Laura Riding’s poetry is as interesting for her purposes in writing it and the reasons for ceasing to write it as the poetry itself. In many of her prose works and introductions, especially A Survey of Modernist Poetry, she writes of the ideal purpose of poetry, which is nothing less than to convey truth itself, specifically the truth of the human condition, but as philosophically conceived in general. In this endeavor, she was dubbed the most philosophical of the modernist poets, reminiscent in her dialectic of the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, particularly John Donne. It is no coincidence that the Metaphysicals were becoming well known in the 1920’s, after centuries of obscurity.
However, this truth-telling function of poetry also takes on, in Riding’s writing, the tones of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet, critic, and theorist. Arnold claimed that poetry was the new religion and poets the new priesthood. Riding, similarly, talks in sacred and spiritual terms of poetry and its effect. For her, poetry was true spirituality.
It might seem surprising, therefore, to learn why she ceased writing poetry. She did not fully explain her reasons until some thirty years later, in the prefaces to her Selected Poems published in 1970 and the 1980 version of Collected Poems. Until then, she merely refused to have any poem anthologized unless it carried a statement that she had now ceased to write poetry. The renunciation goes back to her aims for poetry, which she ultimately found impossible to fulfill. Many poets quietly settle for second best when their earlier idealism cannot deliver all they want. It is a mark of Riding’s radical honesty and high seriousness that she refused to settle for such a compromise. She found the demands of shaping poetry to read as an art form undermined attempts to make the words say exactly what she wanted them to say. Even though she pared down imagery, it still was not enough.
Many of her readers complained that her poems were difficult to understand. Riding faced these charges on a number of occasions, basically contending that if the readers were reading poetry with the right motives, then the meaning would unveil itself. Apart from one poem, she steadily...
(The entire section is 927 words.)
(Riding), Laura Jackson
Laura (Riding) Jackson 1901-1991
(Also wrote under the names Laura Riding Gottschalk, Laura Riding, and Madeleine Vara) American poet, critic, translator, editor, novelist, and short story writer.
Riding is recognized as an original and honest voice in American poetry. She rejected the forms of conventional literature and asserted the need for new aesthetic standards in order to reflect the changing sensibility of the times. Critics note that Riding's poetic and critical work was focused on the importance of truth in her life and her work.
Riding was born in New York City, January 16, 1901. Born Laura Reichenthal, she adopted the surname Riding in 1926. Her parents encouraged a strong sense of political activism, but she rejected politics in favor of poetry. In 1918 she began attending Cornell University and remained there for three years, dropping out to marry her history professor, Louis Gottschalk. She continued her education at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and the University of Louisville. In the early 1920s she became associated with the Fugitives, a group of American southern writers that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Her poetry was published in their influential magazine, The Fugitive, and garnered critical attention. She published her first collection of poetry, The Close Chaplet, in 1926. In 1927 she cofounded the Seizin Press with her partner, Robert Graves. Their personal and professional relationship also produced A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), which is recognized as an important work of literary theory and a great influence on the school of thought known as “The New Criticism.” In 1942 she gave up poetry, contending that the form was incompatible with truth. She concentrated instead on works of criticism and linguistics. In 1943, after her marriage to Schuyler B. Jackson, she settled on a citrus farm in Florida. In her Selected Poems (1970), she republished some of her work and wrote an introduction that elucidated her reasons for renouncing poetry. Until 1926 she signed her poems Laura Riding Gottschalk. Then, during her years with Graves (1926-1939), she was Laura Riding—the name under which she is best known—and finally, after Jackson died in 1968, she called herself Laura (Riding) Jackson. In 1972 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1979. She died of cardiac arrest September 2, 1991, in Sebastian, Florida.
Central to Riding's poetry and criticism is the importance of truth in her work and her life. In addition, the limitation of gender roles and the appeal of death are recurring themes in her verse. In early collections, such as The Close Chaplet and Love as Love, Death as Death (1928), Riding writes about the frustration of being a woman with wide-ranging interest and passions in a repressive, patriarchal society. Thematically, she also touched on the separation between the body and mind as well as conflict between sensory experience and thought. Death—especially suicide—also is a significant thematic concern. For Riding, suicide was the ultimate truth, as death signified a path to knowledge. As her disappointment with language and poetry began to grow, her verse reflected her changing poetic philosophy. Poet: A Lying Word (1933) addresses her need to purify language of its ambiguity, to make her verse completely truthful. Stylistically, she invented words, capitalization, distorted syntax, and employed repetition in her poetry. In her final verse before her renunciation of poetry in 1942, Riding explores the relationships between men and women, the individual and the community, and language and thought. After a hiatus from poetry that lasted decades, Riding published Selected Poems. In the preface of the collection, she discussed her poetic philosophy. Since then, a few other collections of her early verse have been published, which have inspired greater attention to her poetry, her life, and influence on American poetry.
Although an important figure, critics have struggled to place Riding within the context of American literature. She has been viewed as alternately modernist, Fugitive, feminist, and a postmodern poet. Because of her renunciation of poetry, as well as her reluctance to have her poems anthologized, commentators maintain that Riding's verse has been virtually ignored by critics. Yet in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in her life and work. Autobiographical aspects of her work have been a specific area of interest, particularly Riding's suicide attempt in 1929, her rejection of poetry, and her influential and productive relationship with Graves as well as other male poets. Several reviewers have called her poetry quirky, self-important, sometimes pretentious, and difficult to understand. Some critics assert that Riding's poems have a limited appeal, and are not really accessible to most readers. Others commend her search for truth and experiments with language. Stylistically, she has been compared to Gertrude Stein, especially for her use of repetition in her poetry. Her influence on other poets, such as W. H. Auden, has been a source of speculation. However, no matter what the critical consensus is, Riding is recognized as a unique and passionate voice in American poetry.
*The Close Chaplet 1926
*Voltaire: A Biographical Fantasy 1927
Love as Love, Death as Death 1928
Poems: A Joking Word 1930
Though Gently 1930
Twenty Poems Less 1930
Laura and Francisca 1931
The First Leaf 1933
The Life of the Dead 1933
Poet: A Lying Word 1933
The Second Leaf 1935
Collected Poems 1938; revised as The Poems of Laura Riding: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection 1980
Selected Poems: In Five Sets 1970
The Poems of Laura Riding 1986
First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding 1992
A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding 1997
A Survey of Modernist Poetry [with Robert Graves] (criticism) 1927
Anarchism Is Not Enough (criticism) 1928
Contemporaries and Snobs (criticism) 1928
Progress of Stories (short stories) 1935
Convalescent Conversations [as Madeleine Vara] (novel) 1936
Lives of Wives (novel) 1939
The Telling (criticism) 1972
The Word Woman and Other Related Writings (essays) 1993
Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, and Supplementary Essays (essays) 1997
*Published under Laura Riding Gottschalk.
SOURCE: Blackmur, R. P. “Nine Poets.” Partisian Review 6, no. 2 (winter 1939): 108-9.
[In the following excerpt, Blackmur discusses Riding's verbal techniques in The Collected Poems.]
Nine books of contemporary verse running to over thirteen hundred pages leave one both aghast and agape. It is education by shock; the lesson, even after reflection, confusing, and the value dubious. Not for one's life would one repeat what one thought one had learned. Far better, mouth open and teeth showing, a conspirator caught, to stop at the shock. Let us see why.
Mr. Belitt says it is because you must try to integrate yourself, make of your senses a single faculty and “loose the inward wound to bleed afresh.” But his labour at integration ends, in 1938, rather more like vertigo:
Tranced as in surmise, lost between myth and mood, Derelict, decoyed, In some astonished dream of sailing. …
Dereliction is an important element in Mr. Belitt's sensibility; it is a function of sleep and dreaming, of a bird and of human stragglers: at any rate we have derelict claws of a singing bird and certain inexplicit stragglers by the surge. One should not make too much a point of it, yet it strikes sharp; that Mr. Belitt's poetry fails of integrity less because it deals with the sentiment of chaos and the moral of the abyss than because, in so dealing, he prefers the dreamy, the quite somnambulistic state to the waking representation. This is to indulge in the dereliction—the reprehensible abandonment—of poetic duty. He does not...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
SOURCE: Fitzgerald, Robert. Review of The Collected Poems of Laura Riding. Kenyon Review 1, (winter 1939): 341-45.
[In the following review, Fitzgerald praises Riding's The Collected Poems of Laura Riding for its use of language.]
Of all the contemporary poems I know, these seem to me the furthest advanced, the most personal and the purest. I hope, but hardly believe, that they will be assimilated soon into the general consciousness of literature.
The authority, the dignity of truth telling, lost by poetry to science, may gradually be regained. If it is, these poems should one day be a kind of Principia. They argue that the art of...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)
SOURCE: Kinzie, Mary. Review of The Poems of Laura Riding. American Poetry Review 10, no. 6 (November 1981): 38-40.
[In the following excerpt, Kinzie provides a mixed assessment of The Poems of Laura Riding.]
Laura Riding is represented in the Norton because the poems she wrote in the 1920s were admired by the Fugitives, and because her collaboration with Robert Graves on A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) initiated or encouraged innovations in literary interpretation. Empson, Ransom, and Brooks were all indebted to the Riding-Graves critique; and although her poetry has not found many imitators, at least one poet sympathetic to some of Riding's...
(The entire section is 1485 words.)
SOURCE: Adams, Barbara. “Laura Riding's Poems: A Double Ripeness.” Modern Poetry Studies 11, nos. 1-2 (1982): 189-95.
[In the following essay, Adams delineates the defining characteristics of Riding's Selected Poems.]
I labored, as a poet, to bring the poetic endeavor out from the climate of the mere different in wording into an air of utterance in which the ring and spirit and mental movement of true wording and that of familiar wording coincided into a non-differentiability, a quality of human and linguistic universalness. I think that Collected Poems reveals also how my commitment to poetry and my commitment to a universal linguistic...
(The entire section is 2495 words.)
SOURCE: Adams, Barbara. “Laura Riding's Autobiographical Poetry: ‘My Muse Is I’.” Concerning Poetry 15, no. 2 (fall 1982): 71-87.
[In the following essay, Adams addresses Riding's search for perfection in her poetry and life, and compares her verse to that of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell.]
Laura Riding directed her main energies as a poet towards the creation of an ideal self in an ideal language. She worked hard to find a means of stabilizing the self in an uncompromising real world, producing in the process a major body of poetry, criticism, fiction and letters in fifteen busy years—1923 to 1938. All in all, by 1938 she had published nine volumes of...
(The entire section is 4730 words.)
SOURCE: Jackson, Laura (Riding). “Engaging in the Impossible.” Sulfur 10 (1984): 4-35.
[In the following essay, Riding reflects on the role of poetry in her life as well as her perspective on twentieth-century literature and literary thought.]
My concern, in my writing on my experience (of close to sixty years) of the constitution and temper of the world of twentieth-century literary enterprise, is not to tell a life-story—to supply a professional autobiographical history as a subjective counterpart to biographical versions of my life-story. Such a subjective-objective categorization of viewpoints I regard as based on a fallacious conception of the nature of...
(The entire section is 13431 words.)
SOURCE: Rosenthal, M. L. “Laura Riding's Poetry: A Nice Problem.” Southern Review 21, no. 1 (winter 1985): 89-95.
[In the following essay, Rosenthal offers a mixed review of Riding's poetry, contending that “her writing is full of promises but preserved, as it were, in ambiguities, ironies, and near-solipsistic musings.”]
Our usual expectations for lyric poetry that succeeds include a tonal dynamics leading to something realized, or an equilibrium among states of feeling. And yet just the opposite, a resistance to culmination or structural completion that is also a resistance to commitment or self-identification, can make for a genuine lyric poem as well. Laura...
(The entire section is 2056 words.)
SOURCE: Jackson, Laura (Riding), and Elizabeth Friedmann. “Laura (Riding) Jackson in Conversation with Elizabeth Friedmann.” PN Review 17, no. 4 (March-April 1991): 57-77.
[In the following interview, Riding discusses her perspective on literature and literary criticism, her relationship with the Fugitive poets in the early 1920s, and major influences on her work.]
[Friedmann]: You have written somewhere that ‘writing is not my work; it is the form my work takes.’ What, then, do you consider to be your work?
[Jackson]: I concern myself here with avoiding the too-facile categorization of activities ‘writer’ and ‘writing’....
(The entire section is 9659 words.)
SOURCE: McGann, Jerome J. “Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Literal Truth.” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 3 (spring 1992): 454-73.
[In the following essay, McGann explores the relationship between language, poetry, and truth in Riding's.]
I heard poems inhabited by voices.
—Susan Howe, “Thorow”
Can poetry tell the truth? This question has embarrassed and challenged writers for a long time. While the question may be addressed at both an ethical and an epistemological level, its resonance is strongest when the ethico-political issues become paramount—as they were for both Socrates and Plato.
Today the question...
(The entire section is 8855 words.)
SOURCE: Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Laura Riding and the Politics of Decanonization.” American Literature 64, no. 1 (March 1992): 111-26.
[In the following essay, Wallace examines the reasons for the critical neglect of Riding's poetry, contending that it stemmed from her insistence on being the ultimate interpretive authority over her own work.]
As my title suggests, this paper has a double intention. On the one hand, it seeks to account for the critical neglect of a major woman poet, critic, and fiction writer of the 1920s and 1930s—a neglect which is all the more bewildering in that Laura Riding's career rubbed against the three most important literary critical...
(The entire section is 6223 words.)
SOURCE: Temes, Peter S. “Code of Silence: Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Refusal to Speak.” PMLA 109, no. 1 (January 1994): 87-99.
[In the following essay, Temes discusses Riding's rejection of her poetic voice in 1942, and argues that the “repudiation of her critics links Riding's renunciation of poetry with the ideas that drive her poems.”]
In 1942 Laura (Riding) Jackson complicated her reputation as a poet by emphatically rejecting poetry—her own included.1 Where she had once believed poetry a moral force, offering through the properly resonant combination of sound and meaning a link among individuals, she later found the medium full of promise...
(The entire section is 8057 words.)
SOURCE: Heuving, Jeanne. “A Stranger in the Country of Men.” Women's Review of Books 11, no. 5 (February 1994): 30-31.
[In the following review, Heuving offers an overview of Riding's life and work.]
In the literary world, Laura Riding is famous for two things: living with Robert Graves and renouncing poetry at the height of her highly respected career. In 1938, Riding, at the age of 37, published her Collected Poems and wrote virtually no more poetry. By the late 1930s, she had authored or coauthored more than thirty books, including poetry, fiction, critical essays and “found” writing. But between that time and her death in 1991, she published only one...
(The entire section is 2985 words.)
SOURCE: Carson, Luke. “‘This Is Something Unlosable’: Laura Riding's ‘Compacting Sense’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37, no. 4 (winter 1995): 414-44.
[In the following essay, Carson explores the major thematic concerns of Riding's poetry, focusing on different forms of the contract—such as the covenant, guarantee, or promise.]
Laura Riding was a poet-critic from the beginning of her career, writing pamphlets, essays, and books of criticism that took the modernism in which she herself played such an important role to task for failing to recognize its own most pathological symptoms. When she decisively abandoned poetry in the early 1940s, a...
(The entire section is 14619 words.)
SOURCE: Heuving, Jeanne. “Laura (Riding) Jackson's ‘Really New’ Poem.” In Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, edited by Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano, pp. 191-213. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Heuving explores the relationship between Riding's poetics and her gender critiques and addresses the poet's place in literary history.]
Although Laura (Riding) Jackson's work has been highly acclaimed by many prominent twentieth-century poets and intellectuals, she has not received the concerted critical attention she deserves.1 While the reasons for this disregard are complex,...
(The entire section is 10152 words.)
SOURCE: Paddon, Seija H. “The Diversity of Performance/Performance as Diversity in the Poetry of Laura (Riding) Jackson and Eavan Boland.” English Studies in Canada 22, no. 4 (December 1996): 425-39.
[In the following essay, Paddon contrasts the role of language in the poetry of Riding and Eavan Boland.]
I am hands And face And feet And things inside of me That I can't see.
What knows in me? Is it only something inside That I can't see?
The lines are by Laura Riding, or Laura Riding Gottschalk, or, as she is best known, Laura (Riding) Jackson. While one sorts out the reasons behind the shifts in...
(The entire section is 5973 words.)
SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. “The Witch of Truth.” Parnassus 23, nos. 1-2 (spring 1998): 334-53.
[In the following unfavorable assessment of A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, Perloff provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Riding's poetry.]
Rejoice, the witch of truth has perished Of her own will— Falling to earth humanly And rising in petty pain.
It was the last grandeur, When the witch crashed And had a mortal laming. …
The occasion of “Rejoice, Liars,” from which these lines are taken, was Laura Riding's fabled suicide leap (27 April 1929) from the fourth-story bedroom window of the Hammersmith flat she...
(The entire section is 6605 words.)
Baker, Deborah. In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding. New York: Grove Press, 1993, 478p.
Biographical and critical study.
Deen, Stella. “Forgeries & Jewels: The Legacy of Laura Riding.” Belles Lettres 9, no. 3 (spring 1994); 44-45.
Favorable review of Selected Poems: In Five Sets.
Meyer, Steven. “‘An Ill-Matched Correspondence’: Laura Riding's Gertrude Stein.” Raritan 19, no. 4 (spring 2000): 159-70.
Discusses Riding's relationship with Gertrude Stein.
Schultz, Susan M. “Laura Riding's Essentialism and the Absent...
(The entire section is 180 words.)
Riding, Laura (Vol. 3)
Riding, Laura 1901–
Ms. Riding is an American poet, critic, and short story writer. Once associated with the Fugitives, she was an early champion of the Moderns. Robert Graves has claimed that Ms. Riding's instruction and example was of major importance to his development as a poet.
[Laura Riding's] exercise of her art, and her conception of conduct, represented an aspect of literary life in the thirties that is now too little recognized: the tendency towards extreme individualism and poetic isolation. The opposite tendency, which regarded the poet as one more worker bee in the hive, and which permitted extreme freedom of action and comment in private relations while insisting on a strict public social morality, has been well enough understood and publicized; but the isolationist attitude, with its insistence on purity in poetic speech and an accompanying close finickiness in personal relationships, is ignored or forgotten….
Her style had more influence, and influence over more poets, than is commonly granted now. On Auden, Graves and Norman Cameron her influence was obvious and profound, but many other poets benefited, some of them indirectly, from her virtuous tight rectitude, her utter elimination of what she called in one letter to me 'marzipan' and in another 'the luxury-stab we are taught to look for at school'. Her determination to purify language, so that the words used in poems should be simple and perfectly accurate, led in her own writing to the rejection not merely of luxury-stabs but of the whole colour and movement that is normally associated with poetry….
Just as the only perfectly pure painting is the blank canvas, so the only perfectly pure poem is that which does not use words, as we recognize them today, at all: this was the logic of her position, and it was a logic she accepted. During the fourteen years between 1925 and 1939 her literary activity was considerable and various: poems, critical essays, stories as simple and enigmatic as fairy tales, came from her pen. The best of these now almost unobtainable books are Anarchism is Not Enough and Experts are Puzzled, but they are all plainly the work of an extraordinary talent, unlike anything else written in this century. When, in 1939, she decided finally that all words were impure, she wrote no more.
It is hard to avoid a note of comedy in writing about her—and indeed why should one avoid it? Yet that is not the note to end on in considering her achievement. It was not possible to talk to her without appreciating the power of her intellect, the self-destructive simplicity of her mind. Her Jewish tailor father hoped that she would become an American Rosa Luxemburg. She became instead (so long a silence permits a valediction) a sort of saint of poetry, and like all saints tiresome: but what she did, by her work and her example, to purify poetic language, was a valuable thing. It could have been done in no other way, and perhaps by no other kind of person. There are many who owe her a debt.
Julian Symons, "An Evening in Maida Vale" (1963), in his Critical Occasions, Hamish Hamilton, 1966, pp. 206-13.
Laura Riding is the greatest lost poet in American literature. W. H. Auden once called her the only living philosophical poet. Even when she was Laura Riding Gottschalk, a young "faculty wife" in the inhospitable environment of Champaign, Illinois, her first book, The Closed Chaplet, contained poems quite unlike anyone else's—a little like some of the more gruesome folk poetry of the French Mère d'oie—witty, deceptively simple, and prosodically eccentric…. Prosody is to poetic rhythm as written music is to jazz. The discoveries of Laura Riding's subtle ear escape analysis.
Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright 1971, Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press), Herder, 1971, pp. 108-09.
Riding, Laura (Vol. 7)
Riding, Laura 1901–
Although Laura Riding and her poetry were in the forefront of important and influential literary circles, she rejected poetry after 1939 as inadequate to her search for the nature of truth through language. Essays concerning this pursuit appear under her married name Laura Riding Jackson.
In 1938 Laura Riding published her Collected Poems, a volume of 477 pages of experimental verse, and which contained the industrious product of some twelve years of setting down on paper whatever she had in mind. Her preface to the reader was an eloquent personal document in which she quoted W. H. Auden as saying that she was "the only living philosophical poet." The verse itself was far less rewarding than her instructions to the reader; and despite the number of attractive titles, such as "The Vain Life of Voltaire," it was all too obvious that her verses lacked imagination, verbal discipline, and the presence of an ear that could guide the rhythmical progress of a poem…. [No] matter how carefully one rereads the lines, [the poems remain] the work of an industrious, earnest, and ungifted amateur. (p. 381)
But the lack of discipline as well as the lack of a gift for writing verse did not prevent Laura Riding (in collaboration with Robert Graves) from writing a thoroughly entertaining, informative and shrewd little book of criticism, A Pamphlet against Anthologies…. The little book created the atmosphere of a literary holiday; it was a counterblast against established reputations and editors; it misread and misinterpreted the poetry of W. B. Yeats—but its air of irreverence toward most of the poets named within its pages was gay and salutary. (p. 382)
Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska, in A History of American Poetry 1900–1940 (© 1942, 1944, 1946 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1946.
Miss Riding has a high concept of poetry. "A poem," she says, "is an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth…. Truth is the result when reality as a whole is uncovered by those faculties which apprehend in terms of entirety, rather than in terms merely of parts." I think she would look upon her poetry as educative, although not didactic, and would like to be thought a philosophical poet. Her concern is with universals, it is true, but I should be chary of calling her a philosophical poet. Let us admit, however, that this is essentially a problem in semantics.
The question "What is this poem about?" is, for Miss Riding, a vulgarism. Naturally, the complete poem can never be described, only read and experienced, but the common reader can approach her poetry with a greater possibility of understanding it if he knows the subjects that receive frequent treatment. At the risk of over-simplification I think we could say that the general categories are the nature and understanding of self, unity and the sense of oneness in the universe, death and immortality, the nature of reality and its relation to the imaginative world, time, spiritual barrenness, love, nature, as well as a miscellany of other or related ideas. Of the five sections under which she has arranged her poems, I have had greatest difficulty with those grouped as Poems of Final Occasion; least difficulty with Poems of Mythical Occasion and Poems Continual, the earliest and latest from point of view of chronology. The general reader would do well, I believe, to make his first acquaintance with Miss Riding's poetry by way of "The Troubles of a Book," "Rhythms of Love," "In Due Form," the third of "Three Sermons to the Dead," "The Last Convenant," "No More Than Is," "Friendship on Visit," "A Letter to Any Friend," and "When Love Becomes Words." Not only are these more likely to strike the note of common experience but the poet's statement is more direct, profoundly experienced, and less forced than elsewhere. These poems more nearly fall into the great tradition of English poetry than do others, but at no time is Miss Riding, any more than is Miss Moore, traditional. The two women disregard the tradition, however, in opposite ways: Miss Moore by an over-attention to minute detail, Miss Riding by neglecting the little details of common experience that would enable the reader to follow her; both, in their lack of interest in the subtle modifications in verse as a result of attempting to adjust the traditional rhythms to those of speech. (pp. 103-05)
One of the difficulties posed by her poetry is ellipsis—her demand on the part of the reader for the same, or even greater, agility in encompassing broad imaginative leaps; greater, in that what she seems to have encompassed in one leap was probably actually achieved by several. She has merely obliterated those markers. (p. 108)
At times, Miss Riding seeks to minimize physical love. It is an effort of the head, however, rather than of the heart, because the passion is apparent, and shines forth in several other poems. What she says in "Letter to Man's Reasonable Soul," she seems to unsay in "Benedictory," in which she says by implication many things about love; in "Be Grave, Woman," where the movement of the verse reflects the passion; in "Wishing More Dear," and in "How Now We Talk," which confirm the fact that after the passion of love the participants reach a level of understanding hitherto denied them.
Such then, are some of the things about which she writes her poems. What are some of the devices by which she achieves her effects? Miss Riding has no use for rhyme and little use for rhythms with a definite pattern. Her "Americans" (1934), written in loose heroic couplets in an informal style, has little merit. Her observations are superficial and her humour heavy. It indicates an incompetence with one of the most common of traditional forms. It would be futile to attempt to scan her poetry in the attempt to find the means by which she achieves her poetic effects. Although she divides her poems into stanzas, and sets up her lines on a page in the manner of traditional poetry, I can see little basic reason for so doing. The rhythms are definitely prose rhythms, apparent in "Poet: A Lying Word." (p. 110)
At … times she is too much under the influence of Gertrude Stein, the dedicatee of one of her volumes of poetry. She is more directly under her influence in the matter of involution. In her best work, however, whether in long or short lines, the suppleness of her rhythms controls the emotions of the reader and arouses in him a correspondence with the poet that is consummated in a sense of oneness. (p. 111)
Miss Riding has a delicate and sensitive feeling for language and a supple and fluid sense of rhythms, often Biblical, that combine in her best work to give us poems of rare beauty.
I have said little of the poems that I believe to be unsuccessful. Apart from the poems that I am unable to read—and they are many—I think poems like "The Sad Boy," "The Lullaby," and "The Way of the Wind" are failures. There is a tendency on the part of the poet to think that anything that interests her, trivial though it be, is worth saying. (p. 112)
Since the music of her verse is like no one else's, although I occasionally detect a turn of phrase inspired by Hopkins or Blake, the reader must first familiarize himself with it before its beauty can be realized. Its beauty is most readily apparent in those poems which deal with the subject of love, experienced or sublimated, in which the experiences described are those closest to the realm of actuality. It is in these poems, and those dealing with the spiritual barrenness that the common reader will find Miss Riding at her best. (pp. 112-13)
James G. Southworth, "Laura Riding," in his More Modern American Poets, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1954, pp. 103-13.
[Laura Riding] is an anomaly among modern poets, especially those who try to surprise the "truth" in their own functioning—whose intricate inner works come in transparent cases. Their poetry resembles those wonderful telephones whose circuitry is exposed behind Lucite: all the confessions, emergencies, mistakes, trivia, impulses, obscenities, secrets, static—the dailiness of speech—visible. But Laura Riding carefully reformalizes her inner life to conceal the intimate correspondences. The voice is aloof, even from itself—as deliberate as that of a religious utterance. Miss Riding finds contemporary poetry "suffused with a light of drab poetic secularity"; it lacks moral beauty for her. It is not surprising, then, that her own poems seem to have been written to outlast all familiarity.
In intent, they have a kinship with the conscientiousness of the 17th century, the struggle for grace revealed in the poetry of the Puritans, or of Herbert. Laura Riding wrestles with imperfection, with her own humanness, with the "corrupt oxygen of time." She aspires and despairs; she courts the absolute in language and in feeling, and her poems are the score of her assaults upon and lapses from this tidemark. (pp. 570-71)
At its best, her language is desert language, dry and oracular…. At less than its best, it is tightly coiled, almost impacted, and we don't enjoy the full resilience of its intelligence. Sometimes this extreme difficulty, as in the desert, can become monotonous and even sterile. She has in her zeal parched it beyond rot, but beyond the capacity to bear life. The head swims, one begins to feel silly, to lose one's place.
The "five sets" of [Selected Poems: In Five Sets] work like gears, of different power and size, which engage our sense of her ideas, their movement, their development in sequence. We begin with the process of self-definition, the learning of our "littleness"; this separation is honed, refined. A sense of "whoness" and of "otherness" emerges, and conflict. For this "whoness" interferes constantly with the awareness that is beyond it and greater than it—a peace, a balance, a fusion, Oriental in its rejection of identity, that has been cultivated, traditionally, through denial. Her self-suspicion is almost a refrain: "base lust and tenderness of self" … "self-choked falsity" … "self-forgery."
In the late poems, the poet has failed to abstract herself. She has been unable to manipulate language to its perfection, to extricate herself from it. Being alive has meant being imperfect, and it is failure, misunderstanding, that make these poems the great ones. The easy, and sometimes pretentious remoteness of the early work is gone—it has been compromised by experience….
Laura Riding's work … has a radical aspect which has not, I think, been fully recognized. She has written some of the finest feminist poems I know: "I Am"; "The Divestment of Beauty"; and especially, "The Auspice of Jewels," which is a classic by any standard….
Her feminism seems to develop late in the poems—and has a direct bearing on her decision to abandon poetry. When she asks women to "forego the imbecile / Theology of loveliness," she is also addressing herself as a poet. Men and literature have always "connived" against her truth, preferred her beauty; have always lied to her—and now both have reached what she calls in The Telling, "the half-point, the finality of divided being."
Leaving poetry behind is, I think, the gesture not only of the artist who felt it was impossible to achieve wholeness through poetic language, but also of a woman whose self had been an "enemy" because it had never truly been her own. The artist deceived by appearances was the woman frustrated by her self-forgery. The poet-role and the sexual role oppressed her in the same way: they both "postponed human beginning," as she says in The Telling.
Her poems have another sense when they are read with the caution she attaches to them: they "excite a sense of wherein the failure of poetry lies." This failure, this finality, excites hope of an afterlife. "If, in writing, the truth is the quality of what is said, told, this is not a literary achievement: it is a simple human achievement." (p. 571)
Judith Thurman, "Forgeries of Ourselves," in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 30, 1974, pp. 570-71.
[Laura Riding's] … career was occupied with extending the limits of time and self through poetry…. How far she succeeded in this program will unfortunately not be decided by herself, as she has tried to do in the Preface to [Selected Poems: In Five Sets], in which some rather extraordinary claims are made; still, if one can get past the sheer nerve of her self-evaluations, a fine integrity can be seen in her attitude to poetry, which has always been that it must place itself at the disposition of truth, being no more than a mode of investigation…. As a result, she came to feel as long ago as 1938 that it would be necessary to abandon all composition rather than compromise language any further.
The history of this decision is related in the Preface to the new Selected Poems with an excess of moral rectitude that makes one reluctant to take it seriously…. Still, the aura of unreality surrounding these remarks shouldn't be allowed to obscure Laura Riding's significant place in recent literary history or, what is more important, the poems themselves, which are highly compressed, intellectual, disciplined, and possess a number of other virtues no longer much in evidence. (pp. 295-96)
Laura Riding's poems possess a rigorous and subtle character, despite their occasional lapses into sentimentality and archaic diction. At their best, they have some of the concentration of language so memorable in Emily Dickinson, while the syntactic difficulty and elaborate conceits Eliot did so much to revive have been practiced in her poems with remarkable effect. (pp. 296-97)
James Atlas, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1975.
Laura Riding was still in her thirties when she published her 477-page Collected Poems in 1938. At an age when most poets are just beginning to come into their own, she had already reached maturity, and the list of her work up to that time is impressive: nine volumes of poetry, several collections of critical essays and fiction, a long novel, and the founding of a small publishing house, the Seizin Press. As early as 1924, soon after her graduation from Cornell, The Fugitive had called her "the discovery of the year, a new figure in American poetry," and later, in Europe, during the period of her intimate and stormy relationship with Robert Graves, she became an important force of the international avant-garde.
Auden, who described her as "the only living philosophical poet," was apparently so influenced by her poems as a young man that Graves felt obliged to write him a letter reprimanding him for his blatant Laura Riding imitations, and the method of close textual criticism she developed in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (written in collaboration with Graves) directly inspired Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity…. Although she has written no poems since 1938, her new work in The Telling is very intimately connected with her earlier writings, and in spite of her long public silence, her career is of a single piece.
Laura Riding and Laura (Riding) Jackson—the married name she now uses—are in many ways mirror images of each other. Each has attempted to realize a kind of universal truth in language—"a linguistically ordained ideal, every degree of fulfilment of which is a degree of express fulfilment of the hope comprehended in being, in its comprehending us within it, as human"—and if this ambition seems to be grandiose and remote, it has nevertheless been constant. The only thing that has changed is the method. Up to 1938, Laura Riding was convinced that poetry was the best way to achieve this goal. Since then, she has revised her opinion, and has not only given up poetry, but now sees it as one of the prime obstacles on this path toward linguistic truth.
[Auster adds in a footnote: "Fiction should be mentioned here as well—for Laura Riding was a remarkable story writer; Progress of Stories (1936) is one of her finest works. In her preface to the book she makes a firm distinction between "story telling" and "truth telling," as if to diminish the importance of the stories; but perhaps because she was so relaxed about writing fiction she was able to reveal certail aspects of herself and her powers as a writer that might otherwise have remained hidden: a wonderful sense of humor and a superb eye for physical detail. The book is composed of eighteen stories that "progress" from "Stories of Lives" to "Stories of Ideas" to "Nearly True Stories," and while each story can be read independently of the others, the whole presents us with a theory of fiction that is an important corollary to her ideas about poetry. She is equally pleasing as a realist and as an inventor of fairy tales."]
When we turn to her own poetry, what is striking is its consistency of purpose and manner. From the very beginning, it seems, Laura Riding knew where she was going, and her poems ask to be read not as isolated lyrics, but as interconnecting parts of an enormous poetic project…. This is essential Riding: the abstract discourse, the insistence upon confronting ultimate questions, the tendency toward moral exhortation, the quickness and cleanness of thought, the unexpected juxtapositions of words…. The physical world is hardly present here, and when it is mentioned, it appears only as metaphor, as a kind of linguistic shorthand for indicating ideas and mental processes. The wind, for example, is not a real wind, but a way of expressing what is changeable, a reference to the idea of flux, and we feel its impact only as an idea. The poem itself proceeds as an argument rather than as a statement of feeling or an evocation of personal experience, and its movement is toward generalization, toward the utterance of what the poet takes to be a fundamental truth….
In poem after poem we witness her trying somehow to peel back the skin of the world in order to find some absolute and unassailable place of permanence, and because the poems are rarely grounded in a physical perception of that world, they tend, strangely, to exist in an almost purely emotional climate, created by the fervor of this metaphysical quest. And yet, in spite of the high seriousness of the poems, there are moments of sharp wit that remind us of Emily Dickinson. (p. 36)
It is difficult at first to take the full measure of these poems, to understand the particular kinds of problems they are trying to deal with. Laura Riding gives us almost nothing to see, and this absence of imagery and sensuous detail, of any surface, is at first baffling. We feel as though we had been blinded. But this is intentional on her part, and it plays an important part in the themes she develops. She does not so much want us to see as to consider the notion of what is seeable…. In her best poems, I think, Laura Riding coaxes us into a state of rapt listening, into a voice to which we give our complete attention, so that we, as readers, become participants in the unfolding of the poem. The voice is not so much speaking out loud as thinking, following the complex process of thought, and in such a way that we almost immediately internalize it.
Few other poets have ever been able to manipulate abstractions so persuasively. Having been stripped of ornament, reduced to their bare essentials, the poems emerge as a kind of rhetoric, a system of pure argument that works in the manner of music, generating an interaction of themes and counterthemes, and giving the same formal pleasures that music gives. (pp. 36-7)
These strengths, however, can also be weaknesses. For in order to sustain the high degree of intellectual precision necessary to the success of the poems, Laura Riding has been forced to engage in a kind of poetic brinkmanship, and she has often lost more than she has won. Eventually we come to realize that the reasons for her break with poetry are implicit in the poems themselves. No matter how much we might admire her work, we sense that there is something missing in it, that it is not really capable of expressing the full range of experience it claims to be expressing. The source of this lack, paradoxically, lies in her conception of language, which in many ways is at odds with the very idea of poetry:
Come, words, away from mouths,
Away from tongues in mouths
And reckless hearts in tongues
And mouths in cautious heads—
Come, words, away to where
The meaning is not thickened
With the voice's fretting substance….
The desire is self-defeating. If it is anything, poetry is precisely that way of using language which forces words to remain in the mouth, the way by which we can most fully experience and understand "the voice's fretting substance." There is something too glacial in Laura Riding's approach to gain our sympathy. If the truth in language she is seeking is a human truth, it would seem to be contradictory to want this truth at the expense of what is human. But in trying to deny speech its physical properties—in refusing to acknowledge that speech is an imperfect tool of imperfect creatures—this seems to be exactly what she is doing….
Thirty years later, she uses almost the same terms to justify her equally passionate opposition to poetry….
She did not renounce poetry because of any objective inadequacy in poetry itself—for it is no better or worse than any other human activity—but because poetry as she conceived of it was no longer capable of saying what she wanted to say. She now feels that she had "reached poetry's limit." But what really happened, it would seem, is that she had reached her own limit in poetry.
It is appropriate, then, that her work since 1938 has been largely devoted to a more general investigation of language, and when we come to The Telling we find a deeper discussion of many of the same questions she tried to formulate in her poetry. The book, which fits into no established literary category, is positively Talmudic in structure. "The Telling" itself is a short text of less than fifty pages…. To this "core-text," which is written in a dense, highly abstract prose almost devoid of outside references, she has added a series of commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, notes, and addenda, which flesh out many of the earlier conclusions and treat various literary, political, and philosophical matters.
The book is an astonishing display of a consciousness confronting and examining itself. Based on the idea that "the human utmost is marked out in a linguistic utmost," she pursues an ideal of "humanly perfect word-use" (as opposed to "artistically perfect word-use"), by which she aims to uncover the essential nature of being. Again, or rather still, she is straining toward absolutes, toward an unshakable and unified vision of the world: "… the nature of our being is not to be known as we know the weather, which is by the sense of the momentary. Weather is all change, while our being, in its human nature, is all constancy … it is to be known only by the sense of the constant." Although Laura (Riding) Jackson has put her former poet self in parentheses, she looks upon The Telling as the successful continuation of her efforts as a poet: "To speak as I speak in it, say such things as I say in it, was part of my hope as a poet."…
"We know we are explainable, and not explained." [She shows] why the various human disciplines—science, religion, philosophy, history, poetry—have not and cannot explain us. Suddenly, everything has been swept aside; the way seems to have been cleared for a fresh approach to things. And yet, when she reaches the point of offering her own explanations, it seems as if she had been rejecting the myth-making tendencies of previous thought only to present another myth of her own devising—a myth of memory, a faith in the capacity of human beings to remember a time of wholeness that preceded the existence of individual selves….
The problem is that she speaks of this purely personal experience in rigorous and objective terms, and as a result mingles two kinds of incompatible discourse. In spite of her intentions, there is no common ground established with us.
Yet if it ultimately fails to carry out its promises, The Telling is still valuable to us for the exceptional quality of its prose and the innovations of its form. The sheer immensity of its ambitions makes it exciting, even when it most irritates us. More importantly, it is crucial to us for what it reveals—retroactively—about Laura Riding's earlier work as a poet. For, in the end, it is as a poet that she will be read and remembered. Whatever objections we might want to raise about her approach to poetry in general, it would be difficult not to recognize her as a poet of importance. (p. 37)
Paul Auster, "The Return of Laura Riding," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), August 7, 1975, pp. 36-8.