Laura Riding

by Laura Reichenthal

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Riding, Laura (Vol. 3)

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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.

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(Riding), Laura Jackson


Riding, Laura (Vol. 7)