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This review is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.

Beyond the Big Poetry World peter riley, The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet) £8.96

In a recent Fortnightly Review essay 'Poetry Prize Culture and the Aberdeen Angus' (22 April 2012), Peter Riley argues against the baleful predominance of the same few 'major' names at the top of every poetry-prize list by untangling the dubious imbroglio of in-house favours-for-mates, judges too inept to do anything but back a previous winner and corporate publishers complicit with hedge-fund investors. He's also scrupulous in identifying 'a favoured concept of poetical writing...integrally set-up for prize-winning and success in general in the "big" poetry world'. John Burnside's poems, for example, are ultimately characterised by 'the avoidance of idiolect or dialect, as too of disrupted syntax, neologisms, references beyond the cultural sphere, and avoidance indeed of any serious degree of abstract thought'. Riley goes on to lampoon the whole sorry business of poetry-prizes as being akin to a cattle-show, looking forward 'to seeing our "best" poets walking around with enormous rosettes attached to their chests'.

Light-hearted though the piece may appear (the balance between gentleness of tone and pointedness of thought is typical of Riley), it gives a clear indication of how outside the processes and conventions of mainstream poetry the author feels himself to be. The biography section of Riley's website ( details a life committed to writing and studying poetry but during which he early on 'abandoned an academic career, or indeed any other'. Equally, his open-ended approach to form is never separable from the wider context of his poetics and their foundation in a ...

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