Tom Riley, Wild Man

(The independent and highly-objective review below was written by the late Richard Moore.)

Tom Riley, Wild Man

The chains don’t really bother me. I feel
they give my gestures an impressive weight.

— “Side Show,” Plains Poetry Journal, Jan. 1988.

I have never laid eyes on Tom Riley, and I am not his friend. A few years ago, two poems of his in the Winter 1996 issue of LIGHT so delighted me that I wrote him, through the magazine, and thanked him for them. I am, of course, corrupt like everyone else, and I supposed that my open words would bring a kind response from him about things that I had published in the same magazine and that some sort of mutual benefit might result.

But there was no reply. Finally, two or three years later, I heard through a third party that Riley had suggested me as the author of the prose piece on him when LIGHT got around to featuring his work. It figured. Maybe a guy like that, I mused, didn’t have any friends at all.

He writes like an angel and doesn’t need friends — that is, if he doesn’t mind having published hundreds of poems in all sorts of dumpy little magazines for fifteen or twenty years without, apparently, ever having published a book of his own. He was a formalist before “The New Formalists” were heard of, writing in their ignorant meters and sloppy inaudible rhymes. Riley’s rhymes are exact, and listeners (if there are any) hear them; and unlike today’s “Formalists,” he understands the rules of English prosody, as gotten up and practiced by the great poets of English for several centuries.

Take the first in the selection of his poems in this issue, for example. Like his other poems “For Maria Bailey,” it is a Spenserian sonnet: a devilishly difficult form with its fourteen lines on only five rhyme-sounds in a prescribed pattern. Riley moves through this pattern with a conversational ease and apparent spontaneity that makes us — not feel — but know that we are in the presence of a master of his art. But the way he organizes his pentameter line is what he assures us that we are in the presence of — yes, I will say the word — genius.

Look at the contrast, for example, between the second or third lines. The first of these is quick and dismissive; so it trips in easy, light, perfectly regular meter. But in the next line, the tomcat howls, and the line is stuffed to bursting with spondees. We feel the strain rhythmically, but the meter isn’t broken, for spondees leave the iambic accents undisturbed. Other substitutions shift or drop the iambic stress, and when this happens — as the old poets show and W.H. Auden has reminded us — the foot that follows must have its accent on the second syllable intact. Riley relies on this rule brilliantly in lines 9 and 12, where all the you’s must be stressed because both the metric pattern and the sense of living speech require it.

The selection of Riley in this issue ends with another Spenserian sonnet to Maria Bailey, and there is another in the Fall 1998 issue of The Lyric. All are equally brilliant in the mastery of the form and the poignant irony of the feelings portrayed. And with the one in The Lyric, there is the added feature that one can compare its rhythms with the klutzy ignorant rhythms of a sonnet by someone else on the same page. I am tempted to assert that Riley writes these Spenserian sonnets with more mastery than Spenser did himself.

But enough of form. Riley’s forms are great because they reveal a powerful, deeply complex moral sensibility. He understands our world. We can learn from him. That he restricts himself almost entirely to sonnets, villanelles, triolets, and limericks itself suggests a judgment about contemporary poetry as a whole. Avoid all that emptiness and bluster, he implies. Modest aims, small triumphs are appropriate for the likes of us. They, if anything of ours, will be what is remembered.

I could go on about this. Let me close with the two poems I wrote Riley about in the first place, “Plea to an Inaugural Poetess” and “Love My Enemy.”

The world ignores me.  What am I to do?
Lest I drown in poetical regret,
fly to my rescue, Maya Angelou!

You are not quite what I’m aspiring to,
I must admit—but I cannot forget:
the world ignores me.  What am I to do?

You have to know the answer.  You’ve won through
complete ineptitude, and now you’re set.
Fly to my rescue, Maya Angelou!

Oh, be my teacher!  See: I beg on cue.
I’ll be to you a perfect teacher’s pet.
The world ignores me.  What am I to do?

I’m sick of all that’s difficult and true.
How can I be a poseur laureate?
Fly to my rescue, Maya Angelou!

Please, though: don’t say I have to write like you.
Anyone can.  I wouldn’t on a bet.
The world ignores me.  What am I to do?
Fly to my rescue, Maya Angelou!

Reader, note, please, how the refrain lines of this villanelle keep coming to renewed life in their varied contexts. (Riley doesn’t have to vary the refrain lines themselves in order to achieve this effect, as lesser modern practitioners of the form like to do.). And note, too, how his command of the form establishes his right to scorn the sentimental windbag he addresses. Is it necessary — or even desirable — to call attention to the ineptitude of inept people who happen to be famous? Yes, I cry with Riley, if there are to be any meaningful values at all in a society, it is absolutely necessary.

But that fine satiric villanelle is nothing next to the marvelous complexity of this perfectly done Petrarchan sonnet, “Love My Enemy”:

Some enemies one learns a liking for.
Tom Disch, who hates the Church, is one of these,
for, though his anti-Catholic fantasies
offend my soul, they very rarely bore
my eye, my ear, my wits, my taste.  The more
I read of his, the more he tends to please
all my discriminating faculties.
He sinks low, but he earns a damn high score.
And after all, I don’t need to get pissed
when the prick goes and pisses in the well
of living water, don’t need to insist
on summary castration.  Truth to tell,
I need not even shake my Irish fist.
I’m confident that he will go to Hell.

The conflict in the speaker between secular admiration and sectarian anger, introduced in the first line, is worked out with admiration dominant in the octave. Then in the sestet the anger takes over and makes a hilarious mockery of the speaker himself. Notice how trochees and spondees register this rising anger, only to be resolved in the smug regularity of the last two lines.

To understand this poem with that powerful pissing-in-the-well image is to understand, not just prejudice in any age, but also human nature’s undying need for it: is to understand what most modern readers of poetry will no doubt find entirely too unpleasant to understand. But we modern readers will all be dead in a few years, thank God.

Who is this unpleasant fellow, Riley, who not only confronts us with our own horrors but makes us laugh at them? He’s dangerous to our peace of mind. Get rid of him!

Or, if you are as fascinated as I am, reader, look up more of his poems, including the one from which my epigraph is taken: fourteen sideshow monsters, each presented in the same, I suppose original variation on sonnet form: The Two-Headed Man, The Fat Lady, The Mathematical Horse, The Wild Man, moving grandly in chains. They are all Riley.

—Richard Moore

(First appeared in Light: A Quarterly of Light Verse, No. 29, Summer, 2000. Reprinted by permission.)