Laura Riding

by Laura Reichenthal

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Riding, Laura (Vol. 7)

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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...

(This entire section contains 4251 words.)

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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.


Riding, Laura (Vol. 3)