"The grace of being common": the search for the implicit subject in the work of Denise Riley


I want to look in detail at how the speaking, female, lyric ‘I’ develops in the work of Denise Riley through a reading of her poetry from Marxism for Infants (1977) to Stair Spirit (1992). In doing so I shall also refer to her philosophical and autobiographical prose writings which provide an indispensable context for her theory of the female subject.

A few critics have already referred to this aspect of her work. Clair Wills has written about the ways in which women's lives as a political issue are taken up in experimental poetry; and gives a close analysis of texts by Lyn Hejinian and Denise Riley. I quote here from her conclusion:

My discussion of Hejinian's and Riley's work has suggested that, despite their use of experimental poetic forms, which question the coherence of the poetic "voice" and the consistency of the speaking "I," their poetry is nonetheless strongly weighted towards articulating questions of interiority and emotional inwardness. But that interiority is defined less as a fixed identity than as a series of processual identifications with elements of both the private (familial) sphere and the public world, in which language comes to us already moulded by the media. (1)

I think that Wills runs the danger of too closely identifying Hejinian's work with that of Riley, and of linking both of them too closely to a critical discourse of post modernism and feminist psychoanalysis. It is important to look at the formative influences on Riley's work and how these shape her theory of identity.

Romana Huk has also examined Riley’s poetry and how it does, or does not coincide with the experimental, especially Language oriented poetry. She has described Denise Riley as bridging the gap between more traditional poetic form and the experimental. Huk, like Wills, also focused on the retention of the subjective lyric in Riley's work, and argues that Riley casts an "I" into her poems which is not stripped of flesh and thrown into the word horde, but that demonstrates historical, gendered, socio-economic and other particularities of positioning. Huk concludes that Riley contains theoretical "universalisms" by moving with them through time and space from within her own subjective limits. (2)

Finally, the first person pronoun, and its shifting usage, is something that Nigel Wheale has perceptively commented on:

the persona who might be articulating from "I" as the subject of the sentence is then turned upon within the poem, and turned into a distanced and objectified instance: so that the poem sequences create in the reader/listener a sort of security with the persona who tells the tale, but they then dis-locate our mis-placed trust in that fictive identification. (3) (my emphasis)

I want to re-examine Riley’s relationship both to the first person pronoun and to universality. I will argue that her work follows a specific and consistent trajectory, in search of an implicit subject, that will take us beyond either "I" or "She."


From "I" to "she" to "likeness"

Denise Riley's first collection of poems, Marxism for Infants, (4) was published in 1977. Its title is undercut by the poems which follow in which the infants are her own, and what she has to teach them has far more to do with feminism and feminist linguistics, than with Marxism. The first poem is "A note on sex and `the reclaiming of language.'" This is another title which sounds like a treatise or a crib (in all senses). The poem combines allegory and statements about sex and language, and succeeds in challenging most traditional conceptions of how a poem should conduct itself. It is structured around an allegorical figure, the female depicted as the Savage, and identified with a lost and idealised tribe.

The middle section of the poem abandons this thin allegory, and presents an unvarnished manifesto:

The work is

e.g. to write "she" and for that to be a statement

of fact only and not a strong image

of everything which is not-you, which sees you

"Not" is a key word in this statement. In Riley's feminism and her language it is easier to say what a woman is not, and it is much more dangerous to start saying what she is. She resists both feminist mythopoeia, and also, to quote Clair Wills, the type of women's poetry in which `the emphasis on the body as locus of representation... constitutes a denial of the fact that identifications, like identities, always have to be constructed. (1)

It is also true that Riley's feminism derives originally from Simone de Beauvoir, and from existentialist philosophy. The woman has to be the subject-for-itself, a consciousness, and not a thing-in-itself, the other, the Savage. As she writes in "Waiting," her reluctant account of childhood:

When I was fifteen or sixteen I found a confirmation of my interest in what it is to take on your own past in some of Sartre's work. I read The Second Sex and A Room of One's Own at the same age, and thought of myself as a feminist. (5)

Riley constantly resists all kinds of easy categorisation, including her own account of her intellectual development, which she fears will turn into a story, a fiction.

A scene from her childhood in the '50s occurs both in Marxism for Infants and in "Waiting." It's called "Liberty Belle," and is interesting because it raises other issues in her discourse. In "Waiting," an account, which is not an account of her childhood, she writes: "I have no way of writing fluently about this past." She adds "All that counted was the detail," and then proceeds to give us a broken string of vivid details from her childhood. In her poetry, however, she finds other ways to avoid fluency, and "Liberty Belle" is not a typical poem. It is a found poem, consisting of instructions from a Girl's Annual for making a Liberty Belle ballet costume. It is also a reliable detail, because she copied it into her exercise book. She is not falsifying the past.

As well as her own childhood, Riley writes about being a single parent, and raising children on her own. In the poem "she has ingested her wife" she succeeds in reclaiming language and herself:

she has ingested her wife

she has re-inhabited her own wrists

she is squatting in her own temples, the

fall of light on hair or any decoration

is re-possessed. "She" is I.

This "I," this "She" is personal, but she is, above all, universal and rhetorical. The main activity is a linguistic and philosophical one, centering around the use of the prefix "re." Indeed the final poem in this series does not use the pronouns "I" or "She" at all. It is a poem of philosophical metaphor, in which clichéd images of a woman's place in the landscape are rejected. It ends with another manifesto, in which "likeness" replaces "liking as mirrored." And by "likeness" she means that we are all subjects, and therefore also that all subjects can be implicit. The explicit pronoun will not be needed:

not liking as mirrored

but likeness, activity

a whole life for likeness

after the silence


It is a process which reached its full philosophical exposition in Am I that name?: feminism and the category of "women" in history, published in 1988. In the following quotation I want to show the negative auxiliary at work, constantly warning us off any easy designation:

even the apparently simplest, most innocent ways in which one becomes temporarily a women are not daring returns to a category in a natural and harmless state, but are (...) adoptions of, or precipitations into, a designation there in advance, a characterisation of "woman." p. 93 (6)

She refuses to align herself either with the feminists who will brook no nonsense about the uncertainties of "women," or with the deconstructionists who claim no political allegiances. She is also suspicious of all feminist desires for "real underlying unities among women," and that includes the school of French feminism which emphasises the distinctiveness of women's bodies. She weaves a difficult course between her allegiance to the necessity of feminism, and the avoidance of ontological sexual difference.

Some of Riley’s poems do read like manifestos, or at least like anti-manifestos, in the tradition of Frank O'Hara's "Personism." This is particularly true of a series of poems published in the 1985 collection Dry Air (7) which all begin with the phrase: "The ambition to..." The first of these "The ambition to advise speaks" is as notable for its qualifications as for its instructions:

put yourself on the margins but don't be endlessly naming them

be taken with yourself if you are but keep quiet about it

& choose yourself a gender but be prepared to be flexible here

It is difficult advice to follow, but it is consonant with the beliefs expressed in Am I that name? As she writes in her conclusion:

My aim ... is to emphasise that inherent shakiness of the designation "women" which exists prior to both its revolutionary and conservative deployments. ... A political movement possessed of reflexivity and an ironic spirit would be formidable indeed. (6 p. 98)

I'm not sure that irony is the stuff of revolutions, but reflection and flexibility are undoubtedly valuable.

The second ambition which speaks is "the ambition to not be particular." This is an ambition which we have already seen displayed in her work, especially through the shift away from the personal pronoun. It is also evident in the poems of Dry Air through a more restrictive and universalised choice of words, which acquire a wider metaphoric significance: such words as "red" and "clear" and "blood." As this ambition states:

but if for me some words must be exhumed

out of their sunken heat they must be cooled

to the grace of being common


In "A Shortened Set," published in Stair Spirit in 1992 (8), Riley exhumes the barbarous zone more confidently than ever before. It is nearly 200 lines of densely woven metaphoric argument, in which there are no apparent non-sequiturs.

In another poem from Stair Spirit, "Lure 1963," she writes of "barbaric pink singing." This is poetry which mixes the barbarians (and are not women barbarians?) with the Greeks, defined by their use of language, especially foreign or vulgar expressions. In language which is more violent than anything which precedes it, "A Shortened Set" begins with a half-forgotten trauma, perhaps a Cesarean still-birth, a damaged womb:

I know

that a child could have lived, that

my body was cut. This cut

my memory half-sealed but glued

the edges together awry.

The skin is distorted, the scar-tissue

does damage, the accounts are wrong.

And this is called "the healing process."

Now nothing's aligned properly

It's a barbarous zone.

The language of this female wound is as much about mental as physical process; as much about a common as a particular language. The language of the wound is also the language of the poem. The cut is half-sealed, like a letter in an envelope. The stanza ends with a resolve to heal the wound, which is also the poem, by performing the surgery herself:

So I'll snip through the puckered skin

to where they tug for re-aligning. Now

steady me against inaccuracy, a lyric urge

to showing-off. The easy knife

is in my hand again. Protect me.

Stair Spirit takes another look at what the lyric is. She will resist the "lyric urge to showing-off," and one way she does this is through her use of pop lyrics. To quote Michael Haslam:

She desires lyric. She questions the conditions for lyric: she encounters (it isn't irony) the strengths of the lyrics of popular song. (9)

The emphasis here should be on questioning the conditions for lyric, the lyric having too often cast women in the role of victim. If "A Shortened Set" is about the lyric as music, it is also about the stuff of lyric-feelings–those things we find it so hard to talk of accurately. In the second stanza the scar tissue of the wound turns to the red bricks, the "hot ghosts," of the city, and she looks up for relief to the coolly distant sky. The stanza ends with an abrupt switch of tone to the statement:

Your feelings, I mean mine, are common to us all:

that puts you square between relief and boredom

under the standoffish sky.

That feelings, or words, are held in common is not to denigrate them, nor to exalt them.

She questions the distinction between thought and feeling, emphasising what is common, even banal, in both:

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.

We are a long way from the romantic lyric "O" which thinks itself unique. We are also distant from Lyn Hejinian's dictum that ideals and thoughts are full of potential, whereas feelings are clichés. (10) Riley seems to be saying that thoughts are clichés too, but that doesn't matter, because we have to stick with the common, with the democracy; even though it is, in her sound bite, a social democracy of loneliness.

She reflects on her history and ours, our youth and hers:

I was signed up for a course

on earth by two others who left me and

left me impossibly slow at Life Skills

at admitting unlikeness...

We are reminded of her search for "likeness" in Marxism for Infants. It means that we as women are all subjects, but also that all subjects could be implicit in the future.

Such an achievement seems to be reached in the final set of stanzas, which begins with the short line: "Unanxious, today." (Although this is only a negation of anxiety.) The voice of these stanzas is still in the city, but refreshed by rain, the possibility of communication, and the chance of resting. It isn't, of course, all good news. For instance, although there is a friend's shout, it is blown inaudibly. But the last stanza suggests a common happiness in the absence of the personal pronoun, and a preferred, if provisional, ending:

In a rush

the glide of the heart

out on a flood of ease




Author’s note: An earlier version of this paper was given at the "Assembling Alternatives" conference at the Univ. of New Hampshire, in 1996. I would like to thank its organiser, Romana Huk. I would also like to thank Denise Riley for discussing some of these issues with me in May 1996.




1. Wills, Clair. "Contemporary women's poetry: experimentalism and the expressive voice" Critical Quarterly, 36(3), pp. 34-52.

2. Huk, Romana. "Feminist radicalism in (relatively) traditional forms: an American’s investigations of British poetics" (Kicking daffodils: twentieth century women poets, edited by Vicki Bertram. Edinburgh Univ., 1997 pp. 227-249)

3. Wheale, Nigel. "Colours - ethics - lyric, voice: recent poetry by Denise Riley" Parataxis, 4, Summer 1993, pp. 70-77.

4. Riley, Denise. Marxism for Infants Street Editions, 1977.

5. Riley, Denise. "Waiting" (Truth, dare or promise: girls growing up in the fifties, ed. Liz Heron. London: Virago, 1985, pp. 237-248).

6. Riley, Denise. Am I that name? Feminism and the category of "women" in history , Macmillan, 1988

7. Riley, Denise. Dry Air London: Virago, 1985.

8. Riley, Denise. Stair Spirit Cambridge: Equipage, 1992.

9. Haslam, Michael. "Of lyric flight: Is ode an answer? Stair Spirit by Denise Riley," Angel Exhaust, 9, pp. 99-101.

10. Hejinian, Lyn "Variations: A return of words" (In the American tree, ed. Ron Silliman. Maine: Univ. Maine, 1986).


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BIO: Frances Presley was born in 1952, and lives in London. In addition to the publications listed below, she has collaborated with the artist Irma Irsara on a multi media performance about women's clothing and the fashion trade, "Automatic Cross Stitch." Recently her e-mail collaboration with the poet Elizabeth James has been published and performed. Presley’s ublications include: The Sex of Art (North and South, London 1988); Hula Hoop (The Other Press, London 1993); Linocut (Oasis, London 1997); Private Writings (Maquette, Sheepwash 1998) and Neither The One Nor The Other (with Elizabeth James, Form Books London, 1999).


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