Laura (Riding) Jackson 1901-1991
(Also wrote under the names Laura Riding Gottschalk, Laura Riding, and Madeleine Vara) American poet, critic, translator, editor, novelist, and short story writer.
Riding is recognized as an original and honest voice in American poetry. She rejected the forms of conventional literature and asserted the need for new aesthetic standards in order to reflect the changing sensibility of the times. Critics note that Riding's poetic and critical work was focused on the importance of truth in her life and her work.
Riding was born in New York City, January 16, 1901. Born Laura Reichenthal, she adopted the surname Riding in 1926. Her parents encouraged a strong sense of political activism, but she rejected politics in favor of poetry. In 1918 she began attending Cornell University and remained there for three years, dropping out to marry her history professor, Louis Gottschalk. She continued her education at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and the University of Louisville. In the early 1920s she became associated with the Fugitives, a group of American southern writers that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Her poetry was published in their influential magazine, The Fugitive, and garnered critical attention. She published her first collection of poetry, The Close Chaplet, in 1926. In 1927 she cofounded the Seizin Press with her partner, Robert Graves. Their personal and professional relationship also produced A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), which is recognized as an important work of literary theory and a great influence on the school of thought known as “The New Criticism.” In 1942 she gave up poetry, contending that the form was incompatible with truth. She concentrated instead on works of criticism and linguistics. In 1943, after her marriage to Schuyler B. Jackson, she settled on a citrus farm in Florida. In her Selected Poems (1970), she republished some of her work and wrote an introduction that elucidated her reasons for renouncing poetry. Until 1926 she signed her poems Laura Riding Gottschalk. Then, during her years with Graves (1926-1939), she was Laura Riding—the name under which she is best known—and finally, after Jackson died in 1968, she called herself Laura (Riding) Jackson. In 1972 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1979. She died of cardiac arrest September 2, 1991, in Sebastian, Florida.
Central to Riding's poetry and criticism is the importance of truth in her work and her life. In addition, the limitation of gender roles and the appeal of death are recurring themes in her verse. In early collections, such as The Close Chaplet and Love as Love, Death as Death (1928), Riding writes about the frustration of being a woman with wide-ranging interest and passions in a repressive, patriarchal society. Thematically, she also touched on the separation between the body and mind as well as conflict between sensory experience and thought. Death—especially suicide—also is a significant thematic concern. For Riding, suicide was the ultimate truth, as death signified a path to knowledge. As her disappointment with language and poetry began to grow, her verse reflected her changing poetic philosophy. Poet: A Lying Word (1933) addresses her need to purify language of its ambiguity, to make her verse completely truthful. Stylistically, she invented words, capitalization, distorted syntax, and employed repetition in her poetry. In her final verse before her renunciation of poetry in 1942, Riding explores the relationships between men and women, the individual and the community, and language and thought. After a hiatus from poetry that lasted decades, Riding published Selected Poems. In the preface of the collection, she discussed her poetic philosophy. Since then, a few other collections of her early verse have been published, which have inspired greater attention to her poetry, her life, and influence on American poetry.
Although an important figure, critics have struggled to place Riding within the context of American literature. She has been viewed as alternately modernist, Fugitive, feminist, and a postmodern poet. Because of her renunciation of poetry, as well as her reluctance to have her poems anthologized, commentators maintain that Riding's verse has been virtually ignored by critics. Yet in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in her life and work. Autobiographical aspects of her work have been a specific area of interest, particularly Riding's suicide attempt in 1929, her rejection of poetry, and her influential and productive relationship with Graves as well as other male poets. Several reviewers have called her poetry quirky, self-important, sometimes pretentious, and difficult to understand. Some critics assert that Riding's poems have a limited appeal, and are not really accessible to most readers. Others commend her search for truth and experiments with language. Stylistically, she has been compared to Gertrude Stein, especially for her use of repetition in her poetry. Her influence on other poets, such as W. H. Auden, has been a source of speculation. However, no matter what the critical consensus is, Riding is recognized as a unique and passionate voice in American poetry.