Add to researchMaurice Riordan

Maurice Riordan

Derek Adams

Maurice Riordan was born in Lisgoold, County Cork, in 1953, and is a teacher, poet and editor.

He is the author of A Word from the Loki (1995) and Floods (2000). A Word from the Loki was a Poetry Book Society choice and shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, and Floods was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Poetry Award.

He has also edited the anthology A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science (2000) with science journalist Jon Turney. Wild Reckoning (2004), edited with John Burnside, is an anthology of ecological poems to mark the fortieth anniversary of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. He has most recently edited, with Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Dark Matter: Poems of Space (2008).

His Confidential Reports, translations of the Maltese poet Immanuel Mifsud, was published in 2005.  The Moon Has Written You a Poem, a collection for children adapted from the Portuguese of José Letria, was also published in 2005.

In 2004 he was selected as one of the Poetry Society's 'Next Generation' poets and in 2005, he became Poetry Editor of Poetry London.

Maurice Riordan teaches at Imperial College and Goldsmiths College, and lives in South London. A third book of poems, The Holy Land, was published in 2007 and won the 2007 Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry.

Critical Perspective

In his first collection, A Word from the Loki (1995), Maurice Riordan’s absorbing narrative and lyric poems establish the persistent themes within his work: memories of his upbringing in rural Ireland, as well as the darker elements of human relationships and the everyday.

In dealing with both, Riordan deploys a subtle and insinuating poetic voice; what Michael Glover described in the Independent as ‘a measured delivery that never strains after its effects, but lets the words speak for themselves’. This is particularly evident in ‘Time Out’, an unsentimental narrative that revels in the shadow lives parallel to our own, where a young father’s trip to pick up cigarettes culminates in a car crash and death, his young twins left to fend for themselves. And while the blunt, matter-of-fact tone of the piece is undeniably shocking, it is the poem’s ‘duck[ing] out of this story’ (‘an idle, day-bed, Hitchcockian fantasy’) that offers insight into the constant flux of potential destinies:

‘Let us get this dad in and out of the shop, safely across the street,
Safely indoors again, less a couple of quid, plus the listings mags
And ten Silk Cut, back on board the sofa: reprieved, released, relaxed,
Thinking it’s time for new sneakers, for a beard trim, for an overall
Rethink in the hair department. Time maybe to move on from the fags.’

Leading the reader into such unexpected territory is one of Riordan’s trademarks. ‘Milk’, a prizewinner in the National Poetry Competition, offers a similar exploration of the minutiae that so often shape and govern our lives, considering the symbolic milk stains on an artist’s notebook ‘lob[bed] across the room’ from his wife’s ‘hyperactive glands’: something that may come to not only ‘detain the unborn biographer’, but signal relationship failure as ‘the pointless unstoppable game / across a room, in which a child grew // less small, and became the mesmerised umpire / looking now one way, now the other.’

Riordan’s second collection, Floods (2000), demonstrates a continued preoccupation with the possibilities and instabilities of our lives and the world at large, but also explicitly explores the meeting points of poetry and science, an interest made evident in Riordan’s editing of A Quark for Mister Mark (2000) with the science journalist Jon Turney. This is particularly apparent in ‘Caisson’, where the imagined ability to hear better than bats, seeing ‘the world as noise’, shows the poet offering us consolation within the benefits of humanity’s blinkered perspectives: how instead ‘we’d cry not for these sore truths, / But for surfaces and the amnesty of light.’ In this sense, Riordan shares common ground with his contemporary Don Paterson, both poets upholding the importance of poetry as a means of making us see the world anew, but also compromising the demands of the postmodern zeitgeist with their shared love of the lyric and an elegance of diction; what Tim Dooley describes as ‘a celebration of ritual and craft poetry as the old rock and roll’. And where this may knock the shine off some of Riordan’s poems (such as the unconvincing ‘realism’ of ‘The Caroline Songs’, a sequence provoked by the emotional harm of a relationship), when fully realised it reveals the fruits of an admirable and ambitious project. In the long and richly descriptive narrative poem ‘The Boy Turned into a Stag’, for example, Riordan combines the near-mythical ‘nettles, rushes [and] moon-shadow’ of the forest with contemporary metaphors that signal the boy’s transformation:

‘My antlers rise like pylons brandishing electricity
My eyes are the figured mirrors on the satellites
My tendons are the cabling of office towers
My nerves the interstices of the city at night
My testicles are the sun and the moon
The marrow in my bones was expelled from the stars
My brain exfoliates among the foaming galaxies
I hum with the universe in my veins.’

The effect is one apparent in many of Riordan’s best poems: a deceptive effortlessness that blends the proverbial with a gradually revealed complexity. A third collection, The Holy Land (2007), further exemplifies this technique in a series of dramatic and often humorous prose pieces, ‘The Idylls’, in which to a greater extent than ever before, Riordan ruminates on the memories and potential future of rural Ireland. On the surface, this is familiar ground within Irish poetry, but unlike Seamus Heaney’s work in this area, Riordan’s prose poems veer away from the more mythical and nostalgic elements of his precursor; combining a poetic elegance with a straightforward and inviting clarity. ‘The Idylls’ strength, then, lies in their down-to-earth yet often beautiful descriptions of events on Riordan’s father’s farm (‘One day the men were repairing the fence by the stream in the Bawn. Moss [sic] drove in the stakes with the sledge, while my father followed with Dan-Jo unwinding the barbed wire and stapling it loosely to the timber’), demonstrating how the unhurried and less complicated lives of Ireland’s rural past may have much to offer to our fast-paced and stressful modern lifestyles. Beyond this, the collection also serves as a sort of attempted communion and reconciliation with the poet’s departed father; appearing as ‘the young bride / who shyly lifts the counterpane from the dream, / lifts the light cloth and fits himself to my side’ (‘Anniversary’), but also in the failed connections of Dante’s Purgatorio, the book’s epigraph: ‘When I forget our emptiness and speak of shadows as though they were solid things.’ What these poems ultimately demonstrate, however, is Riordan’s commitment to exploring the new and the old in novel and illuminating ways, and a dedication to the sort of underplayed craft, colloquialism and gentle power so evident in the work of the great American poet Robert Frost, unsurprisingly his ‘paradigm of good poetry’.       

Ben Wilkinson, 2007  


Hart Crane (Poet to Poet), selector, Faber and Faber
Dark Matter: Poems of Space, editor with Jocelyn bell Burnell, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
The Holy Land, Faber and Faber
The Best of Irish Poetry, editor with Colm Breathnach, Southword Editions
The Moon Has Written You a Poem, translator, Winged Chariot
Confidential Reports, translator, Southword Editions
Wild Reckoning, editor with John Burnside, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Floods, Faber and Faber
A Quark for Mister Mark, editor with Jon Turney, Faber and Faber
A Word from the Loki, Faber and Faber


Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry, The Holy Land
Whitbread Poetry Award, Floods, shortlist
T. S. Eliot Prize, A Word from the Loki, shortlist

Author Statement

I write to make discoveries – about the world, and about myself I suppose, but more than that to find out where the poems will take me. I see the activity as an adventure that requires circumspection and steady discipline. Even so, it brings many surprises and is not without its dangers. I guess the trick is to take the reader along with you.