Sunday 31 July 2016

Finding Denise Riley

Sometimes there is a poet who should be read far, far more.  Denise Riley used to be one such.  I doubt there was any lack of depth of engagement from those who knew and liked her work – it was more about lack of breadth.  I used to enjoy introducing people to her: generally this would cause interest and excitement.   

Introductions should no longer be necessary, now that her new book Say Something Back is out from Picador and shortlisted for the Forward Prize.  I’ve just reviewed it for the next issue of The Compass which will be appearing online shortly, so I won’t write about that book here. 

I expect people will read backwards from Say Something Back and discover Riley’s Selected Poems (Reality Street, 2000). 
My first encounter with her work was online, in a year or two of intensive reading after giving up my job.  That time was full of discoveries but finding Riley was one of those where you remember the feeling years later.  I’d never read anything like her and printed out all the poems I could find**, off an obscure website which perhaps shouldn’t have reproduced them.   ‘Dark Looks’ was the first one I read and I can still visualise the typewriter typeface it was in.  The poem now appears in more accessible places – see here.  It starts:

Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work. The writer
properly should be the last person that the reader or the listener
                                                                         need think about
yet the poet with her signature stands up trembling, grateful,
                                                                 mortally embarrassed
and especially embarrassing to herself, patting her hair and
                                                                     twittering If, if only
I need not have a physical appearance! To be sheer air, and

A funny, ironic, cool, hard-hittingly true, pun-filled and vivid monologue with intellect and emotion working together.  Its one page contains so much – a cogent argument, embarrassment that makes the reader cringe (that If only! and To be!), Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, film, modern materials, spiritualism, feminism (with special focus on periods) and more, and I’m sure some things I’ve missed… back to the horrors of poetry readings: 

What forces the lyric person to put itself on trial though it must stay
                                                              rigorously uninteresting?

Quite.  ‘Dark Looks’ ends with a plea to the listener/reader not to run off.  As if we would.  Riley is generally brilliant at awkwardness and self-consciousness – she does them like no-one else. 

She describes feelings and situations in ways you’d never expect.  An early poem, ‘Affections must not’ (full poem is here), ends:

the houses are murmuring with many small pockets of emotion
on which spongy ground adults’ lives are being erected and paid for
while their feet and their children’s’ feet are tangled around like
                                                                       those of fen larks
in the fine steely wires which run to and fro between love and

affections must not support the rent

I. neglect. the. house

That hard, practical yet weird metaphor is typical.  Line breaks are used instead of punctuation for the subordinate clauses and the words run fast.  The full stops in the last line are the only ones in the poem; they convey (I think) resolution and they stop us dead.  ‘Fen larks’: anyone else would have written just ‘larks’, not that they’d have written any of this at all. 

And in ‘Rayon’:

The day is nervous buff – the shakiness, is it inside the day or me?

‘Buff’: polishing movements, a blow, involuntary splutters of laughter, a certain heavy animal, a dull pale colour, naked skin… 

Riley’s ekphrastic poems draw emotions out of their subjects: in ‘Lure’ she mixes in scraps of song lyrics.

                       Flood, drag to papery long brushes
of deep violet, that’s where it is, indigo, oh no, it’s in
his kiss. Lime brilliance. Obsessive song. Ink tongues.

Density is a common feature – reading Riley out loud, your mouth works hard at the consonants but finds resonance and relief in the frequent assonance – see above.  Syntax can be complex but is always clear and carries the reader along.  Some poems are simpler in form and foreshadow the work in Say Something Back.  From ‘Lyric’:

I take on its rage at the cost
of sleep. If I love it I sink
attracting its hatred. If I
don’t love it I steal its music.

See also ‘An awkward lyric’ in her new book.

Riley is an academic – literature and philosophy.  I assume that much in the poems has been deeply considered elsewhere too.  According to its online blurb, her book The Words of Selves examines the question: What does it matter what you say about yourself?  She says in the introduction: “There may sometimes be an inherent emotionality to grammar”.  She walks the walk of that statement in every poem. 

Today I’ve been reading Denise Riley alongside Geoffrey Hill.  Two great lyrical modernists (if that description makes sense); both allusive, political, complex on and/or below the surface; both with large intellectual hinterlands. 

You can get hold of Denise Riley’s Selected Poems here.  It might sell out…

**This was in the pre-Poetry Archive era; you can read and hear several of her earlier poems there.  It’s offline this afternoon but I think the poems include ‘Dark Looks’ and another favourite, ‘Shantung’.  Also, see here for a podcast of her reading ‘A Part Song’, the much-admired long poem from Say Something Back.  Riley was in volume 10 of the Penguin Modern Poets.  She had books before her Selected, some published by Virago (see Dry Air in the photo – I was delighted to find this at the Blackheath Amnesty International book sale).  Several years ago I searched for them in the Poetry Library but they had mostly gone missing. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    For some reason I thought that Denise Riley was American. I clearly need to find out more about her!

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. I hope you enjoy reading her work, Simon.