Laura Riding

by Laura Reichenthal

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R. P. Blackmur (review date winter 1939)

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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, the quite somnambulistic state to the waking representation. This is to indulge in the dereliction—the reprehensible abandonment—of poetic duty. He does not say—he does not represent—what he is writing about; he only indicates, and forsakes, what it was that led him to write.

Otherwise he does very well; his words work on each other and carry each other along apace; it is a pleasure, as sleep-walking goes, and at the right remove, to reach his version of vertigo. With the work of Laura Riding we have no such contact, no matter at what remove. Her poems may, as she says in a long preface, be written for all the right reasons, or for more right reasons than anybody else's poetry, and her reasons may be mine as well as hers, and that these reasons are all the reasons of poetry, but I suspect just the same and with good reason that the reason of all these reasons is the reason (buz buz) she does not say once and for all Unreason, and then add, for all the best unreasons that unreason is not not-unreason. Perhaps she really does not not say so. Certainly she does not not say every now and then unreproach unharshed unloving unsmooth unlove undeath unlife undazzle unmade unthought unlive unrebellion unbeautifuls unzoological unstrange unwild unprecious unbull unhurriedness unenthusiasm. Miss Riding is the not star of un no not never nowhere. After page eighty pretty well right through 477 pages she tells us what she it they we you are not, and when she does not tell us directly she tells us even more not clearly by not not indirection. Many pages are not without fifteen forms of the verbal negative; no page is without words which produce negation. We have either:

There is much that we are not.
There is much that is not.
There is much that we have not to be

or we have such phrases as “native strangeness … Science, the white heart of strangers … the lionish landscape of advent.” Here meanings beat against each other like nothing but words; we have verbalism in extremis; an end-product of abstraction without any trace of what it was...

(This entire section contains 663 words.)

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abstractedfrom. Automatic writing as featured by Gertrude Stein plus an obsession with the problem (not the experience) of identity plus an extraordinary instinct of how best to let words obfuscate themselves here combine in the most irresponsible body of poetry in our time. Miss Riding is not derelict; she is jetsam: washed up; and just to the level that we are washed up she makes excellent reading.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Robert Fitzgerald (review date winter 1939)

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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.”

Such complete faith in poetry is rarely professed, even by the few poets who merit the name. The urgency with which Laura Riding professes it is an index of the divided faith of her contemporaries. By the settled prejudice of our time, indeed, her credo is her delusion. But her poems are to the point. They declare her impulse in less doctrinal terms. Explicitly, and of course partially (the date is c. 1927):

But for familiar sense what need can be
Of my most singular device or me,
If homage may be done
(Unless it is agreed we shall not break
The patent silence for mere singing's sake)
As well by anyone?
Mistrust me not, then, if I have begun
Unwontedly and if I seem to shun
Unstrange and much-told ground:
For in peculiar earth alone can I
Construe the word and let the meaning lie
That rarely may be found.

And here also:

Fierce is unhappiness, a living god
Of impeccable cleanliness and costume.
In his intense name I wear
A brighter colour for the year
And with sharp step I praise him
That unteaches ecstasy and fear. …
I cannot do what there is not to do.
And what there is to do
Let me do somewhat crookedly,
Lest I speak too plainly and everlasting
For such weathervanes of understanding.

To begin with, then, we have a rejection of familiar ground, unhappiness conceived as insight, concern with what is peculiarly true for the poet and with that alone, a desire to achieve the best language possible to the poet—and to her in particular—and a logical refusal to adapt it to casual consumption. This is not unique. What is unique is the relentlessness of Laura Riding's performance.

The English language brim-full is her resource, and in that fullness the poetic discoveries of the past two generations are living but not disproportionate elements. In general there is a creator's realization of words as organic, mysterious, idiosyncratic:

How mad for friendliness
Creep words from where they shiver and starve,
Small and far away in thought,
Untalkative and outcast. …

But Miss Riding commands the little creatures with severity.

Her severity may be measured by the fact that not more than one or two of the poems describe any earthly landscape. There is little dilation upon local marvels, natural or human; there are few images of sunset or moonrise or men. Sensuousness is intensely intellectualized. The “pinch of glory” remarked by E. M. Forster in the work of Eliot seems all that has been permitted here. Though the poems of the first part were written mostly in America, those of the second part mostly in England, those of the third and fourth parts mostly in Spain, the country throughout is the country of the mind.

Since that country is actually a cosmology, we may enter it via The Quids, which makes severe nursey nonsense out of the philosophy of monads:

The little quids, the monstrous quids,
The everywhere, everything, always quids,
The atoms of the Monoton,
Each turned an essence where it stood,
Ground a gisty dust from its neighbors' edges,
Until a powdery thoughtfall stormed in and out—
The cerebration of a slippery quid enterprise.

But filling out metaphysical frames with such serious humor is perhaps the least ambitious of Laura Riding's occupations. Her precision in seizing essences makes her something more than a “metaphysical poet”; certainly her conceits are rarely liable to the classic Johnsonian criticism. I should say they invited it—or a modern equivalent of it—only in certain instances where her awareness of the nature of words has led to what seems an excessive re-working of parts of speech:

Her very womb is a man,
And she but a meanwhile.
And the children are but a never. …

In her foreword Miss Riding assures us: “Because I am fully aware of the background of miseducation from which most readers come to poems, I begin every poem on the most elementary plane of understanding and proceed to the plane of poetic discovery (or uncovering) by steps which deflect the reader from false associations, false reasons for reading.” To many readers, nevertheless, the plane on which certain poems begin will seem far from elementary; and there are a few poems of such abstruse and apparently tedious structure as to be nearly unreadable without preparation. I believe that this book as a whole provides such preparation; that given the rich state of mind and alertness induced by reading it, Laura Riding's driest bones will show the flash of meaning. None is, I believe, capricious or arbitrary; all are intent economies of statement; and all are informed by a passionate perception that reality—that is, exact mystery, refinement and greatness—is at last the heritage of human intellect.

As I have indicated, Laura Riding's clairvoyance is equalled by her faith. “To live in, by, for the reason of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence. When we are so continuously habituated that there is no temporal interruption between one poetic incident (poem) and another, then we have not merely poems—we have poetry; we have not merely the immediacies—we have finality. Literally.” Anyone who finds such hopes and such demands forbidding should follow out their meaning in the later poems of this book.

We, and the time-reserved fulfilment
Of our given, taken, uneffected meaning,
Have, by the enigmatic path of time,
Come into knowledge with an innocence
That knits our minds to our occasions
Of a silent sudden—the befalling
And the thought of it together fall
And the heart-stir is the tremble of the scene
As an eye flutters with the bird watched. …
I even, to whom the law of instantness
And all-fraught presence is a pulse of the mind …
Did refinger with slavish habit of hand
The last and last newspaper, throw my eyes
To the lionish landscape of advent,
Then snatch them from dayglare to nightglow as if—
All looking being now moon-mild,
Sunny astonishment abandoned
For the nimbler heed which exclaims not. …

Principal Works

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*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

Americans 1934

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.

Mary Kinzie (essay date November 1981)

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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 writers who are least like themselves (the need to protect an enclave of one). Laura Riding belonged to the second group to the extent that she found threatening the experiments with a small vocabulary, incantation, and narrow wordplay of Gertrude Stein—experiments that resembled her own. Both Stein and Riding were repelled by pretty adjectives, Swinburnian settings, and obvious tropes (especially simile), although this fact does not distinguish them from scores of poets at the turn of the century who were fed up with Victorian embellishment. But there was a particularly rabid American wave of modernism in the 1920s that broke with what Hardy called the jewelled Tennysonian line more radically than did Hardy, Edward Thomas, or even Pound. On this wave were cast up e. e. cummings, Riding, and Gertrude Stein, whom Laura Riding called a “barbarian,” a writer who worked toward “mass-originality … without her ordinariness being destroyed.” But in fact, says Riding, Stein is “completely without originality. … She uses language automatically to record pure, ultimate obviousness” (Contemporaries and Snobs, 1928).

Riding did not go as far as Stein did in humming her language to death, but she was prone to effects only slightly less narcotic:

The little quids, the monstrous quids,
The everywhere, everything, always quids,
The atoms of the Monoton,
Each turned an essence where it stood,
Ground a gisty dust from its neighbours' edges,
Until a powdery thoughtfall stormed in and out—
The cerebration of a slippery quid enterprise.

(“The Quids”)

‘Poor John, John, John, John, John,’
Said the parson as he perched
On the sharp left discomfort
Of John John's tombstone—
John, John, John, John, John.

(“Lying Spying”)

His luck was perhaps no luck.
I am a fine fellow.
My good luck is perhaps no luck.
All luck is perhaps no luck.
All luck is luck or perhaps no luck.

(“The Lullaby”)

What to say when I
When I or the spider
No I and I what
Does what does dies
No when the spider dies
Death spider death
Death always I
Death before always

(“Elegy in a Spider's Web”)

These excerpts indicate a problem that persists in better poems. Like Emily Dickinson and (to a degree) Christina Rossetti, Riding is essentially a writer of the small mot, the epigram, the poem of a few lines. Here is a fine example of what Riding can do when she keeps her circuit small:

This posture and this manner suit
Not that I have an ease in them
But that I have a horror
And so stand well upright—
Lest, should I sit and, flesh-conversing, eat,
I choke upon a piece of my own tongue-meat.


Yet The Poems of Laura Riding is composed of poems that average between twenty and thirty-five lines. Since her thought has a short round, most of her poems have to start over again halfway through, giving them that hint of casuistry, of bombast and self-importance, that are inevitable when somebody continues to hold the floor after they have finished talking. Riding lacked that regard for stylistic integrity that even the most eccentric modernist poets like Marianne Moore and e. e. cummings and Pound applied so skillfully in the breaking of it. To break a mold, to raise the pitch of an argument, something must be there to be broken, or broken from.

This background of continuity is what Riding's poems miss. For example, the first stanza of the following poem does all that an epigrammatic poem should do, namely, it charms, it points, it suggests. The second stanza blunders through that established delicacy and reiterates more harshly the same point that was better made in the first stanza; the only new idea added in the second is that of following at a slower rate. While the third stanza, whatever its charm, is of a rhetoric more antique, self-conscious, and childish (“No harm is meant,” “the thighs / Are meek”):

Without dressmakers to connect
The good-will of the body
With the purpose of the head,
We should be two worlds
Instead of a world and its shadow
The flesh.
The head is one world
And the body another—
The same, but somewhat slower
And more dazed and earlier,
The divergence being corrected
In dress.
There is an odour of Christ
In the cloth: below the chin
No harm is meant. Even, immune
From capital test, wisdom flowers
Out of the shaded breast, and the thighs
Are meek.

(“Because of Clothes”)

This poem has three more stanzas, each neutral to the others by virtue of similar disjunctions in sense and tone.

Riding and Graves make an interesting observation in their Survey of Modernist Poetry that could be adjusted for the poetry of Laura Riding. After getting rid of form imposed from without, modern poets sought “some principle of … government from within.” This was (in circular fashion) free verse. Formal metrical poetry had an external government that could endlessly lap the miles of any thematic materials, hence the natural extension of formal poetry to the long poem (the Aeneid, In Memoriam), which had no need to work at its transitions. A poem like The Waste Land, on the other hand, since it refrained from inducing the anticipation of regularly recurring verse patterns, had to forge each transition by hand, moving from theme to theme, mood to mood, on the back of deeply pondered associations and echoes. Therefore, Riding and Graves argue, The Waste Land is really just a 433-line short poem. I think this idea can also work in reverse for the poem that has no transitions. Riding's “Because of Clothes” is really a thirty-six-line Sartor Resartus, that is, a long work trapped in the wrong short form. Riding uses in poetry material that is never made poetic, and yet the poems are not energetic enough to extend themselves out to their proper length. Her rejection of poetry in 1938, motivated in part by the deterioration of the Graves ménage, may also have been grounded in this fact, that her impulse was not to write poems at all, but the prose discourses and meditations on body, mind, language, and union, which she has indeed written for the past forty years.

Riding has also during this period become her own advocate in quasi-mystical apologias about her place in literature and her meaning for the history of words. The career of this writer has a psychological dimension that is hard to put delicately: she was an arrogant and impatient poet, in many ways juvenile in the estimation of her importance, in her endless poetic divagations about the right kind of pain, the right kind of strangeness, and the right kind of language, and in her repeated challenges to the reader and the lover that they work hard to discover the exact nuance of her meaning:

Come, words, away:
I am a conscience of you
Not to be held unanswered past
The perfect number of betrayal.
It is a smarting passion
By which I call—
Wherein the calling's loathsome as
Memory of man-flesh over-fondled
With words like over-gentle hands.

The smarting passion of Laura Riding has not made much difference to the world of letters, and we cannot help but regret the dead wood in this massive and second-rate oeuvre, from which so often the small gems of precision blink:

I moved the soldier-lusts in you:
Thus did you honour me.

(“After Smiling”)

Fresh year of time, desire,
Late year of my age, renunciation—
Ill-mated pair, debating if the window
Is worth leaping out of, and by whom.

(“In Nineteen Twenty-Seven”)

What is to cry out?
It is to make gigantic
Where speaking cannot last long.

(“As Many Questions As Answers”)

Barbara Adams (essay date 1982)

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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 presented in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), co-authored with Graves.

Before her renunciation, Riding had believed that poetry could apprehend “reality as a whole,” and that it was capable of “uncovering truth.” Until 1940, she believed that writing poetry was a “necessary-natural thing to do.” After her renunciation, Riding no longer believed that poetry was the medium for truth-telling, so, as an absolutist, she wrote no more poems. She continued, however, to seek a “universal linguistic solution” to the human condition in a gargantuan study of language, “A Dictionary of Rational Meaning,” written with her late husband, Schuyler B. Jackson. Only a few parts of this work have been published in literary journals, along with some recent essays, letters and re-prints of a few poems. Following her almost complete withdrawal from the literary world in 1940, Riding's publications declined drastically, as her place in modern poetry slipped from public awareness.

Not until the publication of Riding's Selected Poems—about a third of the Collected Poems—in 1970 in England and 1973 in the United States did she again begin to receive some critical attention. A BBC broadcast of some of her writings in 1967, a tape recording for the Lamont Library in 1972, and her last published work, a prose “evangel,” The Telling in 1972, also helped revive interest in Riding's work. The bulk of her poems, however, out of print since 1938, was largely unavailable to interested critics and new readers.

The 1980 edition, The Poems of Laura Riding, published in England and the United States, finally makes Riding's poetry available in its entirety to her international audience. This book duplicates the original Collected Poems, preface and 181 poems in the same order, and adds a new preface and an appendix containing notes on a poem, a previously uncollected early poem, the original 1938 preface, excerpts from the preface to Selected Poems, and excerpts from the Lamont Library tape. Laura Riding has published this new edition of her poetry under the name Laura (Riding) Jackson, the signature she has preferred since 1967. The problem of recognition has been solved by the new title which includes the name by which she is best known, Laura Riding.

Laura Riding's life and art have always been intimately related, bearing out her extremist aesthetics in the very texture and substance of her writing. The poetry, in fact, tells the “story” of the persona's developing self, as Riding explained in the 1938 Preface to Collected Poems: “This book begins with my earliest poems, and its arrangement corresponds with the development of my poetic activity. I have omitted those poems which seemed to fall outside the story. …”

Like the original collection, The Poems of Laura Riding is divided into five parts, the first four of which correspond with events in the author's life from her childhood in New York City, through her years with Graves in England and on Majorca, and ending with Christmas 1937 following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War which caused her and Graves to flee Majorca. With the outside world as backdrop, the poems actually focus on the author's inner life and her attempts to forge an ideal self in her poetry. The first four parts match “occasions” in her interior life—“Poems of Mythical Occasion,” “Poems of Immediate Occasion,” “Poems of Final Occasion” and “Poems Continual.” The fifth part, “Histories,” falls outside chronological sequence with the whole, but still bears on the life of the poet's mind in three very long narrative poems written in 1921, 1931 and 1933, respectively. The first of these, “Voltaire,” was written while Riding attended Cornell where she met and married her first husband, a history instructor, Louis Gottschalk. The second of the Histories, “Laura and Francisca,” was written during Riding's first year in Deya, Majorca, and describes her inner and outer life there. The last, “The Life of the Dead,” is a severely critical allegory of modern life, written in French with complementary English text and surreal illustrations.

Riding's poems range from seven to several hundred lines, but generally fall into two kinds: a lyric of about thirty to sixty lines, and the long sequence in several parts of a few hundred lines. The imagery often seems abstract and intellectual rather than sensory. The language, however, is precise and demands that the reader create the imagery from the thought. The thought can be difficult, a philosophical concept of states of being, as in this Dickinson-like stanza from “Echoes” (1926):

My address? At the cafés, cathedrals,
Green fields, marble terminals—
I teem with place
When? Any moment finds me,
Reiterated morsel
Expanded into space.

Such expressions of the self in relation to space and time crop up often in Riding's poetry, justifying Auden's claim that she is “the most philosophical poet” of our time.

If there is one word that characterizes a Riding poem it is “self.” A number of shorter lyrics examine the self, seeking the “one self,” charting the poet's “diary of identity,” and discovering a self at war with itself, “the enemy self.” As R. P. Blackmur said in 1939, Riding's poetry reveals a woman “obsessed with the problem of identity.” As the poet seeks a unified self, three themes weave throughout the poetry, three possible solutions to her inner division: denial of the claims of sexuality; escape into death; and escape into art. The poet hopes to transcend sexuality through an act of will, self-denial. The goal is spiritual chastity, if not actual chastity, as the priestess-like speaker expresses in “The Virgin” (1925):

My flesh is at a distance from me.
Yet approach and touch it.
It is as near as anyone can come.

Yielding to sexual needs only leads to trouble, deception and abandonment. Of her marriage to “Bill Bubble” in the very first poem of the collection, the poet says “I feel like dead.” “Not dead but wed,” he answers the bride who is soon left alone with the cold comfort of the moon and “Old Trouble,” the woman's curse.

In later poems, sexuality and the act of love itself can be perfected by conversion into art. Words transcend the act, poetry triumphs over the flesh in “When Love Becomes Words” (1937) in which “a poem upon love” makes one forget the actual kiss and is ultimately “more love than kiss to lips.”

The achievement of a self that is perfect, unified and even more real than life is the goal of Riding's poetry. Therefore, death is a kind of perfection she seeks, for it frees the self completely from human concerns and relationships. Riding's obsession with death spilled over from her life into her poetry. A nearly fatal fall from a fourth floor window in 1929 was apparently the culmination of two years' rumination on self-destruction. In 1927, she wrote “Death As Death,” comparing death to a comforter soothing away her troubles “like a quick cold hand / On the hot slow head of suicide.” The most obvious example, however, of the close relationship between Riding's art and eventual suicidal act appears in “In Nineteen Twenty-seven,” a dark meditative soliloquy ominously presaging the jump from a window two years later. In the poem, the poet examines the world of 1927 and finds it deceptive, deformed, and wanting. Examining herself, she finds a serious flaw, a “double ripeness” of self. The conflict lies between the woman who would go with her lover, accepting the cycle of time as it turns from 1927 to the new year, 1928; and the poet who would deny her lover and her own love and literally stop the clock with her own death.

Then, where was I, of this time and my own
A double ripeness and perplexity?
Fresh year of time, desire,
Late year of my age, renunciation—
Ill-mated pair, debating if the window
Is worth leaping out of, and by whom.

Wishing to leave a world peopled with “dressed skeletons,” seeing herself as one more “ghostly” inhabitant, the poet who wrote these lines in 1927 reached the crisis in 1929.

Riding recovered from the fall, and, for a time, found inner peace, enabling her to continue to write more poems, stories, two novels, critical essays and to run the Seizin Press with Graves. By 1938, when the Collected Poems came out, Riding had fully explored one more solution to the problem of self before her final renunciation of poetry rather than her life. This was the solution through art. “The Last Covenant” is the pact the poet makes with truth, inspiriting her with the grace to abide in the “unitary somewhere.” Like Wallace Stevens, Riding created a fictive heroine to bridge the gap between the real and the imaginary world. In her poems, at least, she came close to perfecting the self, to finding an aesthetic solution to the human condition.

Riding found a voice in her divided self, but where Stevens rejoiced in the supreme fiction created by his imagination which allowed him to incorporate reality in his poetic vision, Riding insisted that the supreme reality was the word-created self. Ideal and real could not co-habit in peace within her. Thus, for as long as she continued to write poetry, Riding sought to bring forth the perfect self. And this could be achieved only by the suppression, demotion and near-extinction of the flesh-and-blood self who held the pen.

Perhaps the best poem in the collection, one which illustrates the aesthetic solution to the poet's conflict with life, is “Memories of Mortalities” (1936), an autobiographical sequence that shows the emergence of Riding's poetic self. Consisting of four hundred fifty-four lines, it is her longest single poem, divided into three chronological parts. As the poem records key experiences in the poet's inner development, we watch in sympathetic fascination as she discards Mother, Father, School and social pressures—layers of superimposed selves which must be jettisoned before she can shape her own identity. The speaker, a wide-eyed innocent, confronts this fictional-seeming world and tries to establish her own reality with her pen. The process is slow and painful, summarized brilliantly in the phrase, “the stuttering slow grammaring of self.”

In “Memories of Mortalities,” Riding discovered how to manipulate narrative and to avoid literal autobiography by creating intense moments of drama. It is a technique which certainly points towards recent confessional poetry, making use of childhood memory, pseudo-naive viewpoint, striking outbursts of direct discourse and, always, the I at the center. Moreover, the dramatic element is so strong in the second part, “My Father and My Childhood,” that the character of the father stands out in strong relief as if drawn by Dickens. Riding's story of her father resonates with echoes of great tales of character, from Aesop's sly but foolish fox to Robert Lowell's ineffectual, beloved father in Life Studies. Even in this portrait, however, Riding keeps her eye on the truth disguised by petty illusions, life's “threadbare fiction,” as her father advises:

All is mistrust and mischief.
Bestiality and bestial comfort.
Life is a threadbare fiction
Large the holes and thin the patches.

Passing from snake-mother, fox-father, through sickness and schooling, the poet completes the rite of passage to enter her visionary world with her “internal eye” (I). The poem, then, becomes the agency of a more real, created self, welding imagination to experience. Factual details and autobiography provide vivid imagery, of course, but they serve more importantly as landmarks along the route to show where the poet has been, what she has come through, on her way to achieving her real identity. Looking back at the end of her “memories of mortalities,” she can now “go back / And write my story myself”:

So I began to live.
It was outrageous,
I made mortal mistakes,
I did not mean to live so mortally.
But something must be written about me,
And not by them.

The themes of Riding's poetry are no longer unique in a modern lyric poetry committed to the evocation of the inner I. But when she wrote her poems between 1921 and 1938, Riding ran against the trends of Imagism, Eliotic traditionalism, and the new mythologies advocated by Hart Crane, once her close friend, or by Graves, her long-time associate. Her poems, though telling the story of self, veer away from mere documentation of actual experience and move into the creation of an ideal self liberated from the constraints of the Zeitgeist. Like her friend and contemporary, Gertrude Stein, Riding also strove to strip words down to essential meanings, to create a pure language. Unlike Stein, however, she was able to project her ideal self onto an abstract but familiar interior landscape, irradiated by a perfect balance of intellect and imagination. Her persona is thus highly individualized, yet archetypal. Her language is abstract, yet precise and surprisingly rich in imagery. Her persona emerges from the life of one being, but also from the primordial ooze and from the Word of Genesis:

It was the beginning of time
When selfhood first stood up in the slime
It was the beginning of pain
When an angel spoke and was quiet again.

Because of her own long withdrawal from the literary world, Riding is not widely known today, though she has written some of the most intellectually superior and penetrating visions of self in modern poetry. Her influence on other poets, however, has been wide. Among those who acknowledge her influence are Robert Graves, Robert Duncan, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery and W. H. Auden. The secret of that influence, according to Ted Hughes, lies in the language and in her “religious” drive towards truth, towards an “abstract, suicidally-high demand for an ideal.”

This long-awaited new edition of Riding's Collected Poems,The Poems of Laura Riding, should give new readers a chance to feel the power of these poems first-hand, and old readers a chance to admire again their long-neglected beauty—like a diamond discovered in the dust.

Further Reading

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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, 135; Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, Vols. 28, 89; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 11; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 48; and Literature Resource Center.

Barbara Adams (essay date fall 1982)

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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 demanded that poetry serve truth, just as she demanded that it serve the real self. For all intents and purposes, Riding's view of poetry, up to 1940, was religious. She expressed its moral purpose in the original preface to Collected Poems: “To live in, by, for the reasons of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence.”1 Forty years after giving poetry up, she makes her former position even more explicit in the new introduction to the 1980 re-issuing of the same collection: “I was religious in my devotion to poetry.”2 Whatever other psychological reasons there may have been, the attempt to live up to such a high moral standard in her life and art probably had much to do with Riding's extreme actions: the suicide attempt in 1929, and the leaving off of writing poetry after 1938. Her moral aesthetics could not settle for almost-perfect.

Riding's Collected Poems, re-issued as The Poems of Laura Riding in 1980, records the quest for perfection as it is closely bound to her life and thought. Each poem tells us something about the real woman, but each one also makes a bid for something more, a higher state of being. As she announced with such conviction in the 1938 preface, “existence in poetry becomes more real than existence in time—more real because more good, more good because more true.”3 The good, the true, and the poetic self are Riding's trinity of faith, the creed upon which she founded her craft. We have only to look at the preface to the 1970 Selected Poems to understand how consistent is this faith, even to the renunciation of poetry because Riding became aware of “the discrepancy between the creed and the craft of poetry … its religious and its ritualistic aspects.”4

Riding believes literally in the perfectability of language and of the self. In theory, the perfect self can be embodied in perfect language; the relationship between self and language is therefore crucial to her work. In one of her early books of criticism, she had said plainly, that “a poem is an advanced degree of self” and that poetry was “the tongue of the Self.”5 This creed required the language of revelation, and, for a time, poetry was that language. After 1940, Riding came to believe that poetry was too elitist, too much a “crafted” medium to serve the democracy of revelation. Similarly, she found that the individual self could not be perfected except as part of the One perfect self. This later doctrine has been fully expressed in Riding's 1972 evangel, The Telling. Today, she believes that perfection lies in the “rational meaning” of words, in the apprehension of ultimate being in Oneness through language. The high moral purpose remains consistent in Riding's thought, but the instrument of its working out has changed from poetry to language as a whole, from a particular poetic self to an all-inclusive one self.

Nevertheless, out of her desire to achieve perfection in poetry, and out of the tension between the ideal self of the poems and the imperfect actual self, Riding created more than two hundred poems. She incorporated one hundred eighty-one of them in the Collected Poems to tell the “story” of her struggle to develop her real or poetic self. This book represents one of the earliest, perhaps the first in the modernist tradition, consciously autobiographical poetic sequences. Its arrangement is a narrative one, according to the Preface, the poems being ordered to correspond chronologically with phases in the protagonist's life. The “heroine” is Riding's self, and the “plot” tells of her experiences in America, England and Spain. These locations help the reader correlate the fictional world of the poems to actual events in the poet's life.

The autobiographical arrangement follows a simple thematic development divided into five parts. The first four parts record events in sequence in the persona's life from childhood to Christmas 1937, the title of one of the last poems in the fourth section. The focus is on interior developments in her thinking, rather than on external happenings. The word “occasion” signifies the nature of the first three phases of thought, while “continual” suggests the final phase that is reached in part four. “Poems of Mythical Occasion,” the first section, covers the years 1910 to 1926 approximately, corresponding to Riding's childhood and young womanhood. The chief motifs concern questions of identity against a background of an unhappy family and an alien environment, and sexual anxiety. The first poem in the book sets the theme:

The stove was grey, the coal was gone.
In and out of the same room
One went, one came.
On turned into nothing.
One turned into whatever
Turns into children.(6)

Later stanzas in this early sequence prefigure the long debate Riding was to have with herself concerning the pleasures, pains and tyranny of sexuality:

Love's the only thing
That deceives enjoyably.
Mother Mary and her Magdalenes,
We don't care a curse how much we're deceived
Or deceive.
Bill Bubble in a bowler hat
Walking by picked Lida up.
Lida said ‘I feel like dead.’
Bubble said
‘Not dead but wed.’
No more trouble, no more trouble,
Safe in the arms of Husband Bubble.

The fictitious name “Lida” further underscores Riding's identification with heroines at the heart of our sexual mythologies which impale woman on phallic fantasies.

“Poems of Immediate Occasion,” the second part of Collected Poems, covers the brief period Riding spent in England, 1926-1929. A time of intense conflict and productivity, these years saw the resolution of the conflict with Graves and his wife, the beginning of Riding's international reputation as poet and critic, and the near-death of Riding in a fall from a high window. While identity remains the central concern, the doubts of a woman in love and a growing obsession with death dominate this section. These themes merge in a five-part poem which ostensibly describes the false gaiety of the year 1927, but which actually reveals the poet's mounting and terrible inner conflict. These lines from “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven” even expose her suicidal thoughts some two years before obeying that impulse:

Then, where was I, of this time and my own
A double ripeness and perplexity?
Fresh year of time, desire,
Late year of my age, renunciation—
Ill-mated pair, debating if the window
Is worth leaping out of, and by whom.

“Poems of Final Occasion,” the third section, covers the years 1930-1935, including crisis and recovery and the shift from England to Majorca. Besides the usual existential questions of identity, these poems begin to come to terms with life and death in a matter-of-fact way, and to find peace of mind in the very act of writing the poem. At last, the poet can say, “At last we can make sense, you and I, / You lone survivors on paper.” At the same time, she still wars with herself and the eternal questions of identity:

What is to be?
It is to bear a name.
What is to die?
It is to be name only.
And what is to be born?
It is to choose the enemy self
To learn impossibility from.
And what is to have hope?
Is it to choose a god weaker than self,
And pray for compliments?

The bitter truths of this catechism leave the poet alone, with no resource and no other god, none but “the enemy self.” As despairing as is this faith in the self, Riding salvages some faith in a more traditional God, “meeting” him in death and discovering that His callous creation of her is little different from her creation of poems. According to this progression of thought, the poet bears a quasi-godlike status because of his “mouth”:

Because of being by name a poet,
A creature neither man nor God.
Yes, such a creature by name,
But featured like both man and God—
Like God a creature of mind,
Like man, a creature of mouth.

“Poems Continual,” the fourth and last of the chronological sections, contain the last poems Riding wrote while living on Majorca with Robert Graves, ending late in 1936 when the Spanish Civil War forced their evacuation. This move also effectively ended their relationship, though it dragged on for a few more years while they roamed about Europe and England and eventually came back to the United States. There, Riding and Graves parted for good, and Riding met and married Schuyler S. Jackson, her second husband (Riding had been married briefly in her early twenties to a history professor she met while a student at Cornell). These last poems reveal some of the turmoil of world events in the Thirties, but their main emphasis is on the persona's maturation into a self-possessed woman able to cope more easily with questions of identity through her poetry. They also show a decided cooling of love's sexual urgency and an ability to sublimate even that in poetry, especially in the self-explanatory poem “When Love Becomes Words”:

And I shall say to you, ‘There is needed now
A poem upon love, to forget the kiss by
And be more love than kiss to the lips.’
The writing of ‘I love you’
Contains the love if not entirely
At least with lovingness enough
To make the rest a shadow around us. …

Another notable achievement of this final stage of self is the sequence “Memories of Mortalities,” a four hundred fifty four line autobiography of the poet's inner life which recapitulates the major theme of the entire Collected Poems. It begins with her birth, assuming the burdens of the human condition through her “snake” mother and “fox” father, shows her futile rebellion against mortality and schooling, and leads to the poet's break-through in achieving an independent identity by “writing her story herself.”

“Histories,” the fifth and last part of Collected Poems, stands slightly to one side of the developing poet's story but parallels its main themes. It consists of three long sequences which represent important experiments in the longer poem and mixed media. “Voltaire,” written in 1921 when Riding was a student at Cornell, is a biography of the philosopher's beliefs and doubts, recounted in twelve parts, each part introduced by a prose paragraph and followed by clever, slyly neo-classical verse. In this choice of subject, Riding shows at the age of twenty a decided taste for rational thought. In form, the poem shows a precocity that dazzles critics and fellow poets alike. Roy Fuller notes, for instance, “Voltaire's” “varied and original poetic texture and its individual solution of the problem of the long poem in our age.”7

“Laura and Francisca,” the second of the Histories, combines vivid autobiographical details of Riding and Graves's life on Majorca. A fey little girl called Francisca symbolizes the ideal inner being of the poem's chief character “Laura.” Written soon after their arrival on Majorca and not long after the traumatic events of Riding's near-death and Graves's divorce from Nancy Nicholson, the poem records the surface details of everyday life in simple, sensuous language. Visitors, meals, mail, domestic trifles and the hard work of operating the hand-press take up the time while “Laura” and “Robert” heal their wounds. But Francisca represents the other Laura, the “anti-narcissus of me,” the poet's Muse: “My muse is I,” says the poem's Laura. Thus, in 1930, Riding reaffirmed her poetic philosophy—a poetics of the self that made explicit use of any autobiographical data, the real and the imagined.

“The Life of the Dead” written in 1933 is the last of the Histories and by far the most idiosyncratic of Riding's poems. A surreal allegory of the modern world, this poem of more than a thousand lines depicts vanity fair in ten tableaux. Each of the ten poem-pictures is written first in French and then in English, and is accompanied by an illustration. The illustrations were conceived by Riding and executed by John Aldrich in a deChirico manner. Of all the poems, “The Life of the Dead” is the most directly involved with social and moral concerns in the immediate world. A virtuoso satire constructed with dazzling skill, it reveals Riding's Swiftian side—the self turned towards the real world, seeking its perfection along with her own. All three Histories, though widely different in outward form and subject, share the same concern for the integrity of the self and the necessity for cherishing it in an historically, geographically and morally unstable world.

The careful structure and inner consistency of Riding's Collected Poems are no less remarkable than the authoritative quality of the poet's voice. That voice is obviously dominated by intelligence but contains as well a strong element of intuition that emerges from the center of being. Riding's voice derives from a similar combination of intellect and intuition found in Emerson—an interior monologue that scrutinizes self with puritan fervor. It also resembles Dickinson's, whose voice, said Henry James, “maps the landscape of the soul.” This tradition in American poetry leads its poets deeper and deeper into the self, into an endless ontological quest. It is what gives it its characteristic religious flavor, redolent of Biblical rhythms, imagery and syntax as in Riding's early poem “Incarnations”:

Do not deny,
Do not deny, thing out of thing.
Do not deny in the new vanity
The old, original dust.
From what grave, what past of flesh and bone
Dreaming, dreaming I lie
Under the fortunate curse,
Bewitched, alive, forgetting the first stuff …
Death does not give a moment to remember in
Lest, like a statue's too transmuted stone,
I grain by grain recall the original dust
And looking down a stair of memory, keep saying:
This was never I.

The thrust of this kind of poetry is always towards the solution of the problems of identity. If “this was never I,” then what is I becomes the task of the poem. The chief solution for Riding, found frequently in the later poems, is to enter a “unitary somewhere” in poetry. Here, the self exists in pure perfection, rescued from time and the transitory pleasures and pains of living. In Riding's aesthetic, she makes a “last convenant” with truth—the truth in poetry: “‘I have arrived here / And will discover to myself what is here.’” That this solution was only hoped for but never fully achieved in her poems led to the abrupt cessation of Riding's morally-demanding poetry. The autobiography of the self, its interior monologue, fell silent after the publication of the Collected Poems.

Riding's poetry has elements common to much recent American poetry—the search for a unified identity, an obsession with death and the hope of transcendence through art. It is a self-conscious and tension-ridden poetry, but more detached and abstract than that of her contemporaries. Where Hart Crane invented a mythology from a fusion of self, word and world, Riding created an aesthetic from self and word only. Where Eliot found his voice in the past, Riding found hers in an eternal inner self. Where Wallace Stevens rejoiced in the supreme fiction created by his imagination, Riding insisted that the word-created self was more real than reality. The self, to Riding, is the supreme reality. And where Edwin Arlington Robinson—reported by Riding to be one of her first influences—created a variety of neurotics to express alienation, Riding invented (or inhabited) only a single persona whose inner dialectic allowed a full expression of her thoughts and feelings. What is special about Riding's poetry is that it is a continuous interior monologue, telling the story of her inner being. This is the rationale of the Collected Poems, establishing a self in poetry, “more real, because more true.”

The influence of Riding's poetry on other poets has long been recognized by critics and, occasionally, by the affected poets themselves. Auden and Graves are the most notable examples, but the list includes the more recent poets John Ashbery, Robert Duncan and Sylvia Plath. With the exception of Plath, all of these poets were supposed to have learned some matter of technique—syntax, negatives, abstract diction, metres, “thin-lipped style.” (Auden's case has been recently well documented by David Mendelson.) And Plath, according to one critic, is supposed to have been inspired by Riding's BBC reading of some poems, or by her association with Graves and The White Goddess, to express mourning for her dead father. So far, however, critics have failed to comment on Riding's use of autobiographical data as a forerunner to the recent “confessional” poets, especially Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. At the very least, Riding deserves credit for making conscious use of the self as the only worthwhile subject left to lyric poetry. The effects of Riding's formal techniques can be demonstrated in poems by Auden and Graves, but the effects of her self-conscious obsession with the development of her real self in poetry cannot be so easily traced—for one reason, that it has become a commonplace since Lowell's Life Studies. For another, the tradition of self-examination in lyric poetry is as old as the Psalms of David; and in the English-speaking tradition, poets can find taproots in Wordsworth's The Prelude and Whitman's “Song of Myself.”

But for the sake of argument, let us look at a few closer correlatives between Riding and Plath, and Riding and Lowell. Besides having been impressed by Riding's BBC broadcast in 1962, Plath also shared similar views of sex and death, expressed in hostile-aggressive language. For instance, Riding's “Auspice of Jewels” shows a woman revolting against male dominance through enslaving protectiveness symbolized by their gifts of jewels. The false glitter of these jewels eclipses the real glitter of the woman's real self:

They have connived at those jewelled fascinations
That to our hands and arms and ears
And heads and necks and feet
And all the winding stalk
Extended the mute spell of the face.
For we are now otherwise luminous.
The light which was spent in jewels
Has performed upon the face
A gradual eclipse of recognition.

In “Purdah,” Plath voices a similar rebellion, using some of the same jewel imagery and false reflection of femaleness in male eyes. “Purdah” of course symbolizes the same kind of male-imposed slavery disguised as protectiveness:

Stone of the side,
The agonized
Side of a green Adam, I
Smile, cross-legged,
Shifting my clarities.
So valuable!
How the sun polishes this shoulder!
I gleam like a mirror.
At this facet the bridegroom arrives.
Lord of the mirrors!
It is himself he guides. …(8)

There is also the similarity between Riding and Plath of a desire for spiritual chastity. Riding's poem “The Virgin” proposes such purity by detaching her real self from her body.

My flesh is at a distance from me.
Yet approach and touch it.
It is as near as anyone can come.

And Plath achieves the same purity with a high fever in “Fever 103,” becoming “a pure acetylene Virgin” just as untouchable: “I am too pure for you or anyone.” Another feeling they share is vulnerability from self-exposure. Using the language of the want ad, Riding sends out an “Advertisement” of self that offers to meet another on the level of real self:

Have quantity guaranteed self
Willing affiliate with private party.
Respond in person.
Inquire within.
Frankness or secrecy
Need not apply. …

In “The Applicant,” the impersonal language of the interview divests Plath of personalty crutches. What remains for the prospective buyer-bridegroom is a naked, helpless self ready for him to dress according to his needs:

I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit—
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?(9)

Not to be overlooked is the obsession with death—the death of self—that weaves a dark theme in so many of Riding and Plath's poems. Riding can be ominous, philosophical or even flippant on this subject. At a crucial time in her life, death was “a quick cold hand / On the hot slow head of suicide.” A short time later, it is the cure for all suffering, especially the suffering of a “living name.” Much later, Riding can quip that she has “met God” who is busy wringing the neck of a dove as she sets about to describe “an interval called death.” The sum effect of Riding's shifting attitude is that we aren't sure if she means literal death, spiritual death, or some sort of playful literary death. In Plath's case, we are on surer if unhappier ground. Death in Plath means death as we know it, and her self-exploitation of her suicidal wish is too well known. Yet, the starkness of this negation is softened and made poetically palatable with considerable joking irony. Compare the flippant tone of this passage from Riding's “Then Follows” with that of Plath's “Death & Co.” and consider if there might not be some influence of the former on the latter:

It came about by chance—
I met God.
‘What,’ he said, ‘you already?’
‘What,’ I said, ‘you still?’
He apologized and I apologized.
‘I thought I was alone,’ he said.
‘Are you displeased?’ I said.
‘I suppose I should not be,’ he said.
A dove hopped out of his sleeve
And muted well in his palm.
Frowning, he wrung its neck.
‘Are there any more of you?’ he said,
Tears in his eyes, but politely.
‘As many as you care to meet,’ I said.
Tears falling, he said politely,
‘I can't wait, but remember me to them.’

And this passage from “Death & Co.”:

Two, of course there are two.
It seems perfectly natural now—
The one who never looks up, whose eyes are
And balled, like Blake's,
Who exhibits
The birthmarks that are his trademark—
The scald scar of water,
The nude
Verdigris of the condor.
I am red meat. His beak
Claps sidewise: I am not his yet.
He tells me how badly I photograph. …(10)

If Riding did influence Plath, it is certainly in the daring direct treatment of painful subjects, sometimes lightened with humor, or distanced with skillful poetic tricks of diction, voice and syntax.

Plath's most important teacher, Robert Lowell, made autobiographical poetry fashionable with his 1960's book Life Studies. Cleaning out the family attic, he paraded its skeletons and saints, its heroes and harridans before an American public eager to see the other side of their puritan ancestors. But among the family portraits he painted, he painted none more honestly and compellingly than that of himself. The portrait of the poet in extreme pain is Lowell's most telling subject; and like Joyce, he uses his own voice as a child to tell on himself. What proved an effective technique for literary autobiography in Joyce's prose and Lowell's poetry was just as effective in Riding's 1935 autobiographical sequence, “Memories of Mortalities.” Riding uses a variety of methods to solve the problems of a long, narrative lyric poem, but we are concerned here with only one of them: the poet's voice as a child used to distance the pain of being a poet. Here, for instance, is how Riding describes her father, a lovable but irresponsible Micawber with pretentions of wisdom:

There came the fox my father,
Between the tales to ponder, speak
The gruff philosophies of foxes:
‘All is mistrust and mischief,
Bestiality and bestial comfort.
Life is a threadbare fiction—
Large the holes and thin the patches. …

And here is a section from Lowell's portrait of his father, “Commander Lowell”:

“Anchors aweigh,” Daddy boomed in his bathtub,
Anchors aweigh,”
when Lever Brothers offered to pay
him double what the Navy paid.
I nagged for his dress sword with gold braid, …
He was soon fired. Year after year,
he still hummed “Anchors aweigh” in the tub—
whenever he left a job,
he bought a smarter car.(11)

Coincidence that both have improvident, juvenile fathers with grandiose ideas; also coincidence, perhaps, that both poets speak from similar positions as children made wise too young by having to cater to their father's fancies. Less coincidental is the form of narrative based on factual memory, with speech interpolations.

And even stronger resemblance of this child-voice and narrative technique can be seen in the “Sickness and Schooling” section of Riding's poem. Here, Riding exploits the impassioned cries of a frightened child in a way that would seem an obvious model for Lowell's little boy in “My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow.” The passage in Riding's poem begins with the memory of illness, the little girl in bed afraid of pain and the illness-induced distortions and hallucinations:

‘It hurts,’ we cried, ‘it seems to hurt.
Some something loves me not,
I am not loved—and where to fly
And what if not myself to be?
Is there a better I than this
Which Teacher Pain would not so pinch?’
We toss in hot self-inquisition. …
And Nurse reads on: Jack scrambles to the top.
I cannot scream ‘Don't go!’
The Little Mermaid starts to float to heaven.
‘I won't! I won't!’ My legs keep sinking.
And then I sleep. …

Lowell's poem begins with the child's rebellion against his parents in favor of the security of his grandparents' farm. He is not sick, but he is not about to give up his pre-Edenic safety any more than Riding's little girl wants Jack to “fall” or her own legs to sink (her genital development being a “sickness” in clear contrast to the Mermaid's asexual, dead body). Lowell's boy remains safely ensconced in the orderly family rose garden, not venturing out into the “scarey” virgin pines beyond:

“I won't go with you. I want to stay with
That's how I threw cold water
on my Mother and Father's
watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner. …
Nowhere was anywhere after a summer
at my Grandfather's farm.
Diamond-pointed, athrist and Norman,
its alley of poplars
paraded from Grandmother's rose garden
to a scarey stand of virgin pine,
scrub, and paths forever pioneering.(12)

Playing on childhood memories, both poets make use of iambic rhythms and falling end rhymes to reinforce the childish tone. And both catch the reader's attention with the child's outburst. The subject of both passages is the universal childhood of fear of mortality, closely connected here to oedipal fears as well.

We can conclude, then, that Riding developed effective techniques for the autobiographical poem, techniques which Lowell and Plath also found effective some thirty years later in writing “confessional” poetry. We might also guess that Riding had some influence on their work, at the very least, in daring to expose the self autobiographically in the poem.


  1. Laura Riding, “Preface,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1938), p. xxvii.

  2. Introduction, The Poems of Laura Riding (London: Carcanet, 1980), p. 2.

  3. “Preface,” Collected Poems, p. xxvi.

  4. Selected Poems: In Five Sets (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 11.

  5. Anarchism is Not Enough (New York: Doubleday, 1928), p. 119.

  6. Collected Poems, p. 3. This, and all subsequent quotations from Riding's poems are taken from this edition.

  7. Roy Fuller, “The White Goddess,” The Review, No. 23, Sept.-Nov. 1970, p. 5.

  8. Sylvia Plath, “Purdah,” Winter Trees (New York: Harper, 1972), p. 40.

  9. Plath, “The Applicant,” Ariel (New York: Harper, 1965), p. 4.

  10. Plath, “Death & Co.” Ariel, p. 28.

  11. Robert Lowell, “Commander Lowell,” Life Studies (New York: Noonday, 1964), p. 71.

  12. Lowell, “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” Life Studies, p. 59.

Laura (Riding) Jackson (essay date 1984)

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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 person, or by others, is necessarily personal: it is what the “I” or “I” or “I” of each particular telling offers as true. The biographer “I” offers a telling, as a true telling, of the entire life-story of his subject, to the extent of his knowledge. There is always the problem, in judging a biography as truth, of evaluating, under the extent of its knowledge-basis, the degree of purity of the biographer's feelings towards his subject: is he all-free or not all-free in his disposition towards it of processes of telling determined by ideas of himself—where his feelings ought to be determined entirely by ideas of it in undivided emotional preoccupation with it? Biographical telling can go wrong in its trying to mingle truth about the subject of the telling with what the biographical narrator is moved to inject into it as truth about himself—and, as biographical narrators can be tempted to include in their tellings, an extended truth representing ideas of themselves of persons of a kind with whom they are pleased to feel identity in their biographer-disposition towards their subject. In autobiographical telling there can be injecting into the narrative reports of ideas of the autobiographical teller about himself that constitute for him a complete, a final truth to which he feels historical narrative will tend to do injustice. This stretched truth told by a person about himself can never be so untrue, I think, as biographers' truth in which the motive of justice to the subjects is compounded with a compulsion of justice-doing by the narrators to themselves—and to varieties of opinions of things presumed to match their own.

I am not plagued by anxious desires to get my life-story set down by myself as if before a death-time that might leave it at the mercy of objectivist arbitrary truth-formulations. I believe that the sense of my being what and who I am, and doing as I have done and do, will become perfectly clear, as I believe that the meaning of all being and doing must become, as we proceed in this human course of being and doing that is framed in our minds' framing of all that is in the language of an all-illuminating of reason of things we have hardly yet dared to speak.

However it goes as to the clarification of what there is to be, do, know, understand, and tell, I have something to tell about myself that has pertinence to the general human need of comprehending how much of what human beings set themselves to be and do next, and next, as in an ever-new immediate that extends all past being and doing towards possible fullnesses of being and doing, builds itself over and over into barriers against this fullness. What human beings have been and have done solidifies stone-like into protective walls that stop them in their trials of the possible to be and do, as at a safety-mark in knowledge and understanding: this is a line of necessity laid down for them by the urgencies of self-contentment. A necessity of self-contentment has steadily prevailed over the rule of the twin necessities of knowledge and understanding, in this late century's version of the continual human abrogation of the insistence of these ultimately undisregardable necessities which are at the center of the human mind's acceptance of its reality as the substance of human identity.

A climax of consciousness of an impotence laid upon human beings of fulfilling the expectations that human identity excites has gripped the sense of common identity that collects human beings into a loose summary of themselves as constituting “a world”; it is a climax of far-gone confusion in ideas of the nature of existence, and of human existence. A philosophy of failure of existence in the large pairs itself with a religion of success of human existence in the small—as kinds of being and doing, kinds of knowledge and understanding, pieces of a world of human consciousness of existence. Thus, human beings come to live their thinking life in pieces, amidst ruins of ever-outlived thought; and nothing has the clarity of full-minded occupation of the immediately existent, all is either ruin, or is undergoing weathering in the historical climate of ruin. It was with such a clarifying light that literature was supposed to touch the scenes of new thinking on what had been, was, and might be, a light of new truth cast in new telling.

Literature has played a double rôle in the drama of human hope of the human. It has served as the muse of the purest, the most purely human, of human ambitions, that of success in the objective that is the essential concern of the human mind: fullness of achievement of the possible in personal being and doing within the forms of knowledge and understanding natural to the mind. Among the varied fields of ambitious human activity, it was set apart, and set itself apart, as one in which human minds could devote themselves unreservedly to the expanding, towards the full of expressive witness-bearing to it, of the experience of knowledge and understanding of existence that is both the fact and the meaning of human existence. But literature has also had a rôle of beguiling the mind with inducements to letting time pass in operations of self-contenting deferment of full intellectual realization of the human experience of existence: it has served as a protector of experimentation in an intellectual do-nothing-ism that could not count as failing the supreme human ambition because it allowed theoretically for its fulfilment. The Classical and the Romantic actually merge into a meaningless equivalence in literature, and, with them, the practical and the theoretical in conception of the humanly possible—the theoretically possible kept at temporal remove by the operations of literary imagination, settling more and more ponderously on the literary horizon of human life as the image of a literarily revered impossible.

My own involvement in literature was an attempt to resolve the ambiguity of its two rôles in a conception of it as having, as a function of an intellectually, spiritually, and linguistically, integrated character, a potentially saving effect of clarifying to the human mind the fundamental motives of its thought-engagements and the embodiment of them in words. These memoirs are being written to depict the exaggerated replica of the ordinary world of demoralized human ambition that the world of literary understanding became in its progressive adapting itself to the moral temporizings of a humanity advancing in a wisdom of incertitude of the value of humanness, or of anything. For all the dwelling in them on my experiences as one who tried to cast her life-undertaking within the frame of literary undertaking, I do not make report of these experiences for their interest as a personal narration: the personal element in my report is incidental to consideration I mean to give, and to ask to be given, to the conditions of human purpose that make up the world of literary undertaking of our time. The sense of these conditions is such that they exclude involvement in literature where the name “literature” is construed as comprising interests and purposes of worded thought that are literally—practically, not theoretically—of humanly comprehensive importance, performances of the mind directed towards the fully possible in human possession of the power of truth.

What I tell is not a life-story in literary-world setting strung upon a theme of ugly treatment long and widely visited upon me, a narrative patchwork of complaints. I am no disappointed literary careerist! I offer here what is necessary for the eventual understanding of my life in its literary-world aspects of experience and activity as the life of one soul-bent, mind-intent, on pressing towards answer-point the question we are all confronted with by ourselves in our nature of beings existing as minds.

Where does possibility, that knowledge bounds, end, and impossibility begin? How much is it of the possible, to be knowingly? What is it, to be mind, determiner of the possible, the impossible, in being what, who, one is? In assuming literature to be the common ground of our asking and trying to answer this all-embracing question-and-answer devolvement upon us as truth of ourselves, the beings we personally are, and truth at once of being, which is inseparably all that is, I responded to my sense of the veridicality of the human mind. Literature: was it not meant to be the where of our telling what we are, who, and how much—and the whole story of the nature of the possible and the impossible? My report of how I came to know literature to be no common telling-ground but a process of continually gathering and continually dissolving resolves to try what can be told, the name excusing all the forms of cowardice and dalliance that it takes under its proud wing, should make it easier to find the place of common bravery for the telling of what is in being and in our being to tell.


I shall especially here present the part that the fact of poetry had for me in my adoption of literature as the ground of my trial of my powers of touching, in the reaches of mind that materialize it into words, the limit of the possible—the possible in letting one's being tell being's truth rather than appropriating language's uses of revelation for the truths of passing lives that selves living as mere self merely live. Poetry brought into view—into stark view—the debate of human consciousness with itself on what is possible and what impossible, in attainment to knowledge of the nature of our being—knowledge making the underlying, overlying, all-intervening fact of being familiarly (humanly, personally) understandable. The debate is inherently only an indeterminate of variant ideas on the possibility or impossibility of realization of particular ends of ultimate knowledge become subjects of speculative disagreement. Poetry introduced into the amorphous region of this debate—the region of human endeavor to encompass the unavoidable possibility-impossibility preoccupation and resolve it into a living story of progressive decision—a stand.

Poetry, as it were, civilized impossibility for the world of literary storifying of the human endeavor to attain to a decisiveness of being: to be livingly one with the truth of a knowledge of the nature of our being that was at once a knowledge of the nature of being in its comprehensive realness. The poetic component of literature is regarded as of a primitive ancestry in comparison with its prose components, in their character as of an intellectually planned, more deliberate kind of verbal composition. But poetry as having the identity of a component of literature has that identity necessarily as being and intellectually prompted and shaped kind of verbal composition. The features of poetry that connect it in historical accounting for it with primitive rituals of cantatory utterance, the physical devices of emphasis that survive in it, and devices for keeping utterance taut with image-evoking words for maintenance of emotionally concentrated attention, represent no more than a placation of suspicion of poetry as treating of matters, subjects, courses of thought and knowledge-experience, from a condition of mind exceeding the limits of the possibility for human beings of their fully understanding the nature of their being and of the realities of being implicated in it. The coming to be of poetry as part of the literary articulations of human consciousness, as a form of expression distinct from song and chant, expression which set apart certain areas of knowledge and understanding as impossible of access to human powers of mind and expression, marked the demysticization of those areas—what I have called the civilizing of impossibility.

The traces left in poetry of the early mysticalities of ritualistic simplifications of expression of the difficult, the over-difficult, in human knowledge-experience, constitute a compromise with a surviving primitive human disposition to fend off intercourse of mind with the impossible-seeming in knowledge and understanding: restriction of expression to a boundaried though far extended possible is cultivated as infallible protection against mistake-making excesses in ventures of knowledge and understanding. Poetry has used a double justification of itself in its endeavor to penetrate the areas of impossibility (areas regarded as exterior to the mind's reaches)—to demonstrate their penetrability. It presents the human mind in a condition in which it engages without trepidation in endeavors of knowledge and understanding extending beyond the margin of the readily expressible, the surely communicatable, in its experiences of apprehension. It establishes the unalienness to the mind, the unforbiddingness, of endeavor to think the difficult to think, encounter the difficult to encounter in mind, give expression to what is customarily regarded as belonging to mind-resisting kinds of knowledge and understanding even because the expression of it is not imaginable as other than difficult. But to its espousing of the difficult, in experience, for the mind, and the difficult expression of it, as not prohibitively difficult, poetry joined relics of those make-easy devices to which I have referred, by which, in pre-poetry, all difficulty was simplified out of the field of attention, the excluded difficult having assigned to it the nature of mystery—that which must reveal itself to be known, speak itself to be understood.

Poetry has the assigned part, and status, in literature's storifying of how human beings make their way through the intricacies of the possibility-impossibility debate, of a defender and prompter of their capability of overcoming, as beings of mind, the appearance of impossibilities in knowing and understanding that assail them as mere bodily constitutions isolated each in itself. But it confuses its representation of the difficult as potentially intelligible by tempering its intellectual enthusiasm to a presumed general human hesitancy to meet head-on, in mind-experience, what has not been familiarized into the automatically intelligible. Confusingly, much of what passes for the characteristically poetic consists of treatment of the generically “difficult” subject-content of poetic expression as linguistically reducible to simplicities of phrasing allying it to the subject-content of the mind's habitual, anticipation-fixed, range of experience. Judgement of what poetry “is” has been constantly attended, in its reception as a natural element of literature, and for poets themselves, by attitudes that qualify its essential nature (from which its existence as a distinct literary genre derives), as confident engagement in intellectual experience customarily presumed to be of faintest, even questionable, possibility, with conceptions of ultimately ineluctible difficulties for human intellectuality. Sympathy with, desire for, engagement itself in, poetry have all contributed to the fixing of the kind of experience peculiar to the poetic genre of the telling of the story of being at degrees of intellectual success allowing ever for an ultimate failure-range that maintains the supposition of a safe intellectual side for human consciousness, in the endeavor for all possible knowledge and understanding.

The compromise-element in the very sustenance of poetry as a crucially important truth-agency among the varied modes of storifying human life that are aggregated in literature has neutralized its potency, its credibility, as explicit evidence of the beyond-arm's-length, larger-than-brain's-breadth's, intellectual reach of our minds. The techniques of expression-style that distinguish poetic literature from prose literature were designed for the persuasive effect of presenting intellectual experience of an order commonly classified as outside the naturally experienceable, the normally possible, as, on the contrary, not at all formidable—as, indeed, agreeably conceivable experience. The flaw in the poetic promotion of the intellectually difficult as humanly necessary experience, of a primary importance for fullness of being, is not in excess of zeal. The conventions of artistries of persuasion that are ingrained ineradicably in the linguistic texture of poetry have their origin in a timidity towards the power that the conception of the Unknown, the Impossible-to-know, holds over minds, continuingly from primitive modes of thinking: in this conception, the mysterious was made to fill the greater part of the space of consciousness—beginning where safety of mind seemed in stopping thinking. The deference of poetry to the religious sensitivity of human beings to the possibility of the existence of areas of experience mystically closed to their minds has been a halter fixed by poetry upon itself by which it has guided itself through the ordeals of cultural suspicion as dedicated to follies of concern with the intellectually impossible.

Poetry's culturally anxious preoccupation with persuasive exhibition of the emotionally innocent (even naive) character of its intellectual concerns has crammed its engagement with the intellectually difficult, primitively identified with the humanly impossible, into the framework of an apologetics that recommends the poetic level of intellectual experience and expression as the happy human maximum while minimizing its actual consequences for human life as the life-state of beings of mind. The value of poetic intellectuality has ever been moderated, in poetry's cultural representation of itself, to enjoyable interludes of venture into the intellectually unordinary, not intended to be or capable of being disruptive of the literarily prevailing indeterminacy of attitude to the possible-impossible theme of debate of the human mind with itself. The peculiarity of poetry, of maintaining a cultural impartiality, a literary objectivity towards its intrinsic nature as an intellectually independent literary genre, though under literary supportive protection, has enfeebled the human mind's will to oppose the prohibitions of religious mysticality against endeavor of mind to attain to intellectual experience across lines marked as separating the possible from a forbidden soul-deathly impossible. The self-moderating cultural-literary posture of poetry has, in the first place, enfeebled its source-connection with the natural impulses of the human mind to take its powers of knowledge-experience and of thought-containment of understanding to an intellectual full corresponding to its autogenous, free-born sense of itself. Poetry can be said to have been continually declining in its dignity of function as the linguistic stronghold of human intellectual virtue and effectuality of being.

That poetry, as a component of literature, has, all along its functioning course, conspired against its dignity as the seat of the status of human beings with themselves as spiritual beings, this identity resident in the intellectual self-possession with which they confront the fact of being, can be verified in the queasiness of poets—a queasiness of steady accumulation—towards the attributing to them of preoccupation with themes, concerns, areas of experience denominatable as “intellectual,” in implied contradistinction to emotional response to experience as the culturally humane poetic predisposition. This falling in with a vulgar primitivistic prejudice against intellectuality as fraught with abnormal mental propensities has been reflected in a matching queasiness in the writers of poetic criticism, academic and journalistic. In both critic and poet ranks, religiosities of anti-rationalism, myth-infatuated subjectivism, have arisen to assault intellectual processes, and their operative mechanism, the coherencies of language, as representing a sort of demonology of overcivilized, false, truth-worship—worship of impossibility, the intellectual possibility of truth, which primitive discretion of mind interdicted as intellectual impossibility.

Much of the literary cold-shouldering to which my poetic work has been subjected—my poetic work with more scathing objection than can be found in criticism to which my other writing has been fated, in the treatment of its various parts as uninvited guests of literature—has been based on identification of it as essentially anti-poetic in being of an intensively “intellectual” temper. This identification has been given its full significance of qualities improper to poetry, as present in my poems, in the term “cerebral”—translating “intellectual” into the plain language of anti-intellectual bigotry. The word “mind” itself, becomes, simply, a word of this language of rather disreputably tenuous meaning. It has been suggested, for instance, that my poems have the peculiarity—not to be summarily despised—of representing a poetry of the mind. From just what quarter of the human being as an intelligence poetry should be conceived of as issuing, it would be impossible, in the dark-age intellectualism of modern-mindedness, for minds of that mindedness to speculate upon without propounding absurdities, which they could not recognize as such.

The trail of intellectual good-sense—the human mind's proper confidence in itself as mind—has been lost, along the way to modern time; it lost itself in poetry, the last refuge of intellectual self-respect among the distinct areas of thought-expression legitimized as culturally respectable in human societies. Intellectuality in the religious area, from being a walled-in precinct of esoteric religious apologetics, revised itself into a secularistic too religiose to have any secularly practical, too secularistic to have any spiritually practical, bearing on the general problem of human beings, how to live—to think and speak—as beings of mind. Philosophy, as a specialistic, professionalistic, engagement in intellectual activity—intellectual activity formalized into an esoteric privacy of mental activity hieratically marginal to ordinary, commonplace human thinking—functioned for long as constituting an area of intellectual freedom in which could be enjoyed an immunity from accountability for transgression of cultural (religious or political) ordinances demarcating where the safely possible in thought terminated and the impossible began. In its beginnings, philosophy was a loose composite of protopoetic and protoscientific intellectuality—the protoscientific and the protopoetic predispositions in uncertain balance. The scientific element of protophilosophic intellectuality had the advantage over the poetic element of possessing a utility-value of possible relevance to circumstances within the compass of physical experience. It persisted as an element of historically natured philosophy until a separately developing scientific intellectuality robbed it of its intellectual status as a component of philosophy by undermining the justification of philosophy's own existence.

Indeed, philosophy was gradually transformed as an area of privileged experimentation in intellectual activity, into a no-man's-land of effort to overcome intellectual difficulties the possibility of overcoming which was regarded as realizable only in imagined exploits of thought. Philosophy, that is, became a battle against the intellectually impossible already lost, in reality, by the nature of “things” (everything), but engageable in successfully in excursions into territories of intellection outlined on maps of the intellectually impossible conceived of as hypothetically less than impossible. Poetry also underwent a gradual loss of status and substance as a province of human concern with the capability of human beings of realizing the full of their nature as self-possessed intelligences—their nature as minds. Its identity as the region of dissipation of primitive mythologies of the Impossible in speakable thought-experience has lost so much of its cultural credit of intrinsic intellectual authenticity that the appearance, or evidence, of distinct intellectual activity in engagements in poetic activity has come to be critically characterized as the trademark of philosophical poetry. Thus, W. H. Auden, that dauntless poet-venturer into the sargassan accumulation of weedy modern intellectual idiom, dubbed me “the only living philosophical poet”—I seen by him as a uniquely skilled skimmer-off of stuff of philosophical verbality.


I have been explaining on what kind of historical ground I stepped in my seeing, in my early life, poetry as the only open pathway to my engaging in operations of intelligence answering to my—to my mind's—will to explore the possible in knowledge and understanding of all that is to know and understand. This “possible” was not conceived by me to be an extent of experience inevitably bounded by an ultimate “impossible.” I did not regard my mind—nothing and no one had induced me by direct or indirect influence to regard it—as other than an organ of thought having the functional potency of an autonomous consciousness. I never, as a child, or in my years of growth towards adulthood, had any responses to my individual experiences inhibiting me from taking them into my consciousness in free fullness. My responses were not creations of opinion or predilection, not repetitive in their character, as such responses are customarily; they were addressed undividedly to the immediate occasion of experience, not split between a prepared attitude and attention to what I found confronting me qualified by it. My mind was innocent of collusion with the thought-inclinations of others or partialities of my own to ways of thinking—engaging in experiences of mind—possessively favored with me as mine. Such detachment from particular associative customs of ideas-holding and attitudes-taking affects the mind's management of its language-procedures. I had no prompting, initially, in the forming of my speaking habits, from a family-pattern of fixed modes of expression and concentration upon set subjects of interest, or from any pattern of larger associative scope on which the domestic pattern impinged. Nor was there any appetite of nature in me for the protection of the customs of thought and habits of speech of special enclosures of association that little private worlds or separatistic public worlds provide from an outer world or a general world-at-large conceived to be the stranger-enemy of the comfort of being and feeling at home in how one thinks and speaks, sharing in the common comfort of all thinking and speaking in that particular manner.

It would take me much, much, longer to describe my approach to the necessity of disposing one's mind to the problem confronting us all, in our life-beginnings as intelligences, of deciding what to expect of one's mind—expect of oneself—in achievements of knowledge and understanding, if I used the devices of autobiographical narrative, telling, for instance, of the natures of my mother and father and older sister; and to what extent the common and individually differing concerns and attitudes of this little domestic population pressed themselves into my consciousness, and made my nature their habitat—or were resisted by my nature as intruders, thieves somewhat of its privacy with itself. And with what outer environments the little world of family personalities and circumstances had special affiliations, or into which I was propelled by mere inevitabilities of growth, that drew me into experiences that complicated the impressions formed in the private range of early experiences with suggestions of facts and rules of life producing conceptions of life's allowances that may have committed my desires and ambitions to prescribed expectations.

No sifting by myself or anyone else of the content of associations and experiences of my early years of life—the years that are in conventional autobiography or biography treated as character-moulding—would provide clues to the actuality that I, identifying myself and my mind as one and the same integer of being in my earliest phases of articulate consciousness, faced myself into a direct confronting of the constitutional entirety of being. In coming to know that I was I, I came to see that entirety manifesting itself, in incidental ubiquity in all the incidents of my experience. Whatever went into the making of me into a being whose mind and physical individuality proved to exist—as they did—bound in a fidelity of existing as of one nature, the makings made themselves into a madeness of me without the assistance or intrusion of factors of personal history, or a seizure by one making of dominancy in my nature giving me a one-track character, or a contention between two or more of them creating a constant problem of character-integration. What is denominated “character” with the sense of a self-government principle put by a person in charge of the makings that constitute his nature is, indeed, a superimposition upon the individual nature of a second self to it, the makings of which are acquisitions of sagacities pertinent to defensive meeting of experience-circumstances challenging the authenticity of the individual nature as something of determinate reality in itself. The consciousness that has ever been mine of the determinate reality of my individual nature has disburdened my experience of myself, as the active center of my experiencing of everything existing for personal experiencing, of anxieties of anticipation of threats from experience-circumstances to my given nature; my self first found myself to have a consciousness of myself not forced on me by any particular environment, but enjoyed as a condition of ease in the possession of it.

My first concerns of mind—with concern of mind a property of attention not only to closely present experience-occasions but also to all the experience-possibilities of the general environment of conscious and self-conscious individual being—were, as I am here trying to describe, of a quality not disparate from those that were mine insistently in my later times, in which the initial express manifestation of them took on the culturally categorical form of literary performance, genus poeticum. In the broadly literary and particularly poetic direction of choice in which my mind moved, the possibilities of thought, and therefore of mind-livable experience, were correspondent in realizability with the expressive possibilities of language. I wish to be understood, however, in all my pains-taking to identify my choice of poetry as a path of fulfilment of necessities of mind that were familiars of my consciousness from its earliest existence for me as the personal substantiality of my mind, as picturing a kind of self that I consider every human being ought be presumed to have, by the central implication of “human.”

I was from my earliest self-distinct being a thinking being: I trace this characterization back into a rememberable early-child selfhood of mind along a line of sense of myself as having presence, unbrokenly, in the successive times and places of which my life-history is built, with a certain fullness of thought-immediacy as the body of the presence perfectly coincident with its physical immediacy in the particular place in time, time in place. This I believe to be not a personally unique story of a life-long consistency of self-identification as one's self. It is only the kind of living as a self-possessing self that corresponds with the kind of being human beings have by how they are made. Their makings incorporate, by the evidence of language, which projects itself from the unity their makings achieve as a consummating expression of the unity of being with itself in the possibilities of being it generates, the quality of self-identity that is the intrinsic reality of being-unindividual, undivided being.

It can be seen, from how I have described my disposition to the life of general experience as a life for which thought-engagement in the possibilities of knowledge and understanding of the Existent, in its distinctive forms and its prevailing essentiality as Being indivisible, has been its personal activity-center, what I judge to be the humanly natural—to be to the point of existing in the form of and by the functional principle of human identity. My sense of the humanly natural, moreover, my instinct of this in my own direction-giving to my life, took me to the poetry-precinct of literature as the where, in the continuity of the endeavor of human beings to live a life of speaking intelligence of the nature of being, in which there was least reversion to primitive avoidance of pressing the possibilities of knowledge and understanding to a point spelling impossibility for the sustaining of consciousness of human identity. Poetry is a speaking-place, in the world of human life as life of mind, in which, uniquely among the places in it for long set aside for effort to discover what can be said, told, to the fortifying of belief in the reality of human life, the only limitations put upon what may be attempted there are those of verbal propriety of a certain kind. The limitations upon the extent and kind of literary engagement that have shaped the character of other types of literature did not enter into the conventions of poetry; it came closer to matching the need of human beings, in their consciousness of themselves as beings of mind, for a manner of open verbal representation of themselves as such than any other literary type of expression, and any of the forms of speaking convenience that have constituted the spasmodical rhetoric of what is called “ordinary” speaking. Poetry has saved as a signal of hope to the natural human desire for language's equalness to the engagement of the mind in thought-experience, with express realization of it, to reaches of enlarged life of mind still mistrusted in the shadowy corners of innumerable human minds as fearsome places of death of mind.

I have been stressing the human naturalness of my instinctive disposition to human experience as mind-centered, and of my adoption of poetry as a way of engagement in what is suspected of being, in human frailties of death-fear, impossibility. Poetry has allowed of the testing of language's capability of supporting the mind in its effort of attaining to complete embracing of the knowable and understandable, in fulfilment of its nature as a living form of the self-intelligence of being, indivisible being, “reality,” the one-natured all-that-is. The putting of language to this test is historically native to poetry; and anyone who treats poetry as the natural course of the mind's natural endeavor to function as a whole mind, its thought-experience the story-substance of a whole speaking, a truth-rapt telling, goes by the visible credit of the name, as one goes by a street-name on a sign-post, turning into its line of progress as necessarily leading to the site of one's probing interest. As to the anticipation of possibilities of language's yielding fullnesses of speaking, telling, meaning-potency in the breathed or inscribed words: the anticipation is natural, there is implicit in the provisions of language, beyond the spare facility that the commonplace in word-use makes of them, a range of expressive potentiality that does not touch its limit in the professional literary styles that are called, in the aggregate, “prose.” Poetry represented the consciousness of possibilities of heightening the expressive powers of language beyond the degrees of literary facility in word-use that may be called “commonplace” in relation to what has been attempted in poetic word-use.

It must be granted to the poetic vision of an expanded verbal expressiveness, suited to the mind's state in expansions of thought-experience beyond the norms of ordinary thinking and speaking activity and outside the bounds of general literary intellectual practice, that it did not of itself foster solemnities of lofty philosophic abstraction in the use of words, or aesthetical refinement of the physical features of words, for effects of extraordinariness in subject and manner of poetic statement—cardinal components of the practice of poetry. Poetic vision of the possibilities of the reaches of the mind in knowledge and understanding, and the reaches of the expressive power of words used in a harmony of truth-intention with the mind's thought-intention, was not, in the genesis of poetry and its taking form in human life as a manifestation of recognition of it as essentially a life of the mind, compromised by commitments to a literary definition of the nature of poetry. Conceptually—which is to say, in its intellectual foundations (which is to say, in the character of spiritual vocation animating it)—the function of poetry remained, in its career as a literary institution, indefinite; and it is in the very uncertainty of the objectives of poetry and its proper limiting procedural conventions, according to literary definition of the proprieties of intellectual and linguistic possibility, that is, in the very literary indefinability of poetry, that the relative intellectual and linguistic purity of poetry has inhered. Alas, this purity could not be a source of the development in poetry of a definition of its own of the intellectually and linguistically realizable, according to poetic vision, because it began itself in the freedom of indefinite conception, and then bartered its freedom for a status of relativeness to literature as supportive of it, in its want of an inherent definite principle of self-justification of its own.

At its purest, in its impurity, poetry has adhered more perfunctorily than zealously to the limitations of verbal propriety taken over by it as a placating religiosity from the primitive formalism of utterance disciplining the attraction of the intellectually forbidden in word and thought. It has endeavored to maintain a maximum of freedom from mythopoetic pieties of verbal style and cast of thematic thought, and from prescriptions of its raison d'etre not only by the canons of good literature but by those of all the non-literary standards of good intellectual and linguistic performance, and of that jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, canonical order of values called “art.” But the unvarying and invariable existence of poetry in its historical life as part of the general functional course of literature, because of its lacking an internally definite functional identity, has imprisoned it within the general attachment of literature to historical circumstance as its spiritual setting. While the literary possible has never transcended the circumstantially qualified intellectually and linguistically possible, poetry's ideal spiritual over-reaching into the historically impossible has never precipitated itself outside the temporal fields of literary perspective into actual immediacies of the implicit ultimate possible, the ever-immanent potential, in intellectual and linguistic realizations of the humanly possible.


I have presented the history of poetry as I have learned it to be, in my learning what poetry was not, from my giving myself to in and taking it unto myself as the emblem and the reality of human hope of redeeming language from subjugation to the exigencies of temporal convenience and subservience to the laws of short-lived literary eternity—the redeeming of language to its unity of nature with the intellectual soul that human beings have in their having mind. Without sense of this history, there could be no awareness of the double rôle that poetry has had in human intellectual life (intellectual life as the spiritual entirety of human life of the mind)—the one a literarily defined category of the endeavors of consciousness to encompass the possible in linguistically authenticated knowledge and understanding of the authenticities of being, the other a free range of her personally natural in the endeavors of consciousness as not limited by the literary confining of possibilities of realizing them to the range of the historically reasonable in expectation of the possible in the mind's utmost and language's utmost in matching expressive power. Without an awareness of the double nature of poetry's intellectual identity there could be no attaining by any poet to a comprehension of the doomedness of poetry to insoluble self-contradictoriness, in its putting of its ideal objective under the protection of the logic of literary objectification. None of the few poets who have left off in being poets with implication of dissatisfaction with poetry itself has gone to the core of the reason of the discovered unsatisfactoriness. The core of the matter is in the poet's initial motivation in the adoption of poetry as a main form of mind-engagement.

The difference between myself and those others is that my adoption of poetry as a form of mind-engagement crucial for my envisagement of my life's possible, as of one reach with the possible implicit in the human concentration of the attributes of being, was that my vistas of expectation, in the adoption of it, were not sealed within literarily drawn horizons of the explicit possible in thought-experience of reality, of the one reality, in the living terms of the reality of being a human being. It took me a little life's-work length of dedication to poetry as the way of engagement in the total possible to learn of the inevitability of arrestation, to some degree in thought and at a proportionate impotence in the wording of it, that had been visited upon not only poets but the human all of those moved to live their being with fidelity to their nature as beings of mind, and to mind's tongue as their own. Our thinking and speaking course had been shrouded in spells of presumption of a doomed fatedness to encountering interminably some degree of unbreachable impossibility—spells cast upon human self-belief by the nervous doctrine of a loosely combined religious, philosophical, literary, and culturally generalized intellectual rulership.

The while I pressed my way as poet with confidence in the poetic potential as having an ideal identity with the human personal potential in a not categorically limited possible in articulately realized thought-experience, poetic practice was undergoing, in the peculiarly heightened consciousness of the general engagement in literature of the time, a challenge from the time to justify itself in terms of twentieth-century preoccupation with intellectual up-to-dateness. A spasmodical crisis of anxiety coursed through those years, aggressive effort to manifest intellectual up-to-dateness and perfectly satisfy, nevertheless, the literary canon of discrimination as to what is and is not “poetry.” Although I was, from my beginnings as a poet, modern-minded, in awareness of the intellectual date of human life, and my own personal date as a being of mind, I neither early nor late sought in how I wrote poetically to exhibit title to intellectual modernity, or, on the other hand, to press for entitlement of my poems to treatment as conforming to one or another of the forms of poetic performance, whether experimentalist or traditionalist in their leanings, that were allowed literary respectability by twentieth-century dispensers of critical favor.

I kept my orientation as a poet uncomplicated by concern with questions of how I fitted into contemporary critical mappings of literary contemporaneity, where my poetic work belonged, in the modern scene of poetry-production. I took my bearings from my sense of the existence of a natural relationship between the objective implicit in poetry, of vision of the possibility of fullness of expression of thought-experience at mind's full, free, thought-range, and my personal consciousness of mind's need of such fullness, for the immediate fullness of being of the person whose identity as a person is as a being of mind. In my temporal placement of myself in my engagement in poetry, I was conscious of modernity in the total human context of concern with the yet unachieved envisaged as immediately achievable, rather than in a special context of concern with literary-period modernity.

The modernity of self-conscious period-timing is necessarily a graduated modernity—a historical modernity, it can be called. In recent times I became aware that there had developed, in the ideological chronology of British-born literary-criticism of the last several decades, a sophistication of disdain of the term “modernist” as identifying a tendency in the poetic activity of the first two decades of this century towards new modes of poetic verbal style and compositional form. The adoption of a haughty antipathetic attitude to the term as an offending vulgarization of the special character of the address of poets in the twentieth-century to the problems of poetry took rather long to develop. It was a delayed reaction to the implications of the book that I wrote with Robert Graves as my collaborator, published in 1927, of the title A Survey of Modernist Poetry. The term “modernist” was an appropriate characterization of the stir of consciousness, in poets of the first quarter of the century, of a new time-setting, and of the effort this induced to assure a marked difference in the poetic literature that bred itself in it from that of the preceding century. The term had no other function than the identification of this development. It was a useful term for the spot-lighting of the development in its effective existence as a self-unifying agglomeration of loosely kindred trends. And the book proved a useful critical report on the make-up of the temper of the twentieth-century's pioneer version of “modern poetry.”

That book was not a doctrinaire bible of poetic modernisticism, a propaganda endeavor to win favor en masse for what it denominated “modernist poetry.” The animating attitude of the book to the material as a whole with which it dealt was an interest in the restiveness permeating it all, what it betokened as sensitivity to a call from the new time-setting for something new in the conception of the poetically possible. For myself, as one keenly conscious of there being question in the new time of the very fate of poetry, a main concern was with what the shift in poets' sense of themselves to a new time-location might betoken as an awakening to the need—the call from the anticipation implicit in poetry—for reaches of thought-experience and language-versedness unfettered by the accumulated self-pridings of poets of the past in variations or improvements upon, or ingenuities of imitation of, prior or coetaneous exhibition of the poetic possible. The inspiring ideal implicit in the existence of poetry had become submerged in the century-on-century self-reduplicating flood of the practice of it. For me, the question as to the upsurging, in the new century, of preoccupation with renovations in poetic practice was: What, how much, in the effort for the new in poetic performance, emanated from profundities of consciousness, in poets of the new century, of the estrangement that had settled into the sense of themselves, as poets, and into that of the poets who constituted their literary ancestry, and into the materia poetica that constituted the historical reality, “poetry,” from the motive of fullness of utterance of mind's apprehensions at full, with which poetry was ingenerately informed? How much in the effort for the new poetic performance was mere self-assertiveness of poets as citizens of a new time, feeling themselves at liberty to produce a new brand of poetic literature?

My own perception, as a poet, of the fulfillment enfolded in the vision prompted by poetry of the completely possible, in the knowing, understanding, speaking, life of the human being as being of mind, made me conscious of how much was wanting from what should be, by the congruity of this vision with the essential nature of human being, my sense of which had directed my energies of hope into engagement in the possibilities that poetry presented to hope. In the assessing of the “new,” in the inaugural phases of twentieth-century poetry, there had to be considerable allowance made for the potential presence, in the midst of all the self-assertive proclivities to mere innovation, of instincts roused to work for a revitalizing of the motive inhering in the existence of poetry, which had diminished to a static principle defensively justifying its existence as a literary necessity.

The underlying and variously sustained theme of The Survey of Modernist Poetry was the crisis-condition into which poetry had come of being on the brink of a loss of conscience of the fundamentals of linguistic principle and conscience of the fundamentals of intellectual principle—the partnering principles of the rational integrity of poetry. If the excitations of poetic impulse in the new time-setting had strong relation to an alarmed will in poets to perpetuate poetry against dissolution of its character as the proponent of the practical, verbally express potency of mind as the spiritual reader of the meanings of being, and beings—if the will towards poetry of these poets acting as agents of a new poetic dispensation had the quality of a determination upon a renewal of poetry's vitiated fidelity to its foundation faith in reason as a spiritual function of the mind—the new impetus in poetic activity represented morally bonafide concern with poetry as embodying the literarily idealized possibility of verification of the reality of the human degree of being in its sense-making of itself as all-articulate mind.

The Survey of Modernist Poetry left unexplored the field of likelihood stretching ahead from the latter part of the century's second decade of poetic activity. The poetic work of the period dealt with in the book was evaluated in relation to a very liberal discrimination of the difference between a newly enlarged conception of the responsibilities and proprieties of poetic intent and shallow, time-proud motivation-impulse. There was indulgence of innovation, but mere dallyings in individualistic peculiarities of poetic diction and form were not awarded prizes of praise for “modernism”; no hospitality was dispensed to what was irrelevant to the resolution of the problem of what might be realized, within the scope and patterns of the poetic vision of the possible in lovingly worded thought, of the intellectually uninhibited, humanly unlimited possible in the speaking of the live meaning-content of being. The book rested at offering a record of the contemporary poetic provision as a basis of expectation of what might follow or not follow, in the century's further course, indicative of the fate of poetry as incorporating an ideal of the good as manifestable in words, and the fate of the human order of being in terms of the significance, in its regard, of the fate of poetry.

Nothing issued from what followed, in the programmatically new literary consciousness of the century's times, related to any determinate development in the crucial moral intertwining of the fate of poetry and the fate of human existence as an inwardly self-intelligent and outwardly real (expressly participant in the total reality—inward and outward—of the existent) order of being. I myself went on, until the late years of the following decade, probing the poetic potential as the way to the determinate fating of itself, of the human order of being, to the defining of the nature of being and of the good according to the truth-intentioned spirit, and rationality of structure, of language. Language increasingly took on for me, as I went further in poetry, its intrinsic force as the natural ascendancy of a law of the humanly possible over the primitive divinity of a law of the humanly impossible.


The coverage of The Survey of Modernist Poetry was loosely divided between American and British poets, seen as calling for attention under the auspices of the classification “Modernist.” I shall justify the book's treating exclusively of these, besides by my and my collaborator's individual and common interest in and experience of poetic activity within the English language's bounds of poetic practice, by my own special sense of a marked difference between the American and British new-century self-consciousness of poets and that of the poets of other national identity. The difference between American and British poetic (and generally literary, and artistic) affectedness with new-time impulsions of self-liberation from old-time dispositions of mind, postures of feeling, modes of practice, maintained the two sets of new poetic behavior within a single frame, still, of a culturally humane conception of the literarily, poetically, linguistically, permissible. In American poetic activity in the vein of twentieth-century new-timed sensibility, exploration of “new” possibilities in forms of self-assertive preoccupation and expression enlarged upon an already developed general literary propensity in British poetic activity, a reserve of self-protective prudence kept the modernism of individualistic liberties-taking at a low-intensity degree of freedom for self-examining curiosity. In both, the urgencies of innovation enacted themselves within the intellectually respectable field of the new psychological versions of common sense. American poets were daring in their difference from one another. British poets were ingenious in creating a new poetic atmosphere from chosen elements of the early twentieth-century intellectual air and chosen elements of the intellectual spirit of poetic past-times seeming in sympathetic correspondence.

All that was produced, in American and British poetic locales, of the self-conscious time-spirit that was termed “modernist,” in the book to which I have been referring, has left little besides ineloquent reverberations of twentieth-century literary history, much of it kept alive in the laboratories of critical academics, particular quantities of it randomly resuscitated for the uses of sentimental allusion of a literate sort. Early twentieth-century ventures in poetic modernism in other national locales—and in generally literary and artistic modernism—were of a go-for-bust recklessness, making war on the culturally humane while offering no alternative to it of a mind-fulfilling possible in works of express sensibility of consciousness of the nature of human being as partaking of the self-intelligence of the general nature of being.

The snobbish prudery of disapproval with which the vaguely grouped circles of British literary criticism of the century's later decades that regarded themselves as its best looked back upon the identification “modernist” (the innocently correct identification made in the Survey of Modernist Poetry of the new-time sense of themselves with which many poets of the early decades were animated) was undoubtedly a manifestation of an awareness of the flattening out in the progress of the British twentieth-century continuum of the upsurgings of new-time self-consciousness that had whetted the ambitions of writers of the earlier periods. “Modern” was made, in later twentieth-century special British self-consciousness with respect to poetry, the authorized critical designation of a stabilized poetry, “modernism” outgrown. An air of purposeful normalness in poetic phrasings, rhythmical and metrical castings, and subject-matter and allusion variety-range, and a doughty democraticness of admixing of what was literarily denominated “everyday speech” with traditionally poetic forms of diction, became the mood-at-large of the poetry by later century British literary ascription termed “modern,” with implication of freedom from temporal, period, eccentricity. The actual character of it all is that of endless, unbroken, human and intellectual monotony, all variation, trial of difference, extension of reach of thought and word, held within an arc of possibility strained with narrow tentativeness above the flats of literary instincts of historical self-preservation. Exceptions to this general British poetry-provision are of a somewhat go-for-bust, now out-of-date, daring, an overwrought vigorousness; they fall into place, in this poetry, as examples of the virile, in the make-up of the British literary temperament, to be proud of.

I am following these trails of differentiation in the behavior that the poetries of various twentieth-century cultural quarters have displayed, in responding to the provocation of a new-time consciousness, because the general result of the early rising and working of the consciousness has been a final dissipation of the influence-force of poetry on the human faculties of intellectual hope. The inspiration as which poetry served, through the literary ages, to faith in possibilities of comprehensive intelligence, fulfilled in immediacies of speaking corroboration of its rectitude in the exercise of it, proved finally ineffectual against the influence-forces, in their modern assemblage, of age-on-age of culturally civilized intellectual bargaining (with instinctive purpose to placate still primitively feared Impossibility) for an intellectually advanced but culturally (quasi-spiritually) undangerous Possible. Poetry could never have served as more, in the course of human beings' probing of what it means to be beings of mind, than a reminding vision of the human state as such a state of being, in the midst of the confusion of images of the human being that have been invented for the uses of power or advantage, or the relatively innocuous uses of vanity. I turned from poetry as I knew it in its live identity: a forecasting promise of the nullification of Impossibility, and realization of Possibility as Completeness—but bound to the never-never of historical futurity. There was a threshold to cross. I crossed it.

My commitment to poetry was not to poetry according to the literary representation of its identity in the terms of new-time self-consciousness, of historical up-to-dateness, but to poetry as the mind's conception of its intellectual adequacy ever-present to it in envisagements of the possible in full-worded realizations of the essential thought-nature of being. Therefore, the characterizations “modernist” and “modern” had neither terminological fascination nor critical suspectness with me. I was not worried about my or anyone else's literary-period identification or credentials. But concern with their place in time, with their literary immediacy, has been the worry-center of the intellectual preoccupations of twentieth-century poets', and, generally, those engaged in some form of cultural productiveness have been troubled with similar anxieties about the relevance of their engagements to their time. The anxiety-about-contemporaneity of English—as distinguished from American-literary orientation manifested itself, in conformity with the tendency of irritable adoption of postures of composure responsive to challenges to definitive position-taking peculiar to the native moral temperament, in what poets and critics of the post-early twentieth-century British literary locales have been terming with increasing complacency “The Movement.” If one endeavors to identify the special character of the poetry of the “Movement,” in its development and its persistence in the century's further course as a stabilizer of British poetic policy, one finds oneself faced by a canon of endless self-perpetuating intellectual eclecticism as the key to the practical possibilities for poetry in modern times.

“Modern,” for British literary and general twentieth-century self-consciousness in the later parts of the century, came to signify a vague indeterminateness allowing of variations from a norm itself of undefined variability, but presumed to be the implicit rule of intellectual kindness for those sensibly free of leanings of prejudice. Of course, this intellectual mood, this moderness of sanguine literary seniority to earlier century historical self-consciousness in the area of general literary and particular poetic sensibility, does comprise leanings of prejudice. But the over-all loose signification attached to “modern” is expected to smooth out, in time, all disparities of leaning. A conception of “modern” poetry as an infinite succession of incidents of poems-production keeping alive the name of poetry replaces all earlier notions of new-century poetic newnesses: this process of automatic continuity imparts a ready-made up-to-dateness to all the poetry-displaying incidents.

In comparison with the British twentieth-century course of things poetic, the American has been confusingly ununiform. One can hardly, indeed, speak of an American twentieth-century course of things poetic. The self-assertive insistencies in the American sector of early twentieth-century poetic modernism led into a widespread particularism of poetries of self-assertive force and pattern, intellectually, literarily, disconnected from one another: there was no blending into a common quality of self-assertive national concern for the national state of things poetic, and its repute at least with itself.

The experimental venture of certain members of the Fugitive group of poets, after its disbanding, in the propagation of a doctrine of Southern agrarian culture, had its roots, I believe, in a search for solider ground for their individual poetries than the mere identification of being Southern poets. After the subsiding of the episode, the participants concentrated their energies on their individual poetries to their respective capability of self-assertive disconnection. A later flare-up among them of programmatic connectedness under the “New Criticism” banner had its origin in the appeal to a surviving provincial intellectual vanity of the discoursing of British Empson on poetic ambiguity. The new interest resulted from Empson's seizing upon an important mode of textual examination of poems followed in the Survey of Modernist Poetry, a serious process of linguistic scrutiny of my providing, and perverting it into a trivially authoritarian rhetoric of critical analysis. My collaborator's later claim of having been the inventor of the book's poems-reading method has not won him lasting credits, as has so much of my thought and its works taken by him into possession—there is a trend of recognition of my being unmistakably the source of the method.

This post-Fugitive project of collective ambition was before long engulfed in the general national particularistic complexity of literary modernism, both the poetry and the criticism content of which was a medley of isolatedly individual productions.


But what of myself, in relation to the account I have given of the self-conscious compulsion in American and British poet and critic activity to manifest twentieth-century intellectual contemporaneity? As a poet in the simple sense of one engaged in doing my expressive utmost to present in poems the suprapersonal essence of personal experiences, and as one, besides, engaged, as I increasingly became engaged, in the testing of the poetic possible as the full of the realizable in the human speaking possible, I did not make of my engagements a venture in construction of an individual literary authorial pile, or, on the other hand, assimilate myself in my work to the producers of some collective entity of literary architecture. My posing for myself a standard of the adequate in human speaking—and, therefore, in human thinking—that was not derived from the historical content of poetry, but that I thought capable of being met with, through, poetry (with, through, what else, if not poetry?), had the effect of detaching me automatically, even in the initial phase of my poet-and-writer life, from both the sprawlingly busy looseness of American poetic and generally literary production and from the loose compactness of its United Kingdom counterpart (British literary individualism tends not to go beyond a cautious partition into sub-groupings within the collective entity constituted of the separate British island-like literary world).

My position in the general English-language literary consortium was not, has never been, one of self-cultivated detachment. I have had a position of detachment thrust upon me in both the American and the British areas of literary conceiving of the suitable in English-language literary modernity by a difference, in my initial stance as a poet, from the stances of American and British twentieth-century poets. This difference made me an eccentric in respect to what was, actually, an erraticism in their conception of the nature of poetry and, generally, literature, that became for them, and generally for the body of writers subscribing to identification of themselves as of twentieth-century mentality and emotionality, the poetic and literary status quo—the proper acceptance of existence in modern human times seen as calling for a peculiar order of attitudes to existence, and to human existence, itself.

The order of attitudes that became the century's mental stamp did not spring into being within the poetic-literary domain of activity, thought, conception. It issued into general cultural circulation from a wide-spreading break-down in the human intellectual imagination produced by the ascendancy of scientific report on the nature of things. The very idea of the universe was shattered by the enlargement of science into a story that little by little should factually cover the case of the manifold everything. The idea of all things as being, together as one not-just “thing” but a spiritual entirety, a reality of living significance within which we had existence as its articulate own, witnesses living the witnessed—the conception of a totality of difficult but perhaps not impossible knowability, that had been the motive force of mind behind the special prognosticative intuitions of poetry and the general imaginative tendency of literature—disappeared from twentieth-century intellectual life. It disappeared with the completeness with which a long-established scene of varied composition, of nature's or human-beings' making, or both, can be stripped of all evocative features of remembrance in a sudden sweep of devastation.

I had, in my writer-beginnings as a poet, and continued to have in all my thinking and writing activity, what came to be, in the light of twentieth-century literary intellectual evaluation, the peculiarity of functioning with consciousness of presence in a universe. This intellectual position of mine, a position naturally mine, personally, and mine as a writer not disrespectful of the attitude-norms of an intellectual status quo that was the basis of literature's historic identity and continuity of identity, became, under the auspices of the revised intellectual status quo embracing everything to which literary identity was attributable, an irregularity for which neither American nor British twentieth-century literary-criticism characterization had a definition. And this inability to characterize my conception of my personal and writer location, because of the comprehensiveness of what I include in the writer-function—seeing it as the exercise of the language-function at its farthest reach of transcending the conventional cultural and linguistic limits of the possible-to-say—has persisted into the century's ninth decade as the basis of the general from period-to-period literary reaction to my work.

The first responses to my poetic work, from editors of the American magazines to which I in its earliest years submitted it, can be described as a pleased recognition of a something in subject-matter and verbal mode capable of simple identification as “originality”: the identification subsumed what would in the later course of contact with my poetic work, and in the hardening of twentieth-century general, and especially literary, intellectuality, be given a character of intellectual unplaceability and literary irregularity. In those earliest years of my being a poet, I was welcomed into membership in the group of American poets of the name “The Fugitives”—was regarded by them as an important “discovery.” My poetic writing was judged by them to be of a lively inspiration, to have a quality of intellectual vigor, and a spontaneous linguistic fitness, combining stylistic flexibility and control in its patterns of diction. No effort was made by them as a group to read me as, or make me, one of their kind. The association faded, within a few years, into a piece of literary history, with some remnant of significance in the context of literary intellectual history as an encounter between myself as a poet falling outside the identification-categories that served the American form of modern liteary sensibility and The Fugitives as a band of poets seeking the distinction of an identity of aristocratic group-separateness from the newly modern national run of things poetic that would incorporate in it a certain temper, a special dignity, that could still claim to be a proper national character. I can be regarded, in this encounter, as sharing with The Fugitives a problem of literary placement with utter difference, in the actual nature of the problem, between them and myself.

I had no want to place in my self-identification, and in my assumption of the functional identity of poet (extending into the linguistically comprehensive identity of writer). I was in the patent universe, having a human presence in it, a consciously exposed presence to it, living in it in the active state of engaging in what had long been generally literature's, and very especially poetry's, mission to demonstrate to be less than impossible. The specifically poetic, the generalized literary, objective was for me simple to the point of involving a one and only problem for the poet—for any who felt themselves versed in the spiritual potentialities of language. The problem was: did one—or did one not—envisage a fearless, free, putting into utterance all that has being, is in being, to the full of the opening of one's own being to the knowledge that words wait in mind to take into their hold?

I knew the place I had, for my functioning literarily, in the terms of my acceptance of the total given place of being. Until our century, this total place, the universal being-site, even as it gradually dimmed into the shadowy socio-politico contours of a world, was at least figuratively the environment of poetic utterance, and intellectual landscape of literary activity in the large. But “world” as the all-place became too worldly a site for direct literary location within it, the interests inhabiting it too varied for literary interests to hold their traditionally peculiar universe-savoring own in it. By the time the twentieth century had taken on historical growth, literary location had split off into world-like placements mapped outside the contracted world of modern, scientifically de-universalized human consciousness, in sentimental recognition of the spiritual foundations of literature: but literary location was actually sequestered within the compass of this world by a decline in spiritual vigor of dedication become general in activity of the perennially revered identity “literary.”

The placement-problem of The Fugitives was the common one of the new literary age: What to do? and Where to go? for the doing of it. The attitude of The Fugitives to the problem was different from that which was becoming the prevalent, the standardized, attitude to it of American literary practice: the individual writer sought a place in a literary world made up of places consisting of individual entities of literature-orientated endeavor—the modernized American literary scheme of things became systematically, where it had previously been spontaneously, pragmatical. The Fugitives longed for something more intellectually decorous, “better,” as British literary worldliness of the new age seemed superior by its social quality of national coherence. None of the Fugitives individually, or the group as representing a composite of individual yearnings, solved the problem of finding a formal literary world-frame within which to settle happily upon What to do as writers. John Crowe Ransom came the closest to this kind of writer-composure by adhering to an original disposition to philosophical non-committalism: in all his allying of himself with others in causes of formalizing literary-activity placement, creating patterns of literary-world intellectual decorum, he maintained a private reserve of quizzicality, a self-scrutinizing humor that stripped him to an identity with himself as one who wanted in personal reality to be nothing other than a reasonable man. He was the most typically “American” member of the group, in his desire to “be himself” in what he did literarily—the desire qualified by a humane-minded rejection of the spiritually provincial American reliance on the energies of self-assertion as the surest means of realizing the ends that come first with one. But all the members of the group—myself a newcomer whose contacts with it were not such as to knit myself with the others into family-like connection—strove for writer-identity and placement under the cloud of a problem of literary-world location. I knew no such predicament of choice and decision.

The ratio of possible-impossible was for me not a ratio in terms of a somehow acceptable compromise between existing literary-worldly opportunities for poetic, and general, writer-activity and what I conceived myself fit for and capable of doing as a poet, a person claiming “writing” as a natural personal function and life-occupation. My poetic writing, and my evident personal stance in it, attracted The Fugitives, I judge, by its evident freedom from consideration of worldly and literary-worldly pressures to do a this-or-that, or find residence in an acceptable here-or-there. They equated their elaborate privately devised honor-system with my unhesitating, unpremeditating, immersion of myself—I accepting myself as endowed with a ready writerhood identity and natural-world (universal-setting) location—in the chances of kinship discoverable between my engagement in the impossible that honorable speaking being cannot allow to be impossible and the engagement of others in solemnities of speaking (in writing) as true believers in an ultimate all-sayable. I began my writerhood in the open of my sense of myself as functioning under all the tests there might be of the reaches of the possible in the determinations of words. They began in the shelter of a literary-family world of their own, as protected in it from the inducements to identity and location-finding in the great open spaces of the American early twentieth-century literary world that might compromise their standards of what they wanted to do, and what place to be in, in the doing of it.

The Fugitives were trying to set up conditions for the kind of literary world in which they wished to function; and they were, in this, dreaming wistfully of a kind of social structure of things literarily typified by British literary-world law-like custom. This was a rule of automatic consent by all involved to as much liberty of individualism in literary activity as did not interfere with an over-all uniformity, designed to accommodate itself to the partner-principle of individualism designed to accomodate itself to it. They did not succeed, any, in placing themselves comfortably in the American literary world—eventually, each went cowled, in his taking his place in the American literary stretches, with the idea of a suitable literary world as something that lent a distinction of special literary purity to their American-writer status. The element of control in the mechanism of British literary-world functioning I have described has had an attraction for others besides The Fugitives. It was this, I think likely, that drew Eliot into the British sphere of writer-functioning: it afforded security from the uncontrolled, free-ranging individualism of American writer-functioning, and kept special influences, such as those of French literary modernism, from taking too serious a hold. Pound himself felt the attraction of traditional organizedness of literary practice in old-world countries—besides that of the developing go-for-bust propensities of old-world literary modernism. (One might think of him as trying to lay down the principles of a coherent, well-organized literary modernism by Americanizing old-world literary niceties and preciosities into a style of disciplined self-assertiveness.)

I myself did not run away from the haphazard American literary succession and varying sum of things. But there was no basis for my having a sense of necessary attachment to the American version of a literary world. The relationship with The Fugitives apart, which itself proved to be upon no distinct common ground of writerhood principle, there lacked, for my absorption in the American version of a literary world, and my accommodating myself to absorption in it, the ingredient in my writer make-up of the kind of intensity of preoccupation with being-a-writer characteristic of typically American writerhood. This is an intensity of preoccupation in the writer with making his writing performances an imprint of himself upon the environing literary scene that he has accepted (according to the fixed professional wont of writers generally in modern literary times) as an entire world-frame of activity, comprising the outer limits, intellectual, moral, spiritual, of all the significance his writing could evoke. No other national literary society is marked by this intensity of writer-preoccupation with self-imprinting as the logical objective of writer-concentration on writing.


No other type of association in-the-large of human beings exists that is distinctly resemblant of the American in its having as its basis the principle that to be a human being is something of prime importance. The principle has but a faint emotional reality as the axiom of national identity—the territorial actuality, America, must be imaginatively visualized, ever, for concrete emblem of nation-actuality. And, as the principle has been cast in political, philosophical and religious terms, there is present in them only vaguest suggestion of a peculiarly American conception of the wise, the right, the good, in human association. There can be said to be an American idea of life. But nothing more definite can be said about the idea than that all the sense in it is focused on the single, generally self-evident fact that to be a human being is something of prime importance. The American idea of life is conscious of a fact converted into a principle. That the idea is not corrupted with ideas of in what this importance consists borrowed from past notions of it need not be regarded as a miraculous escape from the inevitabilities of imperfection considered implicit in human character, human thought. The American idea of life has the purity of untroubledness about what the prime importance may be that inheres in the fact of being a human being—which has the unfortunate effect of stupefying those possessed of it into a persuasion that all the problems of the heretofore and the elsewhere of human life lie off-shore to the American dispensation of understanding.

The general American inclination in thinking on what there exists for the human mind to know and understand has been to stop just where the sense of there being something of prime importance in being human draws a line of time across the path of what seems an endless indeterminate sameness of the state of being human. The characteristic intensity of American-mindedness, the urgent immediacy, peculiar to American thinking, of consciousness of the fact of being human as having implications seeming of an almost unthinkably extensive scope, had had issue only in a self-confidence in the fact that does not try itself out in projection into the possibilities it is assumed to embrace. The intensity of the consciousness uses itself over and over as a barrier against desperation. The social cheer of American life is, thus, a continual back-turning on an ever-deferred broaching of the yet unexplored part of the fact and the experience of being human, a collective privacy that does not break down either into privately or publicly enjoyed illuminations of the yet unidentified importance and significance of being human.

The general course of American life illustrates in amplitude, I believe, my descriptions of the effect of this keeping at halt, in strenuosities of diversified exertion, the intuitions of an importance belonging to the fact of being human of universal reference. That I use the term “universal” to indicate my sense of the actual reach of these intuitions, I feel a right to do by my likeness, in my sense of my energies of human being, to that common to those born and upreared in an environment to a large extent free, in comparison with other national environments, of governing presumptions of the nature of the human state of being. But there is also, in my use of the term, a reliance on the difference I know, in my mind's will from the historically developed will of generalized American-mindedness, towards the projection of the energies of human-being into areas of knowledge and understanding prehistorically and historically denied to human possibility. This difference has contributed to there being an even more marked disregard of my poetic and other writing, in the American literary environment, than that of the deliberate inattention to which it has been subjected in other literary environments.

The difference between the prevailing trends of mindedness in twentieth-century literary performance and the intellectual disposition of my writing, in its whole character, is centered in my mind's will's being given over to a purpose to imprint upon human actuality the fact of a universal actuality opened to elucidation in the language of human actuality by the responsive presence of the human actuality in the universal. This is a will operating in a scene of purpose absolutely removed from the scene of purpose of the self-imprinting operations (the imprinting of human actuality upon human actuality) that became the American type of twentieth-century versions of the literarily possible, and from the scene of every other type of twentieth-century engagement in the possible. From the account of the nature of this difference there should not be omitted reference to the bearing of my identity as a woman upon my functioning in my identity as a human being. How the factor of access to the alleged impossible for the human mind figures in my will of mind, and my thought-experience generally, has crucial connection with my sensibility as a woman of the presence of the human actuality in the universal actuality. The minds of men develop such sensibility as women instinctively possess by the overcoming of instincts of defensive proprietorship-sense of their human actuality; the records of human thinking are heavily marked with emphasis and counter-emphasis in relation to this conflict between masculine instinct and sensibility transcending it, the forms of thought produced by the conflict descending from age to age as the generally natural in the ways of the human mind.

Sensibility of universal actuality as of intimate meaning for human actuality is not of an order to require an overcoming of instinct; it belongs generically to the human instinct of the interpresence of human actuality and universal actuality. I have always steered away from raising question of the effect of the fact of my woman identity in the critical antagonism visited upon my work, and from feministic militancy in approach to questions of sexual differentiation in matters of literary pertinance calling for intellectual evaluation wanting critical principle, not feminine suspicion, for my instrument of judgement. But here I adduce for noting, among considerations as to why my mind's will as exemplified in my thought's courses, has moved, and moves, as it has, and does (my work widely viewed as disparate from all twentieth-century literary norms), the connaturalness of my engagement in endeavors to discover the full extent of my mind's possible in thought-experience possibility and my mind's being the mind of me, in my identity as a woman. My uninhibited acceptance of my woman's sensibility of the presence of the human actuality in the universal confers uninhibited appreciation of the truth-potential of the language of human actuality.

M. L. Rosenthal (essay date winter 1985)

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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 own fingerprint. And so one submits to intolerably redundant soliloquies, always in hope. It is like being kept waiting for someone who has gone to another room to look through innumerable books for some vaguely remembered phrase that we know is unnecessary anyway, given her vivid originality. What prevents our leaving is what we're given on those rarest occasions I've mentioned, when a poem like “Faith Upon the Waters” presents itself:

A ghost rose when the waves rose,
When the waves sank stood columnwise
And broken: archaic is
The spirituality of sea,
Water haunted by an imagination
Like fire previously.
More ghost when no ghost,
When the waves explain
Eye to the eye
And dolphins tease,
And the ventriloquist gulls,
Their angular three-element cries.
Fancy ages.
A death-bed restlessness inflames the mind
And a warm mist attacks the face
With mortal premonition.

The delicate precisions here strike home in a manner that indeed recalls Dickinson, and moreover matches comparable poems by Stevens and Crane while maintaining its own integrity of tonal progression. The momentary illusion of the first line (“A ghost rose when the waves rose”) touches off a vision that holds firm and then an aperçu (imagistically developed) that is charged, as the poem has it, with “mortal premonition.”

So the upshot is that, much as one's tempted to turn one's back impatiently on Riding's off-putting sensibility, one can't do so and finally doesn't want to. In “Faith Upon the Waters,” the line “A death-bed restlessness inflames the mind” insinuates her spell. One may want a more developed poetry than she usually offers, but what is there to do with that flickering restlessness of hers except to keep watching for it to flame up? The poems keep hinting that's about to happen. When it does, they expose a spirit restlessly intense as Plath's, abstract (though never as cool) as Moore's, inwardly torn yet insistent as Rich's. Often they suggest the potential drama of the psychoanalyst's couch; and their context, or predicament, is similar: the need for self-identification and the fear of it at the same time, together with an ambience of luxurious confusion. Riding offers something not altogether different from the ambiguous velleities of Pinter's later plays, at once so boring and so intriguing. Much of the riddling in her work does indeed, like her early decision to stop writing poems, point to unresolved psychoanalytical material. And the riddling, the invitation to guess at an unstated referent, is almost constant throughout her work in its implied source of disturbance. Take, for instance, the brief poem called “Mortal”:

There is a man of me that sows.
There is a woman of me that reaps.
One for good,
And one for fair,
And they cannot find me anywhere.
Father and Mother, shadowy ancestry,
Can you make no more than this of me?

Riddle, nursery rhyme, chant, affect of touching bewilderment—and yet this is only the beginning of a poem, rather than one that is brought to completion. It's therefore more a bit of lyrically oriented discourse than a poem: vague, evasive, psychological discourse.

So too, the suggestively titled “Postponement of Self,” though far more concrete, is ultimately psychoanalytical discourse rather than art. Its beginning and ending make the point self-evident:

I took another day,
I moved to another city,
I opened a new door to me.
Then again a last night came.
My bed said: “To sleep and back again?”
I said: “This time go forward.”


At twenty I say She.
Her face is like a flower.
In a city we have no flower-names, forgive me.
But flower-names not necessary
To diary of identity.

In between these opening and closing passages we find a kind of autobiography, in the usual wearying post-Freudian identity-search shorthand: a telegraphic account of ambiguous, trying early relationships with Papa and Mama. Such poems curiously foreshadow the confessional preoccupations of a later generation of poets: Rukeyser, Sexton, Lowell, and others, male and female, whose work parallels Riding's narcissistic self-examinations. “Narcissistic,” in this context, is not a personal but a literary term, implying self-absorbed non-poems, often both sexless and tiresomely portentous and unclear, by such poets at their least successful. After four opening lines strongly reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, “Postponement of Self” loses its way poetically.

But when Riding's poems are most successful, the sensibility is distinctly feminine and free of the thematically egocentric stress on identity that renders so many of her other pieces heavily quizzical and essentially discursive. Among her best poems, certainly, I would list “So Slight,” “Dear Possible,” “Lucrece and Nara,” “Because I Sit Here So,” and “Be Grave, Woman.” The whole of “So Slight” is worth quoting here because it is colored by the preoccupations I have mentioned but is a lyrical distillation, not an introspective harangue:

It was as near invisible
As night in early dusk.
So slight it was,
It was as unbelievable
As day in early dawn.
The summer impulse of a leaf
To flutter separately
Gets death and autumn.
Such faint rebellion
Was lately love in me.
So slight, it had no hope or sorrow,
It could but choose
A passing flurry for its nuptial,
Drift off and fall
Like thistledown without a bruise.

Fear of commitment to identity is doubtless what gives “So Slight” its special depressive intensity. “The summer impulse … / To flutter separately” is equated with the impulse to love, described as “faint rebellion.” Both modulations toward self-definition are “so slight” they have “no hope or sorrow.” But the poem's incisive imagery and delicately evocative phrasing, again reminiscent of Dickinson without being merely derivative, give life to its movement independently of any imposed theme.

Similarly, “Dear Possible” maintains its pure direction despite its hovering identity-puzzlement and kindred concern (on which Riding's poetry rings many changes) about male dominance. Thus:

Dear scholar of love,
If by your own formula
I open heaven to you
When you knock punctually at the door,
Then you are there, but I where I was.

The unconscionably teasing arrogance of these lines is a delight all too infrequent in Riding. Elsewhere, the poem is even exuberant over the elusiveness of identity and roles in love. In this aspect it resembles the tonally very different “Lucrece and Nara,” in which Riding's tendency toward solipsism is suborned by the emotion being traced—the sheer sense of love as ineradicable intimacy within whatever existential circumstance may occur. Here as elsewhere one becomes aware of a Blakean resonance in Riding at her most lyrical, something like the melancholy ecstasy of, say, “The Book of Thel.” (Yeats caught a similar resonance in his “Ephemera,” toughening and redirecting it in his later work.) The odd thing about “Lucrece and Nara” is that its complex of feeling is entirely self-reflexive. It embodies enduring love as two narcissistically mirroring reciprocal selves that are constantly transformed within the cycles of cosmic change:

Ghostly they clung and questioned
A thousand years, not yet eternal,
True to their fading,
Through their long watch defying
Time to make them whole, to part them.
A gentle clasp and fragrance played and hung
A thousand years and more
Around earth closely.
“Earth will be long enough,
Love has no elsewhere.”
And when earth ended, was devoured
One shivering midsummer
At the dissolving border,
A sound of light was felt.
“Nara, is it you, the dark?”
“Lucrece, is it you, the quiet?”

Thus the reciprocal selves (or half-selves) retain their companionable shared isolation after earth itself finally dissolves and the one becomes “the dark,” the other “the quiet.” The poem gains its greatest confidence at the moment when identity, in any ordinary sense, disappears. An even subtler turn on this feeling of ineffable existential intimacy appears in the poem “Because I Sit Here So,” with its threat of angry, unleashed power. This poem reveals, first, the volcanic vulnerability we sense, and sometimes hear asserted but hardly ever see released, in Riding's poems; and, second, her resistance to it:

Stir me not,
Demons of the storm.
Were I as you would have me,
Astart with anger,
Gnawing the self-fold chain
Until the spell of unity break,
Madness would but thunder
Where sorrow had once burned,
A sun to smile in
And sit waiting under.

The tone here is allied to the dark sensual rigor of “Be Grave, Woman,” a poem that begins in harsh longing—

Be grave, woman, for love
Still hungering as gardens
For rain though flowerless—

and ends in the nobly proud acceptance of the single closing line:

Thou alone, stark mind.

Both the collected and the selected editions of Riding's poems attempt large divisional groupings that seem in search of an organic ordering principle, as if struggling to break free from the persistent existential isolation in which poems like “Be Grave, Woman” are trapped. Nothing strikingly coherent, poetically, comes of these efforts, but they do act out, in large, the volatility and reluctant closing-in on—and simultaneous repudiation of—identity we have observed. These paradoxical or self-neutralizing characteristics are closely allied to Riding's tendency to present affirmations and negations interchangeably (a sort of guerrilla warfare against being understood) and to riddle her way out of self-definition. The process presents itself sometimes fliply, sometimes desperately; sometimes as agony, sometimes as the mind's deliberate yet hesitant foray into universal empathy. Within such a context, the groupings move this way and that rather haphazardly, between modulations toward confession and modulations toward meditation. The whole tendency of modern poetry, with its intense subjectivity and radiant affective centers, has been toward becoming a poetry of psychological pressures and toward encompassing these pressures in the poem's structuring dynamics. Clearly, though decisive radiant centers of the most compelling kind are few and far between in her work, Riding's explorations fall well within this tendency.

In her case, I believe, we can see Laura Riding's riddling ambiguities as an affective context, at once projecting frustration and providing a psychological refuge. Had she cultivated a poetry of power more relentlessly, she might have carried her art into an irreversible commitment too drastic for her to bear, in the manner of Sylvia Plath and a number of other poets of genius whose merging of personal and aesthetic sensibility (like Aschenbach's in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice) has involved dangerous psychological risks. She certainly possessed the talent for such a cultivation although, perhaps, she lacked the sustained energy for it. Her problem was not that, as she claimed, poetry just cannot be reciprocal with felt reality. Rather, it was the fact that this possibly destructive reciprocity can be achieved. That fact, I suspect, is what led her to renounce her poetic career so abruptly at the age of thirty-seven. In a related sense, she may have been affected, in her expatriate phase, with the failure of nerve of British poetry after World War I, at the very time that other American poets of the between-wars period were finding their power. Riding went further than Marianne Moore toward a letting-go like Eliot's or Pound's, but in this ultimate commitment she could not go far enough.

Laura (Riding) Jackson and Elizabeth Friedmann (interview date March-April 1991)

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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 disjoined problems of time become one all-immediate Problem; and those to whom it is, again, a profession—but the exercise not so much of craft faculties as of “the intelligence”.’ I feel certain that you would place yourself in the second category you have identified. Are there others you would like to mention who belong in this category?

As I imply, I identify myself under the heading ‘literature’ as to ‘department’ of work, but as to others, this would have to be someone or someones who rejected the category ‘poet’, yet sought a literary-linguistic solution to category naming. At this point there is not yet any specific distinction as to work of thought. Perhaps I shall realize some satisfactory identification of this conception, as we go on with our efforts to enlarge the possibilities of explicitness.

In that same Epilogue essay, you write: ‘For the intelligents, [the] Problem resolves itself into the problems of the literary job; which means, really, the development of a technique of comment.’ That observation could apply to contemporary literary criticism, with all its various ‘post-modernist’ theoretical approaches.

The development of ‘linguistics’—of a ‘science’ of language—and all the theorizing practices centered in analytical investigation of human word-use as a field of behavior, from ‘semanticism’ and ‘structuralism’ to ‘semiotics’ and ‘post-structuralism’ and on to ‘deconstruction’, has followed a line of philosophic argument named, philosophically, ‘pragmatism’. Pragmatism identifies, emphasizes, is concerned with ‘how something works’: how it works, not by itself, of itself, what is its nature to do, but how it works, functions, when made to work, by ‘one’. The crux of modern uneasiness in literary practice seems to lie in an uneasiness in the very use of language, language as typifying an alien element of the composition of the human. Deconstruction is the end-product of a series of modern revolts against assumptions about literature that represent it as an area of enlarged consciousness—experience achieved through intensified exercise in the powers of linguistic articulation. Such assumptions are challenged as disregardful of the limitations of language: literature is subjected to scientific standards of judgement and found, by its textual—that is, linguistic—constitution, wanting in validity as an area of actually realizable enlargement of consciousness experience. The brunt of the deconstructionist critical analysis seems not to fall—seems intended not to fall—on literature, or directly on literature, but on language. This has been the design in the tactics of intellectual revolution comprising the development of a science of ‘semantics’, and the specialist pursuits of structuralism, semiotics, and their accumulative reductionist-deconstructionist finalities of negation. Philosophy itself has been caught up in self-modernizing attacks on language as linguistically all-inadequate. The antique credit of philosophy has been invoked by some as supplier of the foundations of critical thinking, in arguing the necessity of modern resort to it as savior of literature from the barbarities of deconstructionist critical methodology. But have we not here, in this revival of philosophical intellectual authority accompanied by philosophical stimulation of new concern in literature with aesthetics, and ethics, a reduction of literature to a cultural protegé of philosophy? I want to keep in central view the humanly central issue of the adequacy of the scope literature provides for the articulate encompassment of human experience as an intelligible entirety. For literature is no more than an aesthetical addendum to human life, a museum of the imagination, if it is not an integration effected by language of the human experience-entirety with human self-intelligent intelligence of it.

I have heard deconstruction referred to, facetiously, as ‘the new new criticism’, presumably because it concentrates on a ‘text’ separated from sociological or biographical considerations, and because it is concerned with the verbal structure in terms of its iconography rather than its meaning. Your seminal role in the development of the New Criticism is not widely recognized, and perhaps you'd just as soon it not be?

From my earliest engagement in ‘writing’, I regarded myself as operating under requirements of literary activity that inhered in the nature of language itself. Commitment to literature proved inseparable, for me, from indoctrination in linguistic principle. I understood the function of literature to be the fulfilment of what is anticipated in language of human powers of conscious experience of the content of experience as an explicitly articulatable whole, a specifically identifiable unity—a world of reality, a universe of existent being. My conception of the possibilities of language adumbrated in the possibilities of literature fostered in me a watchful sense of how words in the close conjunction into which they were brought in literary employment differed from the loose linkage of words in the form of casual speech. I learned how the principles of meaning distinction and meaning relation on which the integrity of language depended as a rational structure allowed of constant freedom of exercise of meaning distinction within the bounds of moving lengths of thought-coherence—written breadths of meaning-relation. Concern with the practical possibilities of fidelity of over-all meaning-representation in word choices to determinate standards of diction honesty made me a sensitive appraiser of the workings or failings of the linguistic conscience in the composition of poetic texts. In collaborating, as first-named author, in a book, published in 1927, on contemporary poetry in the English language, I brought this sensitivity into use as an element of critical scrutiny of the word-by-word make-up of poems treated of in the book.

And that book was A Survey of Modernist Poetry, which you wrote with Robert Graves as your collaborator.

Yes, and the cult of New-Criticism criticality took off from my introduction into that book of the method I have described for the evaluation of poems as literary texts on the basis of a logic of meaning-truth governing proprieties of word-choice, which I judged to be implicit in language as infused with rational intent in its structure. The roving-eyed literary critic I. A. Richards, mentor of William Empson, notified him of his coming upon, in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, matter of peculiar importance relating to the critical analysis of poetic composition, urging Empson to give it active attention. Richards identified the valuable ‘find’ as particularly lodged in a chapter of the book in which Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 was subjected to minute inspection for congruity in its pattern of verbal selection, association, sequence. The issue, with Empson, of Richards's recommending A Survey of Modernist Poetry to him as a valuable resource for a critical modernist was an entire book of Empson's authorship entitled Seven Types of Ambiguity. It featured not ‘congruity’ but ‘ambiguity’ as the key to the operations of linguistic principle under the influence of literary principle, violating not only intellectual and scholarly principle in inverting the value-sense of the method of textual scrutiny to which he described himself, in his preface, as indebted, but violating also the principle of humane impersonality with which he expressed the indebtedness he professed: he addressed honorific acknowledgement to the second-named of the book's authors, alleging that he had reason in earlier experience for associating this one of the authors with the book's methodology (misdescribed as confined to the single chapter on Sonnet 129, in radical distortion of its value-principle).

An errata slip included in an early reprinting of Empson's book made brief reference to initial erroneous prefatory statements. But the ‘New Criticism’ was by then far along its way as a respectable novelty in circles of professional literary criticism. Empson's initial perversion of the actualities represented in and by A Survey of Modernist Poetry acquired a swelling propagandist force, especially with publication of Seven Types of Ambiguity in the United States. Empson moved on to theatrically successful new exploits in this misbegotten, misnamed, misleading version of new-dated literary criticism. Long after the settling of the New Criticism into the historic ground of the literarily memorable, I had some correspondence with an American literary scholar of note who had engaged in some lively study of the progressive course of the New Criticism. He confided to me in terms of kindly respect that he had always regarded the New Criticism as something of ‘Fugitive’ connection in its initial origin that that was later re-imported into vicinities of surviving ‘Fugitive’ identity.

He was alluding, I assume, to your early association with the Fugitives and then to John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and other former Fugitives who were the leading proponents of the New Criticism in this country. Would you care to comment on your relationship with the ‘Fugitives’ during the early 1920s?

My contacts with persons of the little magazine quarters in which I made my first entries into distinctively literary-world environments were, with little variation, of a routine brevity. Acceptance of my submissions did not depart much from the perfunctory. The nature of my submissions, where they met with acceptance, may have protected me from treatment, in some quarters at least, as amenable to incorporation in a group-identity marked by a special literary ‘position’. However the case may have been in one or another particular quarter, the little-magazine quarter in which I came into closest personal contact with those comprising it, who very distinctly constituted a group, proved, in the initial course of acquaintance-forming, free of disposition to induct me into a literary-policy alignment necessarily identifiable with the quarter, the magazine issuing from it, the intellectual bent of its member-composition. This was the quarter of the magazine named The Fugitive, representing a group of poets identifying themselves as ‘The Fugitives’. They were all of ‘southern’ geographical and social breed, and of some connection academic or personal with the Vanderbilt University community at Nashville, Tennessee. I lived, in the early ‘twenties, in Louisville, Kentucky, at rather short train-travel distance from Nashville. But this was by private-life circumstance only—neither by nativity nor long-term living within a ‘Southern’ frame of identity or self-identification. At the end of 1924, after some sustained sending of poems of mine to The Fugitive, a goodly number being accepted for publication but without other formal communication between its personnel and myself, I was awarded a monetary prize for my contributions of the year and strongly-phrased appreciation of my endowments as a poet. I was also presented with an honorary membership in the group, and further honored by an invitation to an overnight stay in Nashville for a special meeting of the group at the home of special patrons of the magazine, Mr and Mrs James Frank. This occasion was a happy-spirited one for me, and there were signs of its being so for others present. I was especially conscious of this in regard to John Crowe Ransom, who heartily supervised arrangements for my reading some of my poems. Not long after the conferring on me of honorary membership in the group, I was elevated to plain active membership, becoming thus listed in each issue of the magazine as one of its editorial staff, to which every ‘Fugitive’ belonged by this identity. After 1925, The Fugitive went into permanent non-existence; in time a Fugitive anthology commemorated the terminated fact of it.

Was the group's identity defined as a literary ‘position’ and if so, in accepting active membership did you accept that ‘position’ as representing your own literary-world persuasion?

They were all very different from one another, temperamentally, but given, each, to a certain reserve, the literary interest of each marked by some eccentricity which the academic scene of encounter, along with its Southern setting, muted. Though touched with the busy awareness of the ‘twenties of the new dominion of the ‘New’, and ambitious of distinction as attuned to contemporary literary trends, there was also in the atmosphere of this association a prompting to definitive intellectual respectability.

The Fugitives had, indeed, been conscious of an intense preoccupiedness, in the poems of mine it pleased them to publish, with an exactitude of verbal fitness meeting standards beyond that of mere stylistic nicety. It was a linguistic standard, related to a morality of language as the instrument of truth. While there was a something in common between the Fugitives and myself, a general intellectual agreement on the necessity of guidance by linguistic scruple in literary, and particularly poetic, practice, there was no bond of common commitment to identify authorial practice and undeviating practice of linguistic scruple as necessarily indivisible. Subscription to a tenet as to the virtue of linguistic scrupulosity in the procedures of literature was, certainly, an element of the morale of literary professionalism that distinguished the group in American literary-world society in the century's early decades. They and myself were joined for a time in a search for a point of stability in the experience of literature in the midst of 20th-century literary and human fanatical experimentation in mobility, but they and I had no common starting-point for the search. They began their quest with themselves in a position of relative—qualified—mobility: the critical connection was only one of mildly scrupulous stability, moderately virtuous literary principle.

Later, some of the Fugitives—most notably, Ransom, Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren—founded the Agrarian movement, calling for a return to the cultural values and agricultural economy of the Old South, and theirs came to be the names associated most frequently with the New Criticism.

The ‘Agrarian’ stand became the politico-cultural identity-mark of the group, after it shed the literary identity-mark ‘The Fugitives’. By the time that the diffuse make-shift ‘Agrarian’ identity-hood had been replaced by self-conscious literary self-identification under the New Criticism banner, the stuff of group identity had dissipated into a fellowship of literary ideology in which the old ‘Fugitive’ badge of discreet exclusivism had, for some, a faintly nostalgic appeal.

I'd like to return to something you said about their ‘Southern geographical and social breed’. You are a native of New York and after many years spent abroad decided to settle in Wabasso, Florida, where you have lived now for over 40 years. What effect does this environment have on your writing?

Coming to Florida to live yielded a very seriously needed balm, for my husband and myself. While to this place of ours, here, we owe the protection of a wonderfully reliable combination of natural and human provision of personal independence without isolation, and I am intensively attached to my being of the locale, the call-to-do, in me, is not of kind to move me towards concentration of exertion within a regional frame.

When you and Robert Graves founded the Seizin Press in 1927, one of the first books you brought out was Gertrude Stein's An Acquaintance With Description, and yet you wrote in a recently published essay on Stein, ‘Gertrude Stein and I were at opposite poles in our view of the linguistic functions—and of the spiritual significance of humanness.’

A characterization I make in this essay of Gertrude Stein's procedures that seems to me to identify their fundamental defect is that her sentences were not, in internal make-up, sentences—did not make sense. The words were not allowed to carry out their meaning-functions. They imitated the movement of linguistic rationality, but this, I advance, was for an artistic objective—the author had no interest in sense-depth, sense-accretion. She showed, and as if it were a triumph to do this, that the rational impulsion in the use of words was resistible. Her planned incoherencies can make a strong initial impression of liberation from banal syntactical logicalities. Actually, her sentences are formed of cliché fragments. And it is a significant peculiarity of her personal talk, and of her conversational writing, that both abounded in statements of banal generalizedness of sentiment or opinion.

Why, then, did you publish her work?

I saw her as relatively healthy in comparison with other early 20th-century literary moderns, in her daring to accept the seeming challenge of the time to equate modernity with a real barbarism—where others began to indulge in equivocations of critical definition of a new era of literature and life-motivation disembarrassed of earlier standard objectives of progress. No one but Miss Stein, I wrote, was willing to be as ordinary, as simple, as stupid, as barbaric, as successful barbarism demands.

You and Robert Graves visited Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris, at 27 rue de Fleurus, and also at their country home.

Some of my experience of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas was in the Haute Savoie area of France, Mont Blanc in view, and Gertrude Stein uprearing herself as another mountain, Alice Toklas a foot-hill without whom there would have been no Gertrude Stein mountain. Gertrude Stein wanted to be seen as a mountain of sophistication in the form of a new simple-mindedness—a wisdom for the new time dispensing with all the stale complexities of the past. She was, in actual personal force of mind, a wise-cracker. She had the fluent bonhomie of a fraud who wanted only lots of love without requirements of proof of meritedness. It could all seem so sensibly, even beautifully, natural. In time, I came to know the inner poverty of it all, and took the stand that effusions about her dog ‘Basket’ did not do, with me, as stuff of devoted communication. Only recently has it struck me that her measure as a fraud has some likeness, in its proportions, to the measure of Robert Graves as one. They had some wise-cracking exchanges on the subject of myself, after I broke association with both. One of her wise-cracks, made for my appreciation in the early times of our acquaintance went: ‘No Jew ever puts down his last cent.’ She took the part of one penniless, but rated with herself as a self-backed currency good for quite a long run of circulation. She had no sense of values, only a sense of what could immediately have force of pungent quasi-philosophical wisdom and literary reference. This was an opportunism that kept no accounts with itself, so that she did not know just how wicked she was, how cynical in her reckless good cheer. She moved, thus, among all with an innocent bearing.

At what point did your intellectual focus begin to be fixed upon matters of language and literature?

In my earlier schooling I was generally apt in my studies, good in written work; and I was always much given to reading, though I fixed upon no special subjects or authors. I read all that was available at home—Scott, Dickens, other standard material, and political writings. I had a routine acquaintance with the poets of schoolroom exploration; in the high-school period I wrote some poems privately, and one poem for the school magazine; but I put no stress in those years on poetry as a special area of interest for myself, or aspiration. I remember experimenting in a humorous play for enactment at school, but nothing came of that. The matter of language was the center of my high-school interests—language, rather than literature. I attended the Girl's High School of Brooklyn. It was a first-rate high school—I was well-taught. I learned well—in French, Latin, and the fundamentals of English—grammar, syntax, with a thorough grounding in punctuation. There was also a speech-training class: distinct pronunciation, effective delivery the special concern, here. The literature teacher had an attractive personality—and her subjects interested her.

In my university studying, at Cornell, there was more language—Latin, and some German, and French—French literature. Some English literature. While I felt the quality of revolutionary perturbation in Shelley keenly, and that of robust serenity in Chaucer (I would not have used these terms at that time), and had begun writing poems seriously, by then, my springboard was not one of literary orientation; I wrote, rather, from concern with what I might achieve linguistically. It was only after I had worked out a peace between a discipline of personal necessity in speaking and the discipline of the general linguistic necessities that I began paying some sustained attention to how other poets managed the relationship between themselves and their language.

And then you began to write criticism?

In my early critical writing—Contemporaries and Snobs, and Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928), and A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928), in which I had Robert Graves as my collaborator—I endeavored to identify the literarily, and especially the practically, healthy orientation in a time—the first decades of the 20th century (and of my own life)—in which all past critical leanings towards the responsibilities and problems of engagement in literature had come under challenge as wanting in definitiveness for a ‘new’ time of human experimentation in personalistic definitiveness. My first position-taking in the midst of all the evident disorder in poet and critic positions of that time was an effort to centralize the field of new multiple individualized critical position-taking—the diversity of definite positions in literary evaluation and practice—to unignorable general principles of health of human intellectual activity and linguistic procedure. Throughout all those four books, the hand of this commonsense spiritual assurance of a natural health of thinking mind and speaking intelligence, as the basic critical canon for a literary functioning, is at work in unfailing presence to the variously disparate ‘new’ material dealt with in Epilogue. By the time of the emergence of Epilogue into preparatory and published existence, my instincts of centralizing thought had translated themselves into conceptions of the general, the natural, the healthy, in human experience, as a distinctly existing reality, so much so that the principles of it all were definable, definitively understandable, and practicable. I thought of this, and called it, ‘a new critical orientation’. I did not think of it as a position-taking to something new, but as a fuller entering into the sense of the general to which I attained in my initial intellectual and literary consciousness. It was, indeed, not change, but movement along the natural trajectory of a life of thought, my mind's experience of life. And what followed from the Epilogue time, in this movement in the next five decades of this life, has not been change, but closer and closer access of consciousness to a cohering, inhering, general reality to which the centralizing instincts of human thought necessarily, and inevitably as they cohere, and inhere in themselves, centralize themselves.

No one has faced the task of studying the Epilogue volumes, The World and Ourselves included, for what might be learned from them as the interval years bridging my work of poet and critic up to 1929 and the long, long stretch of movement, onwards from 1940, towards a unifying of the results of my orientating my life and work of thought to the rule of the general—the bringing of the different areas of intellectual sensibility into which the writing functions are divided by literary custom into natural linguistic identity. There tends to be a characteristic vagueness of attention to the entire span of movement of my life and work, although where an apparent definite attention is paid to it as adequately represented in my poetic work, the vagueness actually permeates the treatment of the poetic work as well: the element in it of centeredness of all particularity to a general that becomes more and more definitely identified as the poems build themselves into a cumulative unity of sense is untroubledly ignored. Those who interest themselves in poetry, in our time, have had preoccupation with the general, a reality of a general substance of life-ordering, existence-governing, principle, rubbed out of their conscious map of experience. (In this immediate time, the term ‘the general’ has been supplanted, in the lexicon of my thought, by ‘the universal’.)

When did this change in poetic preoccupation begin to happen?

In Spenser's concluding moralizing for The Faerie Queene, the final answer as to what will be is provided by Nature, she to whom he turns for his Last Word. It is, that there will come an end of Change in a peaceful eternity. Such a high-point of poetic preoccupation, the prophetic urgency that made a unity of personal seriousness for poetic and religious commitment, disappears in the poet-vocation in enlarging degrees, until, in the late-modern era, poets conceive of themselves as pronouncing on a fully completed cycle of human experience, beyond which there is only sophisticated poetic commentary, cheerful or gloomy—it does not matter which. In the modern poetic gospel all is closed within the historical finalities, and the consolations to be provided by art, poetic art in the first place—inventions of imaginative patterns in which human beings can lose sense, as at the theatre, of the doom-revelation of history, and enjoy robustly artistic replacements of living actuality. This is very much the Yeatsian poetic gospel, he his own example of the magician poet, a hope-and-joy giver before the combined literary and common-people audience, shifting attention from the historical ‘bad to worse to early fall’ to the poetic provision of illusionist unreal experience made by art, real for the duration of the poetic experience—as good as, or better than, real real experience, for that duration.

It has for long, now, been important for me to introduce, into the story of the course of the literature presided over by the values that the English language implicitly prescribes for its uses, the view that Charles M. Doughty presents of this course in the pronouncement (the ‘Post ILLA’) with which his long poem ‘The Dawn In Britain’ closes. This poem, along with his majestic prose work Travels in Arabia Deserta, exemplify what has been cited as Doughty's achievement of exhibiting the crucial part of the single word in the right employment of a language. (Doughty phrases this, with regard to the English language, as ‘the right English’.) He wrote that Geoffrey Chaucer ‘in the better part of his works touches men's hearts’, but only to Edmund Spenser ‘did the divine Muses … reveal their own golden intimate tongue; and taught him to perceive the harmony of the spheres—yet even in his brief lifetime, English speech began somewhat to decay.’ In his view ‘the stream of song has flowed down in two channels, the one following the fruitful Homeric tradition, the other a self-sprung bardism.’ Further, he wrote, ‘It is the prerogative of every lover of his Country to use the instrument of his thought, which is the Mother-tongue, with propriety and distinction; to keep that reverently clean and bright, which lies at the root of his mental life, and so, by extension, of the life of the Community: putting away all impotent and disloyal vility of speech, which is no uncertain token of a people's decadence.’

The excitement of the practice of poetry passes, in the late-modern poet-stance in the vocation of poetry, from that of endeavor to capture, or wonder as to the possibility of capturing, the virtue of actual presence in the universal Circumstance, and the force of eloquence in voicing some of the meaning of the Circumstance that must go with such virtue, to that of the endeavor to impress force of person, by rhetorical art, personal energetics in the conjuring of emotional and ideational semblances of real experiences. This latter excitement-mood of poetry can provide shelter for poets for claiming that they write, make, poems without consciousness-aim at an audience, a reader, but the kind of endeavor that motivates the poems-making has implicit in it the satisfaction-aim of delivering the poem with result of an effect—if not specifically anticipated in the form of a reader, present at least in the form of the poet's sense of personal witness to the poem as self-directed performance.

I wrote to someone recently that I have seen poetry, in later and later phases of modern attachment to the practice of it, as taking on the tones of a hobby—an indulgence in a ‘cultural’ policy of reducing of major themes of the human sense of the universal to particular subjects of minor general temper or particular matters of private life-setting.

You believe, then, that poetry should address only the great universal, the large human, themes?

I think that 20th-century forms of identification—of the human, of intelligence itself, of the nature of life and of the universe, have run close to emptiness. Poetry, along with religion, used to have inhering in it a sense of fundamental connections, and of a human responsibility of eliciting them through the special capacities of human experience—the powers peculiar to the human life-constitution called ‘mind’. Responsibility has been in these long 20th-century times fractured into myriad self-created human identities, with self-preening replacing the functions of mind, destroying mind (each one his or her own). I have not found, since I myself renounced the writing of poems, anything in the teeming production-field of modern, ‘post-modern’, poetry that bears the mark of the sense of duty to the human factor in the universal constitution, and to that constitution, that was for long at least a token service of human beings to their extraordinary fortune of share in it. The self-preening of which I speak reeks of the combative male self-experimentalism. But women are induced to read ‘freedom’ charters in this despoiling of the rarity of human nature in nature for the satisfactions of vanities of self-persuasive performances. The term ‘great living poets’ is robbed from a tradition, a history of solemn tribute-paying to past sense of a possibility of honest human generosity towards the human share in the universal constitution.

Do you see any 20th-century American poets as having succeeded in the poet-vocation?

There has been only one American poet who came, for me, close to dealing with the problem of managing to be a poet as I understood the problem to be essentially, a poet whose orientation to the poetic use of words has some connection with my own: Edwin Arlington Robinson. This is a poet who wanted to achieve in his use of words in poems a mode of expression unifying the poetic voice and the natural in truth-accent—I don't mean this contemporary ‘living language’ piety of some critical terminology. I myself worked for, towards, an identity: a poetic speaking that was speaking. But what he did was to try to strike a mean, a quality of talk, and this did something to the poetic level of his poem-speaking. I rate him as uniquely sensitive to the problem that became so much my problem that I ceased to write poems. He had what the others lacked, a decency of sense of what the poetic effort amounted to.

So would you say you were influenced by his work, by what he was attempting to do in poetry?

Before I came upon any of his work I had written a couple of poems, or three, perhaps, that someone might consider to have been ‘influenced’, as they say, by him. By the time I came to read him attentively, these two or three poems were quite behind me—and nothing of the sort ever came from my poetic tongue again.

Your own poetry has been said to have influenced a number of other ‘major’ poets of the 20th century, for example W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath. Would you care to comment?

Auden, within a group of English university literary intellectuals, became very conscious of my poet functioning, and of my active poetic and linguistic and intellectually heightened sensibilities, as weather of some large than local bearing—and desired (or ‘took’) signals of indication for themselves of useful data for their sciences of experimentation in the identifying of the predictable poetic literary philosophical linguistically sophisticated discoveries of the practically realizable in acts of contemporaneity-activism. Auden, I think, from what he once wrote to me, was moved to put into personal employment what he took for a wilful indulgence by me in light-hearted homeliness of phrase, freedom from style-versed forms of parlance. I had no such formulated purposefulness in word-choice. I am not sufficiently experienced in the substance of Ashbery's poet-action to deduce the temper of what he found stimulative in my poetic work. Perhaps it was in the variety of tempers perceivable there—a certain pictoriality, in this.

As to Sylvia Plath: I regard her as having fictionalized herself personally in fitting herself into a fictionalized conception of poetry as the plane of a fictionalized reality. Whatever effect my poetic work had on her, and the thought that quickened it, could not have been other than an equating of the intensity of my concern with the problem of truth of word, for justice-doing to the nature of reality, with the intensity of a desperate belief in her power to overcome a fantasy-reality of hostile nature with a fantasy-reality accommodative to her will. Whatever she drew from my poetic work, and the seriousness of the concern with which it was infused, falsified it into a justifying image of the transformability of personal will into a truth-maker.

I recently read a newspaper columnist proclaim that ‘history is over’ and was reminded of your similar statement when you founded Epilogue in 1935.

The venture named Epilogue sprang from a conception of human existence as being, now, where a point of finality shows in the life of thought; and this point, in the conception, was a point both in the course of time, and in thought's course. Time, in the historical sense, was conceived to have reached its term: we had reached an end, in human existence, of heaping variation upon variation of behavior, activity, purpose, aspiration, idea, and come to a time of resolution, evaluation, ordering and saving, that was not time as it had been known but an ultimate immediacy. My thinking was aimed at practical results, was not mere literary criticism or philosophic speculation or ‘creative’ subjectionism: it needed people, since it was concerned with making alterations in the human field-at-large of thinking, not in special intellectual fields. Though my endeavor was initiated on a small patch of literary ground, it embraced in motivation people-in-general. I envisaged an immediately potential clarification of the intrinsic universal quality of human existence, and an immediately potential revival of a capability I believed innately present in human beings of realizing this quality fully in themeselves; I considered the quality to have been so far either doubted or rejected, or cultivated in forms that must ultimately belie it. It might be said that the temper of the thinking was revivalist, and that the programme was revivalist, also.

And those who were your associates in this venture—Robert Graves, T. S. Matthews, John Cullen, James Reeves, John Aldridge, Honor Wyatt, Ward Hutchinson, Lyn Lye, Alan Hodge, Norman Cameron, Harry Kemp, et al—did they share this conception of the magazine's purpose?

The people who were my associates in this assault on the great human Stasis were so by no natural, spontaneously occurrent conjunction of motivations and interests between them and myself and between themselves mutually. I see them now, in the simplified view of retrospect, as having had in common a general uncommittedness, rather than propensities to ideas, beliefs and dedications of certain kinds. They were not, in general, people of belief; by this I mean that they did not hold to, were not pledged to, any rule of values—were, in preponderant tendency, people who were intellectually and spiritually detached, and emotionally neutral, where main human issues were concerned. Against the contemporary background of literary and other intellectual groupages, the varied alignments all inharmonious with one another despite a common inclination towards postures of Zeitgeist pessimism, these people seemed, relatively free; certain it was that they were not enlistic enemies of Hope, as were, in the various ways, the majority of those of the time who presented themselves as valid voices of human consciousness of the realities of human existence. People who are neither people of belief nor yet practicing cynics tend to maintain an experimental optimism, and to fall thus into the category of sensible people—people who are neither fanatics in the matter of hope nor maniacs and knaves in the matter of despair. It seems to me as I look back on my working encounters with the contributors to Epilogue, now long after the springing-open of the gulfs of disparity between their concerns and mine, temporarily closed, that it was their having for me the marks of sensibleness on them which spurred me to seek, in each case, a basis of working alliance—in disregard of what was evident of disparity.

I viewed each one of those whom I served in their contributions as one of a company with me in a common purpose to subject the confusion of values in which human beings have lived from age to age to an ordering which was not a new layer of sophistication, that would in its time sink into the heap, to complicate the confusion further, but an ordering in depth, and an ordering also in height and in breadth; I called on all of the company—myself included—to apply the universal dimensions of their consciousness to the human record, considering the ultimately natural and hardly longer postponable service human beings owed to their existence. Anyone who wanted to try to function as one of the company I held worthy of being of it; and I joined my forces to the efforts of each.

Your ‘influence’ on British poet Clere Parsons was cited in the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, along with that of Auden, but in other cases, poets with whom you worked during the Epilogue period and whose work reflects qualities obviously derived from that association—I'm thinking specifically of James Reeves and Norman Cameron—are routinely cited as having written ‘Gravesian’ poems.

This is traceable, I judge, in part to a tendency in common opinion to assume that the better-known of figures of repute in the world of literary reputations must be credited with a preponderance in the powers of influence. Robert Graves added to a weight of diligently accumulated prestige of public position, the attractions of undisguised appetite for being in good favor. He was attentive to obligations of acknowledging the help he had from me in his writings, poetic and other, throughout the period of our association. His preface to his Collected Poems, 1938, makes reference to my generosities of support of poets in their work, to himself among others. It did not come naturally to him to concern himself with helping others, but he adopted as standard for himself the pattern of my judgements and dispositions of behavior.

I will say, in final comment on the question you have raised: Robert Graves did, indeed, in the aftertime of our association, pay special attention to the works of poets that I had taken into my care, singling them out, in his critical pronouncements, as the ‘good’ ones of the time being discussed. Imaginably, poets of the following time would be prompted to resort to Robert Graves as a reptable court of pronouncement on them.

As to Clere Parsons, from my reading of a review of his poetry, I have thought he may have found stimulation in my treating of the directly personal tone of statement in a poem as to its taken for granted as perfectly natural there.

You once described the editorial policy of the Seizin Press as seeking a standard of goodness exceeding literary notions of goodness, and we have been discussing your motivation for the founding of Epilogue. There are hundreds of little magazines and small presses publishing today. Are any of them that you know of attempting to do what Epilogue and the Seizin Press did?

In other times, small presses had a main function of serving for the publication of material not likely to receive ordinary commercial backing. There has come to be a glut of literary material. More and more of it is being produced. Commercial publishing has become more aggressively commercial. Competition between publishers has intensified; and between authors, and critics, and their standards are correspondingly in competitive confusion. The chances for anyone of maintaining a purity of personal, practical, critical, collectively human standard while involved in the indivisible mechanism of categorically literary activity, book activity, any aspect of the intricate operations of the world of literary affairs, are extremely tenuous. For a long time, I absented myself from categorically ‘literary’ relations. In this later period, I find myself drawn into practical relations that are unavoidably of the nature of literary-world affairs—and very rarely do I find personal encounter occurrent within the norms of procedure of literary-world affairs untinged with varied colors of untruth. One is very likely to be at the disadvantage, in such encounter, of an automatic cut-off from the possibility of a dealing with problems arising in it in morally definite terms. A morality of devotion to literature as requiring for its modern prospering all the freedoms of moral confusion has limited human intercourse in the fields of literary concerns, to forms of behavior, expression, communication, that reduce truth to a vulgar antithesis of literature. And every little subworld of literary activity, every special publishing domain, has its pragmatic morality of sophistication in the substitution of literature for truth. In no other areas of human activity besides the literary is freedom from truth given such varied opportunity, such wide scope generally, for free-play. And because this free-play exercises itself in a manipulation of language to its purposes, literature in this modern era has promoted anti-truth emotional and intellectual dispositions in all other areas of human activity.

Although your views on the subject of ‘woman’ have been praised by feminist theoreticians, you have refused to allow your work to be incorporated into the ‘feminist canon’. Part of your argument with the contemporary women's movement seems to be identified in something you wrote in 1963 for the Italian magazine Civilta delle Macchine (reprinted in Chelsea 16): ‘The extension of men's rights to women does not remake society—the human relationship itself must be remade.’ Another essay on women, entitled ‘The Bondage’, was published in Chelsea 30/31. Do you plan to publish any more writings on the subject of ‘woman’?

The commentaries published in Chelsea, the first a reply to a questionnaire sent by the Italian magazine to women of various professions, represent an attitude that has satisfied my conception of a sense of what was personally and generally appropriate to the facts and values constituting the intellectual framework of the principle of responsibility implicit in the possession of human identity. My concern in the duties naturally imposed on the possession of human identity has comprised a specialization of interest in certain areas of supportive knowledge of the exercise of consciousness of human selfhood in the course of the development of humanity, in the form of societies expressing self-attribution of human identity as a compact individuality, of common possession. I engaged in a study of the consciousness of human identity as of a dual order—the human being as of male or female identity—of being a man or a woman. This study gradually built up into a manuscript of solid book-substance, under the compact title The Word ‘Woman’, in which was set forth the nature of the identity ‘human’ as conferred on women from a standard of human identity conceived as determined by the constituents of male human identity. My application to concern with the matière of humanness, as manifesting itself in the source of the employment of language and the specialized literary versions of this, resulted in there being now surviving from many times of movement, work-concentrations, changes of place and associations, an intact script on hand for offering for publication, in a state of readiness about 50 years ago.

I look forward to its publication, long overdue! In recent times I know you've written a few poems, one of which was published in Chelsea 47. In a statement accompanying that poem, you wrote that these later poems were occasions of license-giving to yourself for ‘a rare pausing to speak (or write) in incidents of departure from my later-life commitment to the resolution of the truth-problem in ever-immediate concern with it as the literary obligatory’. These new poems are in response to specific events. ‘Lamenting the Terms of Modern Praise’ was written in reply to a praiseful mention of your work in the Chelsea Retrospective, and another recent poem is entitled ‘Response to a Manifesto Circulated by the Union of Concerned Scientists’. Would you say something more about the writing of these poems?

I wrote them as poetic brevities of incidental emergency … as a person committed to peaceful procedures may on very rare occasions use his fists.

Then you don't see them as contradicting your renunciation of poetry because of its falling short in truth-potential?

In thinking about views expressed on my altered view of poetry over the years I have found the comment made by William Harmon in Chelsea 47 on my ‘straight’ use of language a helpful stimulant to giving a compact account of them. In later years, I have not revised that view but I have occasionally made use of a poetic form of pronouncement. My pronouncement as to the subject of praise in Chelsea 47 gives evidence that I have not immured myself in a monastic commitment to self-abnegation in regard to the trial of poetic possibilities to a straightness of utterance. I give way in these instances to a free-will impulsion to take advantage of the special potency of poetic speech as allowing a forceful avoidance of the delay in communicative advance, the circuitous linguistic spaciousness of which prose allows. This potency inheres in poetry. The temper of my work is based on the principle of the straight line—this was a general characteristic of what I sought for in my thought. The principle of straightness is related to my conception of principles evinced in the universe's course in itself. The principle of the straight line is the principle of vision. There is a self-repetition in a straight line, productive of continuity, self-renewal. Vision perceives in a straight line. Reading in the writings of Dürer, you find his conception of a straight line expanding itself into a cone. The terminology used by Dürer in his notebooks is this: ‘The painter … draws all seen things into one cone towards the eye, whose point is in the eye and whose base or foundation is the seen thing, and the measure of this, as persons experienced in geometry and perspective know, cannot be attained without special trouble.’ The principles of my writing are the principles of vision.

I am grateful for Professor Harmon's tribute—but I'll confess to a desire to propose that a maxim of ‘rightness’ rather than ‘straightness’ in word-use aim would open up a broader panorama of the realm of possibilities in word use. My ‘slant’ and ‘oblique’ (in ‘Lamenting the Terms of Modern Praise’) suggest potentialities of invidious implications. ‘Right’ has no other possible alternatives than wrong—pointing to a wholly adequate vocabulary eliminative of terms of invidious implication.

Another of your recent poems is addressed to The Union of Concerned Scientists, in reply to a letter received from this group asking you to sign their manifesto against nuclear arms. Thank you for allowing it to be reproduced here.


I resort to my abandoned poetic pen
To deplore the failure of Concerned Scientists
To excite, in their fellow-occupants of Earth,
A final horror at the science-based production
Of instruments of assault finally deadly,
That could wreak total human and earthly ruin,
I move to deplore jointly the success of scientists
In probing the forms and properties of matter,
And the material principles of force and motion.
Materiality is nothing in itself.
Science takes the wares of its diversified learning
From the Great Given of the immaterial.
It is an abstract knowledge, the data of science,
Knowledge possessed in isolation from being,
The indivisible presence concretely called ‘the
Science splits the universe into a thing of Things
And a Thing of unreal meaning, a blackboard
On which to chalk real-looking inventions of fact.
What of the unconcernedness of scientists
In their long slow manning of the machine of matter
To extract the secrets of its operations
For a machinery for the perfecting of human life,
Ministering to its defect of materiality
From matter's store of endless matter-bred
Let those who describe themselves as ‘Concerned
In referring to the preoccupation of States
With new devices for making warfare more terrible
Through mind-proud raiding of matter's humble
Preach concern over science's play with matter-lore,
Urge minds to be modest, deal with matter as the
Science is unfit for expounding the universe.
The universe is not a subject for specialized learning.
All science is a science of names—lifeless
Except as the mad reality of myth animates it.
Each conquest of outer space is feathered with Icarian
The stored bolts of atomic prowess reek of Jovian
Scientists! It is not your united concern that the
          world needs,
But a respite from science—scientists in a retreat of

Like ‘Lamenting the Terms’ this poem, to echo William Harmon, ‘scarcely needs a gloss’. But would you mind commenting on your use of the word universe?

This is a poor time, linguistically, for the conception of the universality of existence—of personal existence included in it. The word universe connotes to contemporary consciousness unrelieved materiality. So the ancient sense of the universal as connoting what is combined into a whole, what is all one, has disintegrated into a loosely scientific sense of associated particularities. People think of themselves as existing in a world of human affairs abstracted from the material universe of science—a small world of ideas localized into varying customs of interest. The modern world of human life is, in the minds of those who live it, quite less than a universal whole.

What are you working on at present?

Lately I find myself making little compositions employing the theme of thinking about the universe—sort of aphorisms:

The human being is possessed of a quantity of being sufficient to the requirements of human nature.

Personality is the quality of the life-behavior of a person as a human being individually differentiable from others in action.

People conceive of themselves as possessing a quantity of being that exceeds the actuality of what they are. They can mislive by conceiving of themselves as a lesser quantity of being.

When there is an equivalent between a unit of thought and a unit of knowledge, there is wisdom.

I know you have also been reading Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, and also some of the writings of Albert Einstein. Can any comparison be made between the two scientists?

Einstein's work is modest in comparison to Hawking's—appropriately so, as Hawking tries to mix up science and philosophy.

In looking again into Stephen Hawking's book I came upon an observation at the very end. I wonder if you might want to comment on it. Hawking writes ‘Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of the century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant.’

You have had some observations from me on changes in the pattern of philosophical assignment of priorities of importance according to a scale of values based on ideas of the ‘good’ corresponding to a presumed disposition in human nature to the cultivating of the ‘good’ in personal conduct—or to a presumed excellence in the exercise of human intellectual capacities of discrimination between lesser and greater degrees of merit inhering in things of a kind common to human experience or knowledge. Philosophers have been confined or confined themselves to positions of specialized moral or intellectual authority. It may be that the venturing of scientific scholarship into such subject-fields approaching the borders of those of established philosophical interest, such as psychology; and neurological analysis of processes viewable as behavior, of ‘the mind’; and experimental study of traits of human peculiarity embedded in deep-rooted addiction to language-customs become as a second nature usurping the natural first-nature status of language in the human. May it not be that all this wandering from the strait, narrow path of the compulsive philosophic logic has left philosophy a relic of its own past, immobilized in a monumental memory of itself? Stephen Hawking speaks, in this pause of thought on a predicament of the composite human intellect stalled on the stage of ‘The History of Time’, from the forum of Science conscience-striken by its failure to fill the place of Philosophy as a redeemer of the human mind from the discomfiture of seemingly interminable inability to untangle the story of the existence of the universe, which Hawking names ‘The History of Time’. Stephen Hawking is endowed with an intellect of immense and intense persistency. He makes it the inspiring gospel of a faith in the necessary ultimate capability of the human mind of untangling the never yet all-believably all-told story, in the grip of which is caught the answer to the question ‘what is the true answer?’ But what is the true question? The tradition of scientific faith in the necessary capability of human intellect of meeting the call on itself to unite question and answer? An understanding of what Einstein summarized as ‘the mind of God’ draws the worn-curtain of time on the future of human understanding. Science assumes the role of investigator of the mechanics of an intelligence as indispensably on the side of truth, enemy of falsification, the discipline challenging all truth-seekers as suspect including itself.

After reading Hawking's book, I had a thought in poetic form: Out from the skies of the world of human habitation of the universe, shafts of light and dark—of the mixed make-up of nature—dart, each sharpening to pen-tip pointedness, descending upon the planes of human fear and unfear, sketching the patterns of uncertainty called Time.

And then a definition: Nature is the patience of the universe with itself.

Later, these lines were expanded into a poem:

                                                            Out from the skies
of the world of human habitation of the universe
                    dart down shafts of light and shade,
                                                  of nature's mixed make,
                    each sharpening to pen-tip pointedness,
                    upon the planes of human fear and unfear
          Powered by nature's balancing of nature's forces,
          they draw the patterns of uncertainty called ‘time’
with the genius of an absent precision called ‘accident’.
          Nature is the patience of the universe with itself.
What patience has the world of human habitation of
                                                  the universe with itself?
Only the patience of human minds with human minds
          at the distance from one another of strangeness to
                                                                                one another
                                        not yet … not yet … overcome.

Someone should think on this. There is a reality there that is not being figured out in scientific terms. There is a reality that is not just matter—we call it ‘God’. But Hawking's ‘discovering the mind of God’ is not the same as Spinoza's ‘God is a thinking thing’. William Law, an 18th century religious writer in England, said it beautifully. His answer to the deists was that he saw reliance on reason as a fundamental error, since both man and the universe are mysteries that admit of no explanation. This is useful for referring to what the scientists are doing—attempting to understand the universe as ‘the mind of God’.

But you wouldn't leave it at that.

No, I would say that the whole universe is dealable with, not just the idea of ‘God’—that the Universe thinks, expresses itself in language that human beings use, not divinity. The ‘mysteries’ of the human are not mysteries in their functioning.

And these intrinsic universal potentialities of language are a gift of Nature to the human being?

To view language as a ‘gift’ possessed by the simple virtue of being human is to relate the nature of human nature, in its intrinsic essence, to the nature of ‘Nature’. Spinoza, who sought knowledge in its comprehensiveness as ‘truth’ with the intellectual knowledge of a scientifically ordered perfection, situated an intellect in nature denominable as ‘divine’—‘God is an intellectual thing’—but identified the divine and the human intellect as of one substance, the substance of ‘ideas’, and trusted his philosophic apparatus of logic to unify nature, the universe of being, and human into a faith in the possibilities of language, and the availability to human understanding, through the powers that inhere in the possession of language of the capability of transforming the experiences of knowledge into direct access to the universe of meaning. To identify, thus, the state of beings of being ‘friends’ is to identify the state of beings of being ‘human’ with possession of language as a natural gift.

Jerome J. McGann (essay date spring 1992)

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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 as it was assumed—as it was until fairly recently—that poetry's tropes are rhetorical devices. In that case the writing is merely a special type of affectively heightened language-use. Its affective power does not alter its essential communicative function. Plato thought its rhetoric obscured the purity of conceptual truth, but the sophists and rhetoricians argued a pragmatic case for poetry. Its heightened language increased the effectiveness with which poetry could deliver its ideas.

The development of modern science undermined this traditional approach to poetry's possibilities for truth. Whereas it was once imagined that any conceptual content was open to transmission through poetry—De rerum natura is the telling case, so far as our age of science is concerned—since the seventeenth century this view has undergone a precipitous decline. The Kantian compromise, which “saved” the possibility of poetry by severing it from any obligations to referential truth, can now be seen as a clear signal that poetic discourse had come to face a deep cultural crisis. Poetry after Kant might look to have only the truth of its inner coherence. Being, however—as Shelley said—“vitally metaphorical,” its correspondence-truth was undermined.2 It could no longer easily lay claim to a relation (however ideal) between res and verba. Once a linguistic tool designed for “pleasure and instruction,” poetry in the modern world thereby lost much of its teaching authority. At best it could be seen as a stately pleasure dome or Derridean jouissance, at worst an irrelevance or distraction.

The difficulty has been exacerbated, for the academy at any rate, with the coming of the postmodern commitment to theory. Whereas critical reflection—philosophy and hermeneutics—had been the servant of poetry and literature, postmodern theory erodes that traditional relationship. Poetry in the contemporary world thus arrives at its zero-degree, having lost its privileged status even in the ghetto Kant had reserved for it. If the critic and the theorist—the scientists of literature—thus come to seize cultural authority from the writer, however, they gain this privilege at considerable expense. They become specialists in a subject with no future—in a cybernetic world, the grey-haired masters of a dead language.

This schematic history is important for tracing how an originally epistemological issue in poetry (and in language generally) developed serious ethical consequences. These consequences descend to us most directly from the late modernism of the twenties and thirties, when the politics of writing—in particular imaginative writing—became a great preoccupation in the Euro-American literary scene. At that time poets and critics alike felt it necessary to explore—and ultimately to defend or reject—the idea that poetry had a significant political function to perform. The case of Ezra Pound is a famous (and infamous) effort to establish a political office for poetry, just as the case of W. H. Auden is a famous (and infamous) refusal of that quest. The careers of George Oppen and Laura (Riding) Jackson, though less generally known, are equally symptomatic and instructive. Both abandoned their (public) poetry in the thirties—the one for thirty years, the other forever—and their decisions have hung in the air ever since, like portentous signs or dark stars. If poetry is incapable of communicating even simple expository truth, as (Riding) Jackson came to believe, what possible function could it serve in society? And what were the poets to do? Follow Auden, perhaps, into the secluded valley of his sayings? Or T. S. Eliot into religion?

The history of those who followed one or the other of those paths should be critically told and examined. A quarter-century later, in altogether different circumstances, other American poets made different choices. Charles Olson and his circle, for example, or the writers of the San Francisco Renaissance, or the constellation we have named after Robert Lowell: each sought to demonstrate, by various special forms of practice, that poetry might after all keep a political place for the genuine. In none of these instances, however, do we find a persuasive effort by the poets to address the ancient problem of poetry and truth directly and comprehensively. Olson clearly wanted to do this, but his failure is abject—as we see most clearly, perhaps, in the rubble of his Poetry and Truth.3 Oppen, who did address this question in a distinctive and powerful way, is a special case because he carried out his work in the privacy of his daybook writing. Only recently, as his work begins to make its post-humous appearance, are we beginning to realize the importance of Oppen's efforts.4

Oppen's work, in fact, calls attention to a distinctive change that has taken place in certain writers whose work emerged in the seventies and eighties. They come trying to rethink the question of poetry's relation to politics and truth. They do so, however, by turning the question of poetry's social function into a more general examination of how we are to understand the relation of language and truth. At issue here is an argument over the structure of knowledge (and the correspondent structure of language). Are they grounded in a principle of contradiction or in a principle of identity? This is a highly theoretical question customarily imagined as a problem for philosophy. We shall see, however, that when the question is taken as a (practical) subject for the discourse of poetry, we gain a significant new insight into poetry's relation to language and truth in an age of science, and into the social function that can be played by poetical work in general.

To understand how this set of ideas evolved, however, we must return to the scene of late modernism. Though Oppen—as we now can see so clearly—might have been our point of departure, I choose instead the more public (and perhaps even melodramatic) example of Laura (Riding) Jackson. Her engagement with the question of poetry and truth took the form, not of a private quest (as in Oppen), but of a public debate.


When Robert Fitzgerald reviewed (Riding) Jackson's Collected Poems (1938) in the Kenyon Review, he saw exactly what was involved in her work:

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.5

All of (Riding) Jackson's work up to the publication of the Collected Poems had argued a triple connection between language, poetry, and truth-telling. For her, the highest object of poetry had to be what she called “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.”6 What comes from poetry, as opposed to science or philosophy, is not knowledge but revelation—specifically, the revelation of the wholeness or integrity of truth—what she would call later “the One Story.”7

The traditional bases for such a revelation of the integrity of truth—religion and reason—were rejected by (Riding) Jackson. Truth's integrity lay for her, as Fitzgerald saw, in language itself, the highest medium by which human beings express themselves and interact with each other. As the supreme instance and revelation of how language works, poetry's relation to truth would be deeper and more intimate than any other type of human activity. Indeed, religion, philosophy, and the sciences seemed to (Riding) Jackson no more than language being put to particular use-functions. Poetry's special privilege lay in its unique devotion to language as such.

As many know, after 1938 Riding wrote no more poetry, and she polemicized her renunciation in a series of prose documents, which she wrote many years later.8 She did not repudiate her earlier work in poetry, however; she merely renounced poetry as the appropriate vehicle for that object she had pursued all her life with such single-minded devotion: truth. Nor did (Riding) Jackson alter her views about the relation of language to truth, as her own prose writings testify. The most famous of these later prose works, The Telling [T] (1972), maintains its commitment to the project of the revelation of truth through language. What had changed was (Riding) Jackson's view of poetry and its relation to language. Whereas earlier she saw poetry as language's best and most powerful mode of existence, later she came to see it as too sensuous and self-absorbed—as much (and perhaps more) a distraction from the truth as a revelation of the truth.9

(Riding) Jackson came to believe that poetry was merely the most seductive and deceptive of the betrayals of truth and language. Her charge is twofold. First, though it “has seemed the guardian angel of our words,” poetry is in fact only one other of the “wisdom-professions”:

Poets live bedazzled by the ideal beauty of their professional rôle. The poetic way of treating of the Subject can seem blessed by the natural authority of us all—can seem to poets and laity a way chosen by human nature, not imposed upon it by a wisdom that separates itself from human nature to rule it. But poetry does not escape the ineradiable fault of the wisdom-professions. It, too, presupposes a silent laity! The virtue poetry has of conceiving itself as the voice of the laity is lost in the professionalism of the voicing.

[T, p. 65]

This commitment to authority and power is a commitment to the illusions of truth. The illusoriness, for (Riding) Jackson, is signalled by the distance that poetry opens between itself and the “silent laity.” That distance, frequently seen as (and called) “beauty,” measures the failure of the project of truth to which language is ideally committed: for the revelation of truth through language occurs, so far as (Riding) Jackson is concerned, only as an interactive event. “The technique of poetry cannot be brought to a point of intensity at which the silent laity is given its universal speech” (T, p. 66), for language is a social practice.

In her preface “To the Reader” of the Collected Poems, (Riding) Jackson had raised this problem, but there she saw it not as a problem for all poetry, only for poetry that had failed in its mission. When the “laity,” or readers, are placed in a secondary relation to the poet, “the result is that readers become mere instruments on whom the poet plays his fine tunes … instead of being equal companions in poetry.”10 In The Telling, however, (Riding) Jackson argues that the problem lies in the nature of poetry as such, which is only another specialized form of language.

The second problem with poetry is closely related to the first:

Late in my own poetic professionalism I renounced the satisfaction of poetic success in words. The Telling is descended from that renunciation. I speak in it at the common risks of language, where failure stalks in every word. In speaking that is under poetry's protection, failure is scared away until all's said; small felicities of utterance magnify themselves into a persuasive appearance of truth. This success of art poets ennoble to a significance of virtue; in words throbbing with virtuosity's purposefulness they see a moral glow. … But only a problem of art is solved in poetry. Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.

[T, pp. 66-67]

In poetry, (Riding) Jackson says, aesthetic successes are the illusions of truth; worse still, by these successes “failure is scared away.” (Riding) Jackson turns from poetry to prose in order to reacquire the ground of the possibility of truth-telling—that is, “those common risks of language, where failure stalks in every word.”

The “failure” of poetry, then, lies (paradoxically) in its aesthetic (formal and apparitional) pretensions to power and completeness. These are specifically ideal illusions rooted in the mistaken notion that the oneness of truth is something abstract and conceptual. On the contrary, for (Riding) Jackson truth is a “telling,” an enactment. Her project—her famous commitment to what she called “a one story that tells all there is to tell” (T, p. 176)—must not be seen as a conceptual project. Rather, it is the continuous execution of that story, which has an infinite number of (possible and actual) realizations.11The Telling is a project “kept in companionship.” Hence,

I testify that my story of there being essentially and ultimately but one story is my utter own. Let it not be equated with anything else! This would compromise its worth as an offering to that possibility of companionship—to the prospect of my story of the one story's retaining, in that companionship, its meaning, my meaning, of its being a story of a one story we have all to tell.

Whatever distance remains between the outreaching margins of readers' thoughts and mine, let it be true distance, distance between themselves, in their thought as theirs and myself in my thought as mine. This being so, nothing is lost, I think, should our approaches seem to come to nought: fate, I think, is honorable with us in the true difficulties, allowing us rebeginnings where they halt us.

[T, pp. 176-77]

This passage, and some of the others I have cited, should go some way towards eradicating the idea that the postpoetical (Riding) Jackson has been seeking a transcendental ground of truth. This (not uncommon) view arises from a mistaken reading of (Riding) Jackson and her husband's work on the (variously titled) “Dictionary of Rational Meaning,” which was first announced in 1942.12 The dictionary is not seen by (Riding) Jackson as an archive setting forth the “true meanings” that correspond to various words. A dictionary of rational meanings need not also be a dictionary of transcendental meanings. As we have already seen, (Riding) Jackson is keenly aware of the “difficulties” and “distances” that inhabit the social practice we call language—even when language is being executed, as in The Telling, with utmost clarity and truth. (Riding) Jackson is certainly opposed to a language that opens a distance between a “laity” and the “wisdom-professions,” but she is committed to a language that releases the “risks” of truth-telling—a language that is involved with what she called “true distance.” This is a view of language as dialectical.

(Riding) Jackson's distinction between true and false “distances” rests in her special view of language. The “truth” of language does not depend on an abstract correspondence between words and things. Like mind, language for (Riding) Jackson should not be understood formally or structurally. Mind and language are activities. So, when she says of the dictionary that its “object is the demonstration of the dependence of good (in all the senses) diction on the use of words with attentive regard for their individual rational nature, and the general function of language as the articulation of our humanness,” we do best if we pay our own “attentive regard” to the word play operating in that parenthetical remark about “all the senses” (T, p. 70). An “attentive regard to [the] rational nature” of words means giving close attention to their “articulation” (which is always a sensible event, oral or scriptural, executed in social space). (Riding) Jackson does not use the word “diction” in some narrow and abstract way—indeed, she specifically equates it with the word “style.”13 For her, good diction involves “all the senses”; and we are to note that she says “the senses” (rather than “its senses”) because that way of speaking reveals the eventual character of “diction”: diction as an “articulation.” It emphasizes as well the fact that human “rational nature” is always embodied, material, and (ultimately) social and interactive.14

One of (Riding) Jackson's culminant poems, “When Love Becomes Words,” [“W”] argues the position she wishes to define. The poem maps the passage of “love” from an event of bodies to an event of words: “First come the omens, then the thing we mean.”15 In love's more developed condition, “There are, in truth, no words left for the kiss” when love becomes words (“W,” p. 350), for the words themselves enter on the literal truth of human experience. In this new literalness:

                    love or utterance shall preserve us
From that other literature
We fast exerted to perpetuate
The moral chatter of appearance.

[“W,” p. 350]

The prose point (as it were) of these lines is to show that all experience—whether it be “verbal” or “corporal”—is a kind of “literature”; or, as our twentieth-century idiom would have it, that language is the defining term of human experience. “When Love Becomes Words” does not involve the banishment of corporal experience:

Think not that I am stern
To banish now the kiss, ancient,
Or how our hands or cheeks may brush
When our thoughts have a love and a stir
Short of writable and a grace
Of not altogether verbal promptness.

[“W,” p. 350]

On the contrary, “finding ourselves not merely fluent / But ligatured in the embracing words / Is …”

                    still a cause of kiss among us,
Though kiss we do not—or so knowingly,
The taste is lost in the taste of the thought.

[“W,” p. 350]

Kissing under the horizon of language is to enter the full reality of love—a love that knows itself as such. It is, in a wholly non-Lawrentian sense, to have brought about the realization of “sex in the head.” In that state, “We have ceased only to become—and are” (“W,” p. 350).

As (Riding) Jackson deploys her linguistic “metaphor of love” (“W,” p. 350) in this poem, “corporal” action is imaged in oral terms, whereas the action of thought is figured scripturally. This is a heuristic distinction only, for language is the universal (but nontranscendental) human condition. Nevertheless, (Riding) Jackson's work does tend to operate with this form of the distinction, as if she set a special privilege on scripted language—as if oral language were too impermanent, like the body:

And then to words again
After—was it—a kiss or exclamation
Between face and face too sudden to record.

[“W,” p. 351]

(Riding) Jackson's distinction between love written and love spoken, I think, anticipates her later distinction between poetry and prose. On one hand is “omen,” on the other, “meaning”; the one a thing of “becoming,” the other of reality, of what we “are.” However that may be, “When Love Becomes Words” illustrates very well (Riding) Jackson's ideas about language, reality, and that deepest form of human being, love.

When (Riding) Jackson turned to prose after 1938, it should not have been a surprise; the event had many anticipations in her poetry. In her wonderful prose poem “Poet: A Lying Word,” [“P”] for example: “Does it seem I ring, I sing, I rhyme, I poet-wit? Shame on me then!”16 To avoid this (Riding) Jackson constructs a prose poem that is a wall of words: “This wall reads ‘Stop!’ This poet verses ‘Poet: a lying word!’” (“P,” p. 237). The poem presents two kinds of walls, a “false wall,” which is associated with “the poet,” and the “true wall,” which is associated with the verbal text of the work before us. In “Poet: A Lying Word,” (Riding) Jackson's text speaks itself:

Stand against me then and stare well through me then. I am no poet as you have span by span leapt the high words to the next depth and season, the next season always, the last always, and the next. I am a true wall: you may but stare me through.

[“P,” p. 234]

Part of the strength of the poem lies in its prose formality, which serves as a clear visual trope for the “true wall” of language. That true wall, this text's language, speaks of finalities: “And the tale is no more of the going: no more a poet's tale of a going false-like to a seeing. The tale is of a seeing true-like to a knowing.” (“P,” p. 235). The text is the “last barrier long shied of in your elliptic changes” (“P,” p. 236). As a thing that cannot be overleapt or gone beyond, it defines the ground of all changing things. By its encounter “Comes this even I, even this not-I, this not lying season … this every-year” (“P,” p. 235). Finality comes in and as language, it is language. Language is the speaker of this text, speaking the permanent truth concealed in the particular, historically located utterances of the poet.

In a text like this we witness—as the title of a related poem puts it—a “Disclaimer of the Person.” The ambiguous identity of the “I” is (Riding) Jackson's device for attempting a revelation of that which is permanent and transpersonal in that which is (her own) transient subjectivity:

Past the half-way mark, historically, in my poems, and up to a last phase, I am much preoccupied to make personally explicit the identity of myself poet and myself one moved to try to speak with voiced consciousness of the linguistic and human unities of speaking: I am restive insofar as this [latter] identity is only an implicit principle in my poetic speaking.17

(Riding) Jackson here is speaking once again of the relation between her story and “the one story.” Whether one uses poetry or prose, our involvement with language necessarily divides “myself … and myself.” In every particular deployment of language there is an “implicit principle” and presence of the “transparticular” (“the linguistic and human unities of speaking”). The operation of this “implicit principle” in language turns the (hi)story of (Riding) Jackson's own poetical career into an episode in the tale of the truth. Her life as a poet displays “a movement of developing sensibility, above the personal or professional, reflecting consciousness-at-large of the approach of human life in the whole to a term.”18 When (Riding) Jackson stopped writing poetry, the event signalled precisely “the approach of human life to a term.” At that point there are no other walls to overleap. One stops seeking-after, one becomes absorbed into the process of seeking-after, into what she calls “human life in the whole.” Language enters that life of its own in which all human beings—the living as well as the dead—participate.

My discussion of (Riding) Jackson's work has focussed on those features that, in my view, bring at once challenge and opportunity to later writers. I shall conclude this part of the argument by looking at one final work by (Riding) Jackson, her outrageous satire “The Life of the Dead,” [“L”] which is the last work printed in the Collected Poems. I choose this text because it helps me summarize my discussion to this point.

“The Life of the Dead” explicitly represents itself as an effort to free (Riding) Jackson's English poetry from its poeticalness. In her prefatory “Explanation” of the text, (Riding) Jackson discusses the origin and procedures of the work. It comprises ten sections of verse, each headed with an illustration executed by John Aldridge according to designs conceived by (Riding) Jackson. The sections contain a French text followed by its English equivalent, or translation. “The illustrations,” (Riding) Jackson says, “are the germ of the text” and were conceived first, “as verbal comedies” (!).19 When the illustrations were worked out, “I then made the textual frames out of French—though French is not ‘my’ language.” The French text serves as “the critical intermediary between the pictures and the English.” (Riding) Jackson summarizes her object in this way: “this highly artificial poem was first written in French, in order that the English might benefit from the limitations which French puts upon the poetic seriousness of words” (“L,” p. 417). The “critical intermediary” of the French text enables (Riding) Jackson to render what she calls a more “‘literal’ account of the world”:

The phrase ‘poetic prose,’ which is generally applied in a flattering sense to a degenerate form of prose-writing, may be correctly applied here because the poetic dishabille of the text is wilful—a conscious relaxation of poetic energy, not a stylistic orgy in prose.

[“L,” pp. 417-18]

The illustrations, for their part, stand as textual equivalents for the poetry's desire to express “the real,” which in this case is that simulacrum of reality (Riding) Jackson calls “a period of modern life, and of modern art and literature especially, in which liveliness seemed moribund, and a lie of life was breathed into death, in the name of reality” (“ER,” [The Poems of Laura Riding: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection] p. 418). A complex poetical procedure is being installed in order to satirize not merely the modern world (circa 1933, when the work was published), but more pertinently the way that world imagines its own powers of expression and imagination. Once again we are delivered over to a text that is constructing an argument about language, poetry, and truth.

(Riding) Jackson's purpose is to tell the truth about the dead modern world and its dead poetry. To do this, she needs a linguistic equivalent in which the “moribund” truth will be revealed in a language that conveys “the whole truth” about this deadly subject. The device of “translation” pushes (Riding) Jackson's English text toward a stylistic level that appears (aesthetically) threadbare.

Romanzel, doubtful if such abstruse goddess be
Terrible to know, since only silence-mighty,
Thinking amid the grim confusions
Struggling ribbon-wise where seems her head
To find a poetry of living death, resurrection
Of all that dropped down false in life, impossible—
Romanzel, spreading his tormented wings,
Spreads the blank sky of the blank-eyed dead.
Unidor, indifferent to the change
From world to other world not seen,
Holds the same task, contents the same desire.

[“L,” p. 428]

This is grotesque and comical, a kind a cross between Charles Doughty's The Dawn in Britain and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translations from the early Italian poets—both, for (Riding) Jackson, important moments for the understanding of modernism. The text's “poetic dishabille” stands as an index of the deceit that poetry's commitments to beauty always entail.

But the flat, “translated” style also opens a space between poetry's simulacra of beauty and the truth of those simulacra. The text preserves poetic apparitions in order that we should know them as such, in order “To find a poetry of living death, resurrection / Of all that dropped down false in life, impossible—” (“L,” p. 428). These lines, like the whole poem, are hypocritical, two-faced. By “prosing” the verse, (Riding) Jackson attacks the poetical resurrection of its living death. The arguments of The Telling are not far from this way of thinking about poetry. But the style of “The Life of the Dead” is very different because, in (Riding) Jackson's view, a properly executed prose does not lie open to the deceptions of verse.

In foregrounding its “highly artificial” character, “The Life of the Dead” puts (Riding) Jackson's textual “workshop” on display (“ER,” p. 418). One cannot read the poem without growing conscious of its composed features. Language-as-such rises up as the poem's central subject, therefore, and it rises up as a wall of joking and lying words. These words do not lead the reader anywhere, do not take the reader “false-like to a seeing.” The poem is not allowed to point toward any truth beyond its own interactive features, its own textuality. The truth of the poem has become utterly literal. But in doing so it is not also set apart from the reader in some aesthetic condition of disinterest. The poem shows what its “textedness” assumes—that it carries within its own literality a reader's world of expectancies and exchanges. It is a wall of words “not to be scaled and left behind.” “This wall reads ‘Stop!’” and “‘Stare me through.’” The argument is to avoid entering language because it is a mortal simulacrum of lying words that point elsewhere (the deceptions of deep feeling, perhaps, or visionary transcendence of the immediate). We are not to be distracted from the literal drama of the text, as if its truth lay elsewhere.

A key feature of that drama is the poet's involvement in it. (Riding) Jackson's “workshop” is part of the work's “outrageous” comedy (“L,” p. 418). The text disallows the illusion of a Shelleyan gap between “composition” and “inspiration.” Insofar as a gap is opened in this text, then, it is opened between text and reader, with the latter encouraged to confront the text as utterly other. In this way the reader is brought face to face with the word-as-such—with language as the entirety of the scene where truth as an exchange is represented. The writer ([Riding] Jackson) does not dominate (least of all “create”) that scene, she inhabits it; language—the scene, that world—speaks through her.

To sum up: (Riding) Jackson's work deals with three matters of special importance for later American writing. First, her turn toward prose signals the importance she attached to the rhetorical (as opposed to the symbolic) features of language. Far from being asked simply to “overhear” the sublime reflections of the poet, the reader is forced to assume a position of active consciousness in the face of her work. Second, her writing is a continuation of modernism's constructivist line (Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky), which emphasized the word-as-such. Third, (Riding) Jackson made a definitive swerve from romantic and “I-centered” poetry, along with all the ideological assumptions that came with that tradition (the most important of these being the idea of the poet as genius or creator). Engaging with these matters as she does, (Riding) Jackson brought the practice of poetry to a crisis. The example of her own work would stand as a vision of judgment for later writers. Her writing executes a standard of self-examination so deep and resolute that it cannot be evaded. Later writers who have not at least attempted to meet its challenge risk being seen—not least of all by themselves—as trivial, attendant lords and ladies.


Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote a great deal of criticism and theoretical writing about writing. In this respect she stands in the modernist tradition and should be compared with William Butler Yeats, Pound, Stein, and Eliot. These kinds of polemical and philosophic commitments were largely foresworn by the next generation of poets. Jack Spicer and Lowell are, it seems to me, philosophic poets, but neither would marshall the resources of prose (whether expository, polemical, or reflective) to pursue their intellectual and political commitments. The seventies and eighties, on the other hand, brought a distinctive return to such kinds of work in the experimental writing we have come to associate with Toronto, New York, and the San Francisco Bay area.20 In such contexts, procedural and stylistic questions of poetry began to be raised within the context of contemporary political and philosophic discussions.21

The change I am speaking of takes place when writers approach their work through “the question of language” as it was initially framed by linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure and philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein.22 One reads the work of Alan Davies (for instance, a piece like “Language—Mind—Writing”) or a critical text like Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson, only to experience the dissolution of certain traditional language-processing categories.23 As in Ron Silliman's “The Chinese Notebook” and so many other recent texts, the dissolution appears as a problem of genre. My Emily Dickinson looks like “literary criticism,” and is cataloged as such by booksellers and libraries. It reads, however, like poetry—or seems constantly to draw its expository materials into poetical forms of expression, much as Emily Dickinson's letters continually blur the distinction between prose and poetry—frequently slipping altogether into ballad meter even as the physical text maintains the linear formalities of prose.

In this context two matters carry special importance. First, such writing treats its formal and its semantic features as equally relevant to the logic of the text's development. Silliman's basic thought, for example, is that writing is thoroughly incarnate and eventual. As with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry, a text's logical or cognitive elements are approached as physical units, and in this respect not to be distinguished from the way we think of phonemes or morphemes. Silliman's texts attempt (as it were) to move the entirety of their action to the aesthetic or literal level. Second, the writing foregrounds its own procedural moves. The point here is to make the act of writing one of the principal subjects of the reader's awareness. As “the writer” thereby becomes a textual subject or function, the reader confronts the appearance of a text that is speaking itself.24

The notion that “Thought is Act” is Blakean. In the contemporary writing scene, where the conjunction of linguistics and philosophy localizes so many important issues of theory and writing, William Blake's idea acquires a new suggestiveness for both poetry and philosophy. When thought is imagined as an event of language, “Text” replaces Blake's (Platonic) “Thought” as primary actant.

If the traditional quest of philosophy is to secure an identity of thought and its object, writers after Saussure and Wittgenstein can argue that poetry is now uniquely placed to explore that identification. For it is a commonplace of twentieth-century Western philosophy that we (can) only think in and through (spoken or written) language. “Thought is Act,” then, as it is “languaged”; and since language appears only as a material praxis, its very execution stands as the hitherto unsuspected model of the identity of thought and its (political) object. In contemporary writing, philosophical nominalism rises up to (re)assert a claim to truth and authority.

Such, at any rate, is the argument that is either implicit or explicit in many contemporary writers, both prose (the Oulipo group, for instance) and poetry (the so-called Language writers in general). It is a (nominalist) argument based in a rejection of the idealist supposition that concepts or abstractions have an existence independent of the language in which they are framed, and independent of the activity that generates those concepts and abstractions. When we read in Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless that “the demand for an adequate mode of expression is senseless,” we have arrived squarely in the center of this tradition.25 The aphorism locates “adequacy” of expression in an abstract region of “senseless” beings. For Acker, “expression” is a material and embodied event—not a matter of adequacies but of extravagances and what Georges Bataille calls a “general economy” of grace and expenditure. Those who seek after the “adequate mode of expression” operate in a restricted economy of supply and “demand,” where people are moved senselessly (in both “senses”) by abstract equations. In such a view, both Neoplatonic and scientific models of thought are rejected because of their irreal aspirations toward establishing conceptual generalities for the orders of the world.26

The conjunctions of theory with various kinds of imaginative writing in the seventies and eighties reflect, therefore, an important development for writers and philosophers alike. An “answer to Plato” is being formulated, and the answer is licensed by what I would have to describe as a nonmystical and nonromantic theory of poetry-as-inspiration. Paradoxically, Laura (Riding) Jackson is the immediate precursive exponent of such a theory. (Riding) Jackson turned away from poetry to prose in order to deploy a language instrument that could tell the truth. In the contemporary scene, poetry is once again placed at the center of language by an argument that has constructed a theory and practice of “poetry” out of key elements of (Riding) Jackson's ideal of “prose.” The argument grounds itself in an understanding of language as the practice of the forms of arbitrary signification. All aspects of language (or writing) are materialized (that is, they are approached through Spicer's triad of morphemics, phonemics, and graphemics).27 Indeed, author and audience are themselves exposed as functions of language, coded beings and sets of activities. When “poetry” is seen as the linguistic mode that calls attention to the activities of these codes, its truth-telling power appears in a new way. The physique and apparitions of poetry do not become, as they were for (Riding) Jackson, truth's obstacles and distractions. They become, rather, truth's own “tellings” and eventualities.

For human beings, to enter the world is to enter language—a world that is always changing but ever-determinate and concrete, and a world no one ever made or could have made. It is a (social) world made by language, through unceasing acts of textual intercourse. Their origin is not the God of Genesis creating ex nihilo and by acts of atomic fission. The God of language was never alone or self-identical. This God therefore brings a new revelation to (hi)story (which is our language). “‘Before Abraham was born, I am’” (John 8:58): in the frame of reference I have been developing, this text is not the voice of Jesus, it is the voice of “Jesus” (and so the voice of God). It becomes a truth-telling statement (rather than a mere article of faith, or an absurd counterfactual) as soon as we understand that the text is “talking about itself.” The text is, in this sense, an illustration of itself—at once report and example.

For Plato, the “problem with poetry” was its arbitrariness. Being inspired, the poets might and could say anything, and as Plato surveyed their various sayings he discovered much of what they said to be false (contrary either to fact or to accepted norms of virtue). He therefore dismissed them from the Republic until such time as they could justify their political presence.

After Plato certain lines of “defense” were raised for poetry. The first line, which descends from Aristotle, argues that poetry's (civic) function is to imitate reality, to create secondary worlds through which we can reflect on—come to a better understanding of—the first orders of our lives. A second (Neoplatonic) line of defense, made famous for English readers by Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie, argues that poetry's office is to supply us with ideal models, golden worlds by which to transcend brazen circumstance.

A third line, which is perhaps a variant or extension of the second, emerged more recently as a critique of the inadequacies of poetry-as-mimesis. Blake's hostility to “Aristotles Analytics” became, in the romantic view of poetry, a point of departure against the rationalisms of Aristotle and Plato: “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.”28 Romanticism replaced traditional reason with the generative “I” and the true voice of energetic feeling. In this view, poetry's partiality (in both senses) is acknowledged and even insisted on. Human life is seen from a particular perspective, is seen as the possibility of many particular perspectives. Its “truth” consists in the completeness and honesty with which that perspective is presented and maintained. (The name for this perspective is “sincerity,” and the office of the poet is to “teach … how”29 such a virtue may be acquired and practiced.)

The development of language theory in our century, however, exposed the arbitrary and conventional structure (the historicality) of Archimidean levers like reason, nature, imagination, sincerity. Philosophy continues to wrestle with the consequences of this exposure. The consequences for literature have been equally profound. “Theory” has gained a (perhaps bad) eminence in literary criticism for its celebrated attacks on “referentiality.” Intertextual studies of various kinds have developed by avoiding the question of “reference,” and hence by agreeing to confine the investigation of texts to studies of their formal and intersystemic features. Certain (theoretical) voices have consistently deplored not so much these practical studies as the philosophical grounds on which they are based. The critique is well known: “theory” turns literature into a mere game, a play of signifiers and signifieds. In this view, “theory” is an abandonment of the effort to find or establish the truth-functions of imaginative writing.

In the practice of the poets, however, “theory” has had very different—profoundly different—consequences. This has come about because the poets' interests in theory and language are not the same as the interests of the philosophers and the literary academics. The latter have engaged their “wars of theory” in an effort to defend certain conceptual/ideological positions (by acts of promotion and acts of resistance). They are engaged in a struggle over ideas. When the poets make their resort to linguistics and philosophy of language, ideas (and the struggles of ideas) are represented and transacted as the forms and transforms of language. For the poets, language is not something to be understood, it is something to be carried out. In this sense, one will not “measure” the truth of thought (or language) by invoking a set of fixed standards. As Blake observed, bringing out number, weight, and measure merely acknowledges a condition of dearth. If, however, “truth” is seen as a function of language—of thought as act—then the “measure of thought” becomes rhetorical and stylistic: “measure” in the poetical sense of the word. Charles Bernstein's important essay, “Thought's Measure,” argues such a view of thought and explores some of its implications for the practice of writing.30

Philosophically speaking, one cannot “comprehend” language because there are no extralinguistic positions from which it can be viewed. This view of language has induced a certain skeptical irony, or diminished pragmaticism, among many twentieth-century philosophers, as we know. For the poets, however, the understanding has come as a great opportunity to reimagine the relation of poetry to truth—ultimately, to reimagine the relation of thought to act. Plato's realm of ideas is transvalued. The tenth section of Lyn Hejinian's My Life begins with a move arguing—illustrating, really—that (this) poetry is not “writing” but performative text—what Spicer earlier called “Thing Language”: “If it were writing we would have to explain.”31 Text (in this sense) does not have to be explained since no gap appears between thought and act, intention and execution. All the gaps are literal.

It was awhile before I understood what had come between the stars, to form the constellations. They were at a restaurant owned by Danes. Now that I was “old enough to make my own decisions,” I dressed like everyone else. People must flatter their own eyes with their pathetic lives. The things I was saying followed logically the things that I had said before, yet they bore no relation to what I was thinking and feeling. There was once a crooked man, who rode a crooked mile—thereafter he wrote in a crooked style characteristic of 19th-century prose, a prose of science with cumulative sentences.32

This kind of text is trying to be equal only to itself. As such, it extends (Riding) Jackson's quest for “love as love, death as death.”33 Whether a text proceeds “logically” or dissociatively, it is language that has its whole world in its hands. Ideas, facts, identities: all are part of what language creates and executes.

In this imagination of language, our most ancient theory of poetry—that it is inspired discourse—beings to achieve a new persuasiveness. For when we decide that language comprehends reality (both being homologous sets of all possible apparitions), we simultaneously take it to be self-authorizing. Poetry's special privilege emerges at exactly this point, for poetry is that form of discourse whose only object is to allow language to display itself, to show how it lives. What was once named “God”—that being whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere—has died and been reborn as language. So far as the poets are concerned, the linguistic apparition of God overgoes those two famous earlier transformations, the God of reason and philosophy, the God of nature and science. If language is ultimate reality, then only those in and through whom language reveals itself will be reliable sources of the truth of language, and hence of the reality of the world. Language is the common resource of our humanness, and in this sense—as both Wordsworth and Wittgenstein suggested—we are all privileged through language. But language, as Wordsworth also argued, has its seers. These are the poets (not the scientists/linguists or the literary critics/philosophers) because only the poets put language-as-such into play. The poets do not seek after that impossibility, the understanding of God (or a godlike knowledge). Rather, they seek what Bernstein has named “The Simply”: God's revelation, which is equally God's action in the world.34 In this sense, poetry is literally a divine action, for poetry is language practicing itself. In poetry, language lives and moves and has its being.

Laura (Riding) Jackson grew wary of poetry because its “verbal rituals … court sensuosity as if it were the judge of truth.”35 The linguistic splendor of much contemporary writing—for example, the passage from Hejinian quoted above—might easily be taken as an example of just what (Riding) Jackson most objects to in poetry. Hejinian could no doubt reply, out of (Riding) Jackson's own work, that truth is brought to judgment through language; that language is inherently sensuous and material; and—most important—that the truth expressed through language is most fully rendered in poetry, which is the one form of language committed to full self-disclosure. Poetry is “the telling” of the whole truth; it is at the same time “the judge” of its truth-telling because it makes its own actions a main subject of attention and judgment.

In such a view—it is widespread in the contemporary scene—poets have more to say, and more ways to say it, exactly because they think of their work in relation to (the philosophy of) language rather than (the philosophy of) imagination. The “texts” appear to say more than the writers could have imagined for themselves. “The self is unraveled as an example in investigating particular historical events, which are potentially infinite.”36 Speaking through them rather than being made to speak for them, language multiplies poetry's stylistic opportunities. The best writers of the past twenty years, therefore, have succeeded because they chose to enter the prison house of language. It is, of course, where we all live, but only those who inhabit it deliberately are able to tell the truth about it.


  1. This crisis has been widely debated; my own contribution to the discussion may be found in Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work (Cambridge, Mass., 1988). The critique of Plato in the early sections of this work is particularly relevant to the question of poetry's truth-functions. The same subject is pursued further in the sequel, Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Chicago, 1989).

  2. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” in Shelley's Prose, or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clarke (Albuquerque, N. Mex., 1954), p. 278.

  3. See Charles Olson, Poetry and Truth: The Beloit Lectures and Poems, ed. George F. Butterick (San Francisco, 1971). These texts are often extremely suggestive and interesting, but their loose, rambling manner betrays Olson's lack of intellectual clarity.

  4. For good critical presentations of George Oppen as a writer-at-work, see especially Michael Davidson, “Palimtexts: Postmodern Poetry and the Material Text,” Genre 20 (Fall-Winter 1987): 307-27, and George Oppen, “The Anthropologist of Myself: A Selection from Working Papers,” ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Sulfur 26 (Spring 1990): 135-64.

  5. Robert Fitzgerald, review of The Collected Poems of Laura Riding, by Laura Riding, Kenyon Review 1 (Summer 1939): 342.

  6. Riding, “To the Reader,” Collected Poems (London, 1938), p. xviii.

  7. (Riding) Jackson, The Telling (New York, 1972), p. 170; hereafter abbreviated T.

  8. Barbara Adams has pointed to a “single exception,” “a poem she ‘forgot’ she wrote in the form of a letter to a friend in 1978.” This work, “How a Poem Comes to Be,” “was published in 1980 as a broadside in a signed, limited edition” (Barbara Adams, The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding [Ann Arbor, Mich., 1990], p. 110).

  9. (Riding) Jackson has expressed her critique of poetry in various terms. In The Telling, for instance, she says that “poetry seems to me to have been reduced to verbal theatrics and separated from its identity as literature's fountain-head of spiritual seriousness.” Or, more absolutely, poetry's promise “never breaks forth from the tellers: the telling travels round and round the tellers in standstill coils, a bemusement in which tellers and listeners are lost” (T, pp. 168, 11; see also pp. 65-67).

  10. Riding, “To the Reader,” Collected Poems, p. xxiv.

  11. The last, and deliberately culminant, section of the Collected Poems is headed “Poems Continual.”

  12. See, for example, Joyce Piell Wexler, Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth (Athens, Ohio, 1979), esp. pp. 146-51.

  13. See: “diction (or ‘style’) must be concerned, fundamentally, with our need of speaking to one another the ultimate confidences, in the exchange of which, only, do we know, and can we be, all we as human are” (T, p. 70).

  14. So when Wexler speaks of “Riding's long-held belief that the mind, not the senses, could apprehend ultimate reality” (Wexler, Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth, p. 146), she misunderstands (Riding) Jackson's view of “mind.” (Riding) Jackson's ideas are much closer to those set forth in Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago, 1987).

  15. Riding, “When Love Becomes Words,” Collected Poems, p. 349; hereafter abbreviated “W.”

  16. Riding, “Poet: A Lying Word,” Collected Poems, p. 237; hereafter abbreviated “P.”

  17. (Riding) Jackson, “Excerpts from a Recording (1972), Explaining the Poems,” The Poems of Laura Riding: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection (New York, 1980), p. 417; hereafter abbreviated “ER.”

  18. (Riding) Jackson, “Excerpts from Preface to Selected Poems: In Five Sets, 1970,” The Poems of Laura Riding, p. 416.

  19. Riding, “The Life of the Dead,” Collected Poems, p. 417; hereafter abbreviated “L.”

  20. A vigorous scene of writing now orbits around Vancouver, British Columbia. It represents a conscious development of the work that came out of the other three centers. I should also mention the case (in England) of the poetry of Tom Raworth—recently discussed in John Barrell, “Subject and Sentence: The Poetry of Tom Raworth,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 386-410.

  21. The connection of this work with (Riding) Jackson may be glimpsed in Charles Bernstein's brief engagement with The Telling in his Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles, 1986), pp. 340-42. The important element here is not so much Bernstein's comments on (Riding) Jackson's work as the political and philosophic context in which those comments are explicitly placed.

  22. The stylistically innovative and politically engaged poetry of Ron Silliman is exemplary. “It was Ed van Aelstyn,” Silliman writes, “who, in his linguistics course, planted the idea (1968) that the definition of a language was also a definition of any poem: a vocabulary plus a set of rules through which to process it. What did I think poetry was before that?” (Ron Silliman, “The Chinese Notebook,” The Age of Huts [New York, 1986], p. 63).

  23. See Alan Davies, “Language—Mind—Writing,” Signage (New York, 1987), pp. 121-33, and Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley, 1985).

  24. In his essay “The New Sentence,” Silliman lists eight specific characteristics of “new sentence writing”; see “The New Sentence,” The New Sentence (New York, 1987), p. 91. In this paragraph I am generalizing what I take to be their common elements.

  25. Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless (New York, 1988), p. 113.

  26. The poet/theoretician whose thought most closely reflects Acker's kind of writing is surely Steve McCaffery. See his North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-86 (Toronto, 1986), esp. pp. 143-58, 201-21.

  27. See the last three sections of Jack Spicer, Language (San Francisco, 1965).

  28. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 20 (see also the entire “Memorable Fancy,” pls. 17-20), and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, pl. 10, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. ed., ed. David V. Erdman (Berkeley, 1982), pp. 42, 153; see also Blake, “Annotations to Berkeley's Siris,” pp. 663-64.

  29. William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), bk. 14, 1. 449.

  30. See Bernstein, “Thought's Measure,” Content's Dream, pp. 61-86.

  31. Lyn Hejinian, My Life (Los Angeles, 1987), p. 30; see also the first section of Spicer's Language.

  32. Hejinian, My Life, p. 36.

  33. See Riding, Love as Love, Death as Death (London, 1928).

  34. See Bernstein, “The Simply,” The Sophist (Los Angeles, 1987), pp. 7-13.

  35. (Riding) Jackson, “Excerpts from Preface to Selected Poems: In Five Sets, 1970,” p. 414.

  36. Leslie Scalapino, “Note on My Writing,” How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (Elmwood, Conn., 1989), p. 21.

Jo-Ann Wallace (essay date March 1992)

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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 literary studies in the university, especially in its most mundane and material effects (e.g., the creation of anthologies for the purpose of efficient and comprehensive undergraduate teaching), contributed to canon formation? and what is the relationship between literary-critical discourses within and outside the academy?

These are especially pressing questions for the feminist literary critic who must negotiate the need both for disciplinary rigor and for making effective interventions within a much larger social and cultural context than that of the academy. Indeed, these two goals sometimes seem irreconcilable. While Anglo-American feminist literary criticism was once taken to task for being too empirical and insufficiently theorized, worries have more recently begun to surface that a highly theorized and linguistically based feminism—one drawing primarily from those “French feminisms” influenced by Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis—has lost touch both with women's experience and with the ways texts circulate and are engaged in a continuing dialectical relationship with the conditions under which they are produced and read.1 Janet Todd, for example, defends “the early socio-historical enterprise” of feminist criticism, arguing that “feminist literary history finds history necessary. There are external points of reference, however problematized, both in the past writer and in the critic herself who must know that she at least is in an historical world of historical things which constantly impact. Materiality cannot be always and entirely subsumed into the subject, history into psychoanalysis, epistemology into sexuality, or what Lacan mocked as the ‘reality principle’ of Freudian theory into the sign and the symbolic.”2 Even more recently, Rita Felski discusses the ways a linguistically or textually based feminism is blind to the political potential of many realistic or referential women's texts.3 Indeed, together with “experience,” “referentiality” has lately proven to be among the most thorny of critical concepts for feminist thinkers.

At this moment in our cultural history—a moment characterized by cutbacks in funding for educational, cultural, and social agencies throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—we desperately need to understand both the role played by material forces in cultural production and that played by cultural reception as it is mediated through various literary institutions, including the academy. This seems of even more immediate importance than the construction of alternative “traditions” and “canons”—what Marilyn Butler has called “a peculiarly insidious pseudohistory, the belief that there is something readily knowable called ‘tradition,’ to which we can attribute explanatory power.”4 Laura Riding's effective decanonization, her absence from the various canons which now compose English Studies, provides a useful case study for examining such dynamics within the fields both of institutional literary studies and of feminist cultural politics; by this I mean our own implication in institutional “webs of significance.”5 As my use of the plural form of “traditions” and “canons” will indicate, I am arguing that not only has Riding been excised from “the Canon,” “the Tradition,” but that for some reason her work has not even found its way into the revisionist canons of feminism. I am not interested here in arguing that Riding should be included in any canon—her own hugely unsympathetic and even antagonistic discussions of feminism render her work problematic—but only in analyzing the reasons for her exclusion, even her excision.

In a 1971 letter of protest that Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote to the Modern Language Quarterly she described herself as having been “manhandled in absentia.”6 The letter complained, albeit five years after the fact, of her exclusion from a kind of colloquium in that journal on “The Construction of [William Empson's] Seven Types of Ambiguity.7 James Jensen, the author of the lead article, had argued forcefully for recognition of Riding's guiding contribution to A Survey of Modernist Poetry, a book she co-wrote with Robert Graves in 1927 and whose method of close reading was later acknowledged by William Empson as a source of inspiration for his own work on ambiguity. Laura (Riding) Jackson's larger complaint, however, involved her exclusion from literary history, which she figured as a kind of boys' club: “I have been man-handled in absentia. … I deem it a debt to readers of the Modern Language Quarterly … that the missing person (excluded as from a literary cloakroom session) be given space for self-representation.”

That Riding has, in fact, been decanonized is evident from the 1988 second edition of that most canonical of texts, the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Riding's name was familiar in at least a ghostly kind of way to a generation of professors and students on the basis of her inclusion in the first (1973) edition of the Norton anthology; yet she was dropped from the second, and this in spite of the professed objective of the editors to include more women poets. Indeed, the “Publisher's Preface to the Second Edition” indicates that some poets were dropped on the basis of their practical decanonization: “The difficult decisions to omit some of the first-edition poets and poems were based on a canvass of teachers, which showed that they were seldom if ever taught.”8 Similarly, Riding has not been included in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's canonical Norton Anthology of Literature by Women; nor has she been discussed in any of the major new studies of women writers of the modernist period.9 How is it that a woman writer—poet, critic, publisher, and editor—whom the early Norton described as exhibiting a “heroic independence and incorruptibility” has been so neglected in an age of feminist criticism and recovery?

Theoretically, of course, a question like this could be asked of any uncanonized writer. In the case of Riding, however, the question seems especially pressing, for what is so remarkable about Riding—at least biographically—is the centrality of her interests to three of the most important critical projects of the last sixty years: New Criticism, feminism, and deconstruction. A short biographical sketch will be useful in tracing these connections. Riding was born Laura Reichenthal in New York City in 1901; she “changed her name in 1922 when she married Louis Gottschalk,” a young history professor, and her first published poems were signed “Laura Riding Gottschalk.”10 The marriage was short-lived, and in 1927 she assumed the name of Laura Riding; upon her re-marriage in 1941—to Schuyler B. Jackson, poetry critic of Time magazine—and shortly after her renunciation of poetry, she once more changed her name, this time to Laura (Riding) Jackson, the parentheses around “Riding” reflecting her “present attitude to her life as a poet” (Wexler, 2). Riding began to publish her poetry in 1923, particularly in The Fugitive, which published thirteen of her poems in less than a year and a half and which awarded her the Nashville Prize for poetry in 1924. In 1925, the Fugitives made her first an honorary and later an official member of their group. This honor has been treated skeptically by some literary historians. As one historian of the movement rather condescendingly notes, “Other poets and writers had been their guests, but until her visit late in 1924, no woman had been allowed to sit in with them, and a number of the wives of members were annoyed by this invitation. As soon as she appeared, the Fugitives saw that she was not at all their type.”11 Louise Cowan, another historian of the Fugitives, notes that Riding “was not really influenced by the Fugitive approach to poetry; indeed, some of the men were later to feel that, far from being a disciple, she would have liked to take the Fugitives over and influence them.12 Riding, in fact, later claimed just such an influence.

In 1926, as the result of an exchange of mutually admiring letters, Riding left for England to begin work with Robert Graves on a collaborative critical project on modern poetry. This was A Survey of Modernist Poetry, published in 1927 and cited by William Empson—who initially recognized only the authorship of Graves—as the methodological source of his own Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930.13 Riding later claimed—in a 1974 article called “Some Autobiographical Corrections of Literary History”—that she was herself responsible for the method of close reading which, through Empson, culminated in New Criticism.14

Riding's complicated relationship with Robert Graves lasted until about 1940, a period which saw the publication of all her books of poetry and much of her criticism. During this period Riding and Graves also established the Seizin Press and the periodical Epilogue, and Riding was also active in the larger network of small presses which is one characteristic of literary modernism. Her first two books of poetry, The Close Chaplet (1926) and Voltaire: A Biographical Fantasy (1927), were published by the Hogarth Press, and she herself published Gertrude Stein's An Acquaintance with Description (1929). In 1939, shortly after the publication of her Collected Poems (1938) and her return to the United States, Riding renounced poetry and, with her new husband, devoted herself to “produc[ing] a new kind of dictionary” (Wexler, 142); the title of this still unpublished work is “Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words.” With her renunciation of poetry, Riding became increasingly reluctant to allow her poems to be reproduced without an accompanying disclaimer, and while this may help to account for her disappearance from anthologies, it does not begin to account for her disappearance from literary history.

Riding later claimed that her initial commitment to poetry had been one manifestation of a larger commitment to realizing full human potential in language, what she called the “universal linguistic solution” (Poems, 9). However, the renunciation was in many ways typical of both her poetics and her philosophy, which were characterized by a profound resistance to the social and the historical and an equally profound drive toward the absolute and the universal. Poetry, she came to believe, was marred by its appeal to the merely sensual—in other words, by its aesthetic appeal, for the two terms seem to have been equivalent for Riding. She distinguished between the “creed” of poetry and its “craft” (that is, its necessarily degraded sensual embodiment in sound and rhythm): “what compatibility can there be between the creed offering hope of a way of speaking beyond the ordinary, touching perfection, a complex perfection associable with nothing less complex than truth, and the craft tying the hope to verbal rituals that court sensuosity as if it were the judge of truth?”15 Although Riding did not account for her renunciation of poetry until the 1970 Preface to her Selected Poems: in five sets, the impossible demands she made of poetry are evident throughout her oeuvre and point toward her long silence. In “What Is a Poem?”—an essay from her 1928 collection Anarchism is not enough—Riding writes,

What is a poem? A poem is nothing. By persistence the poem can be made something; but then it is something, not a poem. Why is it nothing? Because it cannot be looked at, heard, touched or read (what can be read is prose). It is not an effect (common or uncommon) of experience; it is the result of an ability to create a vacuum in experience—it is a vacuum and therefore nothing … as both cause and effect the poem counts itself out of experience. …16

As is evident from this passage, Riding sought a poetry of pure expressivity or absolute presence; unreadable because untraceable, before or beyond writing and its materiality, the poem has an a priori existence. Although the following passage was written ten years later, Riding's definition of poetry remains consistent. Significantly, the poet as agent is absent from both passages; poetry has an agency prior to and beyond that of the poet, and consequently it carries a moral imperative which is absolute:

I am going to give you poems written for all the reasons of poetry—poems which are also a record of how, by gradual integration of the reasons of poetry, existence in poetry becomes more real than existence in time—more real because more good, more good because more true. … To live in, by, for the reasons of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence. When we are so continuously habituated that there is no temporal interruption between one poetic incident (poem) and another, then we have not merely poems—we have poetry; we have not merely the immediacies—we have finality. Literally.17

Riding's faith in poetry as a moral yet ultimately ahistorical force is in many ways similar to the poetics of such modernist formalists as T. S. Eliot and, indeed, the Fugitives and later New Critics. However, unlike them Riding resists any idea or vision of social order and promulgates instead a radical and impersonal individualism, an individualism available only to “minds complete in themselves.”18 This radical individualism is itself a kind of absolute presence and thus extends beyond the human and into the literary arena where it is expressed as a resistance to any ordering of texts, in effect a resistance to the very idea of a literary tradition or canon. In, for example, “What Is a Poem?” Riding writes, “Whenever this vacuum, the poem, occurs, there is agitation on all sides to destroy it, to convert it into something. The conversion of nothing into something is the task of criticism. Literature is the storehouse of these rescued somethings” (18). Riding writes more explicitly against the idea of a literary tradition or canon in “The Corpus,” which was perhaps intended as a response to T. S. Eliot's 1920 collection, The Sacred Wood:

The group can never be anything more than a superstition, but the categories assemble all available material into a textual Corpus. There being no real functional group surviving, this Corpus of group texts is used as the rallying point of the group, the counterpart of the primitive clan totem, the outward and visible sign of a long-extinct grace.

The Corpus, in making categorical demands upon the individual, thus limits the ways in which works may be conceived and presented. These demands become the only “inspiration” countenanced, and theoretically all creative supply has its source in them.


Riding's resistance to the corpus and to the very idea of a canon remained active and vigilant. She quite actively protested any treatment of her work which was comparative in approach, no matter how flattering the comparison. The following passage is from a response to an article that compared her commitment to a “religious seriousness” with that of Paul Tillich:

What I have done and do, I have done and do from springs of motivation of my own, to be identified in straight examination of what I have done, and do, which issues in straight course from the motivation—which, in turn, originates at the center of my being, and not at a hypothetical ‘center of our culture.’ … Mr. Kirkham has wanted to do me a proper justice by subjecting my work to honors of comparison in terms of ideas. But this wrenches it from its spiritually and intellectually and linguistically personal foundations.19

What I am calling Riding's radical, impersonal individualism, as it expressed itself both in the personal and the literary arenas, is quite different from Eliot's impersonal theory of poetry and his concept of an ideal and ahistorical order of literature, just as it is quite different from the Fugitive and New Critical agendas. For Riding, the poem is (or was) the most accurate possible expression of truth, while for the New Critics the poem is an enactment, through its organic functioning and nature, of a social and cultural ideal. Thus Cleanth Brooks can argue that modern poetry is characterized by a “full commitment to metaphor,” a commitment that implies principles of “indirection” and “organic relationship.”20 For Riding, on the other hand, poetry is as strictly denotative as possible in its commitment to Truth. Many of her poems are about the refusal of metaphor, and her turn to a lexicography that would prescribe an essential meaning and proper usage for words (Wexler, 148) is a mark of her refusal of the contextual and the relative. While for New Critics like Brooks the poem points to a social order which its own form enacts, for Riding the poem exists in or creates a vacuum of pure expression.

With its refusal of the social and the historical, Riding's work has been a challenge to the few feminist critics interested in examining it. Jane Marcus attempts to articulate a space for Riding within a women's literary tradition by comparing her belief in “women's superiority” to the feminist politics that Virginia Woolf outlined in Three Guineas, by comparing her experiments with language to those of Gertrude Stein, and by comparing her “integrity” and her “withdrawal from the world” to Emily Dickinson's.21 Carolyn Burke acclaims Riding's “relentlessly singular female voice” and concludes that “her linguistic combat offers an alternative to blatant confessionalism and a cure for facile poetics. Austere, yes, but with a certain grand, impersonal honor.”22 Riding herself completely dismissed feminism as a social movement in a 1972 article, which argues that all social struggle is by its nature masculinist:

in fighting for full social liberation as if it held the key for them to fullness of life and performance, women are sealing themselves off from that of which they have, by their woman-nature, pure, sure sensibility—sensibility unobstructed by self-interested appetencies. They add their force, in newly fierce intensity of imitation of masculine exertion towards the creation of social substitutes for spiritual ends, to the removal of the spiritual reality of the human reality to distances of abstraction—morally convenient—seeming distances, by masculine moral optics. They confuse the satisfaction of a male-like vanity in self-emphasizing social performance with the joy of a new sense of social usefulness.23

Riding calls her position in this article a “counter-revolutionary” one, and she predicts that “this current liberation-of-women movement” will end up in the “Contemporary Concept Dump.” Indeed, Riding's position is reactionary to the extent that it shares in a nineteenth-century ideology of the separate spheres, and yet it is counter-revolutionary in that like so much of her thinking it is so purely idiosyncratic. In 1966 Robert Graves wrote that Riding “can be seen now as not only the most original poet of the Twenties and Thirties but the only one who spoke with authority as a woman,”24 and indeed many of her poems and stories are powerful evocations of the condition and difference of Woman. However, here again it is the relentless singularity of the category (“Woman” as ahistorical and asocial) which undermines its usefulness to a feminist critical project.

I had expected, when I began work on Riding, to be able to claim that deconstruction finally offered a methodology by which her critical and her creative work could be understood. It must be emphasized that her project was in no way a deconstructive one in terms of its intention, but her terms of reference and the issues to which she turned her attention are most usefully brought into focus by deconstruction. Her continuing attention to the linguistic, her (in deconstructive terms, completely misguided) efforts to achieve a language of full presence—a poetry which precedes, exceeds, and exhausts writing—and her own rigorous analysis of the text of any critic brave or foolhardy enough to enter her arena all seemed to point to the usefulness of deconstruction to Riding scholarship, at least as a way of understanding and situating her project and its aporias. She has, however, predicted and attempted to forestall such an approach in an essay in which she lambastes deconstruction, indeed all critical theory, as part of “the general intellectual evasion of the time of commitment to truth, as a realizable human end.”25 The passage is worth quoting both for its great verve and for the point that Riding raises about the loss of referentiality in literary deconstruction, a loss which has effectively disabled literature as an agent of social and cultural change. And it is important to remember that although Riding did not support social movements, she did believe in an individual change and growth made possible by writing.

Where the processes of understanding have been institutionalized into forms of activity of a distinct cultural identity of their own, the coming to a dead-stop manifests itself in activity-simulating theorizing of the order that has acquired such designations as “deconstruction,” and a general characterization as being “reductionist.” All fields of intellectual concern have been affected by this theorizing busyness, conducted as over the dead bodies of what were once live intellectual concerns. Literature has had infiltrated into it all the stupefaction of linguistic sensibility produced by the decline of twentieth-century intellectual vitality into vapid theoreticism. The content of literary criticism has been transmuted from intellectual exploration of the content of literature into engagement in the invention of terminological weapons for the putting and keeping of literary activity in its place. …


Riding noted the degree to which both she and her writing were regarded as having a “nuisance character,”26 and indeed she consistently refused to be one of the “dead bodies” of literature. For the last twenty years of her life, and after a virtual thirty-year silence, Laura (Riding) Jackson devoted herself to correcting literary history and to supplying what she called “behind-the-scenes autobiographical realities, in the great bibliographical and literary-historical theatre.”27 I would argue that, in fact, it has been this refusal to relinquish critical authority over her writing which has led both to her excision from “the canon” and to her continued invisibility in the construction of revisionist canons. Her refusal to allow her poems to be reprinted “without reference to her having renounced poetry a few years after the publication of [her] Collected Poems28 has undoubtedly had an influence on their accessibility. Her demands for what amounts to a total discipleship and her disclaiming of any critical approach that is not, as Christopher Norris points out, “commentary—and preferably detailed, line-for-line commentary,”29 undoubtedly put a strain on even her most interested critics. Joyce Piell Wexler, who has written one of the only two book-length studies of Riding's work,30 notes in her “Introduction”:

The difficulty in writing about Riding stems from the fact that each of us values different parts of her work. For three years Riding and I were able to remain friends because I tried to grasp her point of view. When I showed her an early draft of my book, however, she broke communication with me. I felt she was disappointed to find a gap between her sense of her life and the image I presented. In her final letter to me, she asked why interpretations and explanations were necessary at all.


However, it is just this refusal to cede interpretive authority or to relinquish intentionality and referentiality which makes Riding's work and project so useful to feminists today, if only because it foregrounds the degree to which a struggle for cultural authority underlies all canon formation.

To summarize, Riding's work had what could perhaps be called points of strategic similarity to the three most important critical movements of the last sixty years. She shared with New Criticism a strategy of close textual analysis, with feminism a strategy of exploring female difference, and with deconstruction a strategy of rigorous linguistic analysis; and yet, although her strategies were similar, her intention was always quite different.31 And Laura (Riding) Jackson never allowed her intention to be rendered invisible. By insisting that her intention be made part of the historical record, Riding effectively undermined the usefulness of her texts to each of these critical methodologies. In so doing, she ensured (albeit unwittingly and certainly unwillingly) her effective decanonization while at the same time helping to expose the degree to which all critical approaches are (self-)interested. My own is obviously no exception.

I have found Riding's work—by which I mean both her creative and her polemical work—useful because its critical reception articulates and foregrounds a relationship among literary production, canon formation, and various kinds of literary institutions. Implicit in all of these terms is a question of literary cultural authority and mediation, a question which is crucial to this stage of feminist literary criticism. How do literary institutional practices shape critical reception? Who and what mediate between the author and her readers? What kinds of mediation are most effective in furthering social and cultural change? How do we position ourselves, as feminist critics, in relation to the women whose work we discuss? How can we reconstruct the kinds of agency available to women writers of an earlier period and how can we incorporate those lessons into our own agendas for cultural change? And how do we deal with a writer whose linguistic experiments effectively challenge the Law of the Father but whose stated intentions are antifeminist? These are questions which textual and poststructuralist feminist literary criticisms have been unable to address adequately, questions which require a feminist reinterrogation of the notion of referentiality.

This paper had its origins in a culturally specific moment of reading Riding's poetry, and I want to sketch very briefly some of the contours of that moment. I began serious work on Riding in the early months of 1988, and it was then—more specifically, in December 1987 and in January and February 1988—that the de Man “affair” or the de Man “scandal,” as it has been variously labeled, began to unfold in the popular press. The details are by now well known. On 1 December 1988, a New York Times headline revealed that the “Yale Scholar Wrote for Pro-Nazi Newspaper”; specifically, the article revealed that a graduate student at the University of Louvain, Belgium, had discovered more than a hundred articles written for “anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi newspapers in Belgium during World War II.”32 The most widely cited of these articles during the controversy that developed was “Les Juifs dans la Littérature actuelle,” published in Le Soir, 4 March 1941, in which de Man “argued that ‘our civilization’ had remained healthy by resisting ‘the Semitic infiltration of all aspects of European life.’”33

Much of the debate which followed in the “letters to the editor” pages of various newspapers and journals focused on whether or not de Man's suppression of his personal history shed light on his critical methodology and on the need for “a reevaluation of the politics of deconstruction.”34 However, another important result of the de Man affair was the way in which it made manifest a kind of realpolitik of literary studies, a realpolitik which was more and more in the news and which raised important questions regarding “ownership” of literary discourse. When the de Man affair “broke” in January and February of 1988, it was initially reported as a crisis within deconstruction; however, the terms of the debate soon shifted to the politics of language, with journalists and academics alike taking pokes at each other. In July 1988 the Sunday New York Times carried an article about de Man on its “Ideas & Trends” page; embedded in the article was a layman's guide to deconstruction which set an aggressive tone from its opening paragraph: “Since it is an article of deconstructionist faith that a text has no fixed, single meaning, it probably shouldn't be surprising that books and articles written by deconstructionists are all but impossible for most other people to comprehend.”35 Significantly, Jacques Derrida's passionate response to the de Man controversy began by defining the “war” which had arisen “around” de Man as a war in and declared by the American press: “For several months, in the United States, the phenomena of this war ‘around’ Paul de Man have been limited to newspaper articles. War, a public act, is by rights something declared. … To my knowledge, at the moment I write, this war presents itself as such, it is declared in newspapers, and nowhere else, on the subject of arguments made in newspapers, and nowhere else, in the course of the last world war, during two years almost half a century ago.”36

In July 1988 an article by Mark Edmundson—a professor and a literary journalist—usefully defined the escalating feud between academic critics and journalists as a “struggle for cultural authority.”37 Journalists, he argued, are unwilling to give up their claims to a disinterested and objective authority while deconstructionists are unwilling to give up their “romance of alienation.” Out of this stalemate, Edmundson concluded, “the winners in all this … are those standing powers that find inertia to be in their best interests, because a fusion of journalistic urgency and acumen with academic speculation could probably still produce a potent cultural criticism” (71). Thus the scandal, whose roots were in World War II collaborationist politics, was read by theorists and journalists alike as emblematic of a struggle for cultural authority today. The implication of Edmundson's article is that by isolating ourselves/themselves in an ivory tower of impenetrable language, deconstructionists are unwitting collaborators in a larger cultural politics. This is also, of course, the problematic at the heart of much recent feminist writing and criticism: is a linguistic, poststructuralist feminism sufficient and/or effective?

I want to point here not only to popular journalism's resistance to theory and elaboration of a superficial discourse of personality (the “politics” of deconstruction only became visible—and “scandalous”—when personified) but also to theory's (including feminist theory's) resistance to the troubling opacity of personality. Do these two “resistances” help to account for Riding's decanonization? Has she been relegated not just to the back burner but right off the stovetop of literary history because she was a “difficult woman”—a “bad daughter” (to New Criticism) and a “bad mother” (to feminist literary criticism)? For despite its historical grounding in the subjective (“the personal is political”), feminist theory—in its material, institutional practice—has not yet thought through its own disciplining of “difficult women.” And, as the title of her first published poem in fifty years reveals, Laura (Riding) Jackson remained a difficult woman. I will anticipate what might have been her criticism of this article by quoting from that poem, “Lamenting the Terms of Modern Praise”:

The subjects of modern appreciation
Are all at slants, classifiable by
The direction of the slants. There is no straight.(38)


  1. Elaine Showalter's 1981 article, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” (in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982]), argued for a more fully theorized feminist literary criticism while retaining some reservations about such projects as l'écriture féminine. Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics (New York: Methuen, 1985) provided a more stinging critique of Anglo-American feminist literary criticism.

  2. Janet Todd, Feminist Literary History (New York: Routledge, 1988), 2, 136-37.

  3. Rita Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989).

  4. Marilyn Butler, “Against Tradition: The Case for a Particularized Historical Method,” in Historical Studies and Literary Criticism, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 37.

  5. This phrase is borrowed from Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 6.

  6. With her renunciation of poetry in 1939, Laura Riding took her new husband's last name and parenthesized her own. In this paper, I use the name under which she published most of her work; when referring to more recent publications, I use her current name.

  7. James Jensen, “The Construction of Seven Types of Ambiguity,Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966): 243-59; includes “Comments” by I. A. Richards, Robert Graves, and William Empson. Laura (Riding) Jackson's response is contained in “Correspondence,” Modern Language Quarterly 32 (1971): 447-48.

  8. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, ed., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988), xlvi.

  9. The reason for Riding's exclusion from the Gilbert and Gubar Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (New York: Norton, 1985) may perhaps be discerned from a comment in vol. 1 of Gilbert and Gubar's No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988). In a discussion of women's literary history, the authors note that “To have a history … may not be quite so advantageous as some feminists have traditionally supposed”; they quote from an unpublished letter from Laura (Riding) Jackson to the authors to the effect that the idea of a women's tradition is equivalent to a “literary ladies' room” (196, 298 n. 43). I am assuming from this that Riding refused to allow her poems to be anthologized in the Gilbert and Gubar Norton. This refusal, however, does not adequately account for the degree to which her work has been ignored by feminist critics. Her work is not, for example, discussed either in Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia L. Smyers's Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Women 1900-1940 (London: Women's Press, 1987) or in the special issue of Women's Studies (vol. 13, 1986) devoted to “the female imagination and the modernist aesthetic.”

  10. Joyce Piell Wexler, Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1979), 2.

  11. John L. Stewart, The Burden of Time: The Fugitives and Agrarians (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), 82.

  12. Louise Cowan, The Fugitive Group: A Literary History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1959), 184.

  13. Jensen quotes the following note from the “opening pages of the first edition” of Seven Types of Ambiguity: “Mr. I. A. Richards, then my supervisor for the first part of the English Tripos, told me to write this essay, and various things to put in it; my indebtedness to him is as great as such a thing ever should be. And I derived the method I am using from Mr. Robert Graves' analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet, ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,’ in A Survey of Modernist Poetry” (Jensen, 244).

  14. Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Some Autobiographical Corrections of Literary History,” University of Denver Quarterly 8 (1974): 1-33.

  15. Laura Riding, Selected Poems: in five sets (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 12.

  16. Laura Riding, “What Is a Poem?” Anarchism is not enough (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), 16-17.

  17. Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Original 1938 Preface TO THE READER,” The Poems of Laura Riding, A New Edition of the 1938 Collection (New York: Persea Books, 1980), 412-13.

  18. Laura Riding, “The Corpus,” Anarchism is not enough, 29.

  19. Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Comments on Michael Kirkham's Essay,” Chelsea 33 (1974): 154-55. Kirkham's essay “Laura (Riding) Jackson” is in the same issue, 140-50.

  20. Cleanth Brooks, “Irony as a Principle of Structure,” in Debating Texts: Readings in 20th Century Literary Theory and Method, ed. Rick Rylance (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1987), 37.

  21. Jane Marcus, “Laura Riding Roughshod,” Iowa Review 12 (1981): 295-99.

  22. Carolyn Burke, “Laura (Riding) Jackson: The Disclaimer of Persons,” HOW-(ever) 1 (Oct. 1983): 11-12.

  23. Laura (Riding) Jackson, “The Bondage,” Chelsea 30/31 (1972): 31.

  24. Robert Graves, “Comments,” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966): 256—a response to Jensen's “The Construction of Seven Types of Ambiguity.

  25. Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Is There a World For Literature?—Is There Literature For a World?” Chelsea 44 (1985): 24. See also Christopher Norris's comparative analysis of Riding's style and language theory (“Laura Riding's The Telling: Language, Poetry, and Neutral Style,” Language and Style 11 [1978]: 137-45) and Riding's somewhat belated reply (“An Exchange: Laura (Riding) Jackson and Christopher C. Norris,” Language and Style 19 [1986]: 196-216).

  26. “Is There a World for Literature?” 14.

  27. “Some Autobiographical Corrections,” 33.

  28. From an editorial note appended to Laura Riding, “Poems,” University of Denver Quarterly 8 (1974): 34.

  29. Norris, “An Exchange,” 211.

  30. The other, also in the nature of an introduction to Riding and her work, is Barbara Adams's The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1990). Robert Perceval Graves has recently published the second volume of his three-part biography, Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-40 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990), which is devoted to the poet's relationship with Riding.

  31. See Wexler's discussion of Riding's emphasis on the importance of sincerity and motivation, 153-55.

  32. Jon Wiener, “Deconstructing de Man,” Nation, 9 Jan. 1988, 22. See also James Atlas, “The Case of Paul de Man,” New York Times Magazine, 28 August 1988, 37.

  33. Wiener, 22.

  34. Wiener, 24.

  35. George Johnson, “Decoding Deconstruction: A Whole New Way of Thinking,” New York Times, 17 July 1988, E6.

  36. Jacques Derrida, “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man's War,” trans. Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 590. Emphasis in original.

  37. Mark Edmundson, “A Will to Cultural Power: Deconstructing the de Man Scandal,” Harper's Magazine, July 1988, 67.

  38. Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Lamenting the Terms of Modern Praise [a poem],” Chelsea 47 (1988): 3.

This paper was originally presented at the University of Alberta's 1988/89 “Literary Theory” series. The author is greatly indebted to Ted Bishop, Jane Marcus, and Stephen Slemon for their comments on earlier drafts. Laura Riding died on 2 September 1991, while this article was in preparation.

Peter S. Temes (essay date January 1994)

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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 of her best poems: to escape from the role of the object, of the seen and judged. She took control of her public representation, her literal re-presentation: she did not merely present her poems—and herself as a poet—and then accept the inevitable re-presentation of them and her by some of her readers (critics, most notably) to others of her readers and even to the nonreaders of her poems who would find reviews and encapsulations of her work in journals, anthologies, and textbooks. Instead, she presented her poems and herself and then demanded no re-presentation, no altered echo of her words and ideas. By design, (Riding) Jackson managed to make her renunciation of poetry a continuing occasion to preserve her critical voice, which would otherwise be silent.

Sometime after she stopped writing (she is cagey about exactly when), she prohibited any reproduction of her poems. “Then,” she explained in 1972,

when I felt confident of my ability to speak substantially on my reasons for renouncing poetry … I modified this ban: give me leave, I would reply to requests for the use of my poems, to be represented also by a statement on my changed view of poetry and I shall make no resistance.

(“What” 1)

Poems reproduced without comment would have presented “Laura Riding” as a poet making her art available to her culture's interpretation; withheld poems would have presented nothing, publicly. But poems printed along with a note by Laura (Riding) Jackson on her renunciation of poetry present her “speak[ing] substantially” as a poet, as a critic of poetry, and as a subject dramatizing resistance to interpretation (though one takes an interpretive risk in reading as ironic her promise to “make no resistance”). That achieving the public role of a subject resisting interpretation required absolute silence as a poet for a time and then an open gesture of self-rejection testifies to the limits a woman poet faced (and faces) within the broad critical discourse of twentieth-century public statement. Indeed, (Riding) Jackson's persona of a silenced poet, following her renunciation, is a final figure of the woman hero celebrated in her best poetry.

(Riding) Jackson most clearly establishes her position in several of her later poems, by setting an articulate woman in opposition to the culture generally and to a pronominal “you” in particular. This “you” is a distinctly male figure representing a distillation of the patriarchal elements of family, state, and literary practice. By choosing “you” instead of, for example, “he,” (Riding) Jackson conflates with her audience the limiting cultural forces she addresses. This move unavoidably indicts her readers to some extent but also—and more important—severs any alliance between poet and audience, affirming the poet's solitude as speaker, a solitude that eventually turns into silence.

(Riding) Jackson's poems were first produced and first interpreted within three patriarchal institutions that themselves became her most powerful subjects: the literary world of the 1920s and 1930s, the politics of the time, and the literal patriarchy—the early- and middle-twentieth-century family. Her later critical prose suggests, however, that even if her circumstances had been different, she would have resisted interpretation just as firmly. In essays she contributed to literary magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, she rails against even the most unassuming of interpretive tasks: trying to understand a poem.3 Only a reader who receives the meaning in an instant, leaving it whole and pure, is adequate to the poem.

But in her poems, (Riding) Jackson speaks a different language from the one she speaks in her prose. The poems clearly criticize—and sometimes directly assault—the patriarchal social institutions that a woman artist of her day was forced to deal with, even one so fortunate as (Riding) Jackson was in having her first book of poems published by Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press. Unlike her prose, (Riding) Jackson's poems point not to interpretation in general but to specific contexts of interpretation—times, places, and family relationships—as the real obstacles to the kind of communication she wishes to have with her readers.

Like the “I” of her poem “Memories of Mortalities” (Poems 252-63), (Riding) Jackson committed herself to a public identity as a speaking woman but then retreated from the commitment because her speech—her poems, taken together—began to seem like a “mistold confidence,” a set of deeply held beliefs endangered, perhaps even distorted, by the objectifying consequences of articulation. “Memories of Mortalities” locates the problem not in the speaker but in her circumstance:

So I began those mistold confidences
Which now read like profanity of self
To my internal eye
And which my critic hand erases
As the story grows too difficult to speak of
In the way the world speaks.


A meaningful idea is finally not expressible in the way the world speaks, and so her critic hand erases, leaving silence in place of misstatement. The “internal eye” is presented in an inward-looking shortened line; the poet's difficulty of speech is offered outward in a longer line. The private vision is kept close by the speaker's margin, while the troubling articulation is pushed outward, and thus the prosody enacts the resolution of silence the poem works toward—the speaker will retain her uncompromised private vision, while in lieu of speech the world will be given only a testimony of the difficulty of speaking. (Riding) Jackson too chooses the silence of erasure, though one must ask how free the choice is. Perhaps she is silenced by the cultural forces that offer to her as an alternative only submission to the kind of appropriation Patricia Yeager predicts for most women writers—“a dazzling empowerment followed by a moment in which this power is snatched away.” In Yeager's paradigm, a woman who writes finds that her culture—through the agency of critics—places her work in a neutering context. “What remains in our minds after such scenes,” Yeager says,

is not simply a sense of feminine failure but a double burden. First, we learn that women, like men, are capable of joining the great. Second, we learn that something in the social order (either something external, or a set of beliefs internalized by the actant herself) intervenes, and the heroine finds herself … bereft, in a lower social stratum than before.


(Riding) Jackson seems to have been profoundly aware of the “moment” threatening to reduce the power and meaning of her work. Whether the danger comes from an internalized impulse she would perform herself (and one could argue that her rejection of poetry is just such an act), from critics, or from readers as they respond personally to her writing, (Riding) Jackson fights the threat by recognizing it and incorporating it into her work. Her method is to invent in her poems different versions of the speaking self and to dramatize the devastating effects of the type of cultural interpretation Yeager discusses by often including in her work an interpretive agency that damages or destroys one of the personae. (Riding) Jackson's literary career follows the same script, in that her poet persona is eventually subordinated to her critic persona, which rejects poetry. Thus (Riding) Jackson preserves all the authority and influence of being a poet by leaving her poems extant but annihilating the poet role before others can corrupt it.

Barbara Adams, the most acute of (Riding) Jackson's recent critics, observes this variety of self-representation and compares the author's use of “a fictive heroine” with the fictionalizing and fictionalized self of Wallace Stevens's poetry. Adams finds a profound pathos underlying (Riding) Jackson's work, though, explaining that because of the poet's concern with fictive heroines, “Ideal and real could not co-habit in peace with her” (193). But Adams's apparent belief that an individual's development of several selves reflects disturbances of psyche and not of circumstance—the pathos of circumstance outlined by Yeager—leads too quickly to the idea that multiple images of self must be separated into categories of true and false, real and ideal. Assuming that (Riding) Jackson's struggle is only among competing private visions of herself, Adams does not leave room for an external interpretive agency as one of the contending forces. And so Adams misses the opportunity to see (Riding) Jackson as more than a confessional poet,4 while all along the poet's song is searingly analytic of her world. Certainly, (Riding) Jackson's rejection of poetry is a rejection of a self, but she is never limited to the discourse of the private heart. The poems operate in a public space and take the language and ideology of that space as their most consistent subjects.

(Riding) Jackson's affiliations as a poet shifted as her personal life changed, sometimes quite rapidly, in the 1920s and 1930s. She began publishing poems shortly after her 1922 marriage, at twenty-one, to Louis Gottschalk, who had been her history instructor at Cornell. By the time of their divorce, in 1925, (Riding) Jackson—to be known for two years longer as Laura Riding Gottschalk—had been canonized by Allen Tate as the only female Fugitive.5 But she had no interest in group identity, and there is substantial evidence that her poetry influenced the work of Fugitive poets such as Tate and John Crowe Ransom far more than theirs influenced hers.6 After spending a bit more than a year in New York following her divorce, writing poems and occasional reviews for the Fugitive and other small journals, (Riding) Jackson left for England, where she met Robert Graves. They soon began living together and jointly editing the critical anthology A Survey of Modernist Poetry. Graves has testified to the power of her poetry and to her critical facility (87-88), but (Riding) Jackson never acknowledged any debt, as a writer, to him. After several years living and working with Graves, first in England and then on Mallorca, (Riding) Jackson returned alone to the United States in 1939, a year after her Collected Poems was published, and she never wrote poetry again.

(Riding) Jackson's preface to her Collected Poems is the clearest statement of her identity as a poet that she made before her renunciation (Poems 406-13). Like most of her public declarations, the preface seems at first self-effacing, claiming little for the poet herself. She begins by pronouncing her belief in absolute truth. “Certain things are obviously more important to know, in an absolute sense, than other things,” she asserts, and she narrows this idea to a distinction between right and wrong reasons for reading poetry:

No readers but those who insist on going to poems for the wrong reasons should find my poems difficult; no reader who goes to poetry for the right reasons should find them anything but lucid; and with few other poets are readers so safe from being seduced into emotions or states of mind which are not poetic.

Committing herself to the most fundamental of all abstractions, right and wrong, (Riding) Jackson binds the rightness of the reception she receives as a poet to the rightness of her readers' emotions and states of mind.

If there are any lingering doubts about the position she sees herself holding in relation to her audience—a position of authority, ripe with opportunity to seduce—she puts them to rest quickly enough:

My poems would, indeed, be much more difficult than they have seemed if I did not in each assume the responsibility of education in the reasons of poetry as well as that of writing a poem. Because I am fully aware of the background of miseducation from which most readers come to poems, I begin every poem on the most elementary plane of understanding. …

She is the teacher, the priest, the high functionary in the service of all poetry's reasons. Indeed, (Riding) Jackson sees herself so squarely in this role that any challenge is self-evidently absurd:

Is it not astonishing that, because I am a poet who writes strictly for the reasons of poetry, I am in the position of having to justify myself for not having other reasons, for not appealing to readers who read poems for reasons other than those of poetry, even for not appealing to those who do not read poems?

Is it not astonishing that the literary education of people gives them such a false account of the reasons of poems that they either do not read them at all or read them mostly for the wrong reasons? So that, if one writes poems for the right reasons, one must teach one's readers what these are?


The closed system of self-justification (Riding) Jackson lays out here insists that if a poem written—or, perhaps more to the point, a poet writing—for the right reasons repels a reader, the fault lies in the reader. But part of (Riding) Jackson's self-justifying strategy is to locate the source of her authority as a poet outside herself. In doing so, she implies that she is subservient to this source, and her choice to serve absolute abstractions frees her from any intellectual duty to people individually or collectively. Particularly in the late 1930s, to defend poetry in the name of its own “rightness” was to reject a more concrete social-realist, materialist justification. (Riding) Jackson completely ignores the idealized workingmen, the WPA fresco heroes of post office lobbies, as warrant for her public speech. For if individuals, these men, were the justification of her voice, her poetry would necessarily propose that she was ontologically inferior to them. Instead, by serving abstractions, ideas, she validates no person more than herself and refuses the complicated and often compromised place of the articulate woman of the Left.7

By declaring herself dependent on the abstractions that empower her while simultaneously declaring her audience dependent on her for instruction in poetic rightness, (Riding) Jackson speaks at once with a voice of authority and a voice of submission, elevating the self as agent while denying the sovereignty of the self. She thus sacrifices the self-justification of her voice in order to align her appropriately modified persona with a more vast and traditionally male authoritarian canon of abstraction. The subservient self her preface opens with, a woman in service to abstractions, resonates soon enough with their force as she brokers their influence and performs as their empowered arbiter of right and wrong.

(Riding) Jackson's challenge is to avoid disfigurement in this process, to survive the contexts of a public discourse that, as Sidonie Smith points out in A Poetics of Women's Autobiography, almost inevitably forces the authoritative speaker into a patriarchal model, a “man-made product turned in the cultural and linguistic machinery of androcentric discourse.” Smith also suggests that in speaking with intentional authority, many women reject “the realm of the mother for the realm of the father” (53). In fact, (Riding) Jackson's authoritarian posture as a critic and interpreter of her own role as a poet militates against the humanity, the personal and sometimes even domestic vulnerability, that underlies many of her best poems. And yet she manages to let these distinct voices coexist in her work and makes no secret of using them to negotiate control over her private and public images of her self. Her poem “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven” (Poems 121-24), first published as part of her 1928 collection Love as Love,Death as Death, is essentially an enactment of this negotiation:

In nineteen twenty-seven, in the spring
And opening summer, dull imagination
Stretched the dollish smile of people.
Behind plate-glass the slant deceptive
Of footwear and bright foreign affairs
Dispelled from consciousness those bunions
By which feet limp and nations farce—
O crippled government of leather—
And for a season (night-flies dust the evening)
Deformed necessity had a greening.
Then, where was I, of this time and my own
A double ripeness and perplexity?
Fresh year of time, desire,
Late year of my age, renunciation—
Ill-mated pair, debating if the window
Is worth leaping out of, and by whom.


In a changing season, during the prosperity of 1927 and the absurdity of self-satisfied geopolitical display on the eve of the Great Depression, the “I” of this poem gropes for a clear location amid burgeoning consumerism. At the time, a diffuse cultural discomfort was not unusual among the poetic intelligentsia; the American poet Louis Zukofsky, for example, in “Preface—1927,” asks questions of identity similar to (Riding) Jackson's: “Who am I … to write myself out against the cool directive judgement of a whole world? / Who am I to starve in the face of well being?” Like (Riding) Jackson, Zukofsky hints at the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. He asks, “Who, on the other hand, is here to name me, who guard my fellows when they are murdered?” (Riding) Jackson, for her part, proposes a specifically leathery farce of national affairs (Vanzetti was a shoemaker, and the crimes of which the pair was convicted involved a shoe factory payroll), but while Zukofsky's poem exhorts action—“we must sting, / Or shine … / Blind the eyes of crude faces”—(Riding) Jackson's demonstrates circumspection, an understanding of self and circumstance that leads, in later poems, to the conviction that silence is the only means for the speaking woman to survive.8

As “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven” opens, the speaker's perplexity is understandable: virtually all her circumstance lies “[b]ehind plate-glass,” on display but distorted by the lens of public offering. Public affairs are peddled like leather consumer items, like footwear, as the shop window swallows up even abstractions of national identity and displays them, sanitized in the window. And yet the “I” is distorted as well, “[d]eformed” in the “necessity” of the new “season”—the deforming stressed by the assonance of season-evening-greening, the plate glass insinuating warp like a fun-house mirror. The culture of purchase and display has demanded that the speaker reconcile her sense of herself with the culture's image-twisting plate glass, whose warp cleanses the bunioned feet of the limping nation but fractures her reflection of self.

The disruption of the speaker's self-image ends as she turns away from the seasons and cultural distractions, away from self-examination, and toward a solitary male figure of authority. Not a part of the plate-glass sheen of the culture, not racked by any self-doubt, the man at first seems external to the opening drama of the poem. Yet whatever questions the carnival of the poem's beginning two stanzas raise can be resolved only with him, and their resolution demands a particular bargain: sex for life. The poem's voice asks of him:

Love me not less, next to myself
Most unloyal of the citizens,
That I thus worship with
The hourly population.
For by such looseness
I argue you with my tight conscience
And take you for so long, an empty term,
An irony of dearness.
And this is both love and not love,
And what I pledge both true and not true,
Since I am moved to speak by the season,
Bold and shy speed and recession,
Climax and suspension.


The promise is “Bold and shy speed and recession, / Climax and suspension,” a fair poetic representation of sexual motion, in exchange for tolerance, for “you” to “[l]ove me not less.” But this proposition is a pledge, part of a bargain—certainly not part of any straightforward love. The promise comes along with the need to “worship with / The hourly population”—a confession perhaps of sexual promiscuity but, more important, also of cultural commonness at the most literal level: the speaker is part of the crowd, and she does not wish to exile herself from her culture, disturbing as it might be to her. The point of her address to “you” is to negotiate that disturbance, to limit it. Her remarks are not an explanation of a chosen relationship but a statement of her awareness of the cultural forces she engages by seeking to understand what troubles her profoundly about the farce and shop-window distortions of her nation. The “you” is more than a character in the poem's drama; because the speaker asks him to tolerate her confusion and offers herself to him physically as part of a bargain, he embodies male cultural privilege. Her relationship with him is “both love and not love” and marked by the speaker's pledge “both true and not true.” She feels compelled to seek his indulgence, his tolerance of the confusion her culture has pressed on her, and so long as her bond to him is culturally necessary, whatever feelings toward him—perhaps toward any man—she might have are complicated by their role in the compact; so long as she needs him, any feelings of love for him are so useful that she cannot know whether she would have them if they were not.

By addressing him directly, the speaker abstracts this “you” from the surface of her culture; there are no more leathery preoccupations as “I” talks to “you.” And as the address continues, the speaker clearly begins to come to terms with her culture's distorting effect on her. To paraphrase Pogo, she has met the enemy, and he is “you,” literally the reader of the poem, a partner in the public presentation of poetry, but in context the embodiment of patriarchal limitation and manipulation. The reader of the poem is certainly held responsible for his or her participation in the interpretive and voyeuristic enterprise of public literary discourse, but the poem's progressing argument lets the reader off the hook, finally, as it becomes clear that a drama is unfolding and that “you” is one of the characters “on stage.” Nonetheless, the reader is not left untouched by the speaker's growing anger or unchastised by her final triumph.

The speaker becomes elated by having located and so being able to address the contained essence of her culture's distorting demands. The longer her address continues, the more forceful her voice becomes and the more she seems to realize, along with the poem's reader, that recognizing “you,” naming and speaking to him, has done a great deal more to help her find a tenable place in her culture than begging his tolerance could ever have done:

Had I remained hidden and unmoved,
Who would have carried on this conversation
And at the close remembered the required toast
To the new year and the new deaths? …
I am beset with reasonableness. …

As her voice grows more reasonable—more engaged in reasoning out her critique of her culture—she finds that her need to be sanctioned by “you” disappears. Her rejection of him culminates in her reformulation of the poem's earlier questions. No longer is she searching for her location, nor is she wondering where she is to leap. Her questions now probe her circumstance, not herself:

What, must I turn shrew
Because I know what I know,
Wipe out the riverfront
Because it stinks of water?
I cannot do what there is not to do.
And what there is to do
Let me do somewhat crookedly,
Lest I speak too plain and everlasting
For such weather-vanes of understanding.

Must I wipe out myself, because I am too clearly a woman aware of the cultural limitations placed on women? The phallic weather vanes of understanding will not tolerate the clear speech of the poem's speaker, but she no longer needs to be tolerated—she has been empowered by the act of speaking to the embodiment of her culture's distorting paternalism. Having no more need for his indulgence, she warns “you” away:

Therefore, since all is well,
Come you no nearer than the barrel-organ
That I curse off to the next square
And there love, when I hear it not.
For I have a short, kind temper. …


The voice becomes so strong that, as Sidonie Smith observes of most women who assert selves not dependent on the patriarchal “you,” it “challenges the claims of paternity” and thereby invites retaliation for breaking the cultural code (43). (Riding) Jackson seems to have been aware of the challenge the speaker presents, and she laid traps within the poem to ensnare those who try to interpret it into a prone position.

The traps begin with “you.” This pronominal character appears in many of (Riding) Jackson's poems, and it is almost always attended by a fair amount of sexual tension. “You” might be an unnamed lover, a spouse, or a parent. Or, thoroughly pervasive, “you” can be almost any specific figure of patriarchal authority. The critic who attempts to interpret (Riding) Jackson back into a less threatening position becomes “you” and enters into a dialogue the poem has already resolved in favor of its speaker. M. L. Rosenthal, for example, takes his place in (Riding) Jackson's dialogue without quite realizing his role in the drama. “Her writing,” he says.

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.


In the same polite but unambiguous language as (Riding) Jackson uses to bargain sex for tolerance, Rosenthal laments that he, as a critical reader, does not get enough “climactic mutuality.” She has not yet satisfied him, has not put enough of her body into the bargain. Rosenthal continues:

So the upshot is that, much as one is tempted to turn one's back impatiently on Riding's off-putting sensibility, one can't do so and finally doesn't want to. In “Faith Upon the Waters,” the line “A death-bed restlessness inflames the mind” insinuates her spell.


Her spell also allures through the context of the line Rosenthal quotes:

Fancy ages.
A death-bed restlessness inflames the mind
And a warm mist attacks the face
With mortal premonition.

(Poems 116)

Part of a poem about dying, this ending stanza sexualizes the moment of death. The mind, imagining the body's passing, is inflamed. A warm sweat breaks out, and the heart races. The idea of dying has excited the body, and the critic leans closer to see the flush of agitation. It is this voyeurism, this view of woman as a body whose mind is at best the body's residue, that (Riding) Jackson again and again rejects in her poems. She seeks to escape such observation by calling attention to it, by pushing away the traditionally feminine and the physical to assert a narrative actively engaging the limits of critical reception—conversing with them in the way the “I” of “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven” converses with “you.” But if such a project implies a loss, repudiation of what might be good about the female voice a critic like Rosenthal expects to encounter, (Riding) Jackson does not slight the sacrifice.

The loss is dramatized in “Back to the Mother Breast” (Poems 53), a short poem from her first collection, The Close Chaplet (1926). The poem is about reinvention of self, not the classic existential reinvention, beginning with existence and moving outward, but a rewriting of personal history, a retreat to the brink of the womb and a recasting of formative circumstance and of the bonds of motherhood. The poem begins:

In another place—
Not for milk, not for rest,
But the embrace
Clean bone
Can give alone.

The uncomforting embrace, lacking the softness of flesh, the sentiment of the body, remakes the absent but implicit “I” of the poem. The birthing body is one of bone, not flesh, and the growing child one of mind, not body:

The cushioning years
Afraid of closer kiss
Put cure of tears
Before analysis;
And the vague infant cheek
Turned away to speak.

No cuddling or coddling, not tears or quiet slumber for this infant—its identity is a public one, the process of self-definition carried through a relationship with the outside world rather than with the mother. Though the “cushioning years” of ordinary childhood “Put cure of tears / Before analysis,” that time is precisely what the child turns away from. The child, like the “I” of “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven,” lives behind a plate-glass window of sorts, and so the child rejects a private infancy of nurture and turns toward an audience, to speak. The child eventually turns back to the breast but only after an act of speech, of public identity, and so the “later lullaby,” the private song of the mother echoing after the child's words for the world, explores:

The deep bequest
And franker singing
Out of the part
Where there is no heart.

The part is part of mother, part of child, absent the heart of a private maternal relationship. This heart has been sacrificed for the sake of an attuning to the public, so that the child will grow with strength and authority engendered by the public's glance rather than by the mother's. The poem comments clearly on the harshness of the infant's circumstance. To note, finally, that the voice she gains comes from the “part / Where there is no heart” is to note a profound loss of humanity. The poem tells the story of the “phallic woman” (Smith 53) learning to speak. But the tale is cautionary, not confessional; none of the personae of (Riding) Jackson's poems is a phallic woman—they do not initiate manipulative bargains. They seek personal retreat and circumspection, not appropriation of others' voices or bodies—they are not female patriarchs. But by rejecting both the traditional submissive role (in this context, the role of yielding to interpretation) and the character of phallic woman, the speaking voice of (Riding) Jackson's poems is left scrambling for a viable poetics, for an orientation toward the reader and the world. The final silence of (Riding) Jackson as a poet seems to show that no speaking third alternative was possible for her.

“Lucrece and Nara,” also from A Close Chaplet, comes as close to such a third alternative as any of (Riding) Jackson's other poems do, though this work too ends in monumental silence (Poems 36). Lucrece and Nara, the poem's conversants, talk as though gazing into mirrors specially bent to reflect their objectification as exquisite props for sophisticated male amusement. The talk sounds like this:

“How is the opalescence of my white hand, Nara?
Is it still pearly-cool?”
“How is the faintness of my neck, Lucrece?
Is it blood shy with warmth, as always?”

They are both aware of being judged in and by the idiom of voyeuristic literary cliché. The ironic self-description suggests that beneath what these women are seen as lies what, in some sense, they are. But the reader never gets below any surface; the poem finally implies that Lucrece and Nara do not, in fact, have lives beyond their representations. The characters are instead pure abstractions that last a millennium (“Ghostly they clung and questioned / A thousand years, not yet eternal …”), and then,

                    when earth ended, was devoured
One shivering midsummer
At the dissolving border,
A sound of light was felt.
“Nara, is it you, the dark?”
“Lucrece, is it you, the quiet?”

And though the earth ends, not merely do Nara and Lucrece survive—some presence remains to feel the sound of light. The presence is important, for the two female images seem to have existed all along only to register an impression, even if merely as dark and quiet—absences realized only if some sensitivity sees and hears. The poem's end seems at first to suggest that the women might become their own seers and hearers, each turning into a “you.” And yet the reader still is witness to even this transformation, as is the feeling presence. The presence is as troubling as the “you” in “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven”: though the presence emerges in a passive construction and does nothing more than linger and feel, the women's voices in the poem speak in the self-abnegating superficial clichés this watcher seems to demand. Lucrece's and Nara's empty language represents the emptiness (or absence) of the public woman in—or as—art, and the feeling presence embodies the eternal context of male expectation, potent even when unspoken. By continuing the narrative and its internal show—the implicitly observed caricatures of women speaking—beyond apocalypse, “Lucrece and Nara” records the permanence of the ambiguous external figure.

The poem also combats this ordering, striking out against the weakness of the women's voices and against the passive indulgence of the voyeur: Lucrece's and Nara's voices, exemplifying how women can be props in poetry, contrast with (Riding) Jackson's voice as poet, as controller. (Riding) Jackson seems at first to call on the caricatures to decorate her poem, but finally, through her language—in lines like “One shivering midsummer / At the dissolving border, / A sound of light was felt”—and the force of her argument, she rejects any merely decorative form of the feminine. Her small composition of lingering voices ends with the persisting presence of one watched woman cast in another woman's terms (“Lucrece, is it you, the quiet?”). The reader and the voyeur in the poem lurk and watch but do not name. (Riding) Jackson represents a familiar world in which women are watched and their public selves shaped by an external observer. And yet she also reorders this world: the human drama of the poem culminates with the echoing quiet of one woman naming another, and each woman's viewing the other is the small tale's emblematic moment. Perhaps the poem contains an alternative model of interpretation in which patriarchy is notably absent, though “you”s persist, and the interpretive act of a woman's affirming another woman's presence is central. What one cannot forget, though, is that Lucrece and Nara end dark and quiet; to validate each other's existence, it seems, they must be passive—perhaps eternal and perhaps even elemental but not bright, not loud.

The suggestion that departure from prevailing images of female self demands departure, too, from strong words and public appearance is the central issue of one of (Riding) Jackson's longest and most moving poems, “Memories of Mortalities.” This work, first published in (Riding) Jackson's last book of poetry, her 1938 Collected Poems, is a refashioning not just of a woman's tale of her childhood but also of all tales of childhood, beginning with the one in the garden of Eden. (Riding) Jackson's retelling is not a personal account but a lyric challenge that rejects the cultural limits on, and expectations of, the larger first person of her poetry, the “I” that begins in the garden of Eden of “Memories of Mortalities” and ends in the apocalypse of “Lucrece and Nara.” The story is not a confession of personal angst and troubled relationships; it is a drama about cultural enforcement of expectation, about women encountering social limits and seeking ways to outmaneuver them.

“My mother was a snake, but warm,” the poem begins, and this mother, singular and venomous, is a figure of spiritual battle. The poem presents a capsule order in which male privilege is waning; men “were done then,” all “slowing in the same doom-pause.” The snake does not waste the opportunity:

It being then such lateness
Of world, death-season,
Flowering, name-taking,
The cold snake to its melting came—
She was Contempt of Time,
That Spirit which at Origin
Bittered against the taste false-sweet
Of Future, on her lightning tongue
Already poison and corrupted Past.


The death season is a dying time for men, but for women it is flowering, name taking, and the snake's melting will soon be revealed to be more of a molting, allowing the creature to accommodate a new and larger life. The snake mother is an Eve figure, with the taste of the apple on her tongue, as well as the serpent of temptation. She is a woman who needs no external cue for desire: an Eve at the end of the world instead of at the beginning. But she, in her contempt of time, does not concede the world's end, and she bears a daughter in a fashion, the poem's “I.” This central character's story pivots on Freudian revelations of troubled relations with a father, though confessing the interior Electra seems less the point than tensely singing the bodily hold that the authoritarian man has over his daughter. The voice of the poem talks of the father as a fox, and he attracts her in a way the snake mother never would. His story is seldom told in the second person (as the snake mother's is) but is made the story of “us,” of the daughter and her companion. The speaker hints that the relationship, like alliances in many of (Riding) Jackson's poems, culminates in damaging sex:

And was it childhood, then,
From snake to fox's patronage,
And tortured idling, twisted course
Between the hither-thither stagger
Of the universal doom-day?
But was not childhood ever thus?
A premonition trembling distant
On lips of language shy,
Fast futures there acrowd
And quieted with story-book retard—
Even as I those troubled times of father
To story took and, parrying conclusion,
My fair curls shadowed among tales,
Made Imminence a dream-hush
Whose vocal waking slept inside my own.


The Imminence can be the possibility of life, of bearing children, as well as of sexual violation by the father, “troubled times of father” suggesting an impending threat fulfilled as the father's “vocal waking slept inside my own.” More broadly, the Imminence can be the father's looming authority, which requires a movement toward him involving a familiar bargain—tolerance for sex: the “I” is allowed to join the father, to be near him and protected by him and to share in his authority (and thus the “us” of this section), so long as she in turn lends her “fair curls” to be shadowed among his tales.9

On this troubling note the poem leaves off its treatment of mother and father and proceeds to “Sickness and Schooling,” the third and final section. This part begins with a dramatic shaking off of childhood myths. A paternal but suspect older man and plainly uncaring older woman are in attendance. The poem's “I” now becomes “we.” Unlike the “us” of the second section, the first person plural used here is in the subjective case; the voice of the poem is now not being done to but doing, and the tale broadens from a single woman's story into a mythic revelation:

We toss in hot self-inquisition.
It is our bed, the sweat and shivering
Are greatly ours, the Doctor's smile
Means that the world expects this very me
To be myself against what others choose:
The world is many, we are many,
                              And none the other loves so well
That to be lovable is to be loved.
And Nurse reads on: Jack scrambles toward the top.
I cannot scream “Don't go!”
The little Mermaid starts to float to heaven.
“I won't! I won't!” My legs keep sinking.
And then I sleep.
Nurse does not really care.
I care, I wake up well.


The father figure smiles, and his expression seems at first to tell the ill girl she is to resist the culture's waiting molds for her and craft her identity herself. Yet the smiling man might also be justifying the breaking of taboos, the culturally improper violation of the girl during the “troubled times” of her father's imminence, a sorrow she has not yet forgotten. A bedside compact of abuse, the abuser convincing the abused that they share a special relationship society might destroy, is suggested by the doctor, whose smile “Means that the world expects this very me / To be myself against what others choose.” And the mother figure meanwhile strives to socialize the girl with a cultural myth ending in harm to a woman. The speaker's voice is finally triumphant, though, calling itself into being through self-caring alone. The girl is not merely well but cured of her private childhood influences. The influence of her culture remains, though:

“Know!” they said
And I knew.
The child grew girl of current kind.
I was obedient to my world. …


The “they” who command are of the same being as the “you” who in earlier poems coerces. But the triumphant final stanza of this poem rejects all subordination and proclaims the poet, the writer, a whole and self-directed self, existing of its own accord, recovered from the influence of mother, father, and other. This empowerment lasts only for a moment, though, and then the speaker rejects her nascent song of herself. She finds that to say anything free of influence is to say nothing, at least out loud, and the voice of her poet self is silent:

So I began to live.
It was outrageous,
I made mortal mistakes,
I did not mean to live so mortally.
But something must be written about me,
And not by them.
So I began those mistold confidences
Which now read like profanity of self
To my internal eye
And which my critic hand erases
As the story grows too different to speak of
In the way the world speaks.


Nonetheless, readers are left knowing that the speaker's voice exists, and they might suspect that indeed it sings a private song, which they are not privileged to hear, lest they, like the blundering critic-ambassador of their culture, judge and alter. “Memories of Mortalities” ends with a healing but also with a parting from sight, and in this sense the poem is most emblematic of the author's rejection of poetry, showing her renunciation to be entirely consistent with the particular brand of self-empowering art (Riding) Jackson practiced. The voice of “Memories of Mortalities” falls silent, but the silence is hopeful; though “the story” is too different to tell, the rebirth presented by the line “So I began to live” is nonetheless real.

Standing beside the thick volume of her collected poems, (Riding) Jackson's repudiation of poetry seems to reject “the way the world speaks” but not the way Laura (Riding) Jackson spoke as a poet. One supposes that the voice she heard as she read her poems always made moral sense to her, but if she had allowed her poems to roam the world uncloaked by her rejection, that voice would have been made to speak in ways she might never have imagined.


  1. See Michael A. Masopust, “Laura Riding's Quarrel with Poetry.” Masopust's analysis of (Riding) Jackson's reasons for rejecting poetry is, at best, superficial. His dating of the milestones in her decision is useful, however, and he suggests 1942 as the year it crystallized (44), though it found its way into print only in 1955. Barbara Adams, whose views of (Riding) Jackson I treat below, fixes the date of rejection at 1940, the first year (Riding) Jackson wrote no poems (189).

    The question of what to call Laura (Riding) Jackson is something of an issue as well. Born Laura Richenthal, she published her first poems as Laura Riding Gottschalk and most of her work as Laura Riding, but her postrenunciation criticism she signed Laura (Riding) Jackson. Because I wish to consider the person as well as the poet, I choose to call her what she called herself from her renunciation until her death, in 1991.

  2. “What” 8. My discussion here necessarily repeats (Riding) Jackson's evasiveness—she never specifies exactly what is the truth good poetry offers. She refers to it but never really explains it.

  3. Good examples of this later prose are “What, If Not a Poem, Poems?” and “Engaging in the Impossible.”

  4. In Robert Lowell: Life and Art, Steven Gould Axelrod confidently asserts a list of confessional poetry's “essentials,” which is useful even though it is open to challenge: “an undisguised exposure of painful personal event, … a dialectic of private matter with public matter, … and an intimate, unadorned style” (98). (Riding) Jackson's poetry does not meet the first and last criteria, and I would be willing to argue that all literature, and the remainder of experience as well, seems to meet the second.

  5. (Riding) Jackson was given the Nashville Prize in 1924 by the Fugitives (Fugitive 130), a small community of poets active around Vanderbilt University between the world wars, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, whose philosophies about poetry crystallized into the New Criticism. Other biographical information mentioned here is drawn from Masopust and from Joyce Piell Wexler's Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth, particularly the second chapter. This book offers reliable data but suspect interpretation; see my n7.

  6. Julian Symons offers an interesting glimpse of this influence in his article, “An Evening in Maida Vale,” about Robert Graves and (Riding) Jackson in their Deya home.

  7. Wexler's book contains a valuable record of (Riding) Jackson's studied disengagement from political trends and affiliations, though the analysis in the study tends to be simplistic and sometimes troubling—for instance, Wexler attributes the committed party socialism of (Riding) Jackson's father to his “ethnic background” as a Jew (6).

  8. The politicohistorical reading of “In Nineteen Twenty-Seven” deserves to be taken further than the focus of this article allows. The Sacco and Vanzetti insight is Ann Douglas's. A useful consideration of their trial in, and as an emblem of, recent American cultural history comes in William Young and David E. Kaiser's Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.

    Also worth exploring is (Riding) Jackson's debt to Yeats's poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” Yeats opens his poem, “Many ingenious lovely things are gone / That seemed sheer miracle to the multitudes,” lines that sound a good bit like (Riding) Jackson's exploration of the common culture's allures and compromises. Yeats's line 13 is a probable source for (Riding) Jackson's “double ripeness”: “Public opinion ripening for so long. …” Her extended metaphor of seasons turning also seems to refer to lines 94-98 of the Yeats poem:

    Come let us mock at the wise;
    With all those calendars whereon
    They fixed old aching eyes,
    They never say how seasons run,
    And now but gape at the sun.
  9. I must point out here that I am treating the narrative voice of this poem as distinct from (Riding) Jackson's biographical voice; I make no reference here or elsewhere in this paper to (Riding) Jackson's parents.

Works Cited

Adams, Barbara. “Laura Riding's Poems: A Double Ripeness.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 183-95.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Robert Lowell: Life and Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Fugitive Dec. 1924.

Graves, Robert. “Flawed Science, Damaged Lives: An Interview with Robert Graves.” Impact of Science on Society 20 (1969): 319-30. Rpt. in Kersnowski 81-91.

Kersnowski, Frank, ed. Conversations with Robert Graves. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1989.

Masopust, Michael A. “Laura Riding's Quarrel with Poetry.” South Central Review 2.1 (1985): 42-56.

(Riding) Jackson, Laura. “Engaging in the Impossible.” Sulfur 10 (1984): 4-35.

———. The Poems of Laura Riding: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection. New York: Persea, 1980.

———. “What, If Not a Poem, Poems?” Denver Quarterly 9.2 (1974): 1-13.

Rosenthal, M. L. “Laura Riding's Poetry: A Nice Problem.” Southern Review 21 (1985): 89-95.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Symons, Julian. “An Evening in Maida Vale.” London Magazine Jan. 1964: 34-41. Rpt. in Kersnowski 10-18.

Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth. Athens: Ohio UP, 1979.

Yeager, Patricia. “Towards a Female Sublime.” Gender and Theory. Ed. Linda Kaufman. London: Blackwell, 1989. 191-212.

Yeats, W. B. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1944. 239-43.

Young, William, and David E. Kaiser. Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.

Zukofsky, Louis. “Preface—1927.” Exile 4 (1928): 78-80.

Jeanne Heuving (review date February 1994)

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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 letters to editors meticulously correcting their mistakes. She also rejected all twentieth-century intellectual and social movements that laid claim to her work, including feminism.

Yet the very relentlessness of Riding's quest for truthful writing and utopian visions, as well as her undeniable intelligence and originality, make her an exciting writer for feminists. Hardly a model of feminist solidarity, Riding's life and work still reveal her profound struggle against—as well as her implication in—patriarchal orders.

Throughout her life, Laura Riding considered herself the only authority. While this conviction did much to make her personal life difficult, it also led to some remarkable insights and writing. These three recent publications [In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, by Deborah Baker; The Word Woman and Other Related Writings; First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding] by and about Riding illuminate the questions present-day feminists must raise to reassess this compelling, if troubling, writer.

The first question must be how to account for Riding's disturbing life and well-documented destructive streak. As the companion and literary collaborator of Robert Graves from 1926 to 1938, very productive years for both of them, Riding has been much maligned in accounts about Graves. But not entirely without cause.

In her introduction to In Extremis, the first full-length biography about Riding, Deborah Baker states that she wants to save Riding from the “myth,” “megalomania” and “marginality” to which Graves critics have consigned her. But although Baker does bring considerable writing skill and diligence to this biography, by the end Riding seems once more condemned to the “myth” and “megalomania,” if not the “marginality,” from which Baker originally wanted to rescue her.

Undoubtedly, beginning the biography while Riding was still alive and resistant to criticism (as Baker tells in the introduction) made this biographer's work difficult. But even so, Baker doesn't get under the skin of Riding's experience and motivation, which means she doesn't adequately interpret this complicated subject's life.

Baker hints at an overall pattern but doesn't commit herself to it. According to this shadowy plot, Riding went from being a tolerable person to worse as her own destructive behaviors (abrupt partings with intimates, public recrimination of friends and lovers, and an attempted suicide) were matched by a corresponding artistic decline in her poetry. As she lost her capacity for feeling and for evocative language she committed a number of unpardonable acts, which she simply did not address emotionally.

This plot, however, doesn't credit Riding's own decision to move away from lyric poetry to more abstract forms—and finally to a focus on utopian social orders. Baker diminishes Riding's most admirable quality—her search for truth—thereby leaving only the woman's bad behavior to testify for her.

By far the strongest part of the biography is Baker's portrayal of Riding's youth. Here, Baker describes the social and psychological forces that do seem, to some extent, to account for the complex woman Laura Riding became. Born Laura Reichenthal to a poor Jewish working-class family in Brooklyn, Riding suffered from familial tensions, emotional deprivation and feelings of inferiority about her low social class. But through his commitment to the Jewish socialist movement, Riding's father, Nathan, provided a certain kind of intellectual hope in her bleak childhood. Quoting Irving Howe, Baker emphasizes the movement's “gleaming faith, at once splendid and naive in its dreams of perfection and brotherhood.”

In fact, Nathan had high ambitions for his daughter: she was to become America's Rosa Luxemburg and to lead this country in a socialist revolution. Baker writes, “Stories of the Great Financial Conspiracy were [Riding's] bed time fairy tales. In such tales the young Laura Reichenthal imagined herself the avenging princess, leading an internationalist movement toward a utopian future.” But Riding herself looked for a different way to free herself from the “dirty grip of the ghetto,” and its mélange of different accents and tongues. In 1916 she argued bitterly with her father: she was not going to become Rosa Luxemburg, but a poet. She would spring free of the ghetto on the wings of “pure” language.

Convincing as this youthful portrayal is, in later sections of the biography Baker's antipathy toward Riding takes over. Indeed, the Riding of preposterous self-aggrandizing and asocial behavior appears as a kind of monster. Baker dismisses Riding for her utopian commitments. Yet many male writers have come up with problematic social schemes, including Ezra Pound and William Blake. However much critics have rejected these visions, the writers themselves haven't been summarily dismissed. The literary work of such male visionaries is often considered more interesting because of their willingness to take on the social realm—bizarre or disturbing as their personal commitments may be. But Baker reduces Riding's idealism to ruses that enable this woman writer to meet her personal needs for power and love.

Take, for example, the incident in which Riding met the man she was later to marry, Schuyler Jackson. Riding and Graves, forced out of their home on Mallorca by the Spanish Fascist invasion, came to settle on Kit and Schuyler Jackson's farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. (At the time, Schuyler Jackson was a poetry critic for Time magazine who had written a laudatory review of Riding's works.) There, in the company of several friends, Riding attempted to put into practice many of her ideas for a new social order. Her response to the threat of World War Two was to draw up a new world order that would repulse war. For the intensely idealistic Riding, there could be no partial or makeshift solutions. The new social order could only be achieved from the ground up. Therefore, the inner circle of this order had to be a group of people who knew each other and who would “develop each personal relation to its maximum of frankness.” They were “to have no private communications … to which they could not admit others.” A vital part of this scheme was the role women would play in bringing about this new order, since according to Riding, women were closer to “truth.”

What this utopian vision amounted to in practice, however, forms a destructive tale. At New Hope, Riding not only fostered encounter sessions among the members but also felt compelled to take over the management of the Jackson household and children. In addition, shortly after her arrival, she and Schuyler Jackson fell in love. Breaking several years of principled celibacy that Riding had maintained with Graves (she viewed sex as a kind of travesty, given the baseness of men's relationship to women), she and Jackson retreated into a bedroom from which they later emerged announcing, “We do.”

During this time, Kit Jackson's behavior turned from erratic to dangerous. She eventually ended up trying to choke one of her children. After Kit was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, Riding and the other members of the group burned her clothing and personal effects in an act of purification. Later, Riding and Schuyler Jackson attempted to name the trouble: Kit was evil, a witch.

Baker castigates Riding for assuming “the most hated and repressive aspects of those misogynistic institutions and traditions which she had once sought to question and undermine”—as well she should. But while there is certainly little in this incident that redeems Riding, she was not simply a monster. World War Two was a time of crisis, especially for Jews, and called up extreme reactions. And Riding, after all, was only one member of the New Hope utopian community of writers and thinkers who engaged in these bizarre behaviors, Robert Graves among them. More important, Baker conveys almost nothing of Riding's personal response to these events—her emotional state at the time, for example, or why she was attracted to Schuyler. Baker simply does not build a flesh-and-blood biographical representation of a person capable of both high idealism and moral blindness.

I wish that Baker had pushed her feminist leanings into more deliberate feminist questions. If Riding was as male-obsessed as Baker implies, where did her feminist visions come from? How was it that she could violate so many gender rules—presenting herself as an all-knowing authority—and still exert so much influence over others, particularly Graves, who found her to be the ballast he needed in order to write? How was her propensity for creating spectacles related to her intellectual sense of herself—and of women in general—as “the other”?

Since Riding's disturbing life is so hard to assess, the extraordinary quality of her work should come as a double surprise. This is especially true for her critical essays, which are less well known than her poetry. The lengthy title piece of The Word Woman and Other Related Writings presents groundbreaking feminist theory. Written between 1934 and 1936, just before Riding and Graves fled Mallorca, it was left behind in Spain and has been published for the first time in this collection. The work's prescience vies with Woolf's feminist classic, A Room of One's Own, published only a few years earlier. But Riding's treatise pursues a different line of inquiry from Woolf's concerns with a women's literary lineage. The Word Woman leads quite directly to French feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray and their critique of representation.

Given Riding's preoccupation with language, it's not surprising that her writings should take her in the direction of the French feminists. What is surprising is how, without the French feminists' extensive poststructuralist influences, she seems to have arrived at such similar ideas. To be sure, feminist ideas were in the air at elite progressive schools of the time, such as Cornell, where Riding had won a scholarship. But she went on to put her own unique imprint on them. Analyzing the uses to which the word “woman” has been put in multiple cultures and times, she concludes that “women are strangers in the country of men.” The reason for this state of affairs is that man has indelibly inscribed his image everywhere at women's expense:

Man in his growing self-importance, reads difference as negativeness—namely, the absence of, or deficiency in male characteristics. Women become more and more a foil to male positiveness.


For Riding (as for Irigaray), women's position as other, as foil, can't be easily turned around, because most of history and language reflects this masculine appropriation. In Riding's terms, women are sleepwalkers in an order that does not reflect them; indeed, they are only just awakening.

But while many of the French feminists have considered the establishment of women's difference as the goal, for Riding that is only the means to a greater end: the establishment of a new human unity that is not based on women's exclusion. Positioned outside existing social orders, women have an important historical role to perform as agents of change. Women, unlike men, are not hung up on sexual difference—and therefore don't need to make it the be-all of their existence. Women can accept that unity is not the same as unification but a “composite.” As Riding writes in a much later essay, “The Bondage,” women can reveal the true strangeness of the whole, conceived apart from men's egoistic appropriation of it:

Who [but women] are there to think in a way to make the whole experienceable in its intact strangeness … ? Who, to know this strangeness as the true human familiar?—indivisible, uncategorizable, unsynthesizable?


Riding renounces contemporary feminism in many of the later essays (written in the 1960s and 1970s) because of what she perceives as its exclusive focus on a social realm defined by men. Dismissing a feminism too much preoccupied with women's rights in a social realm that ill suits them, she calls for a redefinition of woman, for a new order based on “an adequate idea of woman.”

Although this rejection of feminist struggle against existing social orders is unsettling, the unrelenting analysis of how women are compromised by these orders is extremely valuable. For Laura Riding, parts are always implicated in larger wholes. In her words, “A situation which contains wrong as well as right in it cannot be improved merely by the elimination of what is wrong.” Thus her examination of how the word “woman” has been used within various cultures and times leads to her larger utopian goals: to remake existing social orders radically, with women at the center—that is, this time to get it right.

Certainly The Word Woman didn't just spring from nowhere. Riding's earliest poems already show a strong feminist orientation. In fact, the prescient ideas expressed in The Word Woman may have come from her experience of writing poetry. As a poet, Riding worked in a literary genre in which relations between an “I” and an “other” are critical, and she was well aware of how different these relations can be for men and women. In much of men's lyric poetry, the speakers establish their authority through relationships to women who act as mirrors and foils. As Riding once characterized art, it is men's “private play with [women] in public.”

In First Awakenings, poems Riding wrote between 1922 and 1926 which haven't previously appeared in any of her published volumes of poetry, she works to break down poetry's propensity for mirroring relations. Her severe test for poetry—poetry “does not ‘show’; it is thought in its final condition of truth”—disallows mirrors. Her poems are often spare, but they are full of language play. At times, Riding's language can become so economical and confounded that her poetry is impossible to understand. This degree of difficulty is rarely present in the poems of First Awakenings, and part of the charm of this volume is the poems' accessibility. While only a few approach the accomplishment of Riding's best work in Collected Poems, they offer another perspective on the poet in her early twenties.

In “Improprieties,” for example, she encounters a female “other,” altering the very terms of her existence. In one section of the poem, she discloses how a propriety that demands secretiveness actually promotes a risqué impropriety:

Why do you come fantastically folded
In a reticent dark gown?
It is the house of a harlot
And you are white and unclothed
Do you think you can dwell there
Cryptically forever
And yet be wantonly unviolated?


Much of the vocabulary of the poem is jarring and paradoxical. But by her paradoxical play, Riding raises important questions and produces some unusual effects. She intimates that to remain hidden is to be violated in some way. The body that is “white and unclothed inside” seems strangely innocent and vulnerable—even healthful and sexual—in these folds of clothing. In this “house of a harlot,” the female personage and her body are, in fact, far away from a “language open.” Yet for Riding, the “language open” doesn't occur by stripping away language, since our language-based reality is not so constructed. Only through a radical play of language, through paradox, can Riding begin to dislodge the old orders.

In a more straightforward poem, “Dimensions,” the speaker moves through many different poetic conceits of how she might be measured:

Measure me then by love—yet, no,
For I remember times when she
Sought her own measurements in me,
But fled, afraid I might foreshow
How broad I was myself and tall
And deep and many-measured, moving
My scale upon her and thus proving
That both of us were nothing at all.
Measure me by myself
And not by time or love or space
Or beauty. Give me this last grace:
That I may be on my low stone
A gage unto myself alone.
I would not have these old faiths fall
To prove that I was nothing at all.


To assert the self as the self's measure, Riding must stake out a territory capacious enough to replace the “old faiths.” In so doing, she goes against a number of gender expectations. The poem's speaker is not enthralled by love, as her culture may wish her to be. Rather, she asserts her self over love but, in the process, makes Eros all the more powerful for the “broad,” “deep” and “many-measured” self it inhabits.

Biographer Deborah Baker notes her subject's “striking inability to see matters in any but her own terms.” In Riding's case, this inability led to any number of destructive consequences. Yet it may be this very trait that enabled her to imagine new orders and new meanings. The all-important question of how Riding's life was related to her writing remains unanswered. But as feminists pay more attention to Laura Riding's own authority, life and work, a new portrait should emerge of “many-measured” dimensions.

Luke Carson (essay date winter 1995)

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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 concern in her poetry with covenants, promises, and contracts, the legal and political forms that make possible different forms of community and exchange.3 These concerns extend from the personal, as when a poem demands from its addressee that a promise be carried out or a contract be adhered to, to her reflections on the historical political status of such claims to right, based as they are on a notion of the self to which Riding in her more antimodern moments cannot subscribe. On occasions like this, she tends to resort ambiguously to premodern forms of the contract, such as the promise or the covenant; in “The Last Covenant,” Riding opposes the covenant, which has never been realized in history (“There were never covenants: / The covenants which are told of were but trials,” Poems, 239), to the “bargain[s]” by which “fretful man” finds some peace in the midst of war. The covenant does not, however, belong to the archaic past, forgotten by modernity; instead, this archaic form of the contract belongs to the future. This implies that the present is characterized by the contingency of bargaining between partners only, with no possible appeal to justice or to a third party who can guarantee the bargain. The covenant, on the other hand, introduces Truth as a third party.

Riding's antimodernity can be seen therefore as a rejection of any secular third party, any merely legal instance, that stands in the place of Truth. But the difficulty that I shall attempt to work out in this paper is that Riding's demand for a guarantee does not diminish despite her skepticism concerning any representative of Truth in history. Her work is paradoxical in that the question of the guarantee is repeatedly posed even as its presence is presumed. Riding simultaneously rejects and demands a guarantee; her relationship to the guarantee is contestation without compromise.4 As I shall explain shortly, I see this contradiction as the result of an ambivalence toward what Lacan calls the Other. Despite her apparent antimodernity, Riding's work shows signs of demanding a quasi-legal or quasi-political agency that can be called upon as a witness to the truth in the case of deception. This sense of right at times manifests itself as an appeal to an unnamed third party in a dispute, a demand for a witness that attests to a fear of deception, of being “taken in” by the other who is party to the contract. Promises and contracts can always be broken, and it is recognition of this, and the resulting anger or sense of violation, that motivates some of Riding's most powerful poems. For example, the tone of “Plighted to Shame” becomes much more complex than it might first appear once one allows for a number of positions for the speaker, who reprimands and threatens even as she defers obliquely to an eternal order of justice that provides her perspective:

For, forget not that you have promised,
By the book of flesh sworn oaths
And been admitted by your body's word
Into life, the first and last trying-place.
You are pledged to do or die.
And if, between doing or dying,
A partial comfort rises up like refuge
From hard interminable course,
So builds itself a perjuring world.
And this must pass.

(Poems, 277)

Riding is not always able to appeal to a legal instance to guarantee or enforce the contract. The suspicion, doubt, or disappointment that initiated the appeal spreads to include the third party itself as untrustworthy. Central to Riding's work, both poetry and prose, is the question of authority and the related questions of truth and faith. Riding at once demands an external authority and arbiter and, at the same time, cannot trust any figure who represents such authority to be above deception. Somewhat surprisingly, the crisis of faith or belief Riding's poetry at times evinces never leads to skepticism; even her break with poetry was proof of her faith in truth. This faith, which is the condition of her faith in the possibility of a true language, resists the skepticism that such a crisis could lead to not because of her personal idiosyncrasies but because she conceived of the relationship to language and truth as both a contractual and a covenantal one. This means that Riding cannot respond to a frustrated claim with the simple opposition of the false and the true, or its skeptical derivative, the claim that truth is impossible. Instead, she confronts the possibility that this uncertainty is irreducible, that it is an effect of an ambivalence in the structure of the modern subject, which, as I shall argue from the example of her texts, is divided by an investment in authority that it refuses to admit. The importance of contractual or covenantal language in Riding's work reveals the condition of both skepticism and belief to be the relationship to authority.

Throughout this paper, I shall use the terms “contract” and “covenant” as opposites. The contract is a modern, rationalized form of agreement implying two autonomous subjects who consent to exchange something to the calculated benefit of each. The notion of the covenant is intended to cover a number of different kinds of exchange, which I shall also place under the rubric of the “gift,” but the basic premise is that these relationships are determined by debt, not equivalence.5 As I use the term in this paper, the covenant does not imply two autonomous subjects; the debt extends right to origin of the subject that is party to the covenant with another party that infinitely exceeds it in generosity. I refer to this party, after Lacan as the Other, the third person who has bestowed the gift of language. But the purpose of the counterpointing of these concepts will finally be to see the contract and the covenant as mutually implicated. Riding repeatedly appeals to both and plays them at times against each other. When the tension between them is highest, and their difference most in question, Riding's work, I shall argue, arrives at the core of its concerns, which is the relationship of the subject to the Other, with a radical dependence and indebtedness being the condition for the autonomy of the modern self. Even as she argues from the autonomous position implied by the contract (e.g., claiming rights), she argues for the need to give up such claims to prepare to receive the gift of the generosity of the Other.

What is at stake in Riding's most important poems is nothing less than Truth, the name she finally gives to the third person that governs her work. However, though Riding's suspicion of deceitfulness or of the counterfeit may seem to imply a faith in truth as the presentation of what is true, her truth is more complex. At its most extreme, as we shall see, not only does that truth exceed the opposition of the true and the false; her work goes so far as to consider the possibility of arriving at truth through absolute deception. What distinguishes Riding's conception of truth from any traditional meaning is the emphasis she places on the temporizing of truth, a temporizing that allows it to appear in disguise, or rather in absentia. As I have said, Riding emphasizes the requirement of a guarantee, the attestation of a third party as witness. Yet she also has her more economic, exchangist moments, when this third party is seen as having something in trust for the subject. When suspicion falls upon the Other, the speaker will demand that the thing be restored to its proper owner. At this most extreme moment of suspicion, Truth reveals itself to be a thing. This thing can never be made present, however, since whatever presents itself is implicated in the symbolic order, the network of ambiguity, concealment and deceit that has provoked the demand for the thing. Its presentation must be deferred. But the deferral does not simply conceal that there is no truth or guarantee; the guarantee and the truth are the delay or temporization itself. Though Riding's rejection of the (paternal) guarantee provided by the symbolic is countered by a faith in something beyond it, this something must finally be thought of not as a thing at all, but in terms of the delay or deferral of its presentation; this is why, I shall argue, Riding returns the occasion of Truth to the economy of the gift, attempting to remove it from the modern economy of exchange. Though Riding appeals to the legality of the contract, and the judiciousness of a witness, her faith lies with something beyond the modern economy of equivalence they imply. In this paper, I would like to examine the way in which this “something” beyond the economy of the symbolic might be conceptualized.6

The figures by which Riding authorizes her appeal to and for the truth are, as she recognizes, simultaneously implicated in deceit. One can see how Riding's radical suspicion of language and its users comes to inform her later rejection of the language of poetry. Riding recognizes that a community of language users is bound by good faith.7 In “Yes and No,” we can see how this faith operates:

I saw three fishermen out on the bay
who didn't understand language.
I saw a mercadon.
What's a mercadon?

(Poems, 26)

The speaker of this poem is divided across the threshold of the community of language users, where the word “mercadon” is both familiar and strange. How can one see a mercadon without knowing what it is, let alone be able to identify it as a mercadon if there is no word? Did the fishermen, “who didn't understand language,” give the name “mercadon” to what she claims to have seen? But to read the lines this way is to assume that it is the same voice that utters these two sentences. The voice of the poem seems to divide into two: on the one hand, the writer makes the claim to have seen the mercadon; on the other hand, the reader responds with the question, “What's a mercadon?” “I saw a mercadon” is not so much a statement as it is a challenge to the other, the reader, as if the speaker is implicitly asking, “Do you understand language?” But this would make the two voices one in agreement, the writer and the reader at once saying, “What's a mercadon?,” thereby confirming each other in their understanding of language. To a certain extent, this can be seen already to figure the community in Truth imagined by Riding in her later work: the task of the disciple of Truth, Riding herself, is to say something equivalent to “I saw a mercadon,” namely, “I have seen the truth”; but this presentation of the thing at the limit of language leads only to the question that the speakers have in common, “What is a mercadon?” Riding's ideal community may not be the community of interpretation that might arise from this question, but it is at least poised to ask, insistently, this question: What is Truth?8 Despite this challenge, the community is bound by Good Faith.

However, the question concerning the mercadon signals a division in the subject. Authority is mimed, as a child mimics its teachers, in the enthusiastic report that “I saw a mercadon.” But the speaker slides back into the role of the learner when she asks, “What's a mercadon?” The question can be addressed only to a subject with linguistic authority, one who, furthermore, does not answer within the poem. The only figures within the poem that possess linguistic authority are the fishers, who are perhaps the source of the word “mercadon”; it is significant, of course, that these figures of authority do not understand language. Is this because they are beyond language, or because they remain preverbal, like infants, never having learned language? The division of the speaker can place her on both sides of this equation: at the threshold of language, she encounters the infant who must come to language and the adult authority that is the source of language (“mercadon”) and that is simultaneously beyond the need for it. To adopt the terms that I shall return to toward the end of this paper, Riding's speaker raises to the level of the text the split between the subject of the enunciation, which is excluded from the grammatical “I,” and the subject of the statement, the “I.” The former figures frequently in the poetry as an absent authority with whom her speakers must contend.

Where the question of faith implies an acceptance of the guarantee in language, making possible a linguistic community, the related question of truth is more demanding. Riding's own relation to language was severely suspicious; her faith in a guarantee is coupled with a demand that what is guaranteed be delivered as truth. But her approach to Truth is divided, ambivalent, and rarely a matter of opposing falsity or untruth with the utterance of truth. Truth is, in fact, located in the place of authority addressed by the suspicious questioning, and Riding evinces a certain suspicion at times that Truth itself may be a liar. This possibility is not evident in the preceding poem; if it were there, the question it would ask would not be the naive and faithful question, “What's a mercadon?” but “How do I know you're not lying?” As we shall see further, at a certain point (above all in “Poet: A Lying Word”), Riding must confront the paradoxical relationship of truth and deceit to discover that not only does the contract have no guarantee, but language itself is a lie.

The suspicious and doubtful moment of Riding's relationship to the authority that supports even truth emerges in “Disclaimer of the Person,” a startling meditation on the doubled or split self to which I shall return throughout this paper:

If this be I.
If words from earthy durance loosed
To earthy right of meaning
Cannot belie their wisdoming,
The doubt-schooled care that bent back sense
From skyish startle, faith's delirium.
If I my words am …

(Poems, 235)

The “care that bent back sense” and restored to words their “earthy right of meaning” is both critical and interpretive; its hermeneutic work implies a faith that there is a “wisdoming” in words themselves, the words that up to this point were the vatic utterances of “faith's delirium.” Interpretation allows for words' “wisdoming” to speak; it draws out the substance of meaning from the delirious univocity of being.

But the judicial implications of this passage make it more difficult to determine the authority of words and their wisdoming. “Durance” means imprisonment. The implicit appeal to justice in this passage liberates words from their “earthy durance”; they receive their rights. This justice gives back to words or allows words their “meaning.” With their right to meaning restored, words seem under an obligation not “to belie their wisdoming.” Why must they be so obliged? Riding is aware that words, or rather that meaning itself, can deceive. “Durance” also means “endurance” in time. What endures in “earthy durance” is not necessarily “words” but something that words are loosened from. This “something” is the object of Riding's concern in this passage. Her sympathy is, first of all, with what endures in “earthy durance” and, second, with the judicial regime that will guarantee to words their right to meaning while obliging them not to “belie their wisdoming.” Her faith that words “cannot belie their wisdoming” may therefore be seen to be derived from her faith in something other than words, something other than meaning.

But what does it mean that words “cannot belie their wisdoming”? The word “belie” has contradictory meanings: it can mean “to deceive by lying,” “to tell lies about,” or “to counterfeit.” Yet it also means “to show to be false, prove false or mistaken.” If we accept the first meaning, words cannot conceal their wisdoming, and so they are to be trusted once their right is restored; words inevitably tell their truth, being incapable of deceit, of misrepresentation. The second meaning, however, suggests that words are unable to reveal the lies inherent in their wisdoming, unable “to give the lie” to it, to deny its truth, even if it should be denied. Words may have the best intentions, but they cannot witness to the truth or falsity of “their wisdoming.”

Of course, this is all framed by “if,” which leaves a wide margin for doubt in this declaration of faith. This passage leaves one no place to stand in relation to “wisdoming.” The grammar of this passage is equally uncertain. Doubtful care and careful doubt bend back the sense (“bend back” is one of Riding's many obscure verb forms) from faith's delirium, leading to the Cartesian certainty approached, but not arrived at, by means of “if.” The opening “if” promises a consequence, a “then,” but all it offers is the subject of such a consequence: If words …, then “the doubt-schooled care”; but there is neither verb nor object for the subject. “Faith's delirium” is then tagged on to the end of this incoherent sentence as the equivalent of either “the doubt-schooled care” or of “skyish startle,” which both may or may not be equivalents for “wisdoming.”

But rather has not this whole question culminated in and demonstrated “faith's delirium”? This delirium is suspended between two certainties. On the one hand, a body of knowledge is in the process of being produced by a critical hermeneutics: careful doubt gradually organizes signifiers into a consistent whole; on the other hand, there is “faith's delirium” as the wealthy and immediately powerful language of authority (the Church, e.g.). However, the second reading I offered of the line above, with the equivocality of “belie” pointing to the uncertainty of truth, culminates in a delirium of faith; the poem confronts the equivocality of the word “belie” in the very process of formulating the axiom of certainty that could lead to the new language of “wisdoming.” The equivocality of “belie” is supported by the word that resembles it but for one letter, the letter of “faith”: the word is “belief.” This passage is faith's delirium: it demands both a sign of the guarantee of the truth, that is to say, it demands something (a covenant, a contract) it can believe in; yet at the same time it is radically suspicious and demands the presence of what is guaranteed.

Truth is the deferred object of The Telling, Riding's major statement on the issues that occupied most if not all of her life. Published in 1972, more than thirty years after her decision to write no more poetry, The Telling is divided into two main parts: “The Telling” proper and several afterwords that Riding calls the “private words” of “after-speaking.” But “The Telling” itself is not a “public” speaking or public words, in opposition to the private address of the afterwords. As she says of “the telling place”: “It is not the place we know, the stage of public recitation on which the competitions for our belief are enacted; it is a confiding-place, a reminding-place, a place for the speaking all with one another in the privacy of human recognition of one another” (Telling, 35). The “telling” of truth requires a specific mode of private address that implies a third party, an Other beyond the other of the intersubjective relationship. Riding's poetry is haunted by this Other, toward which she is ambivalent; not only does this third party guarantee linguistic currency, it also overhears what should be kept secret.

Riding says that her poems should “be read as a report of what it is like to live by the sense of life one finds in one as a being of the human kind—this meaning a sense of total community: to try to speak as oneself not fearing to be overheard, whatever there is to say, wherever, whenever.”9 Because her use of language is always an ambivalent confrontation with a concealed authority, Riding has to come to terms with a certain fear in writing and speaking. To overcome “the fear of being overheard” is also to overcome the need for concealment from the agent of retribution. In one poem, Riding refers to herself as “expert in equivocation, / Safe in my outer ways from being overheard” (Poems, 262). The fear of being overheard is not paranoid. Riding does not ask that we shed ourselves of the delusion of being constantly bugged. She asks only that we overcome the fear of being heard. This suggests that we are in fact overheard, by someone or something, and that we must come to terms with this fact. An Other is listening at all times, but we cannot be sure of what it can read in what we say. The fear of being overheard has its origin in the excess of meaning in our language and our acts, an excess whose meaning is ultimately transparent to the Other. One could attribute this excess to the “public” nature of language—that language is not private but has been used before we have arrived at a particular moment of speech. The excess is the unspoken traces of other uses by other speakers. There is more being spoken than the speaker can know; in Riding's work, this excess meaning points to a subject supposed to know the truth of what is being said, just as each statement positing an “I” also points to the subject of the utterance that remains behind;10 that is to say, in Riding's words:

Myself is all that was not said,
That never could be said,
Until I said “I say.”
I say.

(Poems, 229)

The fear of the Other suggests that if one were to tell the truth, one would have reason to fear some kind of retribution; in a state of fear, therefore, one speaks equivocally. Equivocation, as a mode of fearful concealment, is, according to Riding's later testament, one of the characteristics of language to be overcome in order for true telling to take place; truth is univocal. The failure of language to tell the truth is a moral failure on the part of human beings, resulting from the fear of being overheard. Poetry itself is, in Riding's later critiques, “expert in equivocation.”

But in the poetry, Riding at times dramatizes the value of concealment as a means of evading the delusive tendencies of meaning—and thus also to evade the ambiguating effects of the overhearing of the Other. Equivocation, in Lacanian terms, is meaning itself, the effect of the split in the subject that is the condition of deception and of secrecy, as well as of irony. A structural equivocation results from the split between the subject of enunciation and the enunciated subject. Thus, evading the overhearing of the Other would require the abolition of the difference or split within the subject, to make the subject of the enunciation identical with the subject of the statement. This gesture expresses the lack of faith in the Other, that the Other will guarantee what we speak, despite equivocation. Yet there is another basis for this hostility to the Other. Riding at times finds the subject's indebtedness to the Other to be unbearable. As I shall argue toward the end of this paper, she at times reveals a desire to opt out of language, as the regime of the Other, by means of a “disclaimer of the person.” Though this claim requires the legal and economic language of the modern market, it points back to an originary economy of the gift, which establishes ties between the subject and the Other that cannot be considered in terms of “personhood.” “Three Sermons to the Dead” provides an initial hint of this economy that I shall develop later. In the third section of this poem, “Nor Is It Written” (the title of which both appeals to a contract and denies that there is one), we get another glimpse of the theme of the gift:

It is not written in what heart
You may not pass from magic plenty
Into the straitened nowadays.
To each is given secrecy of heart,
To make himself what heart he please
In stirring up from that fond table
To sit him down at this sharp meal.
It shall not here be asked of him
“What thinks your heart?”

(Poems, 221)

The gift of secrecy may motivate the movement from plenty to scarcity; that is to say, the abundance of the gift itself, as I shall argue later, is the condition of scarcity and thus of the monetary economy of exchange.11 Secrecy is a gift, but what it makes possible is concealment from the Other who has bestowed the gift of language. In the realm of the dead, which I would argue is the realm of language users, no one will ask, “What thinks your heart?” This, however, is not what I suggest Riding wants from concealment. For her, concealment and secrecy must have consequences; there must be an Other who is concerned. The indeterminacy of the speaker's attitude to the realm of the dead in this poem fits with what I argue is Riding's own ambivalence to the gift of language; she seems at once an insider and an outsider, her sermon both damning and consoling its addressee. The gift in this case seems to bestow rights and independence with no obligation at all; each can do as “he please.” The dead seem to occupy the world of modern individualism, for which Riding had little but contempt. Yet could this be because this poem concerns a world without contract or, rather, with such a contract that there is no longer any meaning to the exchange? At this point, the speaker would seem to be damning the addressee, and the addressee is implicitly the third person with whom the contract should have been contracted. Instead of the contract to which one can appeal, there is nothing: “it is not written.” That is to say, there is no court of appeal, no third party, no Other giving the secrecy any meaning.12

This poem sustains two possibilities: first, there is no contract or covenant; second, there is a contract implied by the “gift” of secrecy (of language as equivocal), but the Other will not enforce the obligations it entails. Riding at this point will fall back on the further faith that the “thing” the Other would guarantee remains elsewhere, like the “mercadon” outside the circle of the Other, where one need not “understand language.” In one poem, this lack of faith in the Other leads to one of Riding's various attempts to imagine a new kind of language, or a mutation within language, that will take it beyond the realm of the Other. “The Wind, the Clock, the We” (Poems, 181-82) suggests the possible identification of things with their inscribed signifiers, or the thingification of language that would prevent the need for meaning, the need to go beyond what she will later call the “wall” of written language. “The We” of the title refers to the only “survivors on paper,” that is, to the pronouns “you” and “I,” who are both addressed as “you.” This literalization of the pronouns “hushes” the “I” of enunciation, encrypting it within the “I” of the statement:

At last we can make sense, you and I,
You lone survivors on paper.
The wind's boldness and the clock's care
Become a voiceless language,
And I the story hushed in it—
Is more to say of me?
Do I say more than self-choked falsity
Can repeat word for word after me,
The script not altered by a breath
Of perhaps meaning otherwise?

(italics added)

“You and I” survive on paper as pronouns, or even as the proper names of the dead, surviving only in the written account. The speaker is not identical with “I,” which is addressed as “you” in the second line. In this account, the story of “I” is hushed; it is reduced to such silence that “falsity” might be capable of repeating the script without suggesting the other meaning, the missing sturplus of a hidden truth. The utterly univocal text is thus the perfect lie. In it lies the “I” itself, the one surviving only in the written pronoun “I” serving as a proper name. The question, “Do I say more … ?” wants nothing more to be said, wants the lie to be so complete that no interpretation will reveal what is nonetheless hushed within it. Writing should say nothing (we shall see shortly that money is the model for this kind of signifying; it too should say nothing). Writing is the dream of the perfect lie, so perfect that what it attempts to conceal is utterly “hushed” and the lie becomes the truth. Writing would have no “I” of enunciation, only the “I” of the statement; the (written) subject of the statement would be self-identical. The secrecy is designed to suppress any sense of “more,” any sense that something other is being said beyond the paradoxical “common secrecy.” All that may be said is there in the words, the letters, that are loyal in providing meaning and thus the guarantee of their deferred truth—the very promise and guarantee that at other times taunts Riding herself. The splitting of the subject would be so complete that the “I” of the statement is whole and entire, or the splitting has, in effect, never taken place. Nonetheless, what we see in this poem is the very splitting of the subject, and the resulting structural secret, hence also the lie.

In the above poem, the spatialization of time means that “At last we can make sense, you and I.” What is the meaning of “sense” in this case? Riding's modernism rejects what in another poem she calls “familiar sense,” for in that there is no need “Of my most singular device or me,” since anyone can pay “homage” to “the old adoréd rose.” Such is the “common secrecy” of the profession of poets, as she would later come to identify it. This poem, entitled “As Well as Any Other,” asks that she not be mistrusted for her avoiding the “Unstrange and much-told ground” in favor of her “peculiar earth”:

For in peculiar earth alone can I
Construe the word and let the meaning lie
That rarely may be found.

(Poems, 54)

“To construe” has a precise meaning in a linguistic context. With “word” as its object, “construe” would be “to combine (words or parts of speech) grammatically.” In a more general sense, it means “to explain or interpret, or take in a specified way (often apart from the real sense)” (OED). To construe the word is then simply to use it in a sentence that interprets its meaning. However, “to construe the word and let the meaning lie,” if we construe “lie” as “to deceive,” is something different. Meaning “lies” in such construction; meaning itself is a lie. Even with the more apparent meaning that Riding gives the word in this context, meaning is left buried in this “peculiar earth.” The very exposition or interpretation of meaning in the sentence is its death and burial, like the hushing of the story of “I” in the voiceless language of writing. Saying nothing is the truth of meaning in the lie.

Thus Riding's “singular device” will not be used in the service of “the common secrecy” or “the familiar sense,” both of which seem to be identical in poetic language, which exploits the ambiguity of ordinary language. The death and burial of meaning would then seem to be different from poetic language or language itself as inherently ambiguous. It would provide an encrypted space within a wall of language, a secret “thing” beyond telling.

Riding further examines the structure of secrecy in “The Biography of a Myth.” The poem's poet-protagonist was “a creature of other sense” until she learned to conceal herself to avoid the humiliation attendant upon public appearance before an audience titillated by her foolish “otherness.” After returning home “to lour in shame,” “She rose unseen, absent in counted presence: / The one more wanting from the swollen streets.” She whispers to herself:

“She whom they did not see though saw
Myself now am, hidden all away in her
Inward from her confiding mouth and face
To deep discretion, this other-person mind.[”]

(Poems, 179)

The identity of “she” is uncertain, but this poem is her biography, telling of her transformation into myth. She does not survive long as the supernumerary lacking in public. She withdraws further and further from the world of bodies: “she grew dead, like a shaped no one wandered”; “She grew secret, her body told not of her.” We saw earlier the possibility of a pure writing from which the “I” has disappeared. This is another version of such vanishing: “she” leaves her body to wander empty in public and in the historical theater. The essential “she” “mythically haunts,” persists as myth in the public realm. This means that, though she has separated her essence into a private place, this privacy only exists in public myth: her “essence,” to use the word from “The Signature” (Poems, 28) is “waiting” for the end of history, until she is “dead enough.” “But history goes no further than history— / The final scene reads dim, its sense senseless.” Her place in the public theater is that of the “real” that quickly vanishes “of being real, / And beyond passion as beyond seeming dwell.”

I have quoted so extensively from the poem in order to display the genesis of a structural secrecy that gives rise to an aesthetic. “She” serves as an unknown quantity that gives rise to a certain kind of discursive position for the public for whom she earlier appeared. Her gradual disappearance throughout the poem leads to her effective abolition. What is left is like the written script we saw in “The Wind, the Clock, the We.” The structure of secrecy is supported by the public discourse, by “familiar sense”:

And if she came she went, and gave them back
Their faith, a legal gospel like false oaths
Adhered to with the loyalty of words
That do not pledge the mind to believe itself.

(Poems, 180)

The “false oath” maintains this secrecy by virtue of an ironic or even cynical distance. She is the object of the faith of the audience she haunts, but the faith is determined by false oaths to which her words are nonetheless loyal even if she is removed from them. A false oath is an oath that one has no intention of keeping. But even if an oath be “false,” even if one's fingers are crossed, it is nonetheless an oath. In making an oath, one participates in a public activity for which one will be held responsible. There is no need to take into account the private intention as a guarantee of the felicity of the performative. There is a certain objectivity to the guarantee of this “legal gospel,” just as there is a certain guarantee and a correlative faith implied in our very use of language. The “legal gospel” is in fact “the loyalty of words,” beyond the private intentions of the speakers or signatories to the contract; words themselves are loyal to such oaths and “do not pledge the mind to believe itself.”

What then is the significance of the falseness of the oath? What privacy or secrecy does it sustain in its impossibility? As we have seen, the secrecy is designed to suppress any sense of “more,” any sense that something other is being said beyond “the common secrecy.” In light of the objectivity of the guarantee, the duplicitous contract or promise, and Riding's attempts to appeal to a guarantee of the Truth, it should not be surprising that one of her most important presentations of the ambiguities surrounding this issue appears in a discussion of money, the value of which is entirely dependent on the guarantee and the deferral of the embodiment of its value, or truth. Riding's analysis of money presents it as analogous to language as a profoundly duplicitous medium of exchange—duplicitous because it too is founded in a contract that establishes a temporality of deferral. In a discussion of the relation of a writer to his or her audience, Riding assimilates “meaning” to “money,” revealing the rhetorical structure of monetary exchange that leads to the kind of secrecy we examined above, based on absolute deception and concealment in the inscribed words and letters. The meaning of a text is always “money,” she suggests, but at times it is advantageous for an author to act as if it were possible to mean something other than money:

And so you have the money-plus situation, of which the elements are the simple money public and an unknown quantity, which the simple money public desires to treat as a quantity of money, exact figure unknown, and the unsimple author desires to treat as an unknown, that is, as an other-than-money for the maintenance of which in its otherness … he is willing, indeed anxious, to accept whatever money may be manageably accepted in these only delicately manageable circumstances.

(“Introduction,” 122-23)

The money-plus situation comes about when the author of a book suggests that he or she has more to say than simply and tautologically “money.” This “unknown,” or “unknown quantity,” seems to be an object of negotiation without end between the author and his or her audience. The audience treats it “as a quantity of money, exact figure unknown”—it is not in the series of figures that constitutes the text but is an unknown “figure.” The money public pays the author to maintain this indeterminacy of the figure, to maintain it “in its otherness.” They are not paying for a commodity but to maintain this unknown outside money's circle of consumption.

Yet neither audience nor author seems to have any control over this unknown quantity. Each has a double assurance that there is more than money, and yet that money can “cover everything.” According to this author, however, there is a gap between money and an other thing: “Money can cover everything, but doesn't. And it's this fact that is responsible for the books that tease, in which the things that money doesn't cover seem different subjects” (“Introduction,” 122). The exception, or “unknown quantity,” can indeed be covered by money, but “there is on both sides [the readers and the writers] the generally accepted inference of an other-than-money that would, if not maintained in its otherness, fundamentally affect the simple money situation, to its confusion” (“Introduction,” 123). This exception to money takes on the appearance of “another subject,” when really it is only money—but money that is not covered by money, yet. “When I'm writing my subject is either money or money. And if it ever doesn't seem to be money, you know now that it is rather a more monily money than simple money itself” (“Introduction,” 124). There is a money that is not covered by money: it is, as it were, outside of the set constituted by money but is the totality of the set itself. It is “more monily money,” as Riding says. It belongs to an economy that is no longer ours, one that requires a substance that be represented by whatever is current as “money.” The “unknown quantity” alluded to by the text is thus not “another subject” but the very substance of the same subject, money, situated at the very limit of the phenomenal exchanges of money as its condition and guarantee.

But Riding alludes also to a more modern economy, with a fluctuating standard, an “elastic” currency. The unknown quantity against which money measures itself is fluctuating: “And as the function of money is to cover everything possible, that is, to be elastic, but equally to cover exactly, that is, to be fixed, you can see what a difficult situation money is in” (“Introduction,” 125-26). The next step will be to see money as part of a collective fiction or pact; that is, money will not have any real guarantee beyond our agreement to take it as money, our agreement to play the game. We have signed a contract containing a promise that we can never redeem but which nonetheless holds good.

Riding emphasizes that one of the important things about money is that it excludes no one. It is democratic: everyone can have money, and all subjects have the same relation to money. There is no other subject, though there can be the illusory appearance of an other. In a later text, Riding returns to the question of money as embodying the

principle of allowance … in sense of allowances for varieties of needs and desires and of existent things—even of one's own being “something” for another, another's being “something” for one. The point of view of the self-centered world of each, is this not? With money, there is as a world of each consisting of a system of allowances other than those of one's private reality. One has an abstract world, thus—each?

(“Open Confidences,” 199)

Money, like language, serves to mediate the needs and desires of abstract individuals; this notion is echoed in the earlier text's concern for the abstract community of the audience. The writer exploits the various needs of the individuals that compose his or her readership by writing money, the universal equivalent. Yet Riding then suggests another possible use of this universal equivalent, based on the rhetorical ploy of irony. What if she were saying her subject is “money,” but she actually meant something else? This would be to present money as the “object” that would then allude, allegorically, to another “subject”:

If in writing about money I made you feel uncomfortable, it would show that I was lying when I said that my subject was money, that indeed money was only my object, and that indeed my subject was something other than money, but that I wasn't telling what my subject really was because I wanted to keep it to myself, I wanted to keep my subject to myself and to have money as well.

(“Introduction,” 118-19)

One would feel uncomfortable not only because one was being lied to, but because if money takes the position of the object, then (perhaps) the other thing would appear to be radically different from money. The illusion is that the author has a secret to keep. Yet in the money-plus situation, there was no secret—only an unknown quantity maintained in its otherness, a “more monily” guarantee of our money created by both author and reader in an aesthetic game of sorts. However, the apparently antidemocratic suggestion that one has something more than money makes one's audience uncomfortable. Since money is “a thing that anyone could have, that is, the kind of thing the fact of which couldn't be a secret,” speaking about it, according to Riding, always makes one feel comfortable. It translates all difference, as Riding suggests in her later discussion of money as the “principle of allowance.” But if one were to suggest that there is something other than money, and that in speaking of money one is really speaking of something else, then the audience would get uncomfortable. They might wonder if they are getting a bad deal—perhaps the parties to the negotiation do not share a common measure of value, for example; perhaps there is another subject.

The audience would become suspicious. Is the author really talking about money? Is the subject really money? Is this whole text on money a “lie”? If so, what is the subject? Or, another way of asking the question, is this text thoroughly ironic? Does it mean to talk of something other than money? The whole text is an assurance that it is talking about money alone and that whatever else it could talk about would also be money. But it has a paradoxical structure that cannot be called irony. If I were to say “my subject is money,” while money was really only my object, what then would my subject be? “Money,” in the place of object, would in this case have to point to something else, to my elusive and secret subject and a possibly untranslatable gap between subjects (between money and X) would open up, making all known subjects (i.e., money, the one subject) into objects with an enigmatic signification. But this one subject seems to have in it a powerful capacity to create other subjects; in fact, it seems to lead inevitably to deception or the lie. This takes the author-audience relation beyond the happy and comfortable agreement of perpetual negotiation, but it does not constitute a new moment in the exchange. It is, rather, the truth of the former agreement.

On the level of utterance, the text is either an ironic lie or it is the truth. Or it is both. With this third option, Riding's mode of utterance begins to appear in its proper outline. As an utterance that is true, the text points to the emptiness of its own speaking, leaving only its unnecessary writing, which, as we shall see, necessarily awaits the truth and the true subject that will make of this text a lie. This true and future subject will not correct the lie; the true subject already inheres in and is presented by the lie as the subject of truth.

Riding assures this audience that money is the only subject, and only money is speaking, not an author. But money says nothing, except “money.” However, there is an element thus far left out of this account. Though money will say nothing, writing will take place:

I mean money is charming. I mean that if there were not money saying nothing could not be writing. I mean that writing is necessary because of saying something and that money is charming because it is always the subject when writing says nothing and that therefore, though nothing is being said and the writing is consequently not necessary, yet writing is going on and it is necessary for writing to go on in order for something to be able to be said when it comes to be said—and so money is charming.

(“Introduction,” 115)

Writing must go on in preparation for the “something … when it comes to be said.” Writing is not necessary to money's talking—it simply happens, unnecessarily, while money talks. The necessity of writing comes from the future, from the “something” that is not yet, and is not convertible into the tautological and total present of money. Writing becomes the “next step”: it attends upon the promise of something to come, an unknown quantity beyond money—an imperative and a good that determine its necessity.13 The “something” is unpresentable within the (monetary) economy of language, yet requires such a language in order to be thought.

Thus truth requires both the promise and the refusal of the “more” or the “otherness” that money and language indicate. Reflecting her ambivalence to the Other, the authority that occupies the place of truth, many of Riding's poems evince a contempt for equivocation, for ambiguity; however, what Riding calls “equivocation” is meaning itself. As Freud and Lacan see it, primary repression is the condition of language that determines it as fundamentally ambiguous—deception is its truth. Against meaning, Riding appeals to Truth, which stands prior to the splitting of the subject in primal repression. Her poetry is a struggle, almost from the beginning, to present Truth, which cannot be entangled with meaning; meaning is always only the promise of Truth and the possibility of deceit. Riding shows an intense suspicion of most verbal combinations, constellations of “meaning,” and her rigorous watchfulness intends to make sure that she is not deceived. Yet lying also, paradoxically, becomes the guarantee that Truth remains. She refers in “Memories of Mortalities” to an “almost-lie to warrant truth by,” which suggests that the lie or near-lie is necessary as a measure by which to “warrant truth.”

However, this does not necessarily imply that there is a rejection of division in favor of the One in Riding's poems. Instead, there is a rejection of one kind of division or splitting (the condition of equivocation) and the performance of another. The equivocation characteristic of poetry conceals the real split, which is the border at which Truth may present itself. Equivocation says that Truth is here; one need only look for it, read more carefully. But Riding wants to overcome that illusory split, which is internal to signification, in order to say: truth is not here, it is there, behind this wall of writing. But, as I have argued, the staging of this deferral in her poetry gives to the writing the status of an embodiment of truth, as the very splitting between truth and meaning: what she calls the “written edge of time” is the very splitting or folding (“bending back”) of truth into meaning.

Riding later reflects upon the temporality of the presentation of truth as the presentation of the “edge” glimpsed in the “written edge of time.” A significant passage in Riding's later writing concerns the relation of the body and the mind in terms of this “edge of time” as the constitutive temporality of difference and deferral. Riding asserts that she has “always tended to give the physicalities an ‘edge’ in dealing with the problem of the finalization of the human reality,” implicitly affirming “the necessity of ceasing to operate, live, from body-mind orientations” (“Open Confidences,” 209). This “person of the mind” is an elusive articulation of apparent opposites, requiring vigilant attention:

This that I have been writing has the feel of a large net spread to catch a little thing. What I am trying to define is a little thing. I know it to-day, at one moment, as a small invariable, a universal constant—as it were the limit beyond which there cannot be less, the inviolable self of existence—this is what there is to show, to see, in its omnipresent certitude. This is where the great showing (the total clarity, in fact) (the mutual revelation) starts. And so, as to standing out in the light: to grasp and hold to this “self” of existence is to be by its manifold verity—no manifestation of which can contradict any other—and to know and make show what the real “is like.”

(“Open Confidences,” 211)

The “more” indicated by money and language presents itself in the microscopic sublimity of the “limit” or “edge.” In 1975 Riding interpolated an intriguing comment in this 1966 text: “There suggests itself to me a definition of ‘the real’ in time-terms. That is ‘the real’ which endures as itself. The burden of proof rests on ‘endures’—which implies, or rather posits, a witnessing consciousness.” What endures is beyond the “more” examined in the “Introduction to Money”; it is “there,” much as the “more” is, but it is present differently. It “endures” as the trace of temporal differentiation, of splitting.

Though the “little thing” requires the monetary language of the earlier text, it also finally requires, in order to be thought to its fullest, the language of a gift economy. (This “other” economy nonetheless echoes at all points the language of the monetary economy, which provides the concepts that turn at a certain moment to face its other.) The monetary economy requires a guarantee, an “otherness,” that, as Riding points out, is fictitious: it can never be made present but is always deferred. Every presentation of a quantity refers to something else or something “more,” something other. But the other economy also has a guarantee, which Riding here refers to as “a witnessing consciousness.” This consciousness is the ultimate object of Riding's concern, the “self” of authentic “telling.” This self can already be glimpsed as a concern of her poetry; we have seen it already in the ironic structure of money. This “witnessing consciousness,” as we shall see, is the Other—the third party, language itself as guardian and watch.

In her text on money, Riding writes that “it would be a bad give-away of myself” if the audience were to become uncomfortable. This statement suggests that the structure of the secret must be maintained even if there is no secret. The context suggests that one must not deceive the audience; this would make it uncomfortable, which would then give one away. The conclusion then is to be honest, do not deceive, so as not to give oneself away—to preserve the secret.

From another perspective, the “giving away” of the self is the bad version of the gift, in conflict with the money economy she explores in the “Introduction to a Book on Money.” “A bad give-away” would go against the principles of exchange embodied by money, which are opposed to the unprofitable “give-away,” or the gift, of oneself. The concern over the gift of oneself lies at the heart of Riding's later meditations on selfhood, which are deeply implicated in the economy of the gift. The theme returns in her meditations on the traditional (and experiential) opposition of body and mind. In “Open Confidences,” Riding considers the gift as what binds body and mind in a “true unity” of “the person”: “The person (of each) must be the body's gift to mind; mind must make itself, be, ready to receive the gift” (“Open Confidences,” 209-10). How are we to conceive this “gift” of the body to the mind? The “person of the mind” that is made possible by such a gift is opposed, by Riding, to “the person of the body,” which is always involved in “theatricality.” “Theatricizing” suggests an order of representation that privileges visibility of a type that is less ontologically truthful than Riding's very Heideggerian “standing out in the light.” To follow Riding here, it is necessary to avoid the oppositions that present themselves as interpretations of this gift of body to mind. In Heideggerian terms, this moment is the presentation or giving (the es gibt, or “there is”) of the original relation of thought to things, a moment prior to the order of representation within which a subject confronts an object. Though I have not focused on staging, costume, and disguise, they have been important metaphors in my exploration of Riding's work; recall for example the “creature of other sense” shamed into concealing herself before the audience. These metaphors designate an order of representation in which “the person of the body” is constituted. In “Poet: A Lying Word” (Poems, 216-18), this order of representation is a phenomenal “wall,” the “not I” opposed to its concomitant in this order, the “I.” Riding identifies the “not I” as “the body” of the poet, something separate from yet problematically designated by the “I.” “This body-self, this wall, this poet-like address, is that last barrier long shied of in your elliptic changes”; the body, or “the physicalities,” is not “given the edge” in the “elliptic changes” of language. But even this flesh is quickly identified as an imaginary illusion, an effect of deixis—that is to say, an effect of the “more” that language indicates: “it is your lie of flesh and my flesh-seeming stand of words.” The theatrical, deceptive poem and its “I,” or “poet,” lead through language ultimately to the body as the “I/not I,” “the classic lie” based on the opposition of mind or representation and body. Poetry, language itself, is the condition of the classical lie that places the body as an object before the subject of representation, or the mind. But Riding is anticipating her later denunciations of the sensuous intuition provided by language when she removes this final “barrier”: “the classic lie dissolves.”

The dissolution of the lie does not reveal truth in its nakedness. Truth appears as the limit or edge of language: “It is not a wall, it is not a poet. It is not a lying wall, it is not a lying word. It is a written edge of time.” The “barrier,” the false split of body and mind, gives way to a more originary split, which we have seen as “the limit,” or “the little thing.” The poem goes beyond a denunciation of the lie and works out the structure of truth that is nonetheless implied by the lie, suggested in the repetition of “I say, I say”: “I say, I say, I am, it is …” In this particular poem, the “limit” or “edge” is the subject as the very splitting revealed and concealed in this repetition. Multiple citations are implied by the conjunction of these phrases—but it is important to note that this is not reported speech; she does not say “I say, ‘I say,’” or “‘I say,’ I say.” The repetition occurs on the same level, on one level of enunciation, with the subject of the enunciation forcing its way into the statement, as it were, attempting to fix the shifter on what can only be designated by “I,” as something always “more” than “I,” which cannot be identified as what is “not I,” or the body. This refusal to put quotation marks goes against the negativity of language, which is founded on the splitting of the subject of the enunciation from the subject of the statement and the rhetorical dimension of language that the splitting introduces (including, as we have seen, irony and deception). The “I” is also the “it” and the “not I,” but this identification is not a reconciliation of opposites. It is instead the insistence of the limit or edge of time in language or writing.14

The repetition of “I say” fails to present the subject itself as Truth. But this is the Truth of the subject. Nothing can occupy the space of the “I” without being a “lie.” Riding is not affirming the absolute authenticity of the “I”-self, however; instead, she is commenting on the objectification or representation of the subject, as well as the concomitant subject effect. This staging of the self, Riding's theatricizing “person of the body,” presents the self to an audience. But this question of the audience, which we discussed in connection with the “Introduction to Money,” is finally a question not of the imaginary other but of the Other, the unseen third party presiding over the imaginary assumption of the ego in the mirror. The poem's “not I” is not only the body but also the poem's “you” (recall “The Wind, the Clock, the We,” in which “I” was addressed as “you,” which “hushed” the I that lurked at the edges of the utterance). “Poet: A Lying Word” returns to the problem of the audience raised by “Introduction to a Book on Money,” addressing it as “you”; but in the “Introduction to a Book on Money,” it was clear that the audience and the writer were on the same side of the equation, passing something “more” back and forth, like the “mercadon” of the earlier poem.15 In these earlier works, Riding makes evident the narcissistic paucity of this relation; we would not be going astray by thinking of the “you” of the poem as the “I” staring into a mirror at the “I” who speaks. This imaginary order is not violated by the intrusion of an “audience”; the audience is the ego multiplied. Though “Poet: A Lying Word” might seem to follow a similar strategy, it goes further by topographically revealing the place of the Other, that is to say the order of truth (as opposed to representation or meaning). The poem's Hegelian mirroring implies an audience beyond the imaginary doubling, namely a third “you,” a third person implicit in the dialogue with the second person: the third person, the Other, that has named the “I” “poet.” The poem is addressed to the agency of naming, the one from whom the appellation “poet” is received—the Other, originator of “this poet-like address.” The “word” the poem is about is not only “poet” but also the “word” or pact that interpellates the poet to his or her calling: “You are a poet.” Earlier in this paper I said that some of Riding's best poems address an other who has broken a promise or contract. In “Poet: A Lying Word,” the speaker responds to the very institution of the contract as a “lie”; she attacks the order of language itself as necessarily a lie. The “lie” of the word or naming (in this case, “poet”) consists in its not being the truth. Her concern is not truth as correspondence (if it were, she would have to argue, in effect: you say I am a poet, but I am not—you have made a mistake). Rather, the word “poet” lies fundamentally. “Poet” is a lying word, but it is a lie, as Lacan would say, that is posited in the dimension of truth: it designates the truth of language as equivocation, as deception; its lie is the truth of language.

The “you” of “Poet: A Lying Word” is finally therefore the Other, who presides over the contract or pact as witness and guarantee. But, as I said above, the Other is not addressed as a legal authority to enforce the terms of the contract. The poem is uttered at the limit of an economy of exchange, where language is no longer underwritten by a legal instance. Instead, the Other is seen as responsible for the lie of language that occludes truth. Yet we are also witnessing the limit at which the subject can only consent to signing its name to the contract that constitutes the order of the lie that is language. Once it says “I,” the subject has entered the contract and can propose no other language in which to make its claims, its appeals to justice or truth. “Disclaimer of the Person” (Poems, 229-36), certainly one of Riding's most significant meditations on the contract and the third party, concludes with the question:

Does the thronging firm a name
To nod my own—witnessing
I write or am this, it is written?

(Poems, 234)

Two words sound odd here: “firm” seems to want to say “form,” and “nod” has no recognizable meaning where it is. But the disturbance of the phrasing signals that language is in question here. The complication of this passage should be attributed to the fact that it enacts its subject: it is about naming as an original act on the part of the Other. The passage seems to resist using the Other's language transparently to consider that language from as much distance as is possible by alienating it. One means is by stealing from another language; if we appeal to German, a clue emerges: “to nod” in German is nicken, which in English suggests “nickname.” “Firmen” is a verb in German, but it is also an obsolete verb in English. According to the OED, “firm” means “to affix, ‘sign’ (one's name) to a document or writing.” The poem alludes to a scene of nomination, a naming that occurs even in the signing of a document: it alludes to the original pact in which one assumes her name, which is also “a lying word.” This scene is presided over by a witness, at once other than the self and not. The subject is split across this scene, between the “I,” who has a name and can “write,” and the “I” that is an “it” until “it is written.”16 The “it” should be familiar to us from “Poet: A Lying Word,” where “I,” “not I” and “it” indicated the “barrier” or “edge of time.” The third party is all that remains behind with the inscription of the subject of the statement, the “more” that implies the witnessing Other who provokes the subject's fear of saying too much.

The writing of this “it” is clarified by some earlier lines of “Disclaimer of the Person,” in which the “I” is indicated in the third person: “This is I, I: the I-thing.” Writing constitutes both the third person as a thing and the first person as writing subject, the “I” split across a temporal gap. The “I-thing” is divided, “a self-postponed exactitude, / An after-happening to happen come” (Poems, 234). Time itself is the gift, but a gift that comes at a cost; it obligates and divides the subject. The gift is time, but the instant the gift is given, the economy of exchange opens, hinged with the gift economy at the point at which time becomes the guarantee, the “postponed exactitude.”

According to “Disclaimer of the Person,” God is time, and time is disagreement of thing with thing. In “The Last Covenant,” Riding refers to God as the fantasy figure required to guarantee human “bargains,” which, it will be recalled, are opposed to “the covenant.” God is also the third person as Other, the “it,” or agency of naming addressed in “Poet: A Lying Word.” Beyond or after God, for Riding, is “agreement thing with thing.” Behind the word “agreement” is of course the compact or contract. “Agreement thing with thing” betrays not so much a philosophical theory of adequation as it does an exchangist, economic notion of truth; “agreement thing with thing,” if there is any room for it in the regime of the Other, must go on like a black market behind the back of the Other. This dream of the “agreement of thing with thing” desires to disclaim the person, which is always implicated in relationship to the Other; yet paradoxically the disclaimer is also the act of the person, disclaiming its legal right. To disclaim is to deny the authority of a (legal) claim made upon one. This regime of legality implies the agency of the Other as witness and judge. The OED offers a definition of “disclaimer” relevant to Riding's relationship to the Other: “to renounce, relinquish or repudiate a legal claim … originally said in reference to the renunciation of the claim of feudal lordship or tenancy by the lord or tenant respectively.” Riding's effort in this poem is to disclaim the legal realm altogether, presided over by the Other, yet this gesture cannot escape the paradoxes of subjectivity, of “personhood” as a legal category, implicated in the modernity Riding wants to supersede in the turn to “things” themselves. A shadow legal realm of “agreement” emerges from the repudiation or disclaimer of the subject's place in the regime of the Other.

Yet even as it attempts to transcend the legal realm, Riding's disclaimer of the person necessarily appeals to another form of “agreement.” The poem's anticipation of “agreement thing with thing” turns into a meditation on names, words, and their “agreement”; but this does not turn back to the Other. Instead, it imagines a language in which the Other plays no part, a language that refuses to be language and a subject that has no proper name but “the name” itself. However, even in this dream of another language, the third person threatens to take over the language completely, leaving the subject utterly divided (by a “barrier,” or “wall”) from the “it” that remains always behind:

My name is not my name.
It is the name of what I say.
My name is what is said.
I alone say.
I alone am not I.
I am my name.
My name is not my name,
My name is the name.
The name is the one word only.
The one word only is the one thing only.
The one thing only is the word which says.
The word which says is no word.
The one word only is no word.
The one word only is agreement
Word with word finally.

(Poems, 232)

Grammatically, the third person permeates the writing, “hushing” the “I” and reducing the speaker to anonymity. Sufficient unto itself, the third person has all authority, and the subject makes no claims upon it. This passage of the poem, deprived of subjectivity but for the sense of exile, imitates this other language, which is founded on the “agreement” that excludes the subject, leaving the subject to face the “wall” or “barrier” of the “I” as “not I,” the “not I” as the “I” that is not a self.

Though this moment is the outer limit of Riding's poetic work, it is not where her poetry rests, nor can it explain her renunciation of poetry. In a 1972 commentary “Explaining the Poems,” Riding once again appeals to the gift. Thirty years after giving up poetry, Riding still “honour[s her] poems for their never stealing themselves from [her] to be strangers.”

As far as half-way along in Collected Poems, and even beyond, there is to be found … a repeated pointing to and acknowledging of the Given—by which I mean the Given in the large. This is the basis of what can be taken, in some of my poems, for a folklorish mixture of savvy and bonhomie; elsewhere [as in the lines I have cited from “Disclaimer of the Person”] it shows itself as an equanimity testing itself against unminced potentials of the somber, the indeterminate, even the catastrophic. However severe the tests, the Given is always treated as essentially untragic: some happiness of loyalty to it is always evident.

(Poems, 417)

The Given, or the gift, opens the economy of exchange at the very moment it binds one to the Other with an inescapable tie to which Riding is loyal; this loyalty survives even the most extreme moments where she contests the Other for its failure to deliver on its promise.


  1. After thirty years of near silence, Riding's first reappearance in book form was Selected Poems in Five Sets. This was followed by what she perceived to be a major testament, The Telling. A number of essays appeared in a special issue of Chelsea entitled “From the Writings of Laura (Riding) Jackson.” She did appear in print fairly often in the 1960s, most frequently in other issues of Chelsea. For a bibliography of this period, see Wexler, 163-64.

    Let me provide the context of the first half of the title of my paper as an example of Riding's later prose writing. This passage, which bears significantly upon the theme and thesis of my paper, comes from Riding's 1966 essay, “Open Confidences”: “This [the One-in-one] is Something unlosable. This is One thing which every other like manifestation will be identically however different the sequences in which it occurs … And, when it does, whenever it does, you know it is a result of will. But not as will is ordinarily known: this will is only the will of distinction of the ‘thing,’ the One, from all not it. And, hold! look at this not, this powerful antithetic. Oh, let it be clear how much is Not” (201). (The second part of my title is from Riding's poem, “Disclaimer of the Person” in Poems, 233).

  2. As if to check the renewal of interest in her work, Helen Vendler has criticized Riding from this perspective: had she not hated the flesh and been so arrogant, Vendler argues, Riding might have been able to enlarge her poetry “beyond the sterilities of logical paradox into an ampler perception and a less egotistic, more self-questioning passion. But the blind verbal alley and the total humorlessness into which she was driven by her delusions of grandeur and her narrow conception of philosophical truth made poetry forsake her. That she needed to describe this event as a voluntary renunciation of poetry on her part is perhaps an index of her sorrow at its occurrence” (17). Vendler reduces Riding's development as a poet and thinker to psychological idiosyncrasy and explains her renunciation of poetry as a rationalization of the loss of her poetic powers; this allows her to evaluate Riding according to the exclusively aesthetic criteria that Riding herself steadily put in question in her later poetic work. There can be little doubt that Riding falls short of Vendler's demands for poetry, yet to assume that Riding's own understanding of the limits of poetry can be ignored on the basis of such a reductive evaluation of the work is to restrict far too much the extensions of writing that can and should go by the name of poetry.

  3. The most general evidence of Riding's concern with contracts and covenants is the value she places on responsibility to words. The dedication of her collected poems to her soon-to-be husband in 1938 bears witness to the solemnity of such responsibility: “To Schuyler Brinckerhoff Jackson[,] who knew, and exerted himself to his extreme to serve, the beneficent duty that words lay upon us, and help us to exert ourselves to serve” (Poems, v). Notice how the notion that words themselves “help us to exert ourselves to serve” echoes the notion of grace in one version of covenant theology, which considers grace the gift bestowed by God that allows us to fulfill our obligations in the convenant. See note 5 below. Also, in 1938 Riding privately printed and circulated her brief Covenant of Literal Morality, in which she joins other contemporary antimodernists in addressing the question of an authority for which democratic institutions make no provisions.

  4. This is one reason for the profoundly dissatisfying and unsettling nature of some of her poems, which are characterized by a lack of closure that can hardly be called “open.” There is instead an immobility to many of her poems, which is a sign of suspension—more specifically the expectation of something that can act as a guarantee, or perhaps as the fulfillment of the contract or covenant. Characteristically, a question has been posed, either implicitly or explicitly, or conditions have been set. This moment appears in her work as a moment of waiting—for a sign from some other who will guarantee or redeem the contract. On waiting and time, see note 6.

  5. Though it may seem theologically incorrect to oppose the covenant, as implying radical dependency and debt, to the contract, as presupposing two autonomous and equal subjects, I do so in order to work out a rather difficult point in Riding's work, one that was equally difficult to work out in the Reformation when convenant theology first arose. David Zaret has argued that the reciprocal contract of Calvinistic covenant theology, which emphasizes the bilateral, peculiarly “modern” agreement between God and humanity, for various reasons developed out of an earlier unilateral form of covenant: “This unilateral covenant more closely resembles the type of contract encountered in medieval political philosophy than that found in early modern thought, where bilateral features are more important. … To the extent that the operation of the covenant depends solely upon God's will, it has … the form of a ‘gift.’ Puritans described this gift in terms of God's free and undeserved mercy” (135-36). Contemporary antimodernisms frequently appeal to similar unilateral models of the covenant to counter the assumption of a social contract. For example, Bernard-Henri Lévy argues that the covenant is “a sublime artifice, God's path toward man, a harsh rent in heaven, from which ‘proceeds’ and ‘descends’ the constraint of a commandment. … [It is not] a pact, a contract between equals in which, in the manner of pagans, two fundamentally complementary interests converge. Deuteronomy is much more pessimistic, describing unequal exchange, divergent interests, the unilateral promise, and the herd which is naturally, spontaneously resistant to its order” (225). In a remarkable discussion of the problem of the gift and exchange that has much to say to readers of Riding, William Flesch, discussing Luther's argument against free will in favor of the gift of grace, interestingly argues that this notion of a unilateral contract recurs in Wittgenstein and Cavell: “Cavell's Wittgensteinian refutation [in The Claim of Reason] of Hume's argument that the social contract is coercive recalls the orthodox refutation of the claims of covenant theology, which regards humanity as originally free agents contractually bound to each other. For Cavell, the social contract actually constitutes those who agree to it, rather than being contracted by them as preexistent agents, and in the same way the irresistibility of grace constitutes both those it saves and those it passes over. These refutations reject the terms of a model that sees an unencumbered subject, willingly or unwillingly, charged with a contract the fulfillment of whose terms on the subject's part will oblige the author and offerer of the contract (society or God) to save the subject harmless” (41).

  6. The historical and conceptual distinction between gift and exchange has been most influentially elaborated by Marcel Mauss. My interpretation owes much to Derrida's reading of Mauss in Given Time, chapter 2. According to Derrida, Mauss's theory of the gift unwittingly demonstrates that “the apparent, visible contradiction [in Mauss's text] of these two values—gift and exchange—must be problematized” (37). Though the gift is opposed to exchange and the principle of equivalence, the moment the gift is given, it demands restitution or the discharging of the debt that is predicated on exchange. What “allows Mauss to pass unnoticed over that contradiction between gift and exchange” (39) is time; the gift, to be a gift, demands temporization: “The gift is not a gift, the gift only gives to the extent it gives time. The difference between a gift and every other operation of pure and simple exchange is that the gift gives time. There where there is gift, there is time. What it gives, the gift, is time, but this gift of time is also a demand of time. The thing must not be restituted immediately and right away. There must be time, it must last, there must be waiting” (41). It is this waiting, this deferral of the return, that distinguishes the gift from exchange; this time is determined neither by the future that is represented by the guarantee nor that which is represented by the debt. This time is an opening or suspension in the economy prior to the determinations of debt and/or equivalence, which cause the gift to circulate within exchange. The burden of Derrida's argument is to demonstrate, as I attempt to demonstrate in this paper, the very slight difference that separates the two economies. The opposition must be problematized in order to return to the difference of the two concepts.

  7. Lacan refers to the Other as “the guarantor of the Good Faith invoked, even by the Deceiver, as soon as what is at issue is no longer the paths of struggle or desire, but the pact of speech.” John Forrester cites Lacan's comment in arguing that, though “there is nothing beyond speech which grounds it[,] none the less it is as if it were grounded on a pact.” Commenting further on “the inversion of the relations of future and present” characteristic of the promise, he discusses the exemplary “foundational promise” that constitutes money: “‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of. …’ If anyone ever arrived at a position where he or she felt obliged to make this demand, we know the promise would not be worth, as the saying goes, the paper it is written on. This promise as to the future is a pure speech act and guarantees only (financial) reality, the pure exchange relation, insofar as the demand (in general, or for the delivery of what the promise promised) is deflected elsewhere, in a never-ending circuit that is sustained by and sustains this promise. Such a promise, which we would do well to regard as exemplary of promises, those most exemplary of all speech acts, indicates how the act of speech is its own guarantee. … Here, indeed, confidence is at a premium, because the certainty is that the promise could never be delivered” (156-57).

  8. On Riding's treatment of the community of interpretation implied by poetic discourse, see Temes, 89.

  9. “In the Author's Words,” printed on the back cover of Poems.

  10. In psychoanalytic terms, the fear of being overheard is occasioned by the transference, which posits what Lacan calls the “subject supposed to know,” who is able to detect the subject's most concealed secrets.

  11. This conjunction of surplus or abundance and lack characterizes Lacan's “symbolic” economy: the abundance of the gift of language incurs the symbolic debt, which is also castration. The gift given paradoxically imposes an economy of exchange and labor. Derrida's critique of Lacan focuses in part on the latter's refusing to think of the gift as gift; Lacan, Derrida argues, presupposes the phallus as guarantee of the “‘symbolic order’ that guards the gift against its dissemination” (53; see also 15).

  12. I cannot hope to work out all the possibilities of this particular example of Riding's complex forms of address, but I do hope to have made evident that what is at issue in such moments is a question of the gift and the relationship to the Other. Characteristically, the more imperious tonal possibilities of this poem can be attributed to Riding's uncertainty over the existence of the contract and the Other. Nonetheless, the tone of this poem is as complex as it always is in Riding's most important poems, which for me are the ones that confront the central issues of her work, arguing for the inextricability of the conditions of language in the division of the subject. The speaker in this poem appeals both to the addressee's faith in the contract, or the guarantee of justice (i.e., nothing will happen if you do x because “it is not written” into the contract), and to the fact that none of this implies the addressee's consent, even as the poem concludes with the emphasis placed on the will: “To each is given what defeat he will” (italics added).

  13. Riding's description of the relation between author and audience in terms of monetary exchange can be compared to the exchange of money between the psychoanalyst and the analysand. The money exchanged in the analytic relationship is considered the guarantee of the freedom of the contract that the analysand signs with the analyst. But nonetheless, as with any contract, money guarantees something in exchange—such as love or knowledge. The money that passes hands between analyst and analysand is therefore not neutral but carries a demand and a desire with it. The difference between the two institutions lies in the fact that it is the poet who speaks in the institution of poetry, rather than the reader, whereas the analyst is most often a silent wall and the analysand must speak. One of the bases of Riding's rejection of poetry is that it demands that the poet speak for the audience, whereas one must come into “the telling” of one's own story.

  14. In refusing the negativity of language, Riding encounters a moment in language prior to negation, an event that requires a kind of thinking, like that Lacan found in Heidegger, resistant to the dialectic implied by such a concept as negativity. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen writes in his discussion of Lacan's version of Heidegger, “Lacan wholly maintains the concept of truth as the autoenunciation of a subject while at the same time, in agreement with Heidegger's logos-aletheia, making it an enunciation of nothing. … [T]ruth is a (dis)appearance of the subject of the enunciation into the subject of the statement. The subject, in sum, heir to all the features of Heidegger's Being, is now considered to speak himself in every statement—but also to disappear in every statement, since the subject speaks himself as nothing and as pure desire of self” (108).

  15. The word “mercadon” contains the conflicting economies of the gift and of money, as well as the intersubjective relationships I have examined. Its first four letters are enough to generate four series of meanings at least: one stemming from its closest dictionary word, “mercador,” which is a merchant, with all of the “merc-” words related to it; another is related to “mercy” and its implications of favor and gift; a third concerns judgment and punishment; then of course there is “Mercury,” the patron of all that is most rich and problematical in language: deception, theft, interpretation, and exchange. The word “mercadon” flows freely into sense but, by the inclusion of the one letter, “n” keeps itself outside of meaning as a polysemous yet meaningless knot. The “n” redetermines it in another direction, toward the gift, by making the final syllable the word for “gift” in French; this links into the English “donate,” and so on.

  16. I would not insist too strongly on the possibility that Riding's lines are at times haunted by German, though I do think there is an argument to be made for it. For the reader who is willing to entertain it, I would point out that signing her name is exactly what Riding does at the end of her poem, once again through the mediation of German: “The world in me which fleet to disavow / Ordains perpetual reiteration? / And these the words ensuing” (Poems, 236). The “reiter” of “reiter-ation” indicates the German word for “riding,” the nickname, as it were, that Laura takes on to identify herself in her profession as a writer. Thematically, “reiteration” picks up on the rejection of time (Poems, 235) and the concern for the resulting repetition of the “now, / And now again, and then and then / That cannot but the same be,” which becomes the poem's third person “I” (“If this be I”). The hidden translations would be a strategy of concealment from the Other that I am arguing Riding at times approaches.

Works Cited

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Trans. Douglas Brick. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Flesch, William. Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Forrester, John. The Seductions of Psychoanalysis: Freud, Lacan, and Derrida. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Lévy, Bernard-Henri. The Testament of God. Trans. George Holoch. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. London: Routledge, 1990.

[Riding] Jackson, Laura. Covenant of Literal Morality: Protocol I. London: Seizin Press, 1938.

———. “Introduction to a Book on Money.” Experts Are Puzzled. London: Jonathan Cape, 1930.

———. “Open Confidences.” Chelsea 35 (1976): 193-224.

———. The Poems of Laura (Riding) Jackson: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1980.

———. Selected Poems in Five Sets. London: Faber and Faber, 1970; New York: Norton, 1973.

———. The Telling. London: Athlone Press, 1972.

Temes, Peter S. “Code of Silence: Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Refusal to Speak.” PMLA 109 (1994): 87-99.

Vendler, Helen. “The White Goddess!” New York Review of Books. 18 November 1993.

Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.

Zaret, David. The Heavenly Contract: Ideology and Organization in Pre-Revolutionary Puritanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Jeanne Heuving (essay date 1996)

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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 critical attention she has received, (Riding) Jackson has been labeled alternately a modernist, a New Critical, and a postmodernist poet. The multiplicity of terms suggests the problems critics have had in locating (Riding) Jackson's poetry within literary history. Yet, (Riding) Jackson's career offers one of the most singular and willful efforts of our time: to arrive at a “true” human universality through a complex intervention in signifying practices themselves. Although (Riding) Jackson is utopian, she ever seeks to realize her vision through a reworking of the very languages of her existence.4

Crucial to (Riding) Jackson's utopian vision of a new human universality is her gender critique. In the 1920s and 1930s at the same time that (Riding) Jackson was formulating her poetics, she arrived at a perspective on gender that bears remarkable similarities to poststructuralist critiques of the suppression of the feminine in discourse.5 Indeed, (Riding) Jackson came to the understanding that what went by the name of universality was actually a form of masculine domination. As she saw it, men in projecting their needs for self-importance onto women make women's difference into a mirror that reflects themselves. As the sole standard of the universal, “man” only “creates arbitrarily comprehensive notions of himself; by negating the sense of difference, by denying that which is different.” But (Riding) Jackson did not conclude from her gender critique that she should write a women's poetry. Rather, she wished to alter the entire set of gender and linguistic relations that maintained this masculine domination. If a new human universality were to be achieved, it would only come about “through the ordering of all the implications of difference” (WW, 41, 43, 87).6 As such, (Riding) Jackson worked to develop a poetics of “thought in its final condition of truth,” countering those holistic and mirroring relations that she saw as critical to an art of the “patriarchal leer” (P, 267).7

In her antiholistic and antimirroring poetics, (Riding) Jackson bears important affinities with Gertrude Stein and early Marianne Moore.8 Although in the twentieth century, clearly holistic and mirroring relationships have been important to both men's and women's poetry (albeit more problematically to women's poetry, I contend), these three women poets engaged in important forms of poetic innovation, which put these relations into question.9 Certainly a number of twentieth-century male poets have been committed to an antiholistic (or anti-illusionistic) poetry, yet, for the most part, their work remains tied in important ways to the linguistically formative use of women and additional designated “others” as mirrors.10 As such, the poetry, say, of William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens, or even Robert Creeley or John Ashbery, retains a psychological vérité that has enabled these male writers to escape the blanketing pejorative judgments historically visited upon (Riding) Jackson, Moore, and Stein for their obscure and coy language play.11 But it is precisely these women poets' refusal of this technique of othering which makes their work so innovative.

In my conclusion, I will return to the larger question of (Riding) Jackson's place in literary history. First, I wish to establish the specificity of (Riding) Jackson's own poetic practice, concentrating on the relationship between her poetics and her gender critique.12 While (Riding) Jackson is best known for her poetry, she also produced a prodigious body of prose works, including several brilliant, if uneven, treatises on gender and on poetics.13 Indeed, her books on poetics address many of the most prominent poetical issues of her time and provide an important alternative perspective to entrenched discussions of twentieth-century poetics. Responding negatively to T. S. Eliot's “zeitgeist” poetics, she nonetheless establishes a poetics that shares a number of tenets with New Critical poetry, but for different reasons and ends. In fact, (Riding) Jackson may well have been instrumental in the establishment of the New Criticism itself.14 Although (Riding) Jackson did not consistently link her poetics to her gender critique, they reinforce each other. Developing a poetics of the “individual-unreal” and “analysis,” in opposition to a poetics of the “individual-real” and “synthesis,” (Riding) Jackson counters those holistic and mirroring relations on which an art of the “patriarchal leer” depends (A, 41-132).


(Riding) Jackson established her innovative poetry and poetics at the confluence of modernist and New Critical poetics. Her poetry first appearing in small magazines in the early 1920s, (Riding) Jackson was a “discovery” of the Fugitive poets (later the New Critical poets), publishing in their journal The Fugitive and winning in 1924 the magazine's annual prize for “the most promising poet of the year.”15 Encouraged to join the Fugitives in Louisville, (Riding) Jackson's bold and emotional presence made a poor fit with Louisville patrician society, and she lived there for only a short time. In 1926, (Riding) Jackson moved to England at the invitation of Robert Graves, who, having admired (Riding) Jackson's poetry in The Fugitive, proposed a collaborative venture.16 In England, (Riding) Jackson met, among others, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.17 With Graves, (Riding) Jackson wrote her first of several book-length treatises on poetics, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), followed by A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928).18 At the same time, she also published two critical works of her own, Contemporaries and Snobs (1928) and Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928).

But even before meeting Graves, (Riding) Jackson had published her essay “A Prophecy and a Plea” (1925), establishing poetical principles that would serve as a defining basis for her entire career.19 In fact, several critics have speculated that (Riding) Jackson's influence was far greater on Graves than his on her during the more than a decade they lived and worked together and that she provided Graves with the psychological and ideological framework he needed to wrest his work from a genteel Georgianism.20 The occasion for (Riding) Jackson's writing of “A Prophecy and a Plea” was as a rejoinder to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, both of whom had addressed the “future of poetry” in separate editorial essays in The Fugitive.21 Despite differences between them, both Ransom and Tate assume a distinction between life and aesthetics, to which (Riding) Jackson objects: “For art is the way we live, while aesthetics in divorcing art from life, sets the seal of approval upon the philosophy of escape” (“PP,” 275). Further, neither Ransom nor Tate envision the poet as the powerful maker that (Riding) Jackson conceives. For (Riding) Jackson, the poet is importantly a creative maker who must not try “to force meaning out of [life],” but rather “press meaning upon it” (“PP,” 278). Indeed, (Riding) Jackson dismisses most poetry as producing a “vitiation of life in art,” since the poet has failed to “envisage life not as an influence upon the soul but the soul as an influence upon life” (“PP,” 276). One of the few poets to get a nod of approval in the essay is Shelley, who, like (Riding) Jackson, stresses how the poet is foremost a creative maker who in reordering language vitalizes human existence. But even Shelley is not sufficiently of the here and now. Moreover, in opposition to Shelley, (Riding) Jackson upholds the act of analysis over synthesis. (Riding) Jackson remarks to those who maintain that “the way of analysis is the way of destruction, I can only answer that if one is faithful enough, constant enough, the analysis will induce the synthesis. … By taking the universe apart [the poet] will have reintegrated it with his own vitality” (“PP,” 280).

In establishing ideas in “A Prophecy and a Plea” that would direct her entire career, (Riding) Jackson importantly formulates principles that counter those commitments to aesthetic wholes so important to twentieth-century poetics. By allying her poetics with “life” and not “aesthetics,” (Riding) Jackson sided with what she came to call “total actuality” rather than with an “ideal order” of literary “monuments” or other idealized wholes (WW, 12).22 (In fact, [Riding] Jackson eventually came to renounce poetry because she believed its aesthetic demands got in the way of “truth”: there was a conflict between its “creed … and its craft tying the hope [of truth] to verbal rituals” and between actual “underlying problem[s]” and its “effect of completeness” [SP, 12; “WI,” 3, 6].) Her emphasis on analysis led her to devise a decreative poetics that countered a dominant poetics in which the poem was foremost to synthesize heterogeneous materials.

One of the poets singled out in “A Prophecy and a Plea” for being insufficiently imbued with life was T. S. Eliot: “T. S. Eliot and his imitators endeavor to show how their chastity and ennui remain intact through all their orgies of intellectual debauchery” (“PP,” 279). In subsequent writings, Eliot becomes (Riding) Jackson's central target for attack. His belief in “a communal poetic mind” and in a “world-tradition of poetry” goes against (Riding) Jackson's emphasis on the singular nature of the “really new work of art.”23 In insightful and vitupertative commentary, (Riding) Jackson repeatedly takes Eliot and his generation to task: “[This generation] invents a communal poetic mind which sits over the individual poet whenever he writes; it binds him with the necessity of writing correctly in extension of the tradition, the world-tradition of poetry; and so makes poetry internally an even narrower period activity than it is forced to be by outside influences. … Already, its most ‘correct’ writers, such as T. S. Eliot, have become classics” (SM, 264). Acknowledging poetry's reduced significance during her time, (Riding) Jackson judges Eliot's reliance on the communal mind and world-tradition as merely a compensatory reaction—a form of restriction that makes poetry even narrower than it need be. Eliot's emphasis on history is similarly problematic, leading to a “zeitgeist poetry” rather than to a poetry of “truth” and “goodness.”24

(Riding) Jackson disparages Eliot for his elevation of criticism to the same level as creation. By doing so, he separates out the “‘literary’ sense” of the poem, validating it over the poet's fresh activity: “The ‘literary’ sense comes to be the authority to write which the poet is supposed to receive, through criticism, from the age that he lives in. … More and more the poet has been made to conform to literature instead of literature to the poet—literature being the name given by criticism to works inspired by or obedient to criticism.” Indeed, “Creation and critical judgment being made one act, a work has no future history with readers; it is ended when it is ended” (CS, 10, 132). From (Riding) Jackson's perspective, Eliot is attempting to exercise a kind of monopoly over the work of art, thereby depriving not only the writer, but the reader, of her own activity. Thus, Eliot's poems are “ended” when they are “ended,” having no separate life apart from his own safekeeping of them. But for (Riding) Jackson, the poet must be more than a “servant and interpreter of civilization” (CS, 134). Rather, poetry should be seen as “an ever immediate reality confirmed afresh and independently in each new work rather than as a continuously sustained tradition, confirmed personally rather than professionally” (CS, 134). (Riding) Jackson enjoins: “It is … always important to distinguish between what is historically new in poetry because the poet is contemporary with a civilization of a certain kind, and what is intrinsically new in poetry because the poet is a new and original individual” (SM, 163).

But if (Riding) Jackson viewed T. S. Eliot's emphasis on tradition and criticism in a highly negative light, she, despite her remarks about his lack of personalism, develops her own ethos of impersonalism. (Riding) Jackson condemned what she called Eliot's “shame of the person,” commenting that Eliot was too interested in the “abstract nature of poetry” and not enough in “the immediate personal workings of poetry in him” (CS, 10, 133). But (Riding) Jackson herself hardly advanced a concept of self that is anything like the social or psychological self that is usually meant by the term. Rather, for (Riding) Jackson the self was importantly an “unreal self” or an “individual-unreal.”25 (Riding) Jackson, who felt that existing social orders in their normative assumptions belied the self, postulated through her concept of an “unreal self” an entity apart from these orders. Indeed, the “unreal self” is perhaps best described as the ensuing, creative willfulness of a self deliberately estranged from social orders. (Riding) Jackson writes: “In every person there is the possibility of a small, pure, new, unreal portion which is, without reference to personality, in the popular, social sense, self. I use ‘self’ in no romantic connotation if only because it is the most vivid word, I can use for this particular purification.” As (Riding) Jackson put it, the “unreal self is to me poetry” (A, 96, 99).

In establishing her ideas, (Riding) Jackson compares the “individualunreal” to a despised, “individual-real.” For (Riding) Jackson, in a literature of the “individual-real,” self “authenticates” itself in relationship to existing social orders. The writer uses “the material of the collective-real to insinuate dogmatically the individual-real” (A, 48). As (Riding) Jackson saw it, most of the literature of her time was a literature of the “individual-real.” Castigating numerous contemporaries, (Riding) Jackson singles out Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse as “a perfect example of the individual-real”:

it is individual: not in the sense that it is personal, warm, alive to itself, indifferent to effect or appreciation, vividly unreal, but in the sense that it individualizes. … To do this, language must be strained, supersensitized, loaded with comparisons, suggestive images, emotional analogies; used, that is, in a poetic way to write something that is not poetry. … In works like this neither the author who is obsessed by the necessity of emphasizing the individual-real, nor the reader, who is forced to follow the author painfully (word for word) in this obsession may do as he pleases.

(A, 46-47)

In authenticating self through the “collective real,” Woolf endlessly finessed language without addressing the self's “unreality.” Eliot proved “how individually realistic the childish, mass-magicked real stuff can be if sufficiently documented” (A, 70). Indeed, an art of the “individual real” despite its emphasis on “particulars” was compelled by “the nostalgic desire to reconstitute an illusory whole that has no integrity but the integrity of accident” (A, 104). Such an art was hopelessly “synthetic”: “imitative, communicative, provocative of association.” In contrast a poetry of the “individual-unreal” was “analytic”: “original, dissociative, and provocative of dissociation” (A, 115).

The problem with Woolf, Eliot, and others like them were that they took existing social orders seriously. The best way to deal with society was to take it impersonally, not as a means to self-discovery:

To attempt to discover and form personality in the social pattern is to make social life dull, vulgar, and aggressive, and life with self, dull, morbid, and trivial. To treat social life as an impersonal pattern is to give it the theatrical vitality of humor and to make life with self strong and serious. The social problem is for each individual how to read the proper degree of humorous formality in his communicative language, his clothes, his home; not how to acquire a vicarious personal life which has no content but a gross synthetic personality-desire.

(A, 119)

Alienated both from a genteel, bourgeois way of life as well as from socialistic politics, (Riding) Jackson urged that social orders themselves be seen as arbitrary. Language, clothes, and home thus could become a means for humorous commentary.

Indeed, for (Riding) Jackson, the poem itself as the product of an “unreal self” is the “result of an ability to create a vacuum in experience.” Correspondingly a poem consists of “generalizations that mean something without instances, that are unreal since they mean something by themselves” (A, 17, 83). In one of her most provocative descriptions of poetry, (Riding) Jackson comments: “There is a sense of life so real that it becomes the sense of something more real than life. … It introduces a principle of selection into the undifferentiating quantitative appetite and thus changes accidental emotional forms into deliberate intellectual forms. … It is the meaning at work in what has no meaning; it is, at its clearest, poetry” (CS, 9). For (Riding) Jackson, poetry is intensely motivated—by “a sense of life … more real than life.” (Here “real” is used in an entirely positive way.) Importantly, this “sense of life” intuited by an “unreal self” cannot be questioned by any frame of reference outside herself. Through the “unreal self's” selectivity, “accidental emotional forms” tied to “the undifferentiating quantitative appetite” can be transformed into “deliberate intellectual forms.”

Indeed, what makes a poem a poem is the new linguistic relationships it brings into being through its self-referential relations: “the way [a poem] corresponds in every respect with its own governing meaning … [is] the necessity of the poem to be written” (SM, 133). In such an autonomous and unparaphrasable poem, the poet is saying exactly what she means: “its final form is identical in terms with its preliminary form in the poet's mind” (SM, 142). To paraphrase a poem is to fail to attend to the specificity of its thought: its necessity to be written. Such poems might be condemned by inadequate readers as both “didactic” and “obscure” (as many of [Riding] Jackson's poems have), but there is no help for it (SM, 138-39). The poem only exists in its exact wording, not in its paraphrase.

The emphasis on the autonomy and the unparaphrasableness of the poem are, of course, hallmarks of the New Criticism. Although Eliot himself asserted the autonomy of the poem and the unparaphrasableness of his own “objective correlative,” these tenets were not for him the raison d'être they became for the New Critics, or for (Riding) Jackson.26 Yet, in (Riding) Jackson's case, the principles of the poem's autonomy and unparaphrasableness are in service of a very different kind of poetry than for the New Critics. For (Riding) Jackson, a poem is autonomous and unparaphrasable because as a product of an “unreal self” it brings new linguistic relations into existence. While the “unreal self” must be situated in “entirety”—“to be not merely somewhere but precisely somewhere in precisely everywhere”—the “unreal self” importantly brings her “new, unreal portion” to the making of the poem, dislocating preexisting meanings (P, 409), (Riding) Jackson describes this process:

The end of poetry is to leave everything as pure and bare as possible after its operation. It is therefore important that its tools of destruction should be as frugal, economical as possible. When the destruction or analysis is accomplished they shall have to account for their necessity; they are the survivors, the result as well as the means of elimination. … The greater the clutter attacked and the smaller, the purer, the residue to which it is reduced (the more destructive the tools), the better the poem.

(A, 117)

For (Riding) Jackson, a poem is successful to the extent that its decreative practices establish a language voided of unwanted connotations, such that the writer could mean what she wished to mean.

In contrast, for the New Critics, the autonomy of the poem was linked to preexisting wholes: to larger literary, mythical, and ontological orders of which the poem was exemplary. Indeed, the New Critics frequently resorted to a rhetoric of organicism, emphasizing the poem's holistic relationship to holistic entities. Moreover, a poem was unparaphrasable not because of the spareness of its denoted thought but because of the complexity of its connotative meanings. For the New Critics the poem was importantly a synthetic entity that brought heterogeneous elements into harmonious relationships; but for (Riding) Jackson it was a set of analytic relations that altered existing meanings through decreative techniques. As (Riding) Jackson saw it, a false autonomy, or absoluteness, was often claimed for poems that did not in fact possess it. In fact, there was no such thing as absolute autonomy; different poems possessed autonomy in varying degrees depending on the rigorousness of their decreative operations. (Riding) Jackson noted that many poets asserted an “authority” for their poems that “the poet is unable to find in life.” Only those poems that established their “irrefutability” on the basis of their new linguistic relations could claim to be unparaphrasable and autonomous (CS, 38).

For both the New Critics and (Riding) Jackson, paradoxes constitute an important poetic relation. But for the New Critics, their paradoxes were to achieve a balanced equilibrium through the ultimately harmonious relations poems brought into being. For (Riding) Jackson, paradoxes were often irresolvable contradictions, attesting to the irreducible disparities between diverse entities (SM, 154). Meaning itself was highly problematical, best intimated through definitions based on negations and through sense eclipsed by the materiality of signification.

In (Riding) Jackson's “The World and I,” the speaker meditates on how she is unable to state “exactly” what she means.27 While the poem bears a likeness to the “metaphysical poems” Eliot and the New Critics admired, if not always to their poems themselves, its paradoxes work to demarcate disparate and unreconcilable relationships. The poem begins:

This is not exactly what I mean
Any more than the sun is the sun.
But how to mean more closely
If the sun shines but approximately?
What a world of awkwardness!
What hostile implements of sense!

(P, 187)

By beginning with an entirely open and vague, “This is not exactly what I mean,” (Riding) Jackson calls attention to her desire and frustration to make meaning. Contrasting this statement with the seeming least problematical kind of meaning statement, “the sun is the sun,” (Riding) Jackson discloses the vast spaces between the kinds of meanings she can make. Further, the “sun shines but approximately,” since an unbridgable chasm separates language and physical phenomena and since not even the gaseous ball we call the sun is coincidental with itself from moment to moment. Having explored the dimensions of the meanings she cannot command, the speaker then questions her own demand for exact meanings:

Perhaps this is as close a meaning
As perhaps becomes such knowing.
Else I think the world and I
Must live together as strangers and die—
A sour love, each doubtful whether
Was ever a thing to love the other.
No, better for both to be nearly sure
Each of each—exactly where
Exactly I and exactly the world
Fail to meet by a moment, and a word.

(P, 187)

The deliberately vague “this is as close a meaning” suggests that the conditions of knowing may themselves be inexact; and, therefore, a demand for exact meaning can only lead to inexact meanings. In fact, this demand can only result in a “sour love,” that belies the need for love between the “world and I.” Better, then, to acknowledge how “where / Exactly I and exactly the world / Fail to meet by a moment, and a word.” Rather than lose the world or herself, the speaker considers their very lack of correlation best bespeaks such disparate entities as “I,” “world,” “a moment,” and “a word.” So exact is the inexactness between these entities as explored by the poem that it can only be intimated, not stated. The difference between (Riding) Jackson's poetic predilections and Ransom's “miraculism” could not be more pronounced. For Ransom, “miraculism arises when the poet discovers by analogy an identity between objects which is partial, though it should be considerable, and proceeds to an identification which it is complete.”28

In her “Disclaimer of the Person,” (Riding) Jackson explores the irresolvable contradiction between the immaterial and material makeup of meanings. The speaker meditates on herself at once as constituting and constituted by her meanings and as apart from and caught up in her writing as a material production. The poem concludes:

If I my words am,
If the footed head with frowns them
And the handed heart which smiles them
Are the very writing, table, chair,
The paper, pen, self, taut community
Wherein enigma's orb is word-constrained.
Does myself upon the page meet,
Does the thronging firm a name
To nod my own—witnessing
I write or am this, it is written?
What thinks the world?
Has here the time-eclipsed occasion
Grown language-present?
Or does the world demand,
And what think I?
The world in me which fleet to disavow
Ordains perpetual reiteration?
And these the words ensuing.

(P, 235-36)

By turning her statements into questions, the speaker establishes herself as both implicated in and outside of the complex relations set into play by the questions themselves. Thus, while the opposites posed in the questions strongly suggest the ways that the speaker is constituted through her act of material signification, the voice works as a kind of an “unreal self” questioning this constitution. The speaker by her “footed head” and her “handed heart” calls up not only her physical body, but the look of letters on the page. These serifed and linked letters have the look of truncated bodies, as the speaker's own body is foreshortened by the words of her poem. But the speaker is not only caught up by the materiality of her words, but by her very means of production: “the very writing, table, chair / The paper, pen, self, taut community.” In this “thronging” on the page, the speaker senses herself as either “I write or am this, it is written.” Writer and written are merely flip sides of the same poem, as are “What thinks the world” and “What think I.” The world has “Grown language-present” and the “The world in me … / Ordains perpetual reiteration.” Yet, while the poem seems almost a demonstration of the materiality of signification, the questioning voice provides a separate reality: asking if this “thronging” “firms” “a name / To nod my own.”

In an age of science and specialization, (Riding) Jackson shared with Eliot and the New Critics the attempt to formulate a poetry that would have legitimacy as an important form of knowledge. But whereas Eliot and the New Critics sought to secure poetry's importance by asserting a separate realm for it, (Riding) Jackson eschewed what she saw as a professionalization and aestheticization of art. She thought that in an age devoted to specialization, poetry, like any other sphere of human activity, should feel compelled to examine itself, ironically commenting: “A professional conscience dawns on the poet; as when the prestige of any organization is curtailed—of the army, or the navy, for example—a greater internal discipline, a stricter morality and a more careful evaluation of tactics result” (CS, 128). From (Riding) Jackson's point of view, Eliot and the New Critics were trying to bolster poetry rather than to examine it. While they asserted poetry's autonomy, they contradictorily attempted to make poetry more relevant to its time by increasing its range, cluttering up their poems with “contemporary data,” learned allusions, and connotations run awry. (Riding) Jackson thought that what the age needed was for poetry to become more itself: “thought in its final condition of truth,” urging a poetry in which an “unreal self” “by taking the universe apart will have reintegrated it” with her own “vitality.”


At the same time that (Riding) Jackson was establishing her poetics, she was also forming her gender critique. (Riding) Jackson came to see the uses to which women had been put in civilized society as critical to the social orders she despised. Concentrating on the word “woman” as a linguistic function, she arrived at a perspective on gender that possesses remarkable similarities to poststructuralist critiques of the suppression of the feminine in discourse. But while (Riding) Jackson developed this feminist perspective, she was not interested in writing a specifically women's poetry. Rather, she wished to alter the entire set of gender relations in order to arrive at a new human universality. Formulating in her critique the ways that women have served as a central prop for the “solemn masculine machine,” she in her poetry elects to alter the machine itself (A, 196). That is, in rejecting those holistic and synthetic relationships that define Eliot's and the New Critics' poetics and in insisting on her own decreative and analytic techniques, (Riding) Jackson works against existing linguistic orders. Further, she disengages from those mirroring relationships that directly underwrite an art of the “patriarchal leer.”

As early as her essay “Jocasta” in Anarchism Is Not Enough, (Riding) Jackson evinces her poetics as a corrective to prevailing sexual economies. Formulating in this essay her important distinction between a literature of “an individual-unreal” and of “an individual-real,” she dismisses a literature of the hated “individual-real” as a “nostalgic, lascivious, masculine, Oedipean embrace of the real mother-body by the unreal-son mind” (A, 70). The “unreal” son's mind, rather than inquiring into itself, uses the mother's body to produce a lascivious and nostalgic literature. By entitling the lengthy essay “Jocasta,” (Riding) Jackson signals that this incestuous state is pervasive—and that, at least in this essay, Jocasta herself is its avenging subject.

In a more extensive critique of gender in the same volume, in “The Damned Thing,” (Riding) Jackson analyzes the production of sexuality within civilization, dismissing literary sensibilities as deeply implicated in such a production. As she saw it, men's “phallus-proud-works-of-art” amount to little more than men's “private play with [women] in public” (A, 205, 208). Indeed, sexuality itself has been vastly overwritten by a civilization uncomfortable with it. The kingpin of this system is women's “impersonal sexuality” that “if not philosophized would wreck the solemn masculine machine” (A, 196). In its civilized version, sexuality is produced as a kind of rare brew of bodily impulses, scientific phrases and literary sentiments, which all conspire to keep women in a passive state. (Riding) Jackson discloses just what “this diffusion which modern society calls love” consists of by revealing what a man's “I love you” speech means:

“My sexual glands by the growing enlargement of my sex instinct since childhood and its insidious, civilized traffic with each part of my mental and physical being, are unfortunately in a state of continual excitement. I have very good control of myself, but my awareness of your sexual physique and its radiations was so acute that I could not resist the temptation to desire to lie with you. Please do not think this ignoble of me, for I shall perform this act, if you permit it, with the greatest respect and tenderness and attempt to make up for the indignity it of course fundamentally will be to you (however pleasurable) by serving you in every possible way and by sexually flattering manifestations of your personality which are not strictly sexual.”

(A, 189)

(Riding) Jackson well reveals the unsavoriness of a speech that pretends to nobility when it is so perversely construed. Importantly her ultimate target of attack is neither men nor sexuality, but the ways sexual desire has been produced through an “insidious, civilized traffic”: “The social mechanism for disposing of sex makes sex as large and complicated as itself, intensifies its masculinity. Its femininity reduces merely to an abstract passive principle of motion in the great moving masculine machine” (A, 195). As (Riding) Jackson saw it, feminine passivity was actively maintained by masculine domination.

But by far Riding's most sustained and trenchant gender critique is The Word “Woman,” written in 1933 to 1935, but only recently published. In a recent introduction (Riding) Jackson directly links this critique to a corrective vision of literature: “I believe that a close reading of the text of The Word “Woman” may strip literature of its mythologies of ludicrous pieties.” As one example of such “ludicrous pieties,” (Riding) Jackson singles out “the hypocrisies of the Graves order of upper-notch Anglo-Saxon romanticism” (WW, 13). Throughout their relationship, (Riding) Jackson served as a harsh critic of Graves's work, but after her break with Graves she took to denouncing his work in often scathing public attacks. Appalled by Randall Jarrell's suggestion, among others, that she herself was the model for Graves's The White Goddess, she denounced Graves's text as a “spectacular show of poet-piety,” of “nothingish spiritualistics,” written by a “self-crowned genius of poetic masculinity” (WW, 208, 211).29 (Riding) Jackson found Graves's text repugnant because of what she perceived as a misuse of her own ideas and person. Graves's “white goddess” upheld the old masculine orders; her new woman was to decisively alter them.

In The Word “Woman,” (Riding) Jackson arrives at a perspective on women that is uncannily similar to the poststructuralist critique of the suppression of the feminine in discourse, as theorized by Luce Irigaray. As Luce Irigaray most succinctly describes this “specular discourse”: women are “the projective map” that “guarantees the system.”30 While (Riding) Jackson and Irigaray's theories can be criticized for their totalizing aspects, they have direct and relevant application to lyric poetry. One of the pervasive conventions of twentieth-century poetry is that the speaker constitutes his authority through the mirroring others of his poem. Yet, for women, as the “projective map” that “guarantees the system,” such mirroring relations are problematical. Indeed, women simply cannot use men in the same way as men use women to establish their authoritative stances. Further, (Riding) Jackson and Irigaray urge that women's “self”-expression is troubled by the uses to which women have been put.

(Riding) Jackson begins The Word “Woman” by analyzing the ways the word “woman” has been used in multiple cultures and times, concluding that “women are strangers in the country of men” (WW, 19). The reason for this state of affairs is that man, in projecting his need for his own self-importance onto women, has made women's difference into a mirror by which to reflect himself: “Man, in his growing self-importance, reads differences as negativeness—namely the absence of, or deficiency in, male characteristics. Women become more and more a foil to male positiveness” (WW, 87). Since men have denied women their own reality, (Riding) Jackson dismisses their concepts of the universal as reflective only of men: “We cannot avail ourselves of man's universalizations because when he uses himself as the standard … he only creates arbitrarily comprehensive notions of himself; by negating the sense of difference, by denying that which is different” (WW, 41). For (Riding) Jackson as for Irigaray, women's position as other, as foil, can't be easily turned around because most of language, most of history, reflects this male appropriation. In (Riding) Jackson's terms, women are sleepwalkers in an order that does not reflect them; indeed, they are only just awakening.

So total is the stronghold of this masculine appropriation that women must engage in subversive forms of behavior, if they are to break the sexist culture's codes. As Irigaray encourages women to mimic femininity—to reveal their difference from its projections—(Riding) Jackson encourages women to meddle with their mask, their maskeup: “The mask is woman's trade mark. And at this stage [of history] she does well to brand her actions as womanly until man sees the necessitous relation between her action and her physical difference from him: until the impression ‘different action’ is identical with the impression ‘different appearance’” (WW, 120). By emphasizing the activity they put into making themselves up, women can disrupt men's equation of their appearance with passivity, establishing themselves as different than they are projected to be within a masculine economy (WW, 119-22).

However, for (Riding) Jackson, unlike Irigaray, the establishment of women's difference is only the means to a greater end: the realization of a new human universality not based on women's exclusion. Positioned outside existing social orders, women have an important historical role to perform as agents of change. Women, unlike men, do not need to establish their identity through their sexual difference—and therefore do not need to make it the be-all and end-all of their existence. They can help bring about a new human universality precisely because they are able to acknowledge that life is a “composite.” Indeed, if a new unity is to be realized, it will only be “through the ordering of all the implications of difference” (WW, 42-43).

Throughout her poetry (Riding) Jackson struggles to realize a new human universality, based on changed gender relationships. In one of (Riding) Jackson's relatively early poems “Life-Size Is Too Large,” the speaker contemplates how she can't see herself in a life-size mirror. But rather than concluding, as does Irigaray, that she should inscribe a fluid and contradictory writing, (Riding) Jackson opts (at least in her poetry) for an incremental, if also contradictory, thought. The poem begins with the seeming paradox that if the speaker is to see herself, she can only see herself in “microscopy,” if she is “To have room to think at all.” For when she commands the “‘Cramped mirror, faithful constriction, / Break, be as large as I,’” she loses herself to desolation:

Then I heard little leaves in my ears rustling
And a little wind like a leaf blowing
My mind into a corner of my mind,
Where wind over empty ground went blowing
And a large dwarf picked and picked up nothing,

(P, 86)

Through the “microscopy” that the “cramped mirror” provides her, the speaker can think with a sense of repleteness, but as soon as the compass expands into a large, life-size mirror, she is wracked with absence—with abjection.

In “The Biography of a Myth,” (Riding) Jackson traces the evolution of a myth—of a woman who begins by “delivering beauty / like a three hour entertainment” (P, 179). As an “other” that is leered at, she can bring no good to others or herself:

Then they went home, grinning at otherness,
And she to lour in shame, out of which night
She rose unseen, absent in counted presence. …

(P, 179)

Importantly only as an absence can this woman begin to realize herself. Suffering from exposure, she turns inward, whispering to herself:

                              “She whom they did not see though saw
Myself now am, hidden all away in her
Inward from her confiding mouth and face
To deep discretion, this other-person mind.”

(P, 179)

Away from her “confiding mouth,” she can only turn to “deep discretion” and to “this other-person mind.” And although “In this pale state she had prediction of self,” there can be no beyond, since the world does not yet exist, “Where she the world, and he inhabiting / Like peace unto himself” (P, 179, 180). The woman exists as a kind of truth onto herself, “So long she is no measured, proven seeming” (P, 180). But present to the world, she can only produce the conditions of false belief:

                    [She] gave them back
Their faith, a legal gospel like false oaths
Adhered to with the loyalty of words
That do not pledge the mind to believe itself.

(P, 180)

The female figure as source is most efficacious as an absent, inward-turning “unreal self,” existing apart from the compromised orders of the world.

In “The Need to Confide” the speaker tells of her need to relate to an “other:”

My need to confide,
My friend man,
Is not my mouth's way of stealth
Nor my heart's need of nakedness.
It is my need for myself, man,
To be talking with it—

(P, 265)

(Riding) Jackson deliberately abstracts the word “confidence” from its connotations of secretive self-revelation. Her use of the word “man” is both deliberately gender-specific and universal: for her need to confide can only happen through existing languages. And while she is compelled by the ideal of universality that the word “man” can suggest, she also realizes its limited, gender bias. Rather than blurring these two senses of “man,” (Riding) Jackson's poem articulates them through her disjunctive address: “It is my need for myself, man.” The kind of unavailable confidence she is attempting to experience is expressed jarringly as an “it”—so much does she need “it” and so little does “it” resemble what is typically meant by the word “confidence.” While “man's” words remain with “love-meant” not with “love could,” her desire to be “day-same,” a “flushed double dark,” can only “join to itself” (P, 266).

While these poems address the problematics of meaning within meaning systems in which woman as an “other” is compromised and muted, they also directly counter existing poetic modes. That is, by refusing those forms by which poetic meaning and closure are achieved—holistic and mirroring relationships—they eloquently bespeak women's dilemmas. While this eloquence necessarily brings with it the indirection and silence that characterize (Riding) Jackson's poetry, for (Riding) Jackson women can most mean when they are obliquely “talking with it.” And only when women are “talking with it,” actualizing their “unreal selves” within the existing problematics of language, can a new human universality emerge.

In conclusion, I wish to consider the larger question of (Riding) Jackson's place in literary history. Within existing periodizing concepts, (Riding) Jackson's poetry can only be seen as a strange kind of amalgam of modernist, New Critical, and postmodernist poetics. Indeed, (Riding) Jackson has been labeled alternately and in combination by each of these terms. Yet, given the willful singularity of her work, such confusion seems highly inadequate. Further, (Riding) Jackson's work points to limitations of each of these poetics. That is, (Riding) Jackson's understanding of language as the very subject of her poetry compels notice of how many modernist poets use language in far more naturalized ways. Her emphasis on such New Critical tenets as the autonomy and unparaphrasableness of the text to write a poetry that discloses irresolvable contradictions and the materiality of signification reveals how these tenets can be put to very different ends. And, (Riding) Jackson's willful agency, her concept of the “unreal self,” points to the inadequacy of much postmodernist poetics to formulate any sense of human agency or will. Indeed, her poetry underlines the ways that such periodizing concepts as modernism, New Criticism, and postmodernism do not articulate a culminating aesthetic, but are highly reified, highlighting the poetics of some poets over others.

Moreover (Riding) Jackson's example should well demonstrate how gender must be made prominent in any history of poetic innovation. The persistence of the use of periodizing concepts, especially in discussions of poetics apart from considerations of race, class, and gender, ultimately validates those very selected texts on which their definitions are based. While it might seem that these days poets are only poorly served by the term New Critical, the category makes recognizable, and therefore legitimates, a certain body of poets and poetry, making way for their reiteration and comeback.31 Indeed, not to consider (Riding) Jackson's poetics of an “individual-unreal” and “analysis” with respect to gender is to fail to establish a sense of sufficient motivation for her difficult poetry. Further, it is to disregard the kind of innovation she needed to engage in order to write her “universal” poetry.

As I commented at the beginning of this chapter, a more suggestive context for (Riding) Jackson's poetry than existing periodizing concepts is the poetics of early Moore and of Stein. Stein, in fact, was one of the few poets (Riding) Jackson publicly praised during her lifetime. All three women poets in disengaging from those holistic and mirroring relations crucial to an art of the “patriarchal leer” engage in important forms of poetic innovation that subvert existing gender relations. In their rejection of holistic and mirroring relations, these poets explore meanings apart from a far more simply communicative poetics of the “individual real” and its recognizable psychology. Yet literary history provides no convenient term that legitimates their antiholistic and antimirroring poetics. That Moore and Stein as well as (Riding) Jackson are frequently labeled modernist-postmodernists provides only further evidence of the ways that literary history has been unable to articulate their important poetic projects.32 Ironically, while all three writers at times take on stances of universality problematical to a postmodernist ethos, it may be their very presumption of universality that leads them to the kind of deconstructive or decreative poetics that has caused critics to add the term postmodernism to their modernism.

Surely (Riding) Jackson's poetry is not entirely outside of those mirroring and holistic relations she works against, as ultimately even deconstructed or decreated meanings are at least partially dependent on these relations. In fact, (Riding) Jackson's eventual renunciation of poetry carries through the logic of her poetics, as she came to reject all poetry for the ways its “effect of completeness” obscured actual “underlying problems.”33 (Riding) Jackson is an important twentieth-century poet because her far-reaching commitment to change those holistic and mirroring relations on which a poetry of the “patriarchal leer” depends. The range and depth of her inquiry into meaning, including the meaning of poetic form itself, constitutes a major contribution to poetic history.


  1. I have followed the example of the poet in referring to her as Laura (Riding) Jackson. In her later years, (Riding) Jackson elected to use her married name, even in republication of work written under the name of Laura Riding.

  2. W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, and Robert Graves accorded (Riding) Jackson's writing major significance. W. H. Auden, declaring (Riding) Jackson “our only living philosophical poet,” paid (Riding) Jackson the tribute of copying her diction. (Riding) Jackson, who saw philosophy as a far more limited practice than poetry, failed to appreciate Auden's compliment, and she and Graves accused Auden of poetic theft. See Joyce Piell Wexler, Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979), 48, and Deborah Baker, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (New York: Grove Press, 1993), 187, 323, 349-50. John Ashbery recently gave his Norton Lecture at Harvard on (Riding) Jackson. As late as 1966, an estranged Robert Graves yet fully credited (Riding) Jackson's poetic endeavors, commenting that she “can be seen now as the most original poet of the Twenties and Thirties.” Wexler, Pursuit of Truth, 143, is citing Graves's “Comments on James Jensen's ‘The Construction of Seven Types of Ambiguity,’” Modern Language Quarterly (September 1966): 256. More recently the critic Jerome McGann has summarized (Riding) Jackson's career: “Her writing executes a standard of self-examination so deep and resolute that it cannot be decently evaded. Later writers who have not at least attempted to meet its challenge risk being seen—not least of all by themselves—as trivial, attendant lords and ladies” (Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993], 134). McGann may have taken his lead from the poet Charles Bernstein who refers to (Riding) Jackson in several instances in his Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1984). See especially, pp. 340-42. Jane Marcus comments that “Riding ought to be restored to the ranks of writers like Hart Crane and Gertrude Stein, where she belongs as a shaper of our speech, a poet of powerful and original irony.” See her “Laura Riding Roughshod,” Iowa Review 12 (1981): 298. Yet despite this high acclaim only two book-length critical studies of (Riding) Jackson's work exist: Wexler, Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth and Barbara Adams, The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990).

  3. For provocative essays on (Riding) Jackson's decanonization of herself that address many of these issues, see Jo-Ann Wallace, “Laura Riding and the Politics of Decanonization,” American Literature 64, no. 1 (March 1992): 111-26, and K. K. Ruthven, “How to Avoid Being Canonized: Laura Riding,” Textual Practice 5, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 242-60. As Wallace points out, (Riding) Jackson rejected both feminist and deconstructivist interpretive frameworks. (Riding) Jackson's negative remarks about feminism need to be considered in context. (Riding) Jackson dismissed virtually all twentieth-century political and intellectual movements as falling short of her own vision. Further, (Riding) Jackson issued several negative comments on feminism in the 1960s and 1970s because of what she perceived as its exclusive focus on a social realm defined by men. Dismissing a feminism that she perceived as too much preoccupied with women's rights in a social realm that ill suits them, she called for a redefinition of “woman,” for a new order based on “an adequate idea” of woman (WW, 197).

  4. Wexler, Pursuit of Truth, stresses (Riding) Jackson's “insistence on the value of the universal and immutable” (4). By pairing the “universal” and the “immutable,” Wexler fails to convey how (Riding) Jackson's belief in “truth” and “goodness” was as a utopian possibility. Jerome McGann stresses the ways that (Riding) Jackson was a poet of interactive language: “The poem is not allowed to point toward any truth beyond its own interactive features, its own textuality.” While McGann brings an important corrective perspective to (Riding) Jackson, his failure to address her simultaneous commitment to a universal “truth” and “goodness” dehistoricizes her effort. See his Black Riders, 133. Recent criticism, of course, has noted the ways that universalizing stances have been instrumental in silencing diversity. Yet, universality has been a value of many twentieth-century writers, including many writers who address oppression. Rather than ignoring or repressing this problematic commitment, it would seem that contemporary criticism would have much to gain by exploring how the ideal of “universality” functions in diverse writers and texts. (Riding) Jackson may use the term “human unity” more frequently than “human universality,” perhaps in order to avoid the false claims of a masculinized universal and also to emphasize the composite nature of unity. I use the term “universal” to link her poetics with Enlightenment ideals of which it surely partakes.

  5. This critique is crucial to the many books written by Luce Irigaray and by Hélène Cixous, among other French feminists. For a discussion of this critique in men's poststructuralist writing, see Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985).

  6. Quotations from (Riding) Jackson's works are cited in the text with the abbreviations listed below.

    A: Anarchism Is Not Enough (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928).

    CS: Contemporaries and Snobs (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928).

    P: The Poems of Laura Riding: A New Edition of the 1938 Collection (New York: Persea, 1980).

    “PP”: “A Prophecy and a Plea,” First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding (New York: Persea, 1992).

    SM: A Survey of Modernist Poetry, with Robert Graves (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928).

    SP: Selected Poems: In Five Sets (New York: Persea, 1993).

    “WI”: “What, If Not a Poem, Poems?” Denver Quarterly 9, no. 2 (1974): 1-13.

    WW: The Word “Woman” and Other Related Writings, ed. Elizabeth Friedmann and Alan J. Clark (New York: Persea, 1993).

  7. Gary Lenhart quotes, but does not cite, (Riding) Jackson's useful phrase “thought in its final condition of truth.” See his “Combat and the Erotic,” American Book Review 15, no. 4 (October-November 1993): 1.

  8. In Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), I argue that Moore's early poetry is feminist precisely because of her rejection of the use of others as mirrors. See especially chapter 1, “An Artist in Refusing,” 17-29. Several critics discuss the antipatriarchal commitments of Stein's writing, although not exactly in these terms. See, for example, Marianne DeKoven, A Different Language: Gertrude Stein's Experimental Writing (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), and Ellen Berry, Curved Thought and Textual Wandering: Gertrude Stein's Postmodernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992).

  9. Romantic and post-Romantic poetry are particularly dependent on mirroring relations between an “I” and a “you” or an “I” and an “other.” Indeed, I would suggest that an informing convention in the production and reception of poetry up to and including our time, when it is not overtly symbolic, is a mirroring aesthetic—a sense that the speaker is reflected in some unique ways by the poem's representation of that which is outside of or other than the speaker. While certainly most women poets practice some version of this convention, it is a convention made problematical for a woman by her own prominent figuring as the other. I develop this argument at greater length in conjunction with a discussion of Luce Irigaray's theories in Omissions Are Not Accidents, 21-27.

  10. For a discussion of this dynamic, see Rachel DuPlessis, “Pater-Daughter: Male Modernists and Female Readers,” in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990), 41-67; Nancy J. Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme, in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982): 95-110; and Heuving, Omissions Are Not Accidents, 30-48.

  11. I am assuming that the reader will be aware of how women and other “others” serve as projective foils in Williams, Stevens, and Creeley's poems. Although this representational convention is far less evident in Ashbery, he utilizes its dynamics and psychology in many of his poems, including his important “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”

  12. Although (Riding) Jackson's feminist orientations have been noted by several critics, very little feminist criticism has been written. Only two articles, to my knowledge, discuss (Riding) Jackson's poetry at any length with respect to her gender: Susan Schultz, “Laura Riding's Essentialism and the Absent Muse,” Arizona Quarterly 48, no. 1 (April 1992): 1-24, and Peter Temes, “Code of Silence: Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Refusal to Speak,” PMLA 109, no. 1 (January 1994): 87-99. Although Schultz's article raises provocative questions, she wrongly dismisses (Riding) Jackson as essentialist. Temes explores how in order “to escape from the role of object, of the seen and the judged,” (Riding) Jackson elected silence, within her poetry and in her renunciation of poetry (87). Temes stresses (Riding) Jackson's need for self-protection and control within an androcentric culture that will only misread and misuse her words. While I find many of his observations compatible with my own, I emphasize (Riding) Jackson's utopianism, rather than her defensiveness.

  13. The prodigiousness, scope, and diversity of (Riding) Jackson's prose writings are little known. In the first part of her life, she published an impressive number of fictional, critical, and cross-genre works. For a description of (Riding) Jackson's many unknown works, see Joyce Piell Wexler's excellent bibliography: Laura Riding: A Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishing, 1981), 39. (Riding) Jackson published only one book after 1940 until her death in 1991, her prose work The Telling (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

  14. (Riding) Jackson's instrumentality in the formation of the New Criticism may have occurred in two ways. (Riding) Jackson claims to have influenced the Fugitive poets' practice of close reading in the 1920s. While there is debate around who influenced whom, (Riding) Jackson was trained in close reading at an early age, urged on by her Marxist father to read newspapers with an eye for the capitalist subtext (Baker, In Extremis, 28). If (Riding) Jackson is right, a curious footnote to literary history would be the leftist derivation of a practice of reading that enabled the politically conservative New Criticism. Secondly, William Empsom credited Robert Graves's and (Riding) Jackson's ideas in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1928) for inspiring his Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: London, Chatto, and Windus, 1947), which, in turn, has been seen as a catalyst to the New Criticism. See Wexler, Pursuit of Truth, 14-16; James Jensen, “The Construction of Seven Types of Ambiguity,Modern Language Quarterly 27, no. 3 (September 1966): 243-59 and (Riding) Jackson, “Some Autobiographical Corrections of Literary History,” Denver Quarterly 8, no. 4 (Winter 1974): 1-33.

  15. Adams, The Enemy Self, 7.

  16. Baker, In Extremis, 14-16; 86.

  17. Adams, The Enemy Self, 12. (Riding) Jackson's first book of poems, The Close Chaplet, was published in 1926 by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press.

  18. A Survey of Modernist Poetry was published first in Britain in 1927 by William Heinemann publishers and later in America in 1928 by Doubleday, Doran and Company.

  19. “A Prophecy and a Plea” first appeared in The Reviewer 5, no. 2 (April 1925): 1-7.

  20. Adams, The Enemy Self, 12, 15. Wexler, Pursuit of Truth, 142.

  21. John Crowe Ransom, “The Future of Poetry,” The Fugitive 3, no. 1 (March 1922): 2, 3. Allen Tate, “One Escape from the Dilemma,” The Fugitive 3, no. 2 (April 1924): 34-36.

  22. T. S. Eliot comments how in literature “existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves.” See Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1975), 38.

  23. The “really new work of art” is T. S. Eliot's phrase, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, 38.

  24. (Riding) Jackson uses the word “zeitgeist” throughout her writings to disparage Eliot's poetry. (Riding) Jackson frequently criticizes the modern division between aesthetics and morality. See, for instance, Contemporaries and Snobs, 91.

  25. Many critics note (Riding) Jackson's concentration on the self, but overpsychologize it. Barbara Adams stresses (Riding) Jackson's “enemy self,” establishing a dichotomy between (Riding) Jackson's presumably “real” and “ideal” selves (The Enemy Self). M. L. Rosenthal alludes to (Riding) Jackson's “egocentric stress on identity.” See his “Laura Riding's Poetry: A Nice Problem,” The Southern Review 21, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 92.

  26. (Riding) Jackson, of course, saw Eliot's “zeitgeist” poetry as very different from her own self-referential poetry. Patricia Waugh emphasizes Eliot's “expressive” and “situated” poetics in contrast to the New Critics. See her Practicing Postmodernism/Reading Modernism (London: Edward Arnold, 1992): 138-47. John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), analyzes the differences between Eliot and the New Critics: Eliot attempted “to refind in literary tradition the ground of a total culture, inclusive of belief … in the case of the New Critics, the social inhibition that disallows literary culture from making doctrinal claims of the ‘orthodox’ sort drives these claims back into the refuge of literary form” (154-55).

  27. By failing to consider (Riding) Jackson's manifold questions about meaning itself, Adams and Wexler emphasize (Riding) Jackson's dualism in “The World and I.” For Adams, the poem “explores the relationship between language and objective reality” (The Enemy Self, 110), and for Wexler, “the gap between [(Riding) Jackson's] consciousness and her ability to articulate it is widened by the ‘hostile implements of sense’” (Pursuit of Truth, 64).

  28. John Crowe Ransom, “Poetry: A Note in Ontology,” The World's Body (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938), 139.

  29. Randall Jarrell, “Graves and the White Goddess,” Yale Review 45 (1956): 467-78.

  30. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 108. Irigaray uses and plays with the concept of “specularity” in many of her writings. See especially her chapter “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” in This Sex Which Is Not One, 68-85, for the ways she relates this concept to discourse formation.

  31. I only need to refer the reader to the well attended and interesting session at the 1994 MLA Conference in San Diego, “The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory: Multicultural Perspectives,” and the recently published, The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory: Connections and Continuities, ed. William J. Spurlin and Michael Fischer (Hamden, Conn.: Garland Publishing, 1995). Part of my fascination with (Riding) Jackson herself was my recognition of certain New Critical tenets in a poetics very much at odds with the New Criticism. (Or as Jane Marcus puts it in far more dramatic terms, “Will we be forced to acknowledge that it was a woman who invented Chinese footbinding of the critical imagination?” [“Laura Riding Roughshod,” 296].) As my own early literary training was influenced by New Critical practices, study of (Riding) Jackson enabled me a careful unhinging rather than a full-scale rejection of certain New Critical precepts: a detailing of difference within the realm of the same.

  32. For example, Taffy Martin sees Marianne Moore as defined by both modernist and postmodernist poetics, Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), x-xi. Ellen Berry, Curved Thought, focuses much of her discussion on considerations of Stein's modernism and postmodernism.

  33. In (Riding) Jackson's late prose work The Telling, many of her previous ideals for poetry are now translated into a prose work in which she seeks to inspire a multiplicity of voices all trying to tell the “One Story.” (Riding) Jackson extols, “we bear … each singly the burden of the single sense of manifold totality … as a speaking self of it, owing its words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it” (6). And while each self's telling will necessarily differ from the next, despite their mutual concerns with the whole, the unison of their telling will enable a self-correcting practice that will result in a more certain and enhanced truth: “when we have corrected ourselves with ourselves … we shall know that we have begun to speak true by an increased hunger for true-speaking” (16). Now the medium for truth-telling is no longer poetry, but rather this communal activity of self-correcting, “unreal selves” who in addressing “totality” in unison can establish a human universality in the very actuality of their unfolding conversation. Throughout her existence (Riding) Jackson refused to give up either her belief in the value of a corrected language or of human universality. Indeed, she initially sought to rescue the ideals of human universality from an exclusively aesthetic realm, urging the ways that poetry as the medium for truth was independent of aesthetic wholes, and then rejected poetry itself.

Seija H. Paddon (essay date December 1996)

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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?

(“Herself” 1-8)

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 responds, or reacts, to modernism's “tragedy of division” (author of TLS review, qtd. in Davie 31), the words “comedy of diversity” compel one to consider theatre as a phenomenon, that is: staged life. To expand the thought further, it would appear that the only constancy in “staged life” that immediately comes to mind resides more markedly even than in “real” life in its fluctuations and mutability. The fluctuations and mutability are, in part, the result of flexible treatment of time and space, the way one space (for example) may be transformed into many spaces through the poetic use of words rather than “the illusionistic devices of a scenographer” (Schechner 165). Here the transformational aspects of characters, that is, the doubling and switching of roles, correspond with the transformational aspects of words employed in their various contexts in poetry. In terms of poetic writing, then, the notion of theatre and theatricality can be seen, for example, attesting to the way in which the nature of staging reflects the shifting contextualization of meaning in a text. In Brownstein's terms, we are dealing with texts where words shift meaning each time they appear; there is a slippage of signification that is clearly in contrast to the way words behave in modernist texts, where their “idiosyncratic references create … seamless systems” (82). Thus the fictional realities created in theatre can be seen parallelling the notion of postmodern poetic texts creating their own realities, or in an ontological sense their own universes.2 In fact, we may describe the decisive problematics in the poetry as ontological rather than epistemological, as in modern poetry. Perhaps the most important implication of the theatrical analogy is the notion of language as performance, as well as how language performs. The notion of performance links with the way the writer-reader's linguistic potential is determined through such concepts as the speech act, while language is viewed as behaviour (Halliday 15). Thus we are concerned with what the language of postmodern poetry can do. In this paper, specifically, I would like to view how language performs in the poetry written by two, biographically speaking, vastly different women poets: Laura (Riding) Jackson and Eavan Boland.

At the outset, my choice of poets reflects and attests to the problems periodization and chronology embody. Laura (Riding) Jackson was born in 1901, and was thus a contemporary of Marianne Moore and HD (Hilda Doolittle), for example, whereas Boland was born in 1944, and is working very much within the period of contemporary poetics. Aside from definable differences between modern and postmodern writing, differences I have touched upon and shall again, it is not my intention to suggest that Jackson's and Boland's writing consistently and uniformly employ postmodern elements; quite the contrary, in their writing as in much of poetic writing generally, elements of varied periods overlap and struggle for prominence. My suggestion is that, significantly, the writings of the two poets, their histories notwithstanding, embrace instances of what Brenda Marshall calls “postmodern moments” (2-3). In Marshall's terms, the occurrence of such instances translates into an awareness of “being-within” a particular way of thinking that, among other things, emphasizes differences within a being, rather than its oneness or its existence as a phenomenon. The emphasis is on the doubled or varied yet interconnected planes of experience already mentioned. While I am aware that within feminist postmodern practice, Jackson's and Boland's writing can be seen to have links with what Andreas Huyssen calls “postmodernism of resistance” (qtd. in Suleiman 189), I consider the pursuit of the larger political debate about the relationship between feminism and postmodernism to be beyond the scope of this paper. Within the realm of the aesthetic, then, I suggest that both Jackson's and Boland's writings embody aspects of momentary rupture with what contemporary criticism terms modernism's false vision of mastery, or false pursuit of the “whole.” More specifically, I hope to show how their writing participates in the postmodern play in which meaning shifts and functions for changing but particular purposes. If one approaches their writing from yet another direction, the aspects of “performance,” that seductively elusive quality that the language of both poets embraces, often lend their writing a decisive sense of “orality”—and here by orality I mean the awareness of how reader/hearer responds to the words, awareness of the kind of freedom that is not bound or limited by formal rules employed in writing as an end in itself. Rather, the focus is on the possibilities that the created instability of reference allows. The sense of orality also lends emphasis to the notion that poetry written by women frequently functions as a communicative event, rather than preponderantly as a textual discourse in which the “communicative” aspect is secondary, if not intentionally diminished. I employ the notion of “communicative event” in the sense that the writing can be seen to have a close relationship with oral literature, or the oral nature of certain texts. The word “performance,” true to its variant connotations, is of course an ambiguous and challenging designation at best. My process of viewing some of the writing of the two poets, however, will make clear, I trust, the way in which I employ that word and others associated with it, that is to say, within, but also more specifically beyond, the disciplinary limits of linguistics and grammatology. Or, to be more specific, I hope to show how Jackson's and Boland's writing affirms its own representational play, and thus how the performance aspect of it emerges from the way in which the language displays itself as both the medium and the subject of the discourse.

Let us return for a moment to the poetic fragment I quoted at the beginning: “I am hands / And face / And feet / And things inside of me / That I can't see.” These lines yield an immediate contrast to traditional reader expectations. The writing cannot be seen to conform to the nomenclature model of Adamic naming in its traditional sense.3 The poetic “I” does not possess the various parts of human anatomy specified in the lines, but rather is each one of them in turn, as it were, “I am hands / And [I am] face.” Hence, the lines can be seen to reflect the Nietzschean notion of language dependent on metaphorical word relations (Esterhammer 288-89). Moreover, in reading the stanza, one observes how each line break shifts the subject into a new “role,” and how each line suggests its own narration and reality, as well as employs that suggested invisible text, or paratext, together with abrupt changes, as means by which to create rupture. In reading the lines one is aware of the words' shifts in being and the ways in which they endeavour to be a presence. In the stanza each line both affirms what the “I” is, and omits the narration surrounding the shift in its textual reality. The causality narration depends upon for coherence is absent, yet each line declares with the authority vested in the position of the speaker, the declarative “I am,” his or her shifting and momentary definition of him/herself. In an Austinian sense, the lines reflect the contention that, within the frame of the performative, the notion of an inward and spiritual act as Ursprung for the utterance carries no relevance. Rather, in this case, the utterances achieve their “legitimacy” from, or are constituted by, what might be loosely termed the convention of performative poetics. The subsequent questions in the last lines of the stanza (“What knows in me? / Is it only something inside / That I can't see?”) further destabilize what the reader has come to expect of conventional language usage. The episodic “I,” external to itself, is both performing and watching its functioning, while the chain of shifts in its status must unavoidably leave its own history behind. The situation is not unlike that in “social dramas,” which Victor Turner has analysed (Schechner 166): the lines of the stanza can be seen as inherently dramatic, because the words are not used in a simple straightforward narrative sense. They show not only what they are, but what they are doing in the lines; that is, they take on a reflexive, performed-for-effect aspect.

At this point it may be useful to bring to mind a randomly chosen but familiar modern example, the passage in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets that begins, “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable” (35). In Eliot's lines the poetic “I” fluctuates between knowing and not knowing, but the reader meets the “I” as an entity that has agency in the dictionary sense of the word; the “I” has the capacity to act in the sense of both possessing and exerting power, as well as having its own history. Eliot's “I” is very much a human subject as an individual and as the metaphysical locus of agency (Butler 25). More specifically, the “I” believes him- or herself to be the subject, with power to create and question meaning. Jackson's questioning lines, by comparison, not only challenge the almost quasi-mystical will associated with the traditional notion of subject as an agent, but rupture the fusion of subject and knowing, or subject and subjective capacities, freeing the latter to be a free-floating functioning that might be the property of something unknown and quite divorced from the “I.” Perhaps in some sense it could be compared with the way we might perceive singing or dancing, for example, when we speak about a voice that sings and feet that dance rather than the specific person who performs the acts, although implicitly, in the latter instance, the link between the voice and its owner remains unbroken.

The middle stanza in Jackson's poem “Growth” (The Poems 101) also sustains, as does so much of her writing, the same subjective watching and questioning of ambivalences. Here the action centres on attempts to reconstruct through questioning what has taken place; time is transformed into a flexible duality of past and present, and the lines carry a mobility between the spheres of emotional storage and stored and “actual” images. The lines occupy a place on the continuum of the poetic voice pondering perpetual endings and beginnings:

And so the habit of smile alters.
And so the hair in a new parting falls.
Can recognition be
Past loss of hour-by-hour identity?
Where is the self that withered
And the self that froze?
How do the rising days succeed to vacancy?


In these lines, the shifting demeanour and observable physical changes in a person are his or her constitutive discontinuities that become radical challenges to the concept of “identity,” and to the very meaning of the word itself. Judith Butler makes clear that:

because the articulation of an identity within available cultural terms instates a definition that forecloses in advance the emergence of new identity concepts in and through politically [or otherwise, I might add] engaged actions, the foundationalist tactic cannot take the transformation or expansion of existing identity concepts as a normative goal.


Jackson's lines, however, question which internal and/or external features of the person establish the continuity or self-identity of that person through time. Like Butler, Jackson questions and negates the grounds of “presumption that identities are self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent” (Butler 16). In fact, one is compelled to ask if there is not an inherent contradiction in “identity” as a concept when the word is applied to something that is forever mutable? Does not the word need revamping and rethinking? Moreover, what happens to the self that is no longer its identical self, and from where does the “new” self get its identity? Or, in Jackson's words, how does a new day “succeed to vacancy,” to rupture? Suddenly, in Jackson's lines, the comedy of diversity has taken on a darker, more unsettling tone; the “play” has become the specific means by which language questions its very basis of meaning. In terms of the performative aspect of the lines, the “identity crisis” the implied persona is experiencing calls for the giving up of prior commitments to a stabilized idea of the self and transforming them, in part, into self-discovering and self-watching.

Jackson, herself, while speaking about motivation in what she terms “poems-making,” suggests that if the end result is not specifically anticipated in the form of a reader, at least there would be the poet's sense of being a personal witness to the poem as self-directed performance. Here it is useful to remember that the term performance is derived from the Middle English parfournen, later parfourmen, which, in turn, is from the Old French parfournir, par in the sense “thoroughly” and fournir “to furnish.” Performance then need not merely be the manifestation of form in the structuralist sense, but one is also called upon to consider the processual sense of “accomplishing” something, or participating in the plenitude of action-meaning (Turner 101), the very processes of performative word action in poetic lines. During an interview in 1991 Jackson went on to say, “I myself worked for, towards, an identity: a poetic speaking that was speaking” (“Conversation” 71). In fact, much of her writing can be viewed in terms of the poetic subject-position comprising both the “watching” or witnessing a performance, and “poetic speaking.” The focus on process, “the producedness, or seams-showing quality” (Bonnie Marranca, qtd. in Connor 137) of Jackson's writing, can be viewed as an attempt to make the reader more conscious of an emphasis on immediacy in his or her relationship to the “poetic speaking” of the text. A stanza from the poem “Autobiography of the Present” (Selected 58) is a case in point. The curiously oxymoronic title already suggests the conflicting state of the “present” that any contemplation of the past necessarily occupies; hence the title rejects a given seamless comprehension of its meaning. The lines, in turn, read as if they embedded a verbal text meant to communicate to the hearer a sense of the fleeting past and a particular element of it, now condensed into a moment in the present:

How in those days—how fast—
How fast we seemed to dream—
How fast we talked—how lost—
How lost the words until—
Until the pen ran down
To this awakened not forgetting.


We may also view these lines of Jackson's in terms of the ontological theatre, or “theatre of images,” which endeavours to use words minimally while favouring aural, visual, and verbal imagery that calls for alternative modes of perception on the part of [in this case] the reader (Connor 136). The connectedness between the story-telling aspect of the lines and the quick succession of shifting images from a state of dreaming, to speech, to writing, to the enactment of memories is suggestive of mobility among spheres of reality, or what we might think of as the transformational elements in the act of performance.

It is Jackson's statement, “The poet does not simply observe or record ‘life,’ but creates a language in which the human condition can be read” (Carr 55-56), in its foreshadowing of contemporary theorizing, that makes the reader pause and rethink his or her approach to Jackson's poetry generally, and to a poem such as “One self” (Selected 36), specifically:

Under apparel, apparel lies
The recurring body:
O multiple innocence, O fleshfold dress.
One self, one manyness,
Is first confusion, then simplicity.
Smile, death, O simultaneous mouth.
Cease, inner and outer,
Continuous flight and overtaking.


The title “One self” (two words) already generates play between the possible meanings of the word “One,” as a numeral, and, in an oral reading, as a referent for the third person singular. Thus the shaping structures are of the mind of the reader as well as linguistic norms. The subsequent lines create in a reader a “theatrical” awareness of particular spatial and temporal contexts. They are lines that seem to insist upon their own mutable reality, yet, once again, refuse what we might view as a linear narrative. Instead, we have writing “in which the human condition can be read” in its fleeting multiplicity of being. In it the “One self” holds the contradictory position of “manyness,” hence embracing the confusion that the continuing process of simultaneous coherence and differentiation brings about. In a biological sense, Jackson's lines reflect Luce Irigaray's arguments about women constituting a paradox within the discourse of identity. In Irigaray's words, “Within a language that rests on univocal signification, the female sex constitutes the unconstrainable and undesignatable. … [W]omen are the sex which is not ‘one,’ but multiple” (Butler 9).4 But Jackson's poem can also be read as writing that actively seeks to avoid the expressed, ideological distortion that so often accompanies traditional poetics. There is no implicit or explicit meditation upon death governed by the rebirth theme, or philosophical agonizing about life's meaning. Rather, death as “the simultaneous mouth” is finally the lasting and continuous absence in which all momentary, rapturous movements cease. It is the single, unitary oneness that erases all temporal differentiations and diversities. Death is simplicity itself.

To be a reader/observer of the processual “action-meaning” in Jackson's poetry is to observe how the performative aspects of her writing create complex layering of textual levels. The layering not only involves the acknowledgment of a gap between the shifting, mutable nature of realities and what is taken to be the representation of those realities, but the writing reflects the poetic persona witnessing events, seeing her- or himself seeing the event, seeing herself in the midst of the event, as well as seeing others seeing the event, and so on, in a boundless, unmasterable chain of contextuality. To carry the observation further, in Jackson's writing one is witnessing the creative process parallelling life as a process rather than a single deed or act; ultimately neither can be simplified. Within such layering and shifting vantage points from which the observation of events takes place, the subject position in Jackson's writing, to which I have already alluded, compels closer study. The following poem is titled “And I” (Selected 51-52).

And I,
And do I ask,
How long this pain?
Do I not show myself in every way
To be happy in what most ravages?
When I have grown old in these delights,
Then usedness and not exclaiming
May well seem unenthusiasm.
But now, in what am I remiss?
Wherein do I prefer
The better to the worse?
I will tell you.
There is a passing fault in her:
To be mild in my very fury.
And “Beloved” she is called,
And pain I hunt alone
While she hangs back to smile,
Letting flattery crowd her round—
As if hunted insult not true love.
But how may I be hated
Unto true love's all of me?
I will tell you.
The fury will grow into calm
As I grow into her
And, smiling always,
She looks serenely on their death-struggle,
Having looked serenely on mine.

Here the subject position functions on a “dual track,” as it were, the decentred “I” again observing its own functioning, its ways of dealing with pain and the passing of time. The sphere of inner vision is split between what “may well seem unenthusiasm” (8), and what is not. What constitutes observation is as much questioning and speculation as commentary, hence reflective of a mutable flux measured against standards that are culturally defined. After all, the demeanour one projects externally will meet a culturally defined response. Thus to be conscious of it speaks of a subject that is not one and that is transformable, always in the process of becoming something else. “The fury will grow into calm” (23), the subjective self is malleable, easily disrupted and certainly open to change.5 The self-observed ambiguity, in turn, surfaces for example in “Do I not show myself in every way / To be happy in what most ravages?” (4-5), while the question concerning to what extent the “I” is able to project a false image to the external observer awaits an answer, and the border between the real and the “acted part” of the process threatens to blur, thus attesting to the performatively enacted signification of the “inner workings” of the poetic subject.

The complex layering of varied textual levels is embodied also in the poetry of Eavan Boland. Boland sees herself as a woman poet working in the male-dominant Irish tradition (“Time” 23). When Boland writes about the lyric in contemporary poetry, she asks the reader to value the virtues of fresh, new approaches to it. After all, the danger of expecting writing to remain static (if that were possible) means that there is merely a short step from expectation to prediction. Rather, poetry to her is her way of “remaking” (“Serinette” 26), not a startling affirmation to those in whose memory Ezra Pound's phrase “Make it new” would appear to be a permanent imprint. And yet, somehow Boland's emphasis seems to be on the process of remaking, a process that has no end in sight, while one senses that Pound could only foresee yet another “complete” text unalterably there, on the page.

In Boland's poem “Suburban Woman: A Detail” (Outside 98-99), aspects of performance appear to flirt with the paralogical, to embody sudden, disparate elements suggestive of the surreal. Here will and surrender spiral together to decentre it/themselves, only to produce, ultimately, a suppler form of authoritative discourse:

I am definite
to start with
but the light is lessening,
the hedge losing its detail,
the path its edge.
Look at me, says the tree.
I was a woman once like you,
full-skirted, human.
Suddenly I am not certain
of the way I came
or the way I will return,
only that something
which may be nothing
more than darkness has begun
softening the definitions of my body, leaving
the fears
and all the terrors of the flesh,
shifting the airs and forms
of the autumn quiet.


What the reader took to be Jackson's unorthodox and innovative steps outside governing structures of thought assume a somewhat different form in Boland's writing. Intermittently, however, her lines also destabilize the language game of “truth.” That is, they embody a loss of recourse to conventional principles. For example, in the utterance attributed to the tree, “I was a woman once like you, / full-skirted, human,” the theatricality can be seen to lie in the way these signs drift and confront the reader with the impossibility of their union. The vulnerability of the situation challenges the reader to elicit a pattern of believable behaviour. Only an abrupt leap into the mythological, perhaps, the Daphnean undercurrent taken notice of, redefines the irreality effect and one reads on. Significantly, it is the reading, then, that fills in the gaps and voids left by the shifts the text embodies. While contemplating the lines, the reader cannot overlook the fact that the effect of the sudden leap spills over, causing ambiguity to linger even after the writing has returned to its earlier frame.

In the subsequent stanza the lines “only that something / which may be nothing / more than darkness has begun / softening the definitions of my body” invoke a reading in a double mode, as if we were listening to two actors on stage giving two different descriptions of one and the same event. The tension the writing creates between the mythic and the “real” makes the reading both playful and seductive. In Boland's lines the body, its being, is reduced to a form of appearance, or—in part—the appearance of being. Rather than a stable signifier with clearly definable boundaries, the body is in the process of shifting its shape, becoming less and less visible—or is it slipping away altogether? Although the grip of the mythic may continue its hold, the reader also knows he or she is dealing with appearances rather than actualities to which “true or false” claims would be applicable. One is met with images of the play darkness thrusts upon light, causing distortion of form and vision, or so one speculates along with the poetic “I,” all the while sharing the affinity between the “I,” the fantastic, and the uncanny, albeit only momentarily.

In the poem “A false spring” (Outside 37), the play with absence and presence, much the way theatre maintains its double or incomplete presence, the here-and- now performance (Schechner 169), has to do with time and its fragmentation rather than light and darkness, yet the aspect of a conflicting and varying subjectivity is in evidence also in this poem. Boland writes,

I want to find her,
the woman I once was, who came out of that reading room
in a hard January, after studying
Aeneas in the underworld,
her mind so frail her body was its ghost.
I want to tell her she can rest,
she is embodied now.

(7-10, 17-19)

In this poem of Boland's, neither the “I” nor the (seeing) eye finds a lasting point on which to rest, although the possibility of some sort of permanence is suggested in the last line quoted, albeit indirectly. Here the subjective cohesion of interiority and exteriority is breaking down and changing places. The lines speak of a “transformable subject,” much like those in Jackson's poem “And I.” The notion of displacement and change as a continuous phenomenon can be seen to explore a kind of “in-betweenness” of being, one stretched between varying and conflicting subject-positions while it links with what one might call “presence-as-process,” that is, presence always at the point of becoming something else. Not unlike theatrical praxis, the process both dramatizes and enacts the idea of difference in the sense that performance is freed from its subservience to pre-existing scripts. According to Patrice Pavis's argument concerning postmodern theatre, the characteristics of performance then reflect “disposability … [and] disdain for the score or text which guarantees the survival and repeatability of a performance at the cost of cramping its spontaneity” and immediacy (Connor 134). The provocation and challenge to the reader lies in the writing's refusal to “position” either the writer or the reader. While one is aware how the poetic consciousness moves through language, the contents of that consciousness remain unknowable, thus the impermanence of the subject position also confronts the question of agency. Judith Butler points out that much of feminist theory and literature assumes there is a “doer” (hence in a customary sense an agent) behind the deed (25). Boland's lines, not unlike those of Jackson's quoted earlier in this paper, become a challenge to what we consider a discourse of the metaphysics of substance and identity. The lines assert that both are performatively and processually constituted.

More bewildering to the reader, however, are Boland's twin poems “In her own image” and (appropriately, perhaps) “In his own image” (Introducing 49-50). They contain images of the poetic self that are consciously understood as not her or his “own.” This is a perturbing idea to ponder, since the lines then suggest a self inevitably in exile even from its “own” words, a posthistoire of the self, as it were, denied a link with its functioning and history. Here it is helpful to draw parallels between Boland's poetic lines and a script of a play, that is, the way lines are read in role-playing while the reader is very much aware how theatrical meaning is by its very nature both problematic and processive:

It is her eyes:
the irises are gold
and I can't touch
their histories of tears.
She is not myself
anymore, she is not
even in my sky
anymore and I
am not myself.

(1-2, 6-7, 11-15)

The emphatic “She is not myself / anymore” and “I / am not myself” suggest a definite and complete break with what the humanist feminist position characterizes as a “core” person (Butler 10); hence, an important question emerges from the lines, a question that cannot be side-stepped. If the “I” is not “myself,” to whom are we then to attribute these words? In these lines, what Connor terms “the aesthetic of impermanence” is not contingent on qualities of memory, inheritance, or repeatability, but on immediacy and uniqueness (Connor 134), hence also contradictoriness. As a play once performed disappears forever, so does the “I” of Boland's lines, suggesting magic of a kind, or “originality” in its uniqueness, an opening of a back door to the pervasive hold of Romanticism's ethos.

The same question, “To whom do we attribute the words?” arises in reading the poem “In his own image”:

How could I go on
with such meagre proofs of myself?
I woke day after day.
Day after day I was gone
from the self I was last night.


On further reflection, it becomes clear that the lines speak of the “I” as pure activity, the postmodern “comedy of the diverse” self (in this case), which is taking some formidable risks, however. The ever mutable and elusive self-presence in its various roles and absences is connected to the world that is only by the bridge of its intentional questioning and its desire to do so. Thus it maintains the fragmentary self-sufficiency of its performative language. The discontinuous “I” is caught up in an endless play of beginnings and endings, entrances and exits, a frightening and at the same time a liberating thought in its freedom, or its “openness.” That is to say, the questioning lines can be viewed as suggesting the mind of the reader/writer and the poetic subject constituting performances that are open to continuous change. Hence, the words remain alive as part of the performance, yet they belong only momentarily to either the reader/writer or the poem, operating as they are in, and responding only to, the fluctuations of time.

I am aware that the phrase “in closing” as the customary signal for bringing a paper to “a close” is merely a textual signal; in actuality, this paper is not finished at its last line. Rather, its textual ending brings with it its own unspoken alternatives. Moreover, the necessarily fragmentary examples of Jackson's and Boland's poetry that have been presented not only leave us, the readers, with a quest for further reading and rereading, but attest to the argument and recognition that the privileging of performance in its diversity in writing is implicitly a privileging of “presence.” Boland's and Jackson's language as presence does not, however, bring from the shadows some immutable truth that lies behind it, thus establishing presence through re-presentation. Their language relies upon the idea of presence “always vulnerable to time and contingency, … always [conscious of] its situation rather than apart from it” (Connor 140-41). In viewing their writing within this “comedy of diversity” that postmodernism can be seen as, one is left with a sense of life as incongruous in its complexities, which only death's “simplicity” finally makes “congruent,” that is to say, a sense of life as incongruous as the “self” is inconsistent. In attempting to understand both, one is made aware that Jackson's and Boland's language achieves what might be termed “a state of potential.” To read their poetry is to witness their writing turn into a narrative of a kind about language itself in its nature to shape experience, and in its ability to be openly and radically forever engaged. Or, to borrow Boland's lines from her poem “Patchwork” (Outside 145-46),

There's no reason in it.
Only when it's laid
right across the floor—
sphere on square
and seam to seam
in a good light—
will it start to hit me:
these are not bits
they are pieces
and the pieces fit


(albeit momentarily—one adds—as part of a structure of difference and expectation).


  1. While much has been written about Laura (Riding) Jackson's “Code of Silence” and her disavowal of her poetry, most recently by Peter S. Temes, for example, some of the writing in fact being in conflict with its own arguments, I take the position that it is precisely the existence of Laura (Riding) Jackson's poetry as a “self-contradictory field of linguistic expression” (Jackson, qtd. in Temes 87) that gives me the impetus to view how language performs in her writing. What Temes sees as Jackson's evasiveness in the fact that she does not specify exactly the truth good poetry offers (see 98 n2), I suggest, is not “evasiveness,” but a necessary lack dictated by the non-existence of such a single, definable, and “exact” truth.

  2. See Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction, in which he sees ontology as a theoretical description of a universe; given that ontology may be describing any universe, we are concerned with a potential plurality of universes.

  3. By “Adamic naming” I am referring to Adam's “original speech,” in which each word expressed the essence of the object named, speech subsequently either lost or corrupted.

  4. Butler is referring to Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985).

  5. Chris Weedon among many others writes about subjectivity and, more particularly, about the feminist poststructuralist stance on “the site of conflicting forms of subjectivity” and the ways in which we identify structure within our sense of ourselves.

Works Cited

Boland, Eavan. Introducing Eavan Boland. Princeton: Ontario Review P, 1981.

———. Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990. New York: Norton, 1990.

———. “The Serinette Principle: The Lyric in Contemporary Poetry.” P.N. Review 19.4 (1993): 20-26.

———. “Time, Memory and Obsession.” P.N. Review 18.2 (1991): 18-24.

Brownstein, Marilyn L. “Postmodern Language and the Perpetuation of Desire.” Twentieth Century Literature 31 (1985): 73-88.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Carr, Helen. “‘The Common Air’: Laura Riding. First Awakenings: The Early Poems.P.N. Review 19.3 (1993): 55-56.

Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Davie, Donald. “Postmodernism and Allen Curnow.” P.N. Review 17.3 (1991): 31-34.

Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

Esterhammer, Angela. “Speech Acts and World-Creation: The Dual Function of the Performative.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 20.3-4 (1993): 285-304.

Halliday, M. A. K. Language as Social Semiotic. London: Arnold, 1978.

Jackson, Laura (Riding). “Laura (Riding) Jackson in conversation with Elizabeth Friedmann.” P.N. Review 17.4 (1991): 67-76.

———. The Poems of Laura Riding. 1938. New York: Persea, 1980.

———. Selected Poems: In Five Sets. 1938. New York: Persea, 1993.

Marshall, Brenda K. Teaching the Postmodern: Fiction and Theory. New York: Routledge, 1992.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. 1987. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Suleiman, Susan. Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

Temes, Peter S. “Code of Silence: Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Refusal to Speak.” PMLA 109 (1994): 87-99.

Turner, Victor. “Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama, Performative and Reflexive Anthropology.” Interculturalism and Performance. Ed. Bonnie Marraca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: PAJ, 1991. 99-112.

Weedon, Chris. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Marjorie Perloff (review date spring 1998)

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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 phantomness.

“Phantomness”: a clumsy coinage that tells us little about what has been “shed” in the poet's impulsive act. Robert Nye, the editor of the new Persea Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, talks a great deal about his subject's “passion for exactness” and “verbal lucidity,” but the nouns in “Rejoice, Liars”—“truth,” “will,” “earth,” “pain,” “grandeur” (used twice), “speculation,” and “substance”—are no more lucid than they are precise. Here, as in so many of her poems, Riding's treatment of “truth” is abstract, generalized, detached—and utterly without irony or humor.

Perhaps it is this earnestness, the conviction that “a legend pines till it comes true,” that has made Riding a quintessential survivor, not only in the actual world, in which Laura Reichenthal transformed herself into Laura Riding and then Laura (Riding) Jackson,2 but in the world of poetry and poetics as well. As I write this, a Riding revival seems to be well underway. There is now a Laura Riding Website, according to which thirteen of her books (poems, short stories, essays, letters) have been reprinted or newly published since 1980. In that year, Carcanet Press brought out a new edition of the 1938 Poems of Laura Riding,3 composed shortly before her public renunciation of poetry in favor of the search for what she called truth—a search carried on in a variety of prose writings, including The Telling (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) and culminating in Rational Meaning, the monster of a poetic treatise on which she worked (together with Schuyler Jackson until his death in 1968, and then by herself) for the last forty years of her long life. When Riding died in 1991 at the age of ninety, the manuscript of Rational Meaning was still unpublished.

Now, thanks to the editorial labors of William Harmon, we have a fine edition of what Charles Bernstein calls, in his excellent introduction, “one of the most aesthetically and philosophically singular projects of twentieth-century American poetry … [a] long summa contra poetica.Contra, because the Riding who renounced poetry in the early forties, had adopted the position that “poetry” is incapable of transmitting “truth,” that only rational language can do so. Bernstein, whose own poetics are based on the Wittgensteinian premise that “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” that indeed language cannot transmit any sort of “message” prior and external to it, argues ingeniously that in its very recognition of poetry's inability to speak “rationally,” Riding's is “a pursuit of poetry's love for language by other means.” “In its testing of our senses of meaning, in its insistence on ‘language as the ground of human intelligence,’ he suggests, “Rational Meaning takes its place alongside such “stylistically dissimilar works” as Louis Zukofksy's Bottom: On Shakespeare, Walter Benjamin's “Doctrine of the Similar,” Ezra Pound's Guide to Kulchur and Jefferson and/ or Mussolini, William Carlos Williams' The Embodiment of Knowledge, Gertrude Stein's How to Write, and Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

These are large claims for a dryly written, 600-page treatise, whose chapters boast titles like “Language and Rationality” and “The Principles of Definition.” Rational Meaning, it must be said at the outset, has none of Zukofsky's gift for citation, none of Wittgenstein's aphoristic brilliance, none of the profound verbal play of Stein's How to Write. Bernstein admits that “Rational Meaning is in many ways a frustrating work,” not only in its length but also in the basic fallacy of its central argument, of which more in a moment. But, he asserts, “the important thing is not to be persuaded by [the Jacksons'] arguments, but to respond to them.” For “The Jacksons stake out a powerful, often eloquent, often deliciously barbed, often achingly arched argument against the relativism of the modern age—one that goes much further in its critique than such anti-modern modernists as T. S. Eliot. … I suspect it is an argument that, ultimately, will take a place of honor in the history of human thought,” especially—and here, I suspect, is the mainspring of Bernstein's interest—since “Rational Meaning is one of the few philosophical treatises on the nature of language and meaning to be authored, or co-authored, by a woman.”

The modernist woman poet as language theorist: It is an improbable scenario, rather like that of the woman preacher Dr. Johnson famously compared to a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.”4 In Riding's generation, only Gertrude Stein could vie for the role of woman theoretician, a role that thus gave Riding a certain cachet. In his 1974 anthology Revolution of the Word, Jerome Rothenberg singled out Riding for her concentration on what she called “the organic veracities of word-meaning,” and on what might be achieved “in ‘trueness of word,’ beyond the qualified truth-potential of poetry, or any other literarily verbal style.”5 As woman prophet of the “truth maximum,” Riding gets more space in Rothenberg's anthology than either Pound or Williams. But, irony of ironies, when Riding learned of the context in which Rothenberg had placed her work, she insisted that he print, along with her poems, a lengthy disclaimer. Revolution of the Word, after all, had been the title of Eugene Jolas' twelve-point manifesto for transition, a journal in which Riding briefly published before she and Jolas (like Riding and Stein) came to blows. Thus her disclaimer (oddly written in the third person) reads: “As to ‘Revolution of the Word’: she would be dissociated both from ‘revolution’ in this phrase, which she views as transmogrified from a political term, itself a derivative from the general word, into a sentimental carry-all of implications of literary or poetic radicalism.” She then dismisses the term “avant-garde” “as being, with its context of European literary politicism, not generally applicable to American poetry of the period in question, and otherwise only very narrowly applicable, if at all, and if so to certain elements of it at its earlier and later worst.”

Yet despite this ungracious (and ungrateful!) critique of Rothenberg's efforts on her behalf, Riding has won over some strong critics, who evidently take her barbed responses as a challenge. In his recent Black Riders (1993), for example, Jerome McGann cites these lines from “The Life of the Dead” (the last poems in the 1938 Collected):

Romanzel, doubtful if such abstruse goddess be
Terrible to know, since only silence-mighty,
Thinking amid the grim confusions
Struggling ribbon-wise where seems her head
To find a poetry of living death. …

and insists that “grotesque and comical” as its style may seem, the poem brings the reader “face to face with the word-as-such—with language as the entirety of the scene where truth as an exchange is represented.” Riding's poetry, McGann argues, is important to later American writing for three reasons: first, its emphasis (especially of her prose) on the “rhetorical features of language”; second, its support for the “constructivist line” of Pound, Williams, Stein, Oppen, and Zukofsky; and third for its “swerve from romantic and ‘I-centered’ poetry, along with all the ideological assumptions that came with that tradition.”6

These are principles with which Charles Bernstein evidently agrees; his critical essays are peppered with citations from Riding's poems, and in the introduction to Rational Meaning, he declares that her poetry and fiction from the period 1926-1939 are “among the greatest achievements of any American modernist.” This claim (not substantiated in any way here) is made on the basis of Riding's enormous ambition: her desire (almost unique among women poets of her time) to wrestle with the problems of language. How many women poets, after all, have taken on the likes of I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden (The Meaning of Meaning), the whole field of structural linguistics, the transformational grammar of Noam Chomsky, and even Saussure's classic Cours de linguistique générale?

What, then, is Riding's own language theory? In her 1980 introduction to the new edition of Poems 1938, Riding recalls that, in the years of writing verse, she trusted in “the actuality of poetry as a tradition of linguistic composition in forms intended for oral or written delivery, of a level of expression above all common levels of expression, and also above the heights of linguistic distinction attainable in learned discourse, philosophic disquisition, the exposition of religious feelings and ideas, the narration of real events or imagined life-experiences for meeting varieties of mentally dignified human interest.” The domain of poetry, according to Riding, is that of the “immediate, absolute, life-purifying quality of spirituality”; indeed “Poetry may be described as an institution devoted to the pursuit of spiritual realism, in relation to religion as an institution devoted to the pursuit of spiritual idealism.” “My sincerity as a poet,” she adds, “was a sincerity of spiritual literalness of faith in the truth-potentiality of words embodied in the spiritual creed of poetry.” Accordingly, in what is an intensely Arnoldian locution (Riding cites Arnold frequently), poetry is defined as “the secular twin of religion.”

Not surprisingly, such extraordinary demands on poetry proved impossible to sustain. “My kind of seriousness, Riding declares, “in my looking to poetry for the rescue of human life from the indignities it was capable of visiting upon itself, led me to an eventual turning away from it as failing my kind of seriousness.” The difficulty here and throughout Riding's retrospective Introduction, is that it is by no means clear what phrases like “spiritual realism” or “spiritual literalness” might mean in actual practice. How does the reader identify a poem of “dignified human interest?” Of “life-purifying” spirituality? And what is the dividing line between the poetic-spiritual and the “common?”

We do know, from many of her statements in various places, what sort of poetry Riding did not admire. “Imagism,” for example, is described in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), the book she wrote with Robert Graves, as “a stunt of commercial advertisers of poetry to whom poetic results meant a popular demand for their work”; Imagist poetry is like an “artistic tea-room where the customer finds himself besieged by orange curtains, Japanese prints, painted furniture, art-china … and conversational waitresses in smocks who give the personal touch with a cultured accent.”7 The “literary internationalism” of The Waste Land is brushed off as a form of “literary slumming,” an “abnormal cultivation of the classics.” In Rational Meaning, the Jacksons refer to Eliot as “a littérateur who surely regarded himself as on the side of propriety and elegance in matters of language.” This “littérateur” is chided for saying, in one of his essays, that words have the tendency to “become indefinite emotions.” “We do not think it possible,” write the Jacksons, “that in any other literary era a literary personage of the best credentials would have offered the public anything as corrupt in linguistic principle, and as verbally crude in itself, as a statement to the effect that words tended to become (indefinite) emotions.

Even Gertrude Stein, a long-time collaborator and friend, whose work inspired the repetitions and permutations of such Riding poems as “Beyond” and “Elegy in a Spider's Web” which begins:

What to say when the spider
Say when the spider what
When the spider the spider what
The spider does what
Does does dies does it not
Not live and then not. …

is caricatured as a poet of “Protean vagueness,” pursuing “with obsessive pertinacity meandering lines of small-talk, and exercising her homely intuition and commonsense shrewdness in aphoristic opinion-pronouncements.” Applause for “a rose is a rose is a rose,” Riding claimed in her late years, is “applause of the worm.” Indeed, Stein's essays and lectures testify to her “difficulties of being, thinking, speaking” in favor of the “ease of tireless deity-being.”

These cranky judgments might be taken with the same grain of salt with which we take, say, Williams' well-known dismissal of Eliot, or Stein's of Proust and Joyce—that is, as prompted by an understandable anxiety about one's own place in the canon—were it not that the attack on the “indefinite” emotions or “aphoristic opinion-pronouncements” of her peers were made by a poet whose own verse all too typically looks like this:

As well as any other, Erato,
I can dwell separately on what we know
In common secrecy,
And celebrate the old, adoréd rose,
Retell—oh why—how similarly grows
The last leaf of the tree.
But for familiar sense what need can be
Of my most singular device or me,
If homage may be done
(Unless it is agreed we shall not break
The patent silence for mere singing's sake)
As well by anyone?
Mistrust me not, then, if I have begun
Unwontedly and if I seem to shun
Unstrange and much-told ground:
For in peculiar earth alone can I
Construe the word and let the meaning lie
That rarely may be found.

(“As Well As Any Other”)

Robert Nye, who cites this entire poem in his introduction to the Persea Selection, calls it “prosodically perfect, yet at the same time new and memorable in rhythm, the diction precise, the verbal shape unforced but urgent, the thought and feeling at one and as one truthful.” Erato, the muse of lyric love poetry, would have been pleased, Nye maintains; indeed, “any poet of the past six centuries would have been justly proud to have written the lines, but perhaps only a supremely modern poet with a knowledge of the shortcomings of tradition and the burden of past perfections could have tried.”

This overheated praise recalls the response Riding seems to have produced in her lovers, from Louis Gottschalk to Robert Graves to Geoffrey Phibbs and Schuyler Jackson. But those of us not so smitten may well wonder what the fuss is all about. “As Well as Any Other” has three six-line stanzas, rhyming a5a5b3c5c5b3: a perfectly conventional ballad stanza, although Riding's ten-syllable line is awkwardly constrained by the meter. The first line, for example, with its strong caesura after “other” and heavy stress on the second syllable of “Erato,” has only four primary stresses, sounding like fairly choppy prose. The second line forces us to give emphasis to the first and last syllable of “separately”; the same thing happens in the case of “similarly” in line 5. It's not clear to me what is “prosodically perfect” about these lines which strike me as almost amateurish in their inability to fuse the aural and the semantic in interesting ways. Nor are Riding's rhymes—“secrecy” / “tree,” “rose” / “grows,” “be” / “me,” and “break” / “sake”—in any way remarkable: compare Yeats's startling use of the rhyme “trees” / “seas” / “dies” in the first ottava rima stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium,” published the same year.

What about the poem's “truth-telling?” Riding's “I,” addressing the lover (Robert Graves) who functions as her muse, abjures such conventional topoi as “the old, adoréd rose” (perhaps a dig at Yeats's Rose poems?) or the counting of the leaves on the mystic tree of life. No use “retelling” these familiar stories or breaking the silence “for mere singing's sake,” when “anyone” can do it just as well. No, this poet must “shun / Unstrange and much-told ground,” so as to bring to life from her own “peculiar earth” the profound and secret truth which she alone can “Construe”—a meaning “That rarely may be found.”

What that difficult and elusive meaning may be is anybody's guess. In its original publication as the first poem in The Close Chapelet (Hogarth Press, 1926), the third stanza of “As Well as Any Other” read like this:

Reject me not, then, if I have begun
Unwontedly and if I seem to shun
The close and well-tilled ground.
For in untraveled soil alone can I
Unearth the gem or let the mystery lie
That never must be found.

What I find astonishing about the revision is how little difference it makes. “Mistrust me not” is a little more confident than “Reject me not,” but the tenor of the lines is the same. The adjectival force of “close and well-tilled” is about on a par with “Unstrange and much-told”: In either case, the clumsy compound adjectives and archaizing diction coyly distance the reader from the poet's situation as does the vagueness of—take your pick!—“untraveled soil” or “peculiar earth.” The only real difference comes in the last two lines. “Everything in the poem rises toward the word construe,” says the idolatrous Nye, “… a very sharp word to find at the heart of a song. It pricks the mind into remembrance that meaning is all, and that for this poet nothing but heart-felt final meaning finally matters.” I suppose “Construe the word” is more forceful than “Unearth the gem,” and that elusive “mystery” of the first version, is now less pessimistically conceived as a “meaning” that can be “rarely” (as opposed to the earlier “never”) found.

In both versions, Riding's concluding stanza seems to say little more than, “Trust me. If I am true to my own vision of what poetic truth is, I shall prevail.” But who is this arrogant, self-righteous speaker? And in what “peculiar earth” will her rare gift thrive? Riding never quite answered these questions. In a much later poem called “The World and I,” we still find her grappling with her inability to convey meaning:

This is not exactly what I mean
Any more than the sun is the sun.
But how to mean more closely
If the sun shines but approximately?
What a world of awkwardness!
What hostile implements of sense!
Perhaps this is as close a meaning
As perhaps becomes such knowing.
Else I think the world and I
Must live together as strangers and die—
A sour love, each doubtful whether
Was ever a thing to love the other.
No, better for both to be nearly sure
Each of each—exactly where
Exactly I and exactly the world
Fail to meet by a moment, and a word.

The word and the world: What is remarkable about Riding's conception of the relationship of these two terms is that she somehow takes her own individual “word” to be a match for the “world”; accordingly, when that word's “meaning” fails her, there is nothing left: “Else I think the world and I / Must live together as strangers and die.” The problem is compounded by the imprecision of the noun “world.” Does it refer to the social or cultural world? The natural world? The universe? We only know that Riding's is a world of “awkwardness,” that her sun “shines” only “approximately.” No wonder, then, that the poet is brought to the impasse that sets the stage for the writing of Rational Meaning. When the words refuse to do the poet's work, it is time, Riding seems to have concluded, to renounce poetry altogether.

One meaning, one word: This is the basic rule put forward in Rational Meaning. The treatise originated in a project Riding initiated in the 1930s, first called Dictionary of Exact Meanings and later Dictionary of Related Meanings, which was to include “24,000 crucial words of the English language to be defined in such a way as to erase any ambiguity that might have accrued to them over years of improper usage.” Perhaps Riding's “improper usage” phobia had to do with her own inability to ground words—to evoke, say, the look and texture of that “peculiar earth” which is the poet's habitat. Although, as Bernstein tells us, Oxford University Press turned down Riding's proposal as “too individual and personal” and as an attempt to put words “into straightjackets,” she continued—first alone, later with Schuyler Jackson, then again alone—to work on it, reconceiving her dictionary as a larger treatise. The broader aim, as Schuyler Jackson makes clear in the 1967 Epigraph, was to reform the world by reforming the word:

Suppose that words do have meanings, meanings of their own. (Which is the reality.) What would the consequences be, if words were words only in having meanings peculiarly, inseparably, necessarily theirs? …

If one used words as possessed of their meanings so thoroughly that they had no existence except as meaning what they meant, one would have to—in the use of them—mean what they meant, have in mind to express what they expressed.

This somewhat pseudo-Steinian double talk is, of course, wholly at odds with twentieth-century linguistic theories, whether Saussurian, Chomskian, neo-Augustinian, or Wittgensteinian. When Riding declares in her “First Preface” (1973) that “Knowledge of the meaning of words is, basically, adequate knowledge of language: know the words (know what they mean), and all the grammatical and syntactical processes will be found deducible from the knowledge,” she is going directly against Wittgenstein's now widely accepted critique of neo-Augustinian language theory. Let me recapitulate that critique for a moment.

At the opening of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein cites a famous passage from Augustine's Confessions (I, 8):

When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved toward something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.8

Wittgenstein's argument is that this traditional correspondence between res and verba, thing and word, is not so much wrong as it is insufficient: “If you describe the learning of language in this way you are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like “table,” “chair,” “bread,” and of people's names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds of word as something that will take care of itself” (§1). For even if the word “table” in the sentence, “Over there is the table” does point to that wooden object with a horizontal surface and four legs in the center of the room, what does “Over” mean? “There”? “Is”? “The”? Furthermore, as Wittgenstein now proceeds to demonstrate, even as ordinary a word as “table,” or as ordinary a phrase as “five red apples” does not have a fixed meaning: It all depends on how the words in question are actually used in the sentences in which they occur. “When we say: ‘Every word in language signifies something’ we have so far said nothing whatever, unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make” (§13).

This is not the place to outline Wittgenstein's complex analysis of the “language-games” that constitute human communication. But, so far as poetry is concerned, it should be clear that Wittgenstein's grappling with the slipperiness of language even in such seemingly straightforward sentences as “I have a pain” or “The rose is red,” has been enormously suggestive to poets. Indeed, Wittgenstein's aphoristic propositions, as in “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him” or “When I raise my arm I do not usually try to raise it,” are themselves strangely “poetic.”9

In this context, Riding's “one meaning, one word” doctrine, with its refusal, not only of connotation, but of multiple denotation, implicitly denies the very existence of poetry as what Pound called “language charged with meaning.” If poetry had failed her, Riding suggests, it is only logical that the Poets be driven out of the Republic. But hers is not an easy task. For one thing, the theorem (see above) “know the words (know what they mean), and all the grammatical and syntactical processes will be found deducible from the knowledge,” contradicts everything we know about the way children actually acquire language. My three-year old granddaughter Lexie, to take a simple example, wanted me to play a particular game with her—a game I didn't want to play just then. “OK,” she volunteered, “let's make a compromise.” “What is a compromise?” I asked Lexie. She couldn't remotely define the word but she knew precisely how and when to use it. Are her syntactical processes deducible from the knowledge of the dictionary meaning of “compromise?” On the contrary: The syntax of the proposition is prior. Lexie might, for instance, have said, “Let's make a deal.”

Not until Chapter 10 of Rational Meaning, do we meet any actual examples of the “one meaning, one word” theory:

… “air” in “The air is sweet with blossom-fragrance” and “air” in “She spoke with an air of assurance” are not the same word by two different meanings, but two quite different words; and people need to know, think of, them as such in order to use them sensibly. Dictionary-treatment of these and other “air” words as one word meaning now this, now that, blurs perception of them, denies them full word-individuality.

But why is the word “air” used in both of these very unlike instances? Here is the OED's first definition of “Air,” more specifically “Atmospheric air”:

1. The transparent, invisible, inodorous and tasteless gaseous substance which envelopes the earth and is breathed by all land animals; one of the four ‘elements’ of the ancients, but now known to be a mechanical mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with the constant presence of a small quantity of carbonic acid gas, and traces of many other substances as contaminations.

The first instance of this meaning occurs c 1300; “air” thus defined easily shades into meanings #2, “Any aeriform body ‘permanent’ as a gas; ‘transient’ as a vapour.Obs., #3, “The wholy body of air surrounding, or in popular language above the earth; the atmosphere; hence, a. the (apparently) free space above our heads in which birds fly and clouds float” (1300), and #4, “A special state or condition of the atmosphere as affected by temperature, moisture or other inivisible agencies or as modified by time or place as the night air, one's native air; approaching the sense of weather or climate (1479).

How then do we move to #11 [Common in OFr.], “Impetuosity, violence, force, anger” Obs.? and #111, “Outward appearance, apparent character, manner, look, style. Esp. in phrases like ‘an air of absurdity’” (1596)? This third category is the one to which the Jacksons refer in their example, “She spoke with an air of assurance,” and they insist that this “air” is entirely different from “air” in “The air is sweet with blossom-fragrance.” Here, as the OED confirms, the Jacksibs may be following Littré, who “makes them two words, identifying air, manner, with OFr. aire ‘area, open place, AERIE.” But, the OED continues:

Diez, after Burguy, inclines to identify the two senses, through the idea of ‘air, breath, spirit, character, manner, comparing the range of L. spiritus, originally ‘breath, air’. … It is … probable that there was no confusion with aire = aerie, and that the idea of manner—external manner, appearance, mien' rather than ‘innate character’—is a simple extension of the idea of the ‘enveloping or affecting atmosphere special to a place or situation as when one is said to carry with him the ‘air of the office’ (Fr. air du bureau) or to catch ‘the air of the court,’ Shaks.

Etymology, in other words, suggests that air 1 and air 2 are not necessarily separate and independent words. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of language—a pleasure that poets, one would think, are especially attuned to—is the recognition that a neutral descriptive meaning (e.g., air = gaseous substance) is readily transformed into a metaphoric derivative (e.g., air = manner, look, style). But it is not only a matter of pleasure: The example testifies to the impossibility of policing language Riding-style, of forcing a word to keep one meaning and avoid all transpositions.

Just as one word cannot have, according to the Jacksons, two meanings, so two words cannot have one meaning. This means that there are, strictly speaking, no synonyms. In a long discussion of the relation of the words “change” and “alter,” for example, the Jacksons set out to prove that these two words never mean the same thing. “Change,” they decide, using dozens of examples, always refers to “an oppositeness in a characteristic feature.” “A changed color,” for example, “is one in which a characteristic feature of the color acquires a quality opposite in some respect to an antecedent quality of it—that of darkness, for example, in relation to an antecedent lightness.” Change always posits a “before” and “after.” “Alter,” on the other hand, means no more than “to make different.” No “before” is posited. For example, “Since he discovered that they were not whole-heartedly his friends, he has altered his behavior towards them.” “Change” would not work in this context because it would imply a total reversal of behavior, which is not the case in this instance. And so on.

The irony of this and related examples is that unwittingly the Jacksons are following Wittgenstein's axiom that “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.” In examining the difference between “change” and “alter,” they can do no more than to study the ways the two words are actually used. Unlike Wittgenstein, however, the Jacksons claim to know whether the words are used correctly or not. In the above example, if someone said “he has changed his behavior toward them,” the Jacksons would recoil at such incorrect usage.

The most frustrating chapter is #18, “Truth.” For decades, Riding had been trying to find truth, first in poetry, then in language theory. Now, after twenty-five pages of discussion of what truth is not (the difference between “truth” and “verity,” for example, is examined in tedious detail), we learn that truth is “a natural property of the mind's honest manifesting of its experience in right and full linguistic publication: it has no special place but the special place that is language.” A definition wholly tautological since it doesn't tell us what a “natural property” is or isn't, what an “honest manifesting” looks like, or what makes something “right and full.”

“The important thing,” says Charles Bernstein in his introduction, “is not to be persuaded by their [the Jacksons'] argument but to respond to them.” “What if,” he asks, “… words have unitary meanings, call them rational meanings, and what if our poetry, our philosophy, our linguists, our dictionaries, lead us away from this grounded rationality of words—toward some evasive play of relative worth?” But since the defense of unitary meaning never catches fire, this “what if?” seems less than compelling.

Why, then, to come back to my earlier question, have some of our best critics and most discriminating publishing houses (Carcanet and Persea) taken up the cause of Riding's poetry and poetics? Why have reviewers of the Robert Nye Selection exclaimed, as does Graham Christian in Library Journal (January 1997), that “The unforgettable music of the lines ‘The rugged black of anger / Has an uncertain smile-border,” and “The poppy edifices of sleep” prepares the reader for the brilliance of the whole [book of] poems?” Or, in the words of Publishers Weekly (27 February 1997), that Riding is “A more rigorous thinker and perhaps a better poet than her recently rediscovered forerunner, Mina Loy”?

Here we must come back to the issue of Riding's ambition—her impressively large output of poems, short stories, criticism, mythography, biography, and finally philosophical treatise. The male admirers (and I have found few female ones)10 of Riding's work seem, like her many actual lovers, to be swept along by the intensity of her commitment, first to poetry, then to its renunciation. “She is,” as her longest-lived and most famous lover Robert Graves put it, “a great natural fact, like fire or trees … and either one appreciates her or one doesn't but it is quite useless trying to argue that she should be other than she is.”11

And there it is. What Riding had, especially in her youth, was nerve, as in “You just go on your nerve” (Frank O'Hara). Allen Tate, one of her first lovers and fans (he introduced Riding's poetry to the Fugitives in the early twenties), wrote to Donald Davidson in 1924 that Riding was “A very volatile genius, but nonetheless a genius.” “Yet,” he remarked in an afterthought, “it is too bad that nineteen out of twenty of her poems are nearly worthless.” In later years, Tate came to retract even this backhanded compliment and to speak disparagingly of Riding's work. But perhaps his youthful assessment was the right one, prompted as it was by the promise of Riding's early poetry, which is, to my mind, very much her best. For before Riding developed what we might call her “truth” fetish, she wrote brilliant satire in a colloquial language quite unlike the stilted circumspection of her later metaphysical poems on love and life.

Take, for example, the sequence called “Forgotten Girlhood,” written when Riding was only twenty-one and placed at the head of Poems (1938). Here is the opening of the first section, “Into Laddery Street”:

The stove was grey, the coal was gone.
In and out of the same room
One went, one came.
One turned into nothing.
One turned into whatever
Turns into children.

The sardonic nursery-rhyme rhythms and flat diction convey, in a few quick strokes, Riding's hatred of the petty-bourgeois family life of her shabby, deprived childhood, the permutation of “turned” being especially effective. In the next section, we meet “Herself”:

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?

Again, this uses understatement and repetition to good effect: The “things inside of me / That I can't see,” those hidden feminine body parts, shift, in the second stanza, to the mind, the knowing faculty that is also growing “inside” the poet. And in the final section “All the Way Back,” Riding caricatures the institution of bourgeois marriage:

Bill Bubble in a bowler hat
Walking by picked Lida up.
Lida said, ‘I feel like dead.’
Bubble said
‘Not dead but wed.’
No more trouble, no more trouble,
Safe in the arms of Husband Bubble.
A rocking chair, a velvet hat,
Greengrocer, dinner, a five-room flat,
Come in, come in,
Same old pot and wooden spoon,
But it's only soup staring up at the moon.

Written not long after Riding's own failed marriage to Louis Gottschalk, “All the Way Back” wittily plays off such Mother Goose rhymes as

Hey, diddle, diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed to see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon

as well as the witches' song (“Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”) from Macbeth. But what is especially interesting for a reader fresh from Rational Meaning, is to discover a Laura Riding willing to use ordinary words (“A rocking chair, a velvet hat, / Greengrocer, dinner, a five-room flat”), without worrying about truth-claims or the differences between “change” and “alter,” “verity” and “truth.” A more playful Riding, whose rhymes (“trouble” / “Bubble”) and images—“it's only soup staring up at the moon”—forcefully convey her revulsion at the boredom of family routine.

Why did Riding abandon this terse, electric language (a cross between Christina Rossetti, Mother Goose, and modernist free verse) in favor of such profundities as

But never shall truth circle so
Till words prove language is
How words come from far sound away
Through stages of immensity's small
Centering the utter telling
In truth's first soundlessness?

(“Come, Words, Away”)

Perhaps her liaison with Robert Graves led to her yearning for dignity, distance, and elevation (a nice irony in view of her real-life jump from upper-story to earth); perhaps she wanted to be a great English (as opposed to American) poet. Whatever the reason, I doubt that the publication of Rational Meaning will win Riding's poetry or prose a new and larger audience. But as a summa contra poetica, as Bernstein calls it, it does prompt us to ask some hard questions about the nature of poeticity and to reread, with renewed appreciation, such classics of modernist poetics as Stein's How to Write or Pound's “How to Read.” Indeed, such admonitions as Pound's “Use no word that does not reveal something” take on a whole new dimension.


  1. Deborah Baker, Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (New York: Grove Press, 1993), pp. 91-111.

  2. Born in New York City in 1901 to Jewish immigrant parents, Nathaniel Saul and Sarah Edersheim Reichenthal, the poet changed her name to Riding when she left home in 1916. She attended Cornell University but dropped out before taking a degree in order to marry her history professor, Louis Gottschalk. Until 1926 she signed her poems Laura Riding Gottschalk. Then, during her years with Robert Graves (1926-1939), she was Laura Riding—the name under which she is best known—and finally, after Schuyler Jackson, whom she had married in 1941, died in 1968, she called herself Laura (Riding) Jackson. Since she is best known for her collection The Poems of Laura Riding (1938), I will refer to her as Laura Riding here.

  3. The Poems of Laura Riding. A New Edition of the 1938 Collection. Introduction and Appendix by Laura (Riding) Jackson (Carcanet, 1980). The edition was reprinted by New York's Persea Books in 1988; all references here are to this edition, cited as P.

  4. Boswell's Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), Saturday, 30 July 1763, p. 327.

  5. From Riding, Contemporary Poets of the English Language, 1971, cited by Jerome Rothenberg in Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry 1914-1945 (New York; Seabury Press, 1974), p.222.

  6. Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 132-34.

  7. Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (London: Heinemann, 1927), pp. 128, 33.

  8. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1989), §1. Wittgenstein cites the Latin “Cum ipsi (majores homines) …” and gives the translation in a footnote.

  9. I discuss this issue at length in Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  10. Exceptions include Elizabeth Friedmann and Sonia Raiziss, who have edited the Riding Portfolio for Chelsea 52 (1993) and various collections of her letters, and Lisa Samuels, whose dissertation on Wallace Stevens and Laura Riding, directed by Jerome McGann at the University of Virginia, will soon be published in book form.

  11. Robert Graves to James Reeves, 1933, cited in Baker, p. 325.




Riding, Laura (Vol. 3)