Peter Riley

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Peter Riley (b. 1940) is a contemporary English poet, essayist, and editor. Riley is known as a Cambridge poet, part of the group vaguely associated with J. H. Prynne which today is acknowledged as an important epicenter of innovative poetry in the United Kingdom. Riley was an editor and major contributor to The English Intelligencer. He is the author of ten books of poetry, and many small-press booklets.


  • 1 Overview
  • 2 Excavations & Riley's poetics
  • 3 Selected publications
  • 4 Further reading
  • 5 Notes
  • 6 External links


Born in Stockport, near Manchester, and raised in an environment of working people, Riley entered higher education through Britain’s post-war socialistic educational policies.[1] He read English at Cambridge University and has since lived and worked in the UK and abroad in various kinds of teaching and casual employment. Since 1985 he has lived in Cambridge, where for nearly two decades he operated a mail-order poetry book business. He has written studies of Jack Spicer, T. F. Powys, improvised music, poetry, lead mines, burial mounds, village carols and Transylvanian string bands, and has published two books of translations from the French poet Lorand Gaspar. He has been an advocate for neglected British poets from the 1930s and 1940s, in particular Nicholas Moore (1918-1986), and he has edited several posthumous books of Moore's.

Riley was the co-editor (with Andrew Crozier and others) of the important poetry/poetics journal The English Intelligencer (1965-1968), and editor of the later Collection (1968-1970). From the 1980s to the 2000s he ran the imprint Poetical Histories, which focussed on brief (4-12pp) pamphlets published on fine paper. Notable publications included J.H. Prynne's Marzipan and his sole poem in Chinese, Jie ban mi Shi Hu; R. F. Langley's Man Jack; and late work by the older poets Sean Rafferty and Dorian Cooke.

In the 1970s Riley was an important early promoter of and advocate for British free improvisation, and the noted guitarist Derek Bailey was a lifelong friend; two of Bailey's late solo albums, Takes Fakes & Dead She Dances and Poetry and Playing, contain tracks of Bailey playing guitar while reading aloud from Riley's poetry. Several books of Riley's from this period are responses to free jazz and free improvisation: The Musicians The Instruments (poetry, The Many Press, 1978) and Company Week (prose, Compatible Recording and Publishing, 1994) in response to Bailey's 1977 Company Week event, and The Whole Band (Sesheta, 1972), in response to performances by John Tchicai's Cadentia Nova Danica. This habit of responding to music in his poetry has continued in more recent work, such as the Reader/Author/Lecture series (with poems for or after Syd Barrett, Arnold Schoenberg, John Sheppard &c) and his more recent books concerning music encountered on his travels in Eastern Europe.

Riley was the subject of an essay collection, The Poetry of Peter Riley (The Gig, 1999/2000) and a poetry festschrift, April Eye (Infernal Methods, 2000).

Excavations & Riley's poetics

Distant Points is a series of prose poems arising from the author’s meditations on 19th century excavation reports of prehistoric burial mounds in the north of England. As Riley himself explains, this particular work is:

"...concerned with the human burial deposits of the so-called Neolithic/Bronze Age culture of what is now the Yorkshire Wolds, as documented in two books of late 19th Century tumulus excavation accounts: by J. R. Mortimer (1905) and Canon William Greenwell (1877)."

Commenting on this work, American poet and Zukofsky scholar Mark Scroggins offers this insight:

Each poem is titled with the numerical designation of an individual excavation, and combines verbatim descriptions of the mound’s contents – often eliciting a good deal of unintentional (to their original authors) pathos – with linguistic material Riley draws from any number of other sources: various works on Renaissance music, Ezra Pound, Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Roubaud, Elaine Scarry, Beckett, Sir Thomas Browne, etc. It makes for a fascinating mix, which grows in emotional intensity over the course of the book. This strikes me as an extraordinary poetry, one which takes the techniques of modernism to almost a certain limit, yet retains the entire lyric and emotional intensity of the English tradition behind Riley[2]

Selected publications

  • Love-Strife Machine (Ferry Press, 1969)
  • The Linear Journal (Grosseteste Press, 1973)
  • Lines on the Liver (Ferry Press, 1981)
  • Tracks and Mineshafts (Grosseteste Press, 1983)
  • Distant Points: Excavations Part One, Books One and Two (Reality Street Editions, 1995)
  • Snow has Settled [… ] Bury Me Here (Shearsman Books, 1997)
  • Passing Measures, Selected poems 1966-1996 (Carcanet, 2000)
  • Messenger Street (Poetical Histories, 2001) note: this is a pamphlet containing four elegies for the poet Douglas Oliver
  • The Dance at Mociu (Shearsman, 2003)
  • Alstonefield: a poem (Carcanet, 2003)

Further reading

  • Riley, Peter. "The Creative Moment of the Poem." In Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-1991, ed. Denise Riley, 92-113. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992.
  • The Poetry of Peter Riley (The Gig: issue 4/5, Toronto: November 1999/March 2000) — devoted to studies of Riley’s poetry, plus an interview and bibliography. ISBN 0-9685294-4-5
  • Keith Tuma, Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 1998. (Contains an essay on Excavations.)


  1. ^ Author Page at British Electronic Poetry Centre
  2. ^ Mark Scroggins's review of Distant Points
  • Author Page at the British Electronic Poetry Centre
  • Peter Riley in Conversation with Keith Tuma interview at Jacket Magazine website
  • Mark Scroggins review of Distant Points
  • Peter Riley's 'Excavations' reviewed at "Intercapillary Space"
  • Peter Riley Feature at A search on the Homepage will link to poems, biography, and a dialogue between Peter Riley and Spilios Argyropoulos, The origins and trajectories of English avant garde poetry in the last 40 years
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