Denise Riley (b. 1948) is active across the full range of poetic life – poet, essayist, teacher, editor, researcher – and beyond, with her interests extending to politics, history, philosophy, feminist theory and visual art. She lectures at the University of East Anglia in several of these areas, and is attached to the London Consortium; she has also been Writer in Residence at the Tate Gallery.

Her poetry resists the idea of the “I” in the poem and the author being conflated; Riley opens ‘Dark Looks’ with the statement that “Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work.” This is, therefore, not a confessional poetry, giving open access to a poetic soul, but it is a poetry interested in how the illusion of that access is created. So the “I” of ‘Dark Looks’, when it turns out to be in reported speech, or in the voice of the poem itself, is able to hide the thing it refers to while it expands the range of things that it could refer to. Even when the “I” seems more personal, as when ‘Curmudgeonly’ grumbles about the modern usage of “partner”, the speaker is less important to the poem than the fascination in details of language.

Thus the answers that are promised by the wristwatch in ‘Shantung’ are never spoken, as it is the phrasing of the way they are offered that provides the poem’s music. But this does not make the poems relentlessly intellectual; the full range of language is here, so that there is still room for prelinguistic sighs (“Ouf, ouf”) or references to half-remembered pop songs, such as when Riley writes about ‘A Misremembered Lyric’, and quotes “Come On Everybody” in ‘Shantung’.

Riley’s reading voice is clear and well projected, and that joy in the language means each word is valued enough to be allowed its full resonance; she also gives full vent to the wails and noises of the honking toads in ‘The Castalian Spring’. This delivery makes accessible, if not the Romantic soul of the poet, the heart of poems described by the Guardian as “fascinating and often beautiful, and certainly more than usually thought-provoking.”

Denise Riley’s Favourite Poetry Saying:

“I, too, dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine. (from ‘Poetry’)” – Marianne Moore

Her recording was made on 24 March 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by Denise Riley

Books by Denise Riley



Forward Poetry Prize - single best poem

Prize website

Forward Poetry Prize, Shortlisted, Best Collection

Prize website

Griffin Poetry Prize, Shortlisted, International,

Prize website

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