UEA Poetics Project Reading Series #1: Denise Riley
by Jeremy Noel-Tod
Denise Riley was born in Carlisle, England, and studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. She has been writer-in-residence at the Tate Gallery, London, and a visiting fellow at various American universities. She is presently Professor of Poetry and the History of Ideas at the University of East Anglia. Her prose writings include War in the Nursery: Theories of Child and Mother (Virago, 1983); Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Duke University Press, 2005); and Time Lived, Without Its Flow (Capsule, 2012), an essay on grief.
Riley’s intertwining career as a poet and critical thinker has produced a small but widely admired body of verse. Beginning with Marxism for Infants (Street Editions, 1977), her elliptical forms and analytical concern with the ‘attitudinizing’ politics of colloquial and lyric language evince her engagement with avant-garde poetics from a feminist perspective. Riley’s way of drawing her philosophical voice into dramatised argument has been described by the critic Stephen Burt as ‘the song of theory’. It can be heard mingling in deliberate impurity with popular music, travel writing, art criticism and autobiography throughout Selected Poems (Reality Street, 2000). As in the poetry of W.S. Graham, whom she admires, the reality and veracity of ‘the lyric person’ is constantly questioned by Riley’s verse (‘this isn’t me, it’s just my motor running’) with a scepticism that seems reflected by its infrequent appearance.
Say Something Back (Picador, 2016) represents a major addition to her oeuvre. A number of pieces in the book are concerned, directly or obliquely, with grief, including ‘A Part Song’, an elegy for her son, and a sequence commissioned to commemorate the First World War, “‘A gramophone on the subject’”. One formal theme of the volume is the use of hymn-like quatrains, which continue Riley’s quizzical preoccupation with the ‘great classic cadences of English poetry’ and her belief that ‘song… is in some way linked to the persistence of hope’. With this intensely feeling, lapidary work, in which ‘each word overhears itself / Laid bare, clairaudiently’, Denise Riley has written lyrics to be learnt by heart as new classics of their kind.
[For a close reading of Denise Riley’s poem ‘After La Rochefoucauld’, click here.]
Denise Riley read her poems at the UEA Drama Studio on 14th January 2014. Listen to the recordings here: