(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
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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,...
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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 language is the most fitting instrument with which to press upon full reality and make it known.
There are several modes of literary revelation. A fine novel makes us aware of fine quotidian truths; an exact work of reason informs us of fine abstract truths. Certain poetry, being noble, passionate and skilled, awakens us to a good admiration and gravity. One might say that in practice Laura Riding attempts to concentrate these modes. “A poem is 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. … To go to poetry is the most ambitious act of the mind.”...
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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 early techniques of flattening texture with abstractions, joining hard consonant sounds together, effortlessly coining neologisms, and using plain words in delicately twisted syntax, has had an almost incalculable influence on modern poetry. Now whether W. H. Auden stole from Laura Riding or not, it is clear that what in Riding remained an inward and self-revolving technique becomes in Auden a rhetorical method for satirizing the modern temper. Riding was interested in making strange the words for her own story, Auden in judging shared behavior.
With respect to their comrades in art, writers generally fall into two groups, those who praise writers most like themselves (the enclave tendency) and those who are drawn to...
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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 solution befitting the general dignity of being human went as far as they could go together.
(Preface, p. 8, The Poems of Laura Riding)
In 1940, at the height of her poetic career, Laura Riding renounced poetry, just two years after the publication of one-hundred eight-one of her poems in Collected Poems. At the time of her renunciation, Riding was thirty-nine and had returned to her native United States after a thirteen-year sojourn in England, Europe and Majorca with Robert Graves. She had established a reputation as a unique poet and intellectual in the vanguard of modernism. As a critic she had helped to foster New Criticism with a method of close textual reading...
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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 poetry, four books of criticism (two in collaboration with Robert Graves), two novels, two collections of short stories and dozens of essays. Moreover, with Robert Graves she founded and operated the Seizin Press which published handsome limited editions of poems and essays by themselves, Gertrude Stein and others. And yet, some time in 1940, just two years after the publication of her Collected Poems in England and her native United States, Riding gave up writing poetry and removed herself from the literary world.
Perfection, perhaps, had proved too hard a taskmaster. Riding's idealism, along with a sure linguistic sense and a deep autobiographical drive, had provided her poetry with its power and its purpose. She...
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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 intellectual honesty. Two honesties are hypothesized in it, the second having attributed to it a purer character, as honesty, the first appraised as necessarily colored with the viewer's ideas of himself, or herself, limiting the account given of the subject of interest, or object of interest, or curiosity, to interpretation that excludes what others giving an account of it might report of it from an impersonal, unprejudiced judgement-vantage. I regard all that goes into the formation of an “objective” interpretation of material of event or fact as a generalizing of a variety of conjectured possible personal interpretations—an artificially construed consensus.
All telling about a person, whether by that...
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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 Riding's poems, the work of her latter twenties and earliest thirties, are often of this order, foreshadowing certain current American developments.
Her writing is full of promises but preserved, as it were, in ambiguities, ironies, and near-solipsistic musings. Endlessly elusive, she gives of herself richly only on the rarest occasions. We are led to expect much—and don't usually get it yet are reluctant to leave: poor, ardent suitors who will never, really, feel welcomed into a clear, bright, shared world of climactic mutuality. Still, one doesn't want to lay aside a poem that begins with lines like “The rugged black of anger / Has an uncertain smile-border”—lines that remind of Emily Dickinson but have their...
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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’. These are loose terms. They do not collect different activity-modes but amalgamate them—associate them as roughly connected. I regard my ‘work’ as work of exploring the possibilities of through exactitudes, that is exactitudes of thought within the possibility of what the possibilities of language exactitudes allow.
In an Epilogue essay, entitled ‘The Literary Intelligence’, you wrote, ‘People who devote themselves to literature fall into three classes: those to whom it is a field of activity like any other, rich in opportunities of personal success and in pleasures of craft-exercise—those who “know how to write”, as it is put; those to whom literature is the region of reality where all the...
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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 appears most pressing not among poets but among their custodians, the critics and academicians.1 Whether or not poetry can tell the truth—whether or not it can establish an identity between thought and its object—has become an acute problem for those who are asked to bring critical judgment to the matter. To the extent that a consensus has been reached, the judgment has been negative. That poetry develops only a metaphorical and nonidentical relation between thought and its object is the current general view.
This is modern reason's conclusion about a type of discourse that appears committed to generating metamorphic structures. Those structures did not necessarily undermine the truth-functions of poetry so long...
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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 movements of the last sixty years: New Criticism, feminism, and deconstruction. I will argue that Riding represents the case of a writer who has been effectively decanonized because of her insistence upon being the ultimate referent of her own work and because of her refusal to cede either interpretive or descriptive authority over her work.
The second and much broader intention of this paper is to raise questions about the role of referentiality in critical reception and in the struggle for certain kinds of cultural authority, especially as this authority is evidenced in canon formation. Some of the questions which underlie my argument are: who is authorized to speak for and of the text? how has the institutionalization of...
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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 and sensation but utterly lacking in connective moral substance. Poetry became, for her, a “self-contradictory field of linguistic expression.”2
(Riding) Jackson achieved a certain authority through her rejection, casting out along with her poems the vulnerability that attends statement, refusing the risk of becoming the object of someone else's interpretation. By disavowing her poetry, she also disavowed, implicitly, all who would attempt to interpret it, for they would have to begin by assuming that in it lay at least some value. This repudiation of her critics links (Riding) Jackson's renunciation of poetry with the ideas that drive her poems. Her rejection redramatized, in larger scale, the central maneuver...
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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 new book, The Telling. Riding's rejection of poetry was only one of many renunciations—of narrative, of history, of myth, and of most writers and thinkers of her time. Nothing could be spared her quest for a “language open” in which “truth” and “goodness” were to be made manifest.
So intolerant was Riding of any form of appropriation of her work that she effectively decanonized herself. She routinely refused to have her work anthologized, and when she did give her permission it was only on the condition that the piece be accompanied by her own lengthy commentaries, which explained how it fit into her larger life's work. Riding alienated even her most sympathetic critics, writing numerous essays and...
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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 period of silence followed. Upon her return to the public forum in the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Riding was as insistent as ever that she be heard.1 Her voice was no longer that of a poet-critic but that of a philosophical critic of modern culture and society, in the tradition of Eliot and Pound. However, no great gap divides her poetry from her later prose; the former is notorious for its intellectual difficulty and a discursivity that at times stretches the definition of poetry.2 Her poetry is already concerned with the protopolitical forms of personal experience at the heart of modernity, which would concern her more explicitly in her later prose. I am thinking in particular of what I shall argue is her...
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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, (Riding) Jackson has decisively contributed to her own neglect.2 Objecting to the ways that anthologies misrepresent poets' larger works, (Riding) Jackson routinely refused to have her work anthologized. Further, until her death in 1991, she publicly attacked even her most sympathetic critics, meticulously correcting their mistakes in lengthy critical commentary. For (Riding) Jackson, any frame of reference falsified the precise language and thought that each of her poems brought into existence, leading her to enjoin against interpretation itself.3 Yet, by her very vigilance she discouraged the development of a fuller critical response, important for her far-reaching and difficult work.
In the limited...
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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 her authorial name, its history provides the material for an interesting commentary on the shifts that occur in names and naming when the process is linked, for instance, with changes in a female author's civil status. My focus in this paper, however, has to do with shifts of a different kind. Rather than commenting upon the vagaries of the names of poets,1 I shall be looking at poetry that unfolds against predictability, poetry that deploys what Marilyn L. Brownstein terms the “superficial strangeness and diversity … that characterize the postmodern” (73).
If one allows—rather simplistically, to be sure—that postmodernism, that much maligned “ism,” can be viewed as “comedy of diversity” that...
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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 shared with her long-time lover Robert Graves. He followed her lead by jumping from another window, one story below. Riding, as her biographer Deborah Baker tells it,1 was in despair at having been rejected by a more recent lover, a neurotic Irish journalist-aesthete named Geoffrey Phibbs. Before taking the near-fatal leap, she had swallowed a dose of poison. But both Riding and Graves were to survive without permanent injury. As she was to put it at the end of “Rejoice, Liars,” viewed retrospectively, the moment could be considered one of necessary transformation:
Away, flattery, she has lost pride. Away, book-love, she has a body. … And the witch, for her own honour, Takes on substance, shedding...
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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 Muse.” Arizona Quarterly 48, no. 1 (spring 1992): 1-24.
Schultz contends that Riding's internal argument over her role as woman and poet was ultimately self-defeating.
Walsh, Jeffrey. “Alternative ‘Modernists’: Robert Graves and Laura Riding.” In British Poetry, 1900-50: Aspects of Tradition, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, pp. 131-50. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Argues that Riding's poetry and poetic philosophy had a profound influence on the work of Robert Graves.
Additional coverage of Riding's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68,...
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