Laura Riding (Riding), Laura Jackson - Essay

Laura Reichenthal


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

*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.

R. P. Blackmur (review date winter 1939)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Robert Fitzgerald (review date winter 1939)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Mary Kinzie (essay date November 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1485 words.)

Barbara Adams (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2495 words.)

Barbara Adams (essay date fall 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Laura (Riding) Jackson (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13431 words.)

M. L. Rosenthal (essay date winter 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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

(Poetry Criticism)

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’....

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Jerome J. McGann (essay date spring 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jo-Ann Wallace (essay date March 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6223 words.)

Peter S. Temes (essay date January 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8057 words.)

Jeanne Heuving (review date February 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Luke Carson (essay date winter 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jeanne Heuving (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 10152 words.)

Seija H. Paddon (essay date December 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Marjorie Perloff (review date spring 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 180 words.)