Denise Riley
(United Kingdom, 1948)   

Denise Riley’s poetry combines a bold and stylish performance of the self (whoever she may be) with complete awareness of this performance. Her poems dance and think through – with verbal energy and acute invention – the complex surfaces that compose our lives.

Denise Riley was born in 1948 in Carlisle, and educated at Cambridge. She has followed an academic career, and she is at present Reader in the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her published prose tends to deal with areas where feminism, sociology and philosophy interact, rather than more purely literary studies.

The best way in to begin engaging with her poetry is to switch on to its bright and energetic stance and gesture:

             wonderful light
             viridian summers
             deft boys
             no thanks

goes her shortest poem, ‘Not What You Think’ (from the 1970s). There is a controlled gorgeousness in the language, and a fascination with the flagrant impact of visual pleasure. (Painting figures highly in her poetry as a source of interest). The poem’s voice celebrates, and picks her way through, the lyric, not succumbing to that awareness of being the visual exemplar of grace and delight which the lyric voice traditionally transubstantiates young women into. “Deft boys/ no thanks” is both an amused feminist political slogan, and a rousing pop chorus.

Quotation, especially from song lyric, is one of the haunting elements in her poetry, as in ‘A Misremembered Lyric’, where Gene Pitney and The Cascades are both celebrated and interrogated. The poem brushes with the deep and real pathos of kitsch – that inescapable moulder of our emotional responses. The poem sashays past both lyric hook and total disabused awareness, touching on both, but not caught or limited by them.

At the heart of her poetry are both the recognition of the pull of the ecstatic and seductive (whether visual or aural), and also a precise responsiveness which is as fully self-aware as it can be. Her influential feminist text, Am I That Name?, which examines the verbal and social category of ‘women’ in history, helps establish this self-awareness as being a central component of a postmodernist intellectual and artistic project. It is out of the complex unstable surfaces of our lives and art that Denise Riley makes poetry.

‘Absurdity’ – a word both reductive and celebratory – is another good focus to view her writing. ‘The Castalian Spring’ moves off from classical landscape to explore the nature of the lyric impulse as the expression of some inner nature – a toad’s croaking. The awareness of the lyric as merely all that’s now left possible in poetry is a common one in contemporary British postmodern poetry – amphibious posturing by the poet is certainly not commonplace or academic.

Denise Riley holds an interesting position in contemporary British poetry. She has, like many other postmodernists whose work is posited on linguistic self-awareness, been published largely through small presses, and she has among other such writers a very high reputation. She has edited a collection of pieces by her peers meditating on the activity of writing poetry (Poets on Writing). But she has also been one of those noticed by more mainstream critics, and singled out widely as one of our finest innovative poets during the last decades, particularly after Mop Mop Georgette in 1993.

© Peter Philpott


Selected Poems, Reality Street Editions, London 2000, collects all the poems Riley values from the earlier volumes:

Marxism for Infants. Street Editions, Cambridge 1977.
No Fee. With Wendy Mulford. Street Editions, Cambridge 1979.
Dry Air. Virago, London 1985.
Stair Spirit. Equipage, Cambridge 1992.
Mop Mop Georgette. Reality Street Editions, Cambridge & London 1993.
Penguin Modern Poets 10. With Douglas Oliver & Iain Sinclair. Penguin, Harmondsworth 1996.

Prose (selected)
‘Waiting’, in Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing Up in the Fifties. Ed Liz Heron. Virago, London 1985.
“Am I That Name”: Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 1988.
Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-1991. As editor. Macmillan, Basingstoke1992.
The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony. Stanford UP, Stanford 2000.

In English
Contemporary Writers
Page on British Council Contemporary Writers site.

How2: Contemporary Innovative Writing by Women
Three poems.

Chain 1
Maggie O’Sullivan / Denise Riley, ‘Narrow Bandages Even Tombs’ / ‘December’ (linked poems) on literary e-zine Chain 1

How2: Contemporary Innovative Writing by Women
Frances Presley, ‘‘The grace of being common’: the search for the implicit subject in the work of Denise Riley’.


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