetrable book of obscure English avant-garde poetry. I had an assignment to read J.H. Prynne, the widely-admired but seldom-read (for good reason) leader of the English experimental cutting edge, a poet deeply tied to Cambridge University and its cadre of anti-lyric radicalists.

I was introduced to Prynne through my professor at the time, Don Paterson, OBE, an excellent poet in his own right whose gorgeous and deeply Scottish verse won him a pair of T.S. Eliot prizes and a consistent publication in British dailies. Despite telling us that he was not a fan of Prynne, and, instead, wrote poetry specifically in opposition to his sensibilities, Prof. Paterson had us read a long, manic, tangential, and brilliant lecture that Prynne gave on a somewhat obscure American postmodernist named Charles Olson.

Prynne’s topic–and my selection for this week–comes from Olson’s Maximus Poems, an epic exploration of American history, the local world of Massachusetts, and the wandering Greek philosopher Maximus of Tyre. Not unlike Pound’s Cantos, Maximus Poems was an attempt to create a uniquely American mythic literature. And, like Cantos, Olson’s work was crucial to the development of a poetic style that was completely divorced from the sensibilities of the most important and influential British poets.

British poets of the 1950s–the era when Olson rose to a place of prominence and influence–expanded upon the lyrical modernist tradition developed by T.S. Eliot and continued by poets like W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Theirs was a poetry that combined modernist sensibilities with the English lyric tradition. Meanwhile, on the other coast, a different style was developing. Influenced by the objectivism of William Carlos Williams, which focused on accurately representing objects as they appeared in the world, and the linguistic experiments of late Ezra Pound.

“Maximus, to himself,” offers itself in direct opposition to the mythic tradition of the British lyric, which found itself in conversation with texts from across history. “I have made dialogues,” Olson says, as Maximus. “I have discussed ancient texts,/have thrown what light I could, offered / what pleasure / doceat allows,” he says, specifically mentioning the classics and using a Latin word. However, despite mentioning these things, Olson’s Maximus says that “the known,” the concrete parts of life, “I have had to be given, / a life, love, and from one man / the world.” Whether the “one man” is interpreted as a higher power, a father, or even the speaker himself, Maximus, and, by extension, Olson, are saying that engagement with the stories of the past does not deliver the crucial parts of life, which must instead be given to a person by the world.

Finally, in a way typical of the objectivist school, Olson ends this poem with a concrete image that encapsulates the central feelings of the poem. Describing the “sea stretching out from my feet,” Olson evokes the feeling of locating oneself in an overwhelming world, while still emphasizing that experience is entirely based on one’s personal perspective, hence the sea emanating from Maximus.

It is this image of the “sea stretching out from my feet” that I connected to, walking along my favorite cold, wind-swept beach in Fife, thousands of miles away from the place I call home. In his lecture on the Maximus poems, Prynne offered a commentary on why he gravitates toward the uniquely American, often anti-lyric styles of Olson’s postmodernists: “But to be at home in that larger sense is not permitted to the lyric. It is permitted only to the great epic performances: and what’s more, to the great epic performances that can carry across that distance, and which you can carry with: that’s to say, the obscure epic.” An evocation of a true concrete home, the sense of feeling anchored on the planet, is exclusively the domain of a great epic like The Maximus Poems. By utilizing concrete images, Olson is able to create a feeling of home that Prynne finds not in the lyrics modernism of the British poets.

It took a journey across the ocean, the teachings of a Scottish lyric poet, and the lecture of a mad avant-garde language poet to reach Charles Olson, but doing so brought me to the closest evocation of a home that I could find in poetry. Even thousands of miles away, sitting on a beach in Scotland, I felt a connection as the sea stretched out from my feet.

— Henry Luzzatto ’18

“Maximus, to himself.” The Maximus Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press., 1983. Web.

[For more by Charles Olson, all of The Maximus Poems can be found for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Maximus-Poems-Charles-Olson/dp/0520055950/ref=la_B000AP7SG4_1_2/143-4723425-1591860?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506874139&sr=1-2]