Denise Riley isn't for everyone. It's easy to recommend-- though it has very little to do with poems-- her first book, a historical study which asks why Britain cancelled in the 1950s all the cool child-care opportunities created during the 1940s. As you might expect, that book also reflects an interest in gender, in practice and theory-- an interest, that is, in how our abstract beliefs about such big terms as woman, man, mother, father, family, child, adult, citizen and person shape our experience and our decisions, in the kitchen, in the library, on the bus, and in the voting booth.
If you have such an interest-- and I do-- you'll want to read the rest of her poems and her prose; the poems I'll have the rare pleasure of teaching next week, and the prose (and prose is all she's writing now, I'm afraid) I caught up with last night, when I finished her newest set of essays, paradoxically (and typically) entitled Impersonal Passion. More on her new prose-- and a slice of her poetry-- below the fold.


I've written about her poems before-- about why I like them, about how the interests and subtleties of Big Theory invigorate her language rather than (as in many other poets) weighing it down, and about how she's rare among serious theory-head poets in having a fine sense of humor. Here's the whole of a poem called "Not What You Think":
wonderful light
viridian summer
deft boys
no thanks
And here's a pretty segment from a sequence called "A Shortened Set":
It is called feeling but is its real name thought?
Moons in their spheres are not so bland as these.
A round O says I feel and all agree.
Walking by many in the London streets
in a despair which carries me
I look from face to face like a dog going
in the social democracy of loneliness.
May move instead through a shimmer
around me of racial beauty crying like something expensive which
breaks into eyes sparkling all over skin.
Riley tries here, I think, to zip from a kind of Wordsworthian alienation in London to a measured appreciation of its crowds, diverse in skin color, in origin, in taste and in appearance; it's easier to make poetry out of loneliness than to make it (as she wants to do) out of the near-future integrated city which she sometimes sees, and wants to see.
You might have to read a lot of Riley before you see, in those lines, everything I see; alas,few British readers have. It's hard for difficult British poets to find publishers who will promote and distribute their work-- much harder than for Americans with similar interests-- and it's easy for me to imagine (though really I have no idea) that Riley got tired of crafting linguistic explorations that almost nobody read.
For whatever reason, and whether or not she's still writing verse, her recent books have been mostly or entirely prose. The best and most ambitious is a very serious book called The Words of Selves, a philosophical book of the sort I'm tempted to say (though it wouldn't be literally true) that only a poet could write: it's a book about how my sense of what counts as me, my sense of who I really am, slips away the more I try to pin it down-- and about why that sense still has some meaning, why "the self" still has (should still have) ethical and intellectual consequence, even though part of what it means to have a self is that we never quite know what we have.
If that last paragraph lost you completely, Riley probably isn't for you. If you're still with me, you'll want to check out Impersonal Passion, whose individual essays ask-- with sinuous borrowings from Continental philosophy-- such questions as: what's the difference between a middle-age man's realization that he is losing his looks, and a woman's articulation of the same realization? Is there a "right to be lonely"? Why and when do we feel ashamed, as if we had told a lie, when we have told nothing but the truth? When and how do we feel trapped by our own first names, and how can we (can we?) avoid trapping our daughters and sons with the names that we give them? That last question prompts attention to the graphs (available for Britain as they are for the United States) of first-name incidence over the years, which attention in turn prompts these sentences:
"Why do first names go in waves? In Britain Abigails and Sophies, Matthews and Emmas have surged up only to sink away again in great tides, with mysterious crosscurrents and undertowds of Joshuas, and eddies of Eddies... The frank copying of first names from the movies or television does, of course, happen. But the parent's common experience is more often, reportedly, of choosing some mildy original name for your child, which later turns out, greatly to your surprise, to be common everywhere in its same age group. This accidental uniformity seems to have settled in as relentlessly and silently as a thick fall of snow."
And lest you think Riley's meditations on naming and speaking inconsequential, "belletristic" in a pejorative sense, I give you the last of her recent topics: when do the circumstances of tact and appropriateness around ordinary conversation create, not just a pregnant pause, but a pregnant person? What's the relation between failures of tact and failures of contraception? Riley's memorable essay "Linguistic Inhibition as a Cause of Pregnancy" makes it clear (with serious puns involved, not only on "pregnancy" but on "conception" and "inhibition") that there is such a relation, not once but regularly: how we feel about our words, about what we don't say and what we can say, can change the course of multiple lives.
That's why, in her poems, she has taken such a sustained interest in doing counterintuitive things with those words, in breaking phrases apart or setting them down; in jump cuts, in juxtapositions, in phrases we have to help her put together, in order to see why she might want to take them apart. But don't trust me: take your own look at her poems. And if you happen to meet her, tell her that at least one reader wants more.

Originally Published: October 25th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. October 25, 2007
     Don Share

    More of her work can be found here.

  2. October 25, 2007
     Robert Baird

    For what it's worth, here are some thoughts on why Riley has stopped writing poetry, from John Wilkinson's essay "Off the Grid" in Chicago Review's British poetry issue:

    Denise Riley’s writing career could form the basis of a study of love and impatience with lyric poetry, which at the time of writing she seems to have forsaken for a meditative prose that writes its way into, through, and past social-linguistic intensities that call for a poetic response she declines or feels unable to give. It is as though poetry teases her mercilessly for the intricate reflexiveness of her dealings.

    And:
    Denise Riley’s writing is much more reflexive than [Douglas] Oliver’s, but she also has declined to serve at the altar of lyric poetry as such. Riley is disposed to question the claims to lyric’s surpassing value implied by its exclusive pursuit.

  3. October 25, 2007
     Carrie Etter

    Thanks for spreading the word about Denise Riley's exquisite, intelligent, bracing poetry. I admire her work greatly and long for more.