Atsuro Riley a Latter Day Hopkins

I just got the March edition of Poetry magazine. I’ve only read the first few poems, stopped in my tracks as I was by the five poems by one Atsuro Riley. My first thought upon reading his poems was “there’s something of Gerard Manley Hopkins in this guy’s stuff.” Consider the following example

— Mama, mainly: boiling jelly. She’s the apron-yellow (rickracked) plaid in there, and stove-coil coral; the quick silver blade-flash, plus the (magma-brimming) ladle-splash; that’s her behind the bramble-berry purple, sieved and stored.

This quotation from “Map” is one of several that makes me think of Hopkins for a number of reasons. First note all the hyphenated words (dare I call them kennings?). A very quick review of some of Hopkins’s more well-known works netted me the following such hyphenations:

  • dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon
  • bow-bend
  • blue-bleak
  • gold-vermillion (all from “The Windhover”)
  • couple-colour
  • Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls
  • fathers-forth (all from “Pied Beauty”)
  • Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded
  • dapple-eared
  • rarest-veinèd
  • neighbour-nature (all from “Duns Scotus’s Oxford”)
  • sóng-strain
  • wheat-acre
  • crush-silk
  • blood-gush blade-gash
  • Flame-rash
  • broad-shed
  • Tatter-tassel-tangled
  • laced-leaved
  • Foam-tuft (all from “The Woodlark”)

All of Riley’s poems published in Poetry include at least a couple of these nonstandard hyphenations. He could certainly have arrived at such hyphenations without any influence from Hopkins. He could have been, as Hopkins likely was, influenced by the Anglo Saxon poets in whose honor I proposed the term kennings for these lexical constructs.

But there’s more of Hopkins in Riley’s work. Note for example Riley’s complex internal rhyming and his ample use of alliteration and assonance. Similar sound pairings within the one line I quoted above include the following:

  • Mama / mainly (alliteration)
  • boiling / jelly (just similar sounds)
  • boiling jelly / apron-yellow (meter and a near-rhyme)
  • rickracked / magma-brimming (inverted [or “chiastic”] vowel sounds)
  • coil / coral
  • blade-flash / ladle-splash
  • bramble / berry
  • boiling jelly / bramble-berry (meter, alliteration, near-rhyme)
  • stove-coil / quick silver (chiastic alliteration)

And these are just a few of the more obvious ones within one line. Compare the quotation above to the following stanza from Hopkins’s “Inversnaid”:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

Or the first stanza of one of the most linguistically enticing poems I can call to mind, “The Windhover”:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Between this poem and the quote from “Map” above, I can’t help noticing a syntactic similarity as well — “the apron-yellow (rickracked) plaid in there” could almost be an echo of “and striding / high there” And there’s also something of Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” in Riley’s poem, the unusual, vivid, at times oblique descriptions of things, that closing “sieved and stored” making me think of Hopkins’s “landscape plotted and pieced.”

Still, I haven’t pointed to anything that couldn’t have occurred in a vacuum without any knowledge whatsoever of Hopkins. I’m not done yet. One of the things that has bothered me the most about Hopkins’s poems is his stilted language and, in particular, his decision to dictate using accent marks how his poems should be pronounced, how certain words should be stressed. I’ve always sort of thought that if you couldn’t put your words together in such a way that your lines were metrically sound without mangling the syntax or requiring nonstanard pronunciations, you should take another stab at it. The best example of my beefs with Hopkins can be found in “Spring and Fall”:

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Note the various accent marks and the first two lines in particular. Now compare to the first two lines of Riley’s “Strand”:

Alphabet, sluice the porch.
Bind (and try to braid) our river-wrack and leavings.

If we go by Hopkins’s notation, “Margaret” is pronounced pretty much like “alphabet.” Further, if you get rid of the parenthetical part in Riley’s second line, the first two lines of the poems are almost identical rhythmically, if you forgive the lack of a feminine ending in Riley’s first line, and of course the endings of the second lines are similar. Hopkins’s poem deals heavily in leaves (and their falling) as a metaphor for death. Riley’s poem is about his dead father and includes lines like “Leaf. Leave. Leaves. Leaving. Left.” I think there may be other echoes of Hopkins in the poem as well, and there’s the progression of the poem’s lines, starting with “Alphabet” and “Bind” and ending on “Yesterdaddy” and “Zag” (with no other consistent linear progression through the alphabet in the poem), suggesting a beginning and an ending, a life and a death couched in terms of a child’s sing-songy lesson. Certainly there are some thematic similarities between the two poems.

I don’t know that I’ve proved conclusively that Riley’s work is informed directly or consciously by Hopkins’s, but I think it’s a good bet. As I mentioned above, I’ve never liked Hopkins all that much in spite of his ear for similar sounds (which I do appreciate). The jury’s still out on Riley. I do and I don’t like what I’ve read so far. I’m definitely going to read his poems some more so that I can make up my mind, and his getting me to want to do so says something about how engaging his work is. It may be the case that in a literary environment in which poetry has of late tended to be more about expression than about lexical craftmanship, a more modern and worldy poet with roots in the tonguey earth of Hopkins’s work and a mouth for linguistic innovation can make a pretty good go of it.

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